17 May 2012

the fairy-land of science

i've just found the most fantastic book at a carboot sale yesterday (well, infact 3 fantastic books but this is the one i've started reading). one of the others is 'the art and practice of laundry work' presented to maud speller in 1926 for 'attendance at a course of instruction in laundry work'. this book has illustrated articles on how to make soap, how to wash a feather boa, how to wash nun's veiling, all sorts of mangling procedures and a fab section on fancy folds for serviettes! the other one is 'flowers of the field' from 1894- a pretty hardback volume that i initially picked out for the cover. inside it has engravings on every page, someone's actual pressed plant specimens and only set me back £1.00. anyway, more on these when i read them.

'the fairy-land of science' by arabella  b buckley or mrs fisher was written in 1878 (my copy is from 1892). it is a book for children (though great for adults too) where the author conveys her passion for the science of nature but also about how it is presented, especially to children. she is keen to explain how things work scientifically but not at the expense of losing their magic, wonder and soul. it is so refreshing to read a book on science that embraces the same mystical, emotional, and heartfelt human qualities commonly evoked through fairy tales. 

she begins:
'i have promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of science, - a somewhat bold promise, seeing most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. but i thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, i promise you they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whereever you wander by land or by sea, through meadow or through wood, through water or through air; and they will themselves always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful power at work everywhere around you.'

this was enough to entice me to read the first chapter 'sunbeams and their work' and not to switch off entirely at the mention of molecules, atoms and vast incomprehensible numbers ending in too many zeros.

for me, science lessons at school were beyond boring- a bunch of cold, dry facts and equations delivered in a cold, mono-syllabic tone to be committed to memory and regurgitated for exams. i spent my time doodling and gazing out of the window, only returning to the land of the living once it was time to fire up the bunsen burner. the brief excitement of doing things with fire and chemicals was quickly quashed by the formulaic documentation of the experiment involving the same drawing of the bunsen burner (with a ruler of course), the method, result and conclusion (normally difficult for me to come to the sort of conclusion that was required). depending on the neatness of your drawing of the bunsen burner (an area i excelled in) you would either get seven out of ten or eight out of 10. it was obvious that it was never read and seemed to me like the most pointless task. one evening i was writing up the day's experiment in front of the tv and included a line i heard about cats in the method- completely out of context and nothing to do with the experiment. i laboriously churned out yet another neat bunsen burner and handed it in the next day. the homework was returned with the usual eight out of ten. i remember being exasperated at not only having to do something so deathly repetitive but knowing that it didn't get read either seemed to make it pointless beyond all pointlessness. so i took it to our head of year to demonstrate this pointlessness. i thought it was a bit of fun highlighting that i'd reached the end of my tether with repetitive tasks and drawing bunsen burners and wasn't prepared for the severity of her reaction. she looked incredibly angry and carefully stowed my book in the dark depths of her big leather bag. i didn't hear anything more. i left the school not long after that. quite a  few years later at a school re-union i was told that the science teacher had been sacked because of me...... maybe she could have taken a few tips from arabella.

so it's not about science (though i don't think i'm ever going to be a big fan) but how it's expressed. this is kind of obvious but just reminds me how much teachers can affect your feelings about a subject and that can stay with you for a long time.

but back to my new found hero, arabella:

'tell me, why do you love fairy-land? what is its charm? is it not that things happen so suddenly so mysteriously, and without man having anything to do with it?'

and after  examining a few of the wonders in fairytales and the fate awaiting those who don't believe, she continues:

'now, exactly all this which is true of the fairies of our childhood is true too of the fairies of science. There are forces around us, and among us, which i shall ask you to allow me to call fairies, and these are ten thousand times more wonderful, more magical, and more beautiful in their work, than those of the old fairy tales'. (now i don't know if i agree with this.... i would say equal to). 'they, too, are invisible, and many people live and die without ever seeing them or caring to see them. these people go about with their eyes shut, either because they will not open them, or because no one has taught them how to see. they fret and worry over their own little work and their own petty troubles, and do not know how to rest and refresh themselves, by letting the fairies open their eyes and show them the calm sweet pictures of nature. they are like peter bell of whom wordsworth wrote:-

"a primrose by a river's brim
a yellow primrose was to him,
and it was nothing more." 

but we will not be like these, we will open our eyes, and ask, "what are these forces or fairies, and how can we see them?"

just go out into the country, and sit down quietly and watch nature at work. listen to the wind as it blows, look at the clouds rolling overhead, and the waves rippling on the pond at your feet. hearken to the brook as it flows by, watch the flower buds opening one by one, and then ask yourself, "how is all this done?" go out in the evening and see the dew gather drop by drop upon the grass, or trace the delicate hoar-frost crystals which bespangle every blade on a winter's morning. look at the vivid flashes of lightening in a storm, and listen to the pealing thunder: and then tell me, by what machinery is all this wonderful work done? man does none of it, neither could he stop it if he were to try; for it is all the work of those invisible forces or fairies whose acquaintance i wish you to make. day and night, summer and winter, storm or calm, these fairies are at work, and we may hear them and know them, and make friends of them if we will.'

after discussing the necessity of having imagination, demonstrating the fairy-like magic of the elements and emphasising how it's important to learn the basics of the language of science  she moves on to  reaching and entering 'the gates of science', and asks 'how are you to use and enjoy this new and beautiful land?'

'this is a very important question, for you may make a twofold use of it. if you are only ambitious to shine in the world, you may use it chiefly to get prizes, to be at the top of your class, or to pass in examinations; but if you also enjoy discovering its secrets, and desire to learn more and more of nature, and to revel in dreams of it's beauty, then you will study science for it's own sake as well. now it is a good thing to win prizes and be at the top of your class, for it shows that you are industrious; it is a good thing to pass well in examinations, for it shows you are accurate; but if you study science for this reason only, do not complain if you find it dull, and dry, and hard to master. you may learn a great deal that is useful, and nature will answer you truthfully if you ask your questions accurately, but she will give you dry facts, just as you ask for. if you do not love her she will never take you to her heart.

this is the reason why so many complain that science is dry and uninteresting. they forget that though it is necessary to learn accurately, for so only we can arrive at truth, it is equally necessary to love knowledge and make it lovely to those who learn, and to do this we must get at the spirit which lies under the facts. what child which loves its mother's face is content to know only that she has brown eyes, a straight nose, a small mouth and hair arranged in such and such a manner? no, it knows that it's mother has the sweetest smile of any woman living; that her eyes are loving, her kiss is sweet, and that when she looks grave, then something is wrong which must be put right. and it is in this way that those who wish to enjoy the fairy-land of science must love nature.'

and after condemning a dry description of coral from 'one of those class-books which suppose children to learn words like parrots and to repeat them with just as little understanding' mrs fisher relays her  example of how to teach children about coral in an inspiring, visual way. she gets so carried away with coral herself that she writes quite a lot and has to bring herself back to topic of the book in hand (and then talks some more about coral!) she concludes the introduction with another question:-

'but people often ask, what is the use of learning all this? if you do not feel by this time how delightful it is to fill your mind with beautiful pictures of nature, perhaps it would be useless to say more. but in this age of ours, when restlessness and love of excitement pervade so many lives, is it nothing to be taken out of ourselves and made to look at the wonders of nature going on around us? do you never feel tired and "out of sorts," and want to creep away from your companions because they are merry and you are not? then is the time to read about the stars, and how quietly they keep their course from age to age; or to visit some little flower, and ask what story it has to tell; or watch the clouds, and try to imagine how the winds drive them across the sky. no person is so independent as he who can find interest in a bare rock; a drop of water, the foam of the sea, the spider on the wall, the flower underfoot or the stars overhead. and these interests are open to everyone who enters the fairy-land of science.

moreover, we learn from this study to see that there is a law and purpose in everything in the Universe, and it makes us patient when we recognize the quiet noiseless working of nature all around us. study light, and learn how all colour,  beauty and life depend on the sun's rays; note the winds and currents of the air, regular even in their irregularity, as they carry heat and moisture all over the world. watch the water flowing in deep quiet streams, or foaming the vast ocean; and then reflect that every drop is guided by invisible forces working according to fixed laws. see plants springing up under the sunlight, learn the secrets of plant life, and how their scents attract the insects. read how insects cannot live without plants, nor plants without the flitting butterfly or the busy bee. realize that all this is worked by fixed laws, and that out of it (even if sometimes in suffering and pain) springs the wonderful universe around us. and then say, can you fear for your own little life, even though it may have its troubles? Can you help feeling a part of this guided and governed nature? or doubt that the power that fixed the laws of the stars and the tiniest drop of water- that made the plant draw power from the sun, the tiny coral animal its food from the dashing waves; that adapted the flower to the insect and the insect to the flower- is also moulding your life as part of the great machinery of the universe, so that you have only to work, and to wait, and to love?

we are all groping dimly for the Unseen Power, but no one who loves nature and studies it can ever feel alone or unloved in the world. Facts, as mere facts, are dry and barren, but nature is full of life and love, and her calm unswerving rule is tending to some great though hidden purpose.'

and now on to chapter two, 'the aerial ocean in which we live', followed by 'a drop of water on it's travels', 'the two great sculptors- water and ice', 'the voices of nature and how we hear them', 'the life of a primrose', 'the history of a piece of coal', 'bees in the hive' and finally, 'bees and flowers'.

thank you arabella b buckley/mrs fisher!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Arabella and thank you Jo. I am so happy to discover your blog! It is wonderful to tap into your inspirational words from Hebden! I absolutely love the idea of fairies making magic in the natural world and opening your eyes to the beauty of nature! Love to you x