Nature Study

What I liked most about the four summers I spent at summer camp was the woods, real, wild woods that seemed to have no end—swamps and fresh lakes with fish and eagles, beavers and bears. It was 8 weeks away from home and glorious—such a lucky kid. I was always looking for something in the woods, looking for some bug or toad or snake, I was never squeamish about picking things up, collecting frogs and snakes. This was a summer camp where you signed up for activities like classes to fill time slots, organizing the day. This by-the-clock spread of the day was natural, coming from the regimentation of school life in the fifties. But these were fun classes for coaching in swimming, archery, 16-inch softball, basketball, boating. There was instruction in handicrafts—the carved wood nut dish and the lanyard, timeless favorites. Competition with other camps in swim meets and baseball games was a feature. I was coordinated enough, but I was a shrimp—the smallest kid three years running. My favorite class was Nature Study.

Nature Study had its own cabin. A board and batten, neatly finished little place, brown with white trim and a small painted sign above the door announcing “Nature Study.” Inside the walls were lined with specimen shelves and workbenches. There were glass jars lined up with animals caught in stop motion, floating in murk, spared from decay in a formaldehyde bath. Beetles and giant moths in glass front boxes pressed into cotton. There was science equipment, a brass microscope, wax bottom dissecting trays and a model of the solar system with the little planets, earth and moon all on curved rods making the imaginary disk of the solar system whirling around. Turning a crank started the whole clockwork moving with the sun at the center, a small light bulb demonstrating the phases of the moon and eclipses. Two chipmunks had been taxidermied into a pair of boxers posed in a doll’s boxing ring, facing off with little leather boxing gloves. There was a stuffed horned owl with a mouse in one talon and a mythic Muskellunge, a Muskie, the top predator of Northern Lakes glued to a varnished board with a burnt scallop edge. A four foot long fish and very toothy.  Everything was pretty worn. But freshly dusted, taken out of storage for the eight weeks of summer camp, it all looked cared for. Every June the nature study cabin was buffed up like a museum because they packed up the specimens in winter to keep them out of the cracking cold of a north woods deepfreeze. It gets really cold and for a long time in Northern Wisconsin.

The cabin was its own Hieronymus Bosch world, a humorous horror-show. Earth comedy. The garden of earthly delights. An operatic cabinet of wonders.

They let me have the run of the place because I was self-maintaining and relaxed in this world. I put garter snakes into glass tanks decorated like a woodsy ground. At feeding time I tossed in little leopard frogs. Amazing how wide the snake jaws opened to swallow the frog, ending as a lump just behind the head, still moving about like a fetus in utero.

One year, we had a counselor who took on Nature Study as his personal fiefdom. As a pre-Med biology major he really knew his stuff, He new how to pith a frog, severing the spine with a needle, leaving the main nerves intact. He scalpeled open the chest to expose the beating heart. Under the microscope he spread wide the back flipper of the still living frog making visible intricate back-roads of the circulatory system—the corpuscles moving along in rows, single file. Blood cells in capillaries.

This same young counselor got an old Jacob’s Ladder contraption running. A ladder with no rungs. It was made of two widening wires sticking straight up out of a wooden box. He got the invisible army of electricity on the march. Plugged in and turned on, it snapped danger with a blue crackling electric spark ribbon rising up between two spreading wires. Too high and the ribbon winked out with the bright start of another up and on the way to begin that mesmerizing moan up the wire. That hiss of electricity had a pungent smell.

“Camp is fun,” I would write on the mandatory postcard sent home every day. And it was great fun; learning about nature, in nature. It was also compressed socialization living in bunkhouse cabins that were themselves a kind of Petri dish to learn what lies underneath us all; the fears, compulsions, the will to animal power—all the embryonic lusts of our nature were about to be born, to draw their first breaths in puberty in the hot-house of living close together. New feelings about to be born, it was the ground under our feet, the real nature study—all of us at that camp about to embark on a major study of “finding one’s place in the world.”  Worlds newly discovered in the grand opera of the Garden of Earthly Delights in Nature Study.

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