Back

Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

Liberty Hyde Bailey’s ‘The Nature Study Idea’

Share
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension

In a world increasingly dominated by technology, fostering a connection with the natural world carries more weight than ever. This episode of ‘Extension Out Loud’ is a conversation with John Linstrom, who recently edited a new version of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book, “The Nature Study Idea.” 

Bailey, a horticulturist, and educator, helped found the Cornell College of Agriculture, becoming dean of what was then known as New York State College of Agriculture. He believed that cultivating a relationship with nature was not just beneficial, but essential. Originally written for elementary school teachers, Bailey’s work laid the foundations for 4-H, emphasizing an experiential approach to engage youth in active learning. 

This new edition of the “Nature Study Idea” brings Bailey’s ideas to a new generation.

Bailey’s philosophical and literary writing is just so beautiful and grounded , I think it really speaks to his idea of the human place in the natural world, and to our current moment.
John Linstrom

Linstrom argues that Bailey’s work, though written over a century ago, offers valuable insights that have been somewhat lost to environmental thought. 

Bailey’s concept of nature study goes beyond the accumulation of facts about plants and animals. The Nature Study Idea emphasizes the cultivation of a sense of wonder and empathy for the natural world. Linstrom suggests that Bailey’s concept of “sympathy with nature” is particularly relevant today, as environmental concerns continue to mount. 

Linstrom’s edited edition of “The Nature Study Idea” offers a timely reminder of the importance of reconnecting with nature. During our conversation, Linstrom explores Bailey’s philosophy, rooted in observation, curiosity, and empathy, revealing a valuable framework for environmental education in the 21st century.

Download the podcast to learn more about The Nature Study Idea.

Visit Cornell University Press for more information about the new edition of Liberty Hyde Bailey's "The Nature-Study Idea".

The Liberty Hyde Bailey Project - Digital Library - Links to digitized works of Liberty Hyde Bailey

Paul Treadwell 

Welcome, John, and thanks for joining us today to talk about Liberty Hi Bailey and your new edited edition of the nature study idea.

 

John Linstrom 

Thanks so much for having me.

 

Paul Treadwell 

It's just a really good opportunity. And I love talking about Liberty Hyde Bailey and some of the origins of the work that we're currently doing. So for our listeners, can you just give me a quick rundown of Liberty High Bailey and why in 2024, we're talking about him Liberty Hyde

 

John Linstrom 

Bailey was born in my hometown of South Haven, Michigan. Then 1858 grew up on fruit farm, kind of diversified apple orchard, essentially, in the mid 19th century. I received an education at Michigan Agricultural College, which is now Michigan State University, studied under the preeminent botanist Asa Gray at Harvard, returned to Michigan ag as a faculty member, and then came to Cornell after two or three years at Michigan, to to become a professor of horticulture at Cornell, where he would be the founding dean of the College of Agriculture became really a leader in envisioning what extension could be in the land grant system. He was the director of the experiment station for a while at Cornell, and became in the midst of all that involved in the nature study movement, which is the focus of this book, and a leader along with Anna Botsford, Comstock. And really, Bailey was a horticulturist. But he was also a real renaissance person in his time, and his philosophical and literary writing is just so beautiful and grounded, and spiritual and thoughtful, and I think really speaks to his idea of the human place in the natural world is so nuanced, and speaks so well to our current moment. But it's been lost in the history of environmental thought. And so I'm working with Cornell press now on bringing Bailey's books can to print, specifically thinking about how they can speak to our current moment, and reintroduce them as a series, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Library. And so this edition of the nature study ideas, the first volume of that series,

 

Paul Treadwell 

it's fascinating to me, when we start revisiting some of the I hate to use this term, but the thought leaders of the past, the ongoing and continued relevance that they have, for our situation at this time, is either really hopeful or somewhat depressing. Because you look at some of the things that that he was talking about as far as nature study, being an attitude of mind and shaping the outlook on the world. And this idea of sympathy with nature. These are things that are current now, these are living breathing ideas that, but he was on to this 100 plus years ago. Yeah, so I'm trying to decide whether I should be hopeful or depressed.

 

John Linstrom 

I know that feeling, and especially when we start talking about climate change, and it's easy to become depressed, I think probably what Bailey would want us to do is look to the ways in which we're talking about some of the same things because of the good work that's happening on the ground in so many of these areas, that are, in part, a result of some of the groundwork that these predecessors laid. So even things like the four H program is linked to the junior naturalist clubs that were started at Cornell with Bailey, and there's so much good work still being done. So that's where I take hope. It's It is sometimes depressing that we look at other sides of education or society and think, wow, the problem that Bailey was pointing to is still a problem, as well. But at least we have these forebears whose work we can fall back on and help us think through that too.

 

Paul Treadwell 

Before we jump into the idea of what is nature study, I want to really surface this idea of sympathy and what it would mean in the context of our conversation, so Bailey mentioned sympathy a lot. And can you just unpack that a bit for us? Yeah,

 

John Linstrom 

sympathy is a key word for how he thinks about nature study. And he really believed that the end result not only of nature study, but a whole good education is an increased sympathy with the world in which we live. And for him, that means an analogy I like to think of if you know the Indian instrument, the sitar, how it has a layer of sympathetic strings are simply there to break underneath the strings that you pluck. So he thought, we need to think about how we're vibrating along with the world in which we live in are attuned to the movements into the influences around us. And for him, what's great about the way that Bailey talks about sympathy is that's grounded in science, for instance, as one really helpful way of knowing and understanding that world. Bailey's trained as a horticultural scientist, he's considered the father of modern horticulture for the way that he brought the art of horticulture into conversation with the science of botany. And he's a scientist by training. But he believes that scientific inquiry ultimately leads us to this profound sense of wonder, all that we do not know, and likely never will know about the universe and our place in it. And that's where you get into the more spiritual side of things, which he had to defend against accusations from some of his scientific colleagues. And

 

Paul Treadwell 

that really gets into the heart of the concept of nature study, as he was proposing it is not necessarily a scientific study. Can we talk a little bit about what nature is study as Bailey lays it out? What is the essence or the core of nature study that idea?

 

John Linstrom 

Bailey is very clear in the nature study idea. And this gets to some of the context of the conversations that were happening around the term of the time, that it is not science. So he's against science, but he's saying nature study is something else. His favorite definition that he uses a lot across his writings, which is a kind of wonderfully vague one is it's the seeing things which one looks at and the drawing of proper conclusions from what one sees. And the reason that he distinguishes that from science, per se, is because he's thinking about how the sciences are systematic, right. And there's an order through which it makes sense to proceed through them to gain that kind of broad systematic knowledge of a field. But Nietzsche said he had more to do with. And this is especially relevant for younger children, which the core of nature study was geared towards what we would call elementary education, because he thought he saw it also as a kind of broader outlook that was relevant to us throughout our lives. But he was interested in the way in which we know the world and learn to find our place in it. And there is a kind of education that could be a troll, in his words that could imitate the way that we discover our place in the world's major city was an experiential model of education, as opposed to the kind of sit still on benches model or recitation, which was really predominant mode of education in the 19th century, where you would be reciting from a textbook in front of the class working for an elocution, but also wearing subject matter through simply reading it out loud. Nature Study went beyond working from models in the classroom, which was still the new thing in the sciences, at least for elementary where you might have a model with flower, Bailey said, he writes in the nature study ideas, something like the old model was to look at a model flower, and then say, go out and find me one of these were the nature study method is to go and find a flower and ask what it is. So it's firsthand, it's experiential. And he saw it as revolutionising the whole of education, not just the sciences, it's an outlook toward education, privileges, experiences of the child's life, the near at hand, and learning to approach one life through a spirit of inquiry that will then animate every other aspect of their life. Nature Study, Bureau, Cornell on the program there, the Bailey's leading comes out of this concern about why were people leaving the farms and moving into cities. And Bailey, we're not doing a very good job of helping people in the country, develop this kind of outlook on the world leads to its kind of sympathy and wonder and curiosity that can sustain you throughout your life. And the nature study outlook, this attitude of observation, drawing of conclusions from those observations that are grounded conclusions, toward the end of sympathy with nature, was the process that was going to help stitch together the elements of rural society and carry that into the future.

 

Paul Treadwell 

When we talk about liberty, Hyde Bailey and especially with extension work, he had this firm belief that, for extension to be effective, the extension worker, the agent, educator, had to be a part of that community. Yes. And in some ways, what we're talking about here with nature study is really doing the same thing on an individual basis and making human beings, members of the natural community. Yeah, that strikes me this idea that in order to understand anything, you have to be there with the things to develop that sympathy to start resonating. Common frequency. So that to me is the thread that is woven through some of his work.

 

John Linstrom 

The nature study movement, and Bailey's understanding of extension and how it worked and local communities. Bailey argued very forcefully in the nature study idea. It was already being referred to as a movement, and it was revolutionising public education in the United States. The concepts that we have today that we take for granted like the field trip emerged out of the nature study movement. And Bailey argues, the nature study movement is not a movement driven by university scientists like himself. And there had been some particularly rather sexist attacks mounted by some of his colleagues in academia. against some of these nature study, teachers saying that they were sent a mentalizing nature and word sympathy that Bailey wanted to hold on to quickly morphed into sentimental lysing in these critiques, and the fact that they were for instance, sometimes incorporating poetry into these nature study lessons that's dangerous because that's not scientific. It's not based on its quote, unquote. But Bailey said, No, the nature study movement itself is a movement that originates with and is driven by teachers in their local communities. Bailey really, not only was he defending these women teachers, it was because of his nature study work and his increasing relationship with these teachers across New York state and around the country that he hires the first woman professor at Cornell University, who is Anna Botsford, Comstock to help run the nature study program. And that's a name that I'm sure will be familiar to some of your listeners, the author of The Handbook of nature study, which is to this day, I think the best selling book in print from Cornell University Press, still in use. And that came out of this nature study program that Bailey was the head of for a long time. And then it was an Comstock was denied a full teacher's salary for years, but they then Bailey would hire Martha van rents layer to lead economics department. And, and there was this core and within the nature study movement, he also had a to George, Giulia Rogers, I'm gonna miss some names. But Alice McCloskey, there's a lot of women faculty who were connected to the movement on the ground. And it is great story about how early on when they were taking up this work, Bailey and Anna Comstock, rode around together on the state by horse and buggy, visiting different schools and meeting with teachers. And a lot of writing in the nature city idea comes out of these meetings with teachers, Bailey's, we really started out listening to what teachers were telling him and doing and what was working for them and what wasn't, and the questions that were arising. And then Bailey, thinking about those things, synthesizing them, sharing them with other teachers. And that formed over time, these lectures evolved, the lectures formed a kind of core section of the book, as well as this kind of delightful inquiry than answers question, basically, a q&a at the end of the book, which you don't want to skip if you're reading it, because there's lots of really great stories in there and beautiful writing too. But he wanted the book to be super useful to teachers. This is another thing that makes Bailey So visionary I think, is that he's having these high level intellectual academic discussions with his colleagues, but also very much boots on the ground in communities and he's able to kind of code switch and translate in ways really value the input and contributions of people working outside of the academy, and the fact that they also are invested in the research that's being done. Bailey's first job before he started teaching at Michigan Agricultural College. He was a journalist for a little while, working on the Springfield morning monitor in Illinois, and covering politics and the arts. And he was writing for a general audience. And you can see his skill in as a communicator really comes through in books like The Nature Study idea. And really across his writing,

 

Paul Treadwell 

I want to jump back in to a little bit of the book and talk about the youth. Because the nature study idea was focused on engaging kids youth. So Bayway said, good nature study, teaching, develops personality and encourages the pupil to think for himself, and to maintain an individual relation to his world. It emphasizes adaptation to life, as distinguished from the tendency of much of our teachings to produce uniformity of thought and action. That's a beautiful quote from the nature study idea. And I was wondering if you could help me understand how that plays out in the work of first the nature study idea moving into junior naturalist and currently in our forage system that we have across the country, how do they embody that concept?

 

John Linstrom 

All of these educational programs, extra curricular, educational programs, that are outgrowth as a nature study movement, have so much potential partly because they're able to operate outside of that centralized system of public education to really provide the opportunity for children and students to realize their full potential as full human beings with diverse interests and affections and sympathies, these Balian term. And for Bailey, this was a, one of the great some nature study proponents were really focused on, for instance, conservation, we need to educate children to be stewards of our planet. Okay, that's good and important. But there's this more fundamental level of just end nature study. As the end of all education, Bailey writes, I'm paraphrasing slightly, is to make the individual happy. So he really believed that another really fun and funny quote, there's a lot of humor in the book is he's talking about this idea that education equips us to live full and fulfilling lives by giving this little parable that one individual might find companionship in a dandelion, one of his favorite recurring motifs, that there's so much beauty in this dandelion, this quote unquote weed that we so often despise or don't look at or appreciate for its beauty. One may find comradeship in the dandelion, another might find it in a Gregory. And in as much as there are more dandelions than Gregory's. Per in the seas. In most communities, the educated man has the greater chance of happiness. It's about programs like for age, where the junior naturalists under John Spencer, who was part of Bailey's team at Cornell, doing in many ways what Bailey extension could do in communities, which is provide the tools for individuals in communities, to become experimenters themselves, and to seek out knowledge about the world independently, using these skills, and problem solve these localized issues. So that's finding comradeship in a dandelion rather than a Gregory is the image that I always come back to that because it's so colorful,

 

Paul Treadwell 

it was a pleasure to read. From my 2024 perspective, so I encourage everybody to seek out the book at your local bookseller and grab a copy. In going back to his words, early on, in the nature study, it says it's one of the marks of the progress, that we're coming more and more into sympathy with the natural world in which we dwell. The happiest life has the greatest number of points of contact with the world. And it has the deepest sympathy with everything that is that to me is one of those key fundamental threads that ties Bailey into the current work is going on with a lot of regenerative things or a lot of relocalization work.

 

John Linstrom 

So optimistic. That's one of the things I love about reading Bailey's, this persistent optimism. And I think it's really Larne he was he would come back as a touchstone to his childhood, often throughout his writing, then you just get little snippets here and there. He never wrote a memoir or an autobiography. But of course, I've got a special kind of interest in his childhood in South Haven, because that's where I grew up. And it's always fun to imagine how different that place was. At the time that he grew up there. It was considered a real frontier settlement and And I think it was after his birth that they erected the first school and the first church in town. And so his parents were really among the first wave of European settlement in that area. And so it was a town with very few resources. And yet he dedicates the nature study idea to this childhood teacher who he knew. At this time Julius field, King was Julie field. She was teaching him, she encouraged him to learn from the world around. And even though she had no background in natural history, it was something Bailey showed interest in, they found this natural history textbook as an aide Julia field would simply pose questions to Bailey and then he would go out and have to find answers in the woods and fields. And he said, in the, in either an interview or somewhere in the book that she kept him growing for a blessed year, posing these questions that he had no answers for, and then he would have to go investigate. His neighbor was this peach grower or indictment who erected the first in town or the open air stage where Bailey saw his first performance of Shakespeare. So he knew this life on the land, and in the natural world, was also a very interesting cultural life with lots of community and cultural expressions going on. And, and this whole narrative that culture was in the city, and if in the country was unrefined or backward, that was a prejudice that was very alive in that moment and persists. Bailey knew that it wasn't true. So he really had this kind of domestic faith. It's a matter of, he used the word outlook, a lot, or perspective or seeing to go back to the metaphor of nature study as being a process of seeing what you look at and drawing conclusions from it. And that also goes back to the lesson that he attributed to Julia field, which was that she said to him one day, she felt bad because he was going through the world blind. And he protested, and she said, answer this written question of how many maple trees you pass on the way to school, and he couldn't do it. So showing that you've been walking him out through the woods each day to school, but had been in his head or thinking about other things that not observing worlds, attentive to that world are sympathetic to it. So there were ways that one could increase one's sympathy with the world.

 

Paul Treadwell 

So just as far as the story of walking through the woods and not seeing the trees, there's the trees for the forest is even more prevalent today with the number of devices that we're all engaged in. And I think that one of the calls to action is to really just turn it off and take a walk through the woods or through a park and reengage with the physical world that's up.

 

John Linstrom 

And Bailey was literally sitting books, he's a how's your book? So much harder today, right, with all those different layers of mediation? Yeah,

 

Paul Treadwell 

so it really is that reengagement that becoming an animal again, and not being embarrassed about that fact, or being afraid to be that part of nature, I think, is one of the most resonant things is reclaiming our sense of belonging in this natural world and not our sense of belonging in any sort of virtual or artificial world.

 

John Linstrom 

Yeah, and you can belong to the natural world, without throwing out your love of Shakespeare, for instance, right? So it's on the one hand is centralizing nature or some quote unquote, natural lifestyle, the way that people would do with primitivism and some of those other logical traps. But you can love Shakespeare and love the dandelions and that's all part of being human. And you don't want to lose the dandelion.

 

Paul Treadwell 

In the section on the new hunting page, 147 Bailey says man is not responsible for the tragedies of nature, but he is responsible for the tragedies that he himself inflicts. That, to me is tremendously powerful, because it lets us engage with nature and be part of that world but not assume the devastation that nature can sometimes inflict, but also owning the damage that we do as human beings moving through the world exploiting the world.

 

John Linstrom 

And it gets to his larger philosophy, the nature study idea published in 1903, and it's his first sustained philosophical work in the popular philosophy and literary and accessible but but it's it gets at these kind of fundamental claims about our place in the world. And he would continue to develop these ideas The most well known example is the holy earth in 1915, where he draws out that idea further as as an argument against war. Darwinism is still quite new culturally, and it's influencing all these different elements. And some people are using it as a justification for war survival, the fittest, conflating the poet Tennyson's red in tooth and claw with Darwin and saying, it's going to be the survival of the strongest. And Bailey says, Look, if you actually look at the evolution of life, what are the animals that survive? The small one, the flexible, the adaptable survival, the fittest mean survival, the most adaptable, it's no license for wanton slaughter or racial domination. Bailey avoids a lot of eugenic pitfalls of his peers, partly because he's got this nuanced understanding of evolution. And his big evolution text was titled The survival of the unlike, right. So he would, and he was very interested in the early ecological writings that were coming out. The word ecology is coined around this time. Yeah, also, I'm a literary scholar by training. And when I was an undergraduate student, I took some courses in literary eco criticism, and it's sometimes got very heady and theoretical and one of the arguments is this, this debate between an anthropocentric perspective and an eco centric perspective, is it human centered, or is it ecology centered? And I think Bailey would view debate as inherently ridiculous, because you're never going to see nature from outside of a human perspective. And we shouldn't necessarily even want to, yet also, we have these inescapable responsibilities. And he can really see that yes, we're part of nature, we can imagine ourselves as separate from nature. But we're also responsible, and we might today think about it in terms of, we're the first species in the history of life on Earth, as far as we know, responsible for a mass extinction. There's another great quote in the holy earth, where he's using the imagery and language of the Old Testament, that part of how he's drawing out the these ethics. And the passage from Genesis about man being given dominion over the natural world, which is often used as a way to, from an environmental perspective to critique, a Judeo Christian tradition. The Bailey says, Man has given dominion, he has given no commission to devastate. And we do occupy a different position of influence from rest of the world, on our ecosystems in our homes, and means responsibility, that means stewardship. And that's why perspective of the farmer, or oftentimes for Bailey, the gardener, is so instructive, because the best farmers and Bailey's perspective are those who eat the land more productive than it was when they took it. He says in the nature study idea. Good farmers are good naturalists. And he was so inspired by Darwin and evolution because it proved that we have even a genealogical relationship with all the rest of life on Earth, right? We're all from the same origin. And what does that mean in terms of ethics? And this is why Bailey was so influential on the thinking of Aldo Leopold owl who develops the idea of a land ethic and A Sand County Almanac. In Leopold's earlier, less well known bookie management, he points to Bailey as the earliest example of this kind of thinking about responsibility.

 

Paul Treadwell 

So, before we go into the next section, I really want to say we mentioned a couple of books by Bailey, there is they are available online, are they not? For Sale? For curious listeners? They can go yes. Where can they go? Most

 

John Linstrom 

of Bailey's books in the public domain now. So if you search, you can find them on Google Books, or I like using Internet Archive because it's a little easier to know what you're reading. In terms of Bailey in print. There's an edition of the whole I've worked a lot on trying to get him on print. My name is a few of these, but it's a new edition of the holy earth. It's available with a foreword by Wendell Berry from counterpoint press. I also co edited an anthology of Bailey's garden writings that are his philosophical musings on the garden called the Liberdade Bailey gardeners companion. The nature study idea that we're talking about this new edition is not only available in print, but it also open access online. So if you go to Cornell presses website you can read it online for free, and is a great collection of Bailey's agrarian and environmental writings edited by a crew Michel Jacques called Liberty head Bailey essential agrarian and environmental writings and It's still in print.

 

Paul Treadwell 

And I'll be sure we provide show notes that direct people to some of those sources and also Cornell University Press, so they can pick up their own personal copy of the nature study idea. And and John, I'd really like to shift our focus for a minute to a couple of things that that Bailey says in the nature study idea that directly address the idea of extension and the relationship of, of human beings to the natural environment. And we already this quote, man is a land animal, this connection with the earth, the soil, the plants, animals, and atmosphere is intimate and fundamental. The Earth relationship is best expressed in agriculture, not agriculture, merely as livelihood, but as a expression of the essential relationship of man to his home planet. So can you talk a little bit about how that idea animates some of his other writings on engagement with the world and agriculture and the role of extension.

 

John Linstrom 

Bailey wrote about the country he was from a rural background, his interests and sort of intellectual allegiance and understanding of the world were all rooted in rural communities. But he, in 1905, saw this really urgent need to repair some of these severed connections between country and city because this, this is a fundamental relationship. And the problem is just that people don't have their eyes open to it, right? One thing, perhaps, because extension can be rooted in communities like this, and in communities with these that are that still have these strong cultural ties to the land. And they're built around that is to look for ways to to build those bridges. And Bailey was doing this do nature study, there were correspondence programs between rural kids in upstate New York, and students who are connected to Teachers College at Columbia. And there was a really robust nature study program in New York City and in Chicago, and another really major metros, at the time, where it was there was more of a focus on reconnecting with the natural world. To a certain extent, that's also what Bailey was saying in rural areas, because it's an issue of opening one's eyes to the nature that is surrounding you, right. But there are these vacant lot being transformed into gardens all across New York City at the time, this is the Progressive Era, there's a lot of work on improving working conditions and living conditions and in slums and rundown neighborhoods and cities. And so the nature side movements, part of that, and Bailey's finding ways to bridge those rural urban divides and, and build an understanding of that fundamental relationship with the land for children in urban as well as rural districts. And there's also correspondence happening between white children in upstate New York, and black children in the rural south, through the Cornell nature study program, partnering with schools like Tuskegee, in Hampton, in the south that have their own nature study programs, where they're running, you know, basically, Teachers College type programs for black teachers in the south to be able to teach nature study in rural schools. And so there's also this interesting way that it's crossing racial lines, it's crushing gender lines, it's crossing the urban rural divide. And the foundation of it all is this outlook to nature that has to do with this fundamental relationship that all of us share with the planet that could serve not only to help us repair our relationships with the natural world, Bailey remember trapping passenger pigeons with Potawatomi kids as a child on the farm in South Haven, he saw the extermination of the passenger pigeons around the time that he's writing these books, so they know the extent and the possibility of human destruction. It's not only repairing those bonds, but also the bonds between us as people and societies and communities.

Subscribe to "Extension Out Loud"

Related Episodes

workshop participants in an apple orchard

Multimedia

News

What trends are we seeing in Extension work nationally and how are state Extension systems rising to meet needs highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Dr. Caroline Crocoll Henney, executive director of the national Cooperative Extension System, joins the Extension Out Loud podcast to discuss these questions and the history of the Cooperative Extension System in the latest episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Leading through Extension” podcast series.
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
Kimberly Kopko

Multimedia

News

In the early days of Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, Extension educators traveled around the state in demonstration trains to engage directly with families, especially farm wives, in their homes. Today, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Associate Director Kimberly Kopko is reimagining ways to meet families where they are with more portable parenting models that bring learning opportunities to spaces where families already get together, including schools, community and health centers, and, when necessary, online.
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension