It is hard to say whether Gibson was first a naturalist and afterwards
an artist, or first an artist and afterwards a naturalist. Art was his
mode of expression; but his knowledge of nature furnished the material
of what he would express. Art was his speech, but nature was his theme.
In point of time there was no difference in the development of these two
sides of his nature. His boyhood passion seemed to divide between
studying nature and drawing pictures. He wrote of himself in “Pastoral
Days” (p. 66): “Insect-hunting had always been a passion with me. Large
collections of moths and butterflies had many times accumulated under my
hands, only to meet destruction through boyish inexperience; and even in
childhood the love for the insect and the passion for the pencil strove
hard for the ascendency, and were only reconciled by a combination which
filled my sketch-book with studies of insect life.”

His letters are equally full of the nature-subjects he is treating and
of the ways in which he is treating them. But there is no question of
the strong, irrepressible need of his spirit which drove him to
self-expression by pencil and brush. “I am fairly crazy to get to
painting,” he said to a friend at the beginning of the last summer of
his life. “My lecture course and other business matters have kept me
from using my brush lately, and I long to get my colors and go to work.”
That was a remark which reveals his whole life, his constant mood. Not
only was he always anxious to be at work, but he wanted to be at work
with his colors. This urgency drove him to art as a profession. It
lightened all his busy years. It ranked him by divine right among the
best of American artists.

He was a thorough artist in his love of the technical side of his work.
He delighted in mastery of the materials of art. He liked the problems
growing out of them. He knew the tools of his craft, and never was
hampered by any uncertainty as to what he could do with the means at his
command. His use of pencil and brush began early, and he soon knew the
possibilities of black and white and water-colors. He was quick to learn
the special art of drawing upon wood, for the engraver. He had no
fastidious scruples against the camera, but was swift to resort to it
and learn its possibilities and make it into a tool to shape his
thought. When he turned to color as a medium of expression, he did so
with all the

[Illustration: _Pen-and-Ink Sketch_

_From a Letter_]

enthusiam of a true believer in its power, and a purpose to get at all
its resources. Although so much of his early work was translated to the
world by the wood-engraver, yet when wood-engraving began to decline,
and the publishers took to process-work, and the “half-tone” crowded out
the fine, laborious work of the burin, Gibson was not in the least
dismayed. He wasted no time or sentiment in mourning the decadent
methods, but sought at once to learn the utmost what the new methods
would yield to a determined and artistic mind. How successful he was is
well shown in that beautiful volume which won such instant favor with
his later constituency, “Sharp Eyes.” Its delicate half-tones vie with
the wood-engraving in expressiveness, in delicacy, and in poetic
feeling; and they are a standing testimony to the artist’s versatility
and technical energy. He was never at a loss for a means of expression.
The rudest tools were converted to delicate and sufficient implements in
his fingers. There are letters from him describing some illustration of
his or some painting, in which the pen and ink with which he wrote were
made to sketch his work so vividly that one is tempted to rate the
_tour-de-force_ of the written page as fine a show of power as the
picture it illustrated.

His work, moreover, was strong not only in its mastery of the science of
expression, but by its fidelity to the facts of science in its
subject-matter. It was a flat refutation of the doctrine, so dear to
shallow sentimentalists, that the progress of science must weaken the
power and circumscribe the field of art. There is much misleading talk
to the effect that science is filching from the realm of the
imagination, the kingdom where art thrives, and by its cold light is
taking all the glow and loveliness out of the atmosphere in which the
fancy has been wont to see its fairest visions. But almost any one of
Gibson’s illustrations of natural history, of botanical subjects, or of
open-air life and scenery sufficiently refutes this theory. Here is a
mind at once faithful to the scientific method, and free in its artistic
spirit. Here is the accuracy of the scientist’s eye and the artist’s
creative imagination. Turning the pages of “Sharp Eyes,” or indeed
almost any of his books, one knows not which to praise the more, his
close observation of fact or his easy translation of it into the dress
of fancy. One of his critics said: “His pictures sometimes seem ideal,
they are wrought with such a light and painstaking touch. Yet close
analysis will show them to be almost photographic in their accuracy.”
However freely his fancy deals with the facts, he never violates their
logic, nor misrepresents their substance. Mr. Roe, in a letter to Gibson
once told him: “You understand nature, and are capable of seeing her as
she exists. Most other artists have conventional ideas of nature. You
can take an actual scene and reproduce it, while at the same time
idealizing it.” His methods are a triumphant example of the scientific
use of the imagination, and of the imaginative presentation of science.
The most hardened Gradgrinds of research could find no fault with his
facts, but were astonished and put to confusion by his power to suffuse
reality with the glow of a poetic fancy. One critic, writing in the “New
York Tribune,” did say of him, in the tone of one pointing out a
limitation, “Nimble and agile as he was of intellect, he did not possess
breadth and scope of judgment, nor maintain a deliberate balance of
interests.” But even this farfetched comment did not deny his fidelity
to the facts, but only claimed a tendency to give them wrong values; and
moreover the critic was reckoning without a large knowledge of his mind.
He confuses Gibson’s business as an artist with what his business might
have been as a mere naturalist, and in doing so makes the common mistake
of disparaging what is done by showing that it is not something which
was not attempted.

Here, for instance, in a chapter on “Ballooning Seeds,” Gibson draws
across a page what he calls a “fanciful eddy,” wafting up a swarm of
seeds, which fly abroad on the autumn breeze. Every form in the airy
sketch is accurate enough for a text-book, yet the whole is fit for the
illustration of a poem. Again, in “A Masquerade of Stamens,” his pencil
leads down the page out of a sunny meadow a long procession which,
beginning in the grasses of the foreground, develops into the exactly
drawn forms of a score of curiously fashioned stamens. The
illustrations for “Queer Fruits from the Bee’s Basket,” with its
decorated initial, showing just the right bee, investigating just the
right flower; the laden bees hastening from the clump of bushes in the
foreground to the distant hives behind the farmhouse; and finally the
sketch at the close, of a group of the odd forms of pollen-dust which
the microscope reveals;–these are all examples of a fancy which only
serves to illumine, throw light upon, the fact, but never to distort it
or to pervert it. In this phase of his work, Gibson carries the office
of the illustrator to its highest possible point, and shows all its
dignity and power.

He did all this in his own way. No artist of our generation was more
thoroughly individual in his methods and in his aim. He sought what his
own spirit loved and longed for. He saw with no eyes but his own. He
drew and painted after his own fashion. His originality was absolute. He
had none of the mannerisms of any man or any school but his own. He
asked no one to tell him the color of the grass, or the fashion in which
he should paint the clouds. What he did was his own work, what he saw
was his own vision. What men called his “versatility” in the choice of
“mediums” was his quick sense of fitness and of adaptation. His aim was
never loyalty to a school, adherence to a method, repetition of a
successful device of technique. It was always, rather, fidelity to
nature, adaptation of the medium to the thing represented, variety of
method to treat his various themes. If his style became characteristic,
it was because he put his own strong mark on all his work. It was as
much his own as his autograph. It was William Hamilton Gibson
transferred to paper or canvas.

Gibson’s success as an artist was as good for the American people as it
was for himself. It was truly a “popular” success. The people, and a
great many of them, secured it. For he spoke to them, and they made
approving answer. It would be hard to name an artist of his generation
who appealed to a larger public, whose work in the magazines was hailed
with a heartier delight, whose name stood for a more definite pleasure
and appreciation than his. The people liked his work, and they knew why
they liked it. One of his most discriminating critics said of him, in

“Mr. Gibson’s work has been essentially democratic, that is, has reached
the many rather than the few, presenting to them studies of nature which
stand for a great deal more than mere descriptive picturesqueness,
because, as we have said before, they are informed not only with the
feeling for the beautiful, but also with the scientific spirit of
inquiry and a love of exact truth.” To gain such universal approval
without the slightest swerving from his artistic integrity, or any
lowering of his artistic standard, was an immense triumph. He realized
it, and it gave him great joy. His honest and ingenuous pride in the
reception accorded to his early work is well shown in two brief notes to
his mother, one in May, the other in July, 1878:

“The bird article is finished and the proofs are beginning to pour in.
One or two of them are so fine that their fame has spread over the city,
and I am besieged by engravers and artists to see them. One, a
full-sized peacock’s feather which takes up a full page of the magazine,
is by far the most superb piece of wood-engraving that has ever been
accomplished. It is spoken of in art-circles all over the city. It is
the opening picture, and will create a sensation. The illustrations
number sixteen in all, and Mr. Parsons told Mr. Beard and others that it
was the most beautiful and at the same time the most expensive article
the magazine had ever gotten up. Mr. Parsons told me that the drawings
not only pleased him, but that they exceeded his highest expectations,
and that he did not believe there was another man in this country or in
any other that could excel them.”

In similar vein, after the notices began to appear, he wrote again:

“BROOKLYN, _July 27, 1878_.


“I send you to-day a copy of the ‘Nation’ containing notice of
Harper’s Magazine. The ‘Nation’ is a high authority and has the
reputation of stating the truth. It seldom goes into ecstasies over
anything, and such a notice as it has given of my ‘birds’ is
considered by the Harpers as a magnificent compliment.”

The qualities of his art in which the public delighted and which came to
be characteristic of all his work, were refinement, gracefulness, and
truth. He saw the finer qualities of nature, sought out her delicate
beauties, loved her humbler moods, objects, episodes. He vindicated his
own taste in the paragraph with which he prefaced the chapter on “Sap
Bewitched,” over the signature of “Plinius Secundus”:

“We wonder at the mighty and monstrous shoulders of Elephants, we marvel
at the strong necks of bulls: we keep a wondering at the ravening of
tigers, and the shag manes of Lions: and yet in comparison of insects
there is nothing wherein Nature and her whole power is more seen,
neither sheweth she her might more than in these least creatures of

In the spirit of those words he wrought at his art. “These least
creatures of all” found in him a loving exponent. He saw their charm,
and he was not above interpreting it to others. The web of a spider, the
nest of a bird, the down of the dandelion, the leaf of the jewel-weed,
the tangle of grasses in a fence-corner, the vegetable contents of a
city back-yard,–Gibson found beauties in all these least things, which
he did not disdain to celebrate. He had learned from Thoreau, chief
among American students and expositors of nature, the meaning of the
proverb, “Natura maxima in minimis.” His devotion to the Concord
recluse, and to his methods, appears in his studies. That discipleship
affected his artistic life. It inspired him in his choice of themes and
it drew his eyes still closer to the lesser objects and humbler
horizons. He wrote to a friend in 1888:

“There are few authors whom I love more than Thoreau…. I have read him
with love and reverence, and have visited his haunts as sacred ground,
and have pictured those haunts in projected compositions, and yet hope
to see them realized.”

He had no apologies whatsoever for having elected the field of what men
call the minor forms of life. He knew there was no such thing as major
and minor in the things of nature. One may go in either direction and
find infinity. A telescope is no more effective than a microscope; and
it begins to look as if the atoms would be found as marvelous as the
universe. Gibson repeatedly preached this doctrine. In one place he

“There is often an almost inexhaustible field for botanic investigation
even on a single fallen tree. My scientific friend already alluded to
recently informed me, on his return from an exploring tour, that he had
spent two days most delightfully and profitably in the study of the
yield of a single dead

[Illustration: _At the Easel_

_Brooklyn Studio_]

tree, and had surprised himself by a discovery by actual count of over a
hundred distinct species of plants congregated upon it. Plumy dicentra
clustered along its length, graceful sprays of the frost-flower, with
its little spire of snow crystals, rose up here and there, scarlet
berries of the Indian turnip glowed among the leaves, and, with the
crowding beds of lycopodiums and mosses, its ferns and lichens, and host
of fungous growths, it became an easy matter to extend the list of
species into the second hundred. It is something worth remembering the
next time we go into the woods.”

Such study and such affection made him the guide of a great multitude of
people in America, teaching them of beauties and graces they had never
perceived for themselves. To him thousands of men and women were under
the deepest obligation, because he gave knowledge that in small areas
and in close quarters one may see great beauties and far-reaching powers
and forces. He taught by his art the greatness of the little, the
divinity of the familiar. He revealed the wonders of the every-day
world, the miracles of the commonplace. He seemed to discern, and had
the power to show others, the whole of nature in her humblest parts. He
was the prophet of the unnoted and the unprized; for when his
appreciative pencil had drawn them, they straightway became noteworthy,
brilliant, extraordinary. One feels all the power of this call of his
to be the apostle of the unconsidered in a bit of rhapsody over the
infinite pictures hung along any country roadside:

“See how the cool gray rails are relieved against that rich dark
background of dense olive juniper, how they hide among the prickly
foliage! Look at that low-hanging branch which so exquisitely conceals
the lowest rail as it emerges from its other side, and spreads out among
the creeping briers that wreathe the ground with their shining leaves of
crimson and deep bronze! Could any art more daringly concentrate a
rhapsody of color than nature has here done in bringing up that gorgeous
spray of scarlet sumach, whose fern-like pinnate leaves are so richly
massed against that background of dark evergreens? And even in that
single branch see the wondrous gradation of color, from purest green to
purplish olive melting into crimson, and then to scarlet, and through
orange into yellow, and all sustaining in its midst the clustered cone
of berries of rich maroon! Verily, it were almost an affront to sit down
before such a shrine and attempt to match it in material pigment. A
passing sketch, perhaps, that shall serve to aid the memory in the
retirement of the studio, but a careful copy, _never!_ until we can have
a tenfold lease of life, and paint with sunbeams. But there is more
still in this tantalizing ideal, for a luxuriant wild grapevine, that
shuts in the fence near by, sends toward us an adventurous branch that
climbs the upright rail, and festoons itself from fence to tree, and
hangs its luminous canopy over the crest of the yielding juniper. Even
from where we stand we can see the pendent clusters of tiny grapes
clearly shadowed against the translucent golden screen. Add to all this
the charm of life and motion, with trembling leaves and branches bending
in the breeze, with here and there a flitting shadow playing across the
half hidden rails, and where can you find another such picture, its
counterpart in beauty–where? perhaps its very neighbor, for all
roadside pictures are ‘hung upon the line,’ they are all by the same
great Master, and it is often difficult to choose.”

Two letters must serve as types of hundreds which he received, from
every quarter of this country and from England–from California and from
Anticosti Island, from Minnesota and from Georgia. The people loved his
work. It expressed things they all had felt. It revealed to them things
they had never seen. It was at once interpretation and disclosure. They
did not know how good it was technically, but they did realize that it
was good art in substance and in spirit, and from grateful hearts and
lives quickened and enriched by his genius they wrote him their letters
of gratitude and recognition. This one is from a Massachusetts town:

“B—-, MASS., _Aug. 30, ’90_.


“Your exquisite drawings and no less delightful descriptions have
been a constant delight and inspiration to me for ten years. I have
often wanted to tell you so, but the fear that a letter of thanks
might seem intrusive has kept me silent. You really must forgive me
for writing now, however, for your ‘group of pyrolas’ has a
fascination quite irresistible.

I resolutely close my Harper only to open again for one more long
lingering look at their airy loveliness, and then of course must
follow another peep at the lilies and the goodyera and the dainty
fern fronds which seem to spring up as spontaneously under your
pencil’s magic as they do in our fern-filled woods of B—-.

“Do you realize how much you have added to the joy of pastoral
days, what an enchantment you have thrown around our highways and

“Almost every favorite flower lives again for me in your
illustrations, and many and many a time have I been lifted up and
out of weariness or discouragement by your pen or pencil, for your
word pictures are as vivid as the others.

“Let me thank you too for your suggestions. ‘There is a spiritual
body and there is a natural body,’ and the atmosphere of the first
is always around your work, always full of help for all who can
discern it.

“I am not an art connoisseur and should never dare express my
opinion ‘as one having authority,’ but I do love beauty, and some
of your beautiful woodland scenes, some ferns or mosses or flowers
or birds have power to give ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep
for tears.’ You reveal Nature’s very soul and as a most ardent
worshipper of Nature and as a child of the Heavenly Father whose
thoughts you have so often interpreted, I want to thank you.

“May you have many long years to continue making the world happier,
and may you receive as much sunshine in your own life as you have
given others.

“Yours most sincerely,


The other letter is from his pastor:

* * * * *

“To me you are an interpreter of a word of God which is both older
and newer than the one to the interpretation of which I have given
my life. You have enabled a vaster congregation than any minister
ever speaks to, to see in it a meaning before unseen, if not
unsuspected. I am one of your congregation and I am your debtor for
lessons, not merely of beauty, but of truth and purity, which
cannot be put into words. In interpreting Nature you bring us
nearer to God and the eternal beauty and goodness. For this, no
less than for the autograph which hangs on our walls Mrs. Abbott
and I heartily thank you.

“Yours sincerely,

_7 April, 1888_.”

Gibson was a warm partisan of water-color as a medium of artistic
expression. He believed thoroughly in the possibilities of that mode of
painting, which, it will be noted, was by no means understood or
well-developed in this country when he was beginning to paint. His views
in reference to it are well set forth in a letter to his mother,
describing his first picture for the Water Color Society’s exhibition,
written in the winter of 1874. He says:

“I am at present busily engaged on my water-color painting for the
coming Spring exhibition. It is only just under way, but all who have
seen it express much pleasure and enthusiasm at it and particularly
admire my selection of a subject. It would be difficult to find a
subject calculated to create such popular favor, and you know that a
good selection in this particular is ‘half the battle.’ The idea is
this: Subject, a ‘Struggle for Life.’ It is indicated by an old, old
tree (an oak if you please) growing under all possible disadvantages,
and besieged with a host of parasitic growths which threaten to sap its
vitality and hasten its death. The trunk and main portion of a few
branches only are shown and but one or two of them are possessed of any
leafage. The near portion is devoid of bark and the exposed wood, by the
action of the weather without and decay within, has become stained and
broken. The interior is hollow, and the rich brown debris of its
decomposing wood falls through a large irregular opening at the base of
the trunk, and then spreading itself on a moss and lichen covered rock
becomes the prey to brilliantly colored fungi and mother to many ferns.
The tree is supposed to have started life near a rock and in the course
of time its roots have grown over its surface and again by the action of
time and other causes are now bare of bark and some of them dead. Higher
in the tree, an unsightly gaping hollow presents itself, left after the
fall of some dead and useless limb and this, collecting the rain water
from each successive shower, has caused the gradual undermining of the
tree and hurried it to its approaching death. Close beneath this
opening, true to nature, sapping what little life blood still circulates
in the part clings a luxuriant clump of the deadly agaric (touch wood)
which may so often be seen on trees that have passed their better days.
These are not all the burdens under which this aged subject is
struggling. The mistletoe has fastened itself upon its only living
branch, and parasitic vines innumerable clamber up and surround the
trunk in their ‘deadly embrace.’ A brightly colored woodpecker has just
alighted on the dying tree and finds food in plenty in the substance of
decay. The whole picture is intended to suggest the idea of a struggle,
and I know that I can make it so plain that anyone will realize my
intention. A little pool of rain water lies at the foot of the rock and
touching the roots which will give an additional effect of reflection,
and what with this, the warm coloring of dried fallen leaves relieved by
a group of delicate ferns, and other like growths, together with a
strong play of sunlight on the whole, I see no reason why the picture
should not be a good success and feel equal to rendering all that my
imagination suggests and pictures. I have only just commenced, but
enough is even now suggested to insure an at least attractive result. I
have selected the medium of water-color because I believe that more can
be done with that than most people are aware. I can work faster with
water-color and secure just as brilliant effect as I could in oils.
People in general do not know how much can be done with water-color, and
I hope that I may live to show them.”

Six years later, coming back to the same subject in a letter to Colonel
Gibson, he defends water-color as a medium in the following hearty

“Concerning the ‘water-color’ subject, on which you say ‘Of course
water-color painting is not or cannot be high art, because it concerns
itself too much with detail’ (not verbatim but embodying your

[Illustration: _The Struggle for Life_

_First Watercolor_]

expressed idea), I regret that a man in your position should decline
from the standard to which his namesake had elevated him, and come down
to such a statement as that. Color is color, whether it is mixed with
water or oil, and you can make a broad flat tint in oil-color or
water-color just as you choose. There is no reason why one should use
‘one-hair brushes’ in water-color painting either. Neither is there any
reason why he should paint more detail in the one than in the other. You
should have had one glimpse of the last W. C. Ex. It would have made you
open your eyes. I never saw stronger or broader pictures in oil than
some that were in that exhibit. Neither does the medium make a snap of
difference, excepting so far as it cramps the hand that wields it. The
talk about ‘body color’ is a ‘hobby horse’ for art critics to ride on
when they get ‘run out’ of their vocabulary. I use both, so do several
others, some to such an excess as to abuse it and spoil the result. It
should not be used to tell as paint, but to express texture or relief in
an object where such qualities are important requisites.”

His own work in this medium showed the same steady and constant
improvement as his work with the pencil. He toiled incessantly, and with
his toil his power and facility grew. Remembering that he was
self-taught in all his art-work; that he wholly lacked the training of
the schools; that all his studies had to be made in the rush and under
the pressure of his intensely busy life; yet that all of these studies
were good enough to have a market value, and to take rank as works of
art, his professional career is indeed a marvelous one. It was soon
apparent that he was to take his place among the leading workers in
color, and in an astonishingly short time he was recognized as one of
the first water-colorists in America. He brought the same dash and
fervor and sincerity to the color-box that he bestowed upon monotone. He
was as ambitious to excel in this field as in his earlier one. He
overcame heavy odds, chief among which was a popular prejudice that a
man who does one thing well cannot do anything else. The public had come
to rank him as a master in illustration. It was not readily converted to
the notion that he might take as good a position in color-work. The
critics talked, as critics will, in much this strain. “He is not a
colorist,” said one. “His best work is in monotone,” said another. “He
has won more admirers by his black-and-white work than he ever will win
as a water-colorist,” wrote a third. They evidently had not heard the
tale of his early attempts, and had not the fear of his caricatures
before them. Gibson lived to confute their judgment and to prove his
power as a colorist. That he had the root of the matter in him, and that
he was qualified by temperament to see and feel the power of nature’s
glowing hues he shows in a few lines of revelation, written out of his
inmost spirit.

“How many beautiful pictures have I seen emerge from a cloud of dust
upon a country road! How many of those pictures have again been half
obliterated by the dust of after-years, only to be recalled to life by
even so trivial a thing as the bleating of a lamb, the ring of a boyish
laugh, or the homely music of the falling pasture bars!

“Pity for him whose heart knows no such sensitive and latent chord of
sympathy to yield its harmony along the way, lending an inspiration to
the present, while sanctifying the past, and drawing from its better
memories a renewed delight in living! There is no walk in life, however
dull or prosaic, no circumstance so commonplace, that they can stifle
this ever-present melody. It sings in unison with nature in a thousand
different keys–in a falling leaf or a cricket’s song. The rain-drops of
to-day but repeat the old-time patter on the garret-roof. The noisy
katydid, whenever heard, is that same untiring nightly visitant outside
your window to whose perpetual whim you loved to listen, and in fancy
tantalize until you dropped off to sleep upon your pillow. This skimming
swallow sailing near will never cross your path but so surely will he
fly to those same old nests beneath the barn-yard eaves. If there is
ever a blessed mood ‘most musical, most melancholy,’ it may be found
beneath the refining influence of just such reminiscences; for whether
or not there are added elements of home association, there are always a
legion of indelible memories that love to linger along the country road
and lane–highways and byways beloved of fancy–paths of recollection
filled with footprints which not even the tempest can obliterate.”

One rarely finds a profounder analysis of the true mean between breadth
and detail, between effect and incident, nor a truer affirmation of one
of the neglected sources of power in translating the larger aspects of
the world than in the following:

“‘There is as much finish in the right concealment of things as in the
right exhibition of them.’

“Here is a key to the very heart of nature, if one will only use it. And
I would but add my faint echo in an entreaty for a deeper sense of the
infinity of nature’s living tone and palpitating color–a plea for the
more intelligent recognition of the elements that yield the tint which
we vainly strive to imitate upon the canvas. Such knowledge will give a
voice to every pigment on the palette, and to the brush an answering
consciousness; for, whether disciple of a school or not, whether artist,
poet, or layman, who can deny that such an attitude toward nature shall
yield a harvest of deeper knowledge, and increased delight, not merely
in the contemplation of the footprint, but even as truly in the study of
the limitless panorama?

“Is there not to me an added charm in the pink flush that mantles the
side of yonder mountain-spur when I know so well that it is shed by the
myriads of blossoms in an acre of glowing fire-weed? And as my eye
follows the cool cloud-shadow as it glides down upon the mountain-slope,
among the varied patchwork of its fields and farms, is there not a
deepened significance imparted to every separate tint that tells me
something of its being?

“If in the faint yellow checkered forms I see fields of billowing wheat
and barley, and recall a hundred of their associations, or if from that
quaintly-dotted patch there comes a whiff from a sweet-scented field,
with its cocks of new-mown hay, its skimming swallows and ringing
scythes, with here a luminous gray of sandy meadow fresh from the plough
or harrow, and there a weed-grown copse lit up with golden-rod; if that
kaleidoscopic medley of grays and olives and browns tells me of its
pastures, with their tinkling bells, of its fragrant beds of
everlasting, ferns, and hardhack, its trailing junipers and its
moss-flecked bowlders, and each of these in turn draws me still closer,
and whispers something of itself–the everlasting with its pendent
jewel, the orchis with its little confidant and nursling, the gentian
with its close-kept secret and its never-opened eye; if yonder bluish
bloom means a field of blueberries to me, and that snowy sweep brings
visions of the blossoming buckwheat field, with its symphony of humming
bees–tell me, have I not only seen the mountain-slope, but have I not
also heard its voice?

Such a man could not keep out of the field of color. The feeling in him
had to express itself. He must interpret on the canvas what he saw upon
the hillside. It was inevitable that he should soon win as hearty praise
for his color as he had for his drawing. Of course, the reputation could
not be as wide as that he had achieved as illustrator in black and
white. Fewer eyes could see his paintings than had been regaled with his
illustrations. But when he laid down his brush, to paint no more, he had
made a name for himself as one of the foremost American water-colorists.

It is but fair to say that his later experiences taught him a larger
respect for “oil” as a medium of artistic expression. He was so eager to
enlarge his field of work that he could not but venture upon experiments
which brought to him a new sense of power and a knowledge of resources
hitherto untouched. A few brief entries in his journal show his state of
mind, and his prompt surrender of former prejudices. In March, 1881, he

“Painting for three weeks on oil-pictures for Academy Exhibition. First
attempts in oil for exhibition. Trouble with medium. Final triumph of
mind over matter. Painted a week or more on large autumn study commenced
at Williamstown. Grew frantic and in a moment of frenzy took a piece of
pasteboard and palette-knife and produced strongest picture I ever
painted, in less than fifteen minutes,–a revelation which gave me
confidence. A victorious fight with an oil-tube which had threatened to
get the better of me.”

A few days later he tried a similar study, with which he was even more
satisfied. In another entry he says of this attempt:

“Much pleased with effect of sky I carried picture to a finish by four
o’clock. Went out and ordered frame for it. A Diaz effect,–quite
strong. What a revelation to me who, ten days ago, was disgusted with
oil-color as a medium! I am all aglow with enthusiasm at finding another
medium for the expression of my thoughts and feelings.”

From this time forward he knew that there were still greater
possibilities before him than he had realized, and with the knowledge
came a fresh ambition, a stronger challenge to his artistic nature.

The “smoke-pictures” which he executed were one more example of his
versatility and delight in new and daring methods. He did a great many
of them, and they attracted much attention. They were, briefly,
black-and-white pictures made by a gas flame upon a cardboard or paper
ground. In his first experiments he held the paper before a horizontal
flame and by passing one part after another across the flame, secured
masses of lamp-black, which he found he could manipulate to great
advantage. Landscape, cloud-effects, deep shadows of night or storm were
easily within reach. Afterward he attached a rubber tube to his
gas-fixture, and with a suitable nozzle was able to sit at his easel and
manipulate the pipe as he would a brush. After the paper was well coated
with varying shades of gray and black, he would work up the picture with
brush or finger or palette-knife, deepening the tones, when desirable,
by more smoke, lightening them by scraping and rubbing. The total effect
was broad, yet marked by gradations so fine as to be almost beyond the
reach of ordinary methods of black-and-white work; while the rich,
velvety textures were of a depth quite remarkable. Though he never
devised any method of “fixing” the smoke, yet after the lapse of a dozen
years, these pictures, when preserved under glass, have kept all their
original brilliancy and force.

But all that Gibson had done in his artistic career was to him only an
apprenticeship. He meant more than he achieved. He was on the way to
better things, when death stayed his feet. With all his tremendous
intensity, his restless industry, his fulness of conception and scheme,
he was yet a man of undreamed-of patience. He saw far ahead of what he
had reached, and planned for it, and meant to attain it. He himself
regarded all that he had done in black and white, in water-color, even
his beginnings in oil, as only the preparation for a larger, stronger
art, in which he should interpret the spiritual side of Nature. There
was always before his mind a dream of the subtler phases of natural
beauty, the deeper meaning she conveys to the listening soul. He was
feeling, with more and more force every day that he lived, the spell of

“The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream,”

and the passion grew within him to paint, in the most permanent and
adequate medium, the things he was coming to feel and to see. Art was
really his goal. Painting was his crowning ambition. His own view of his
life was that he had but just fitted himself for a worthier task, that
he was just ready to begin the work to which he was called.

We have seen how the passion for the study of nature was born with
Gibson, and grew with his growth. He was a naturalist by nature; and all
his training strengthened in him the passion which made the young boy,
with a “Cecropia” in sight, “feel like an eagle darting at her prey.”
The natural world was to him a perpetual attraction, a land to be
explored, a mystery to be searched, a delight to be enjoyed. The
frontispiece to his chapter “Across Lots” in “Highways and Byways”
represents an upland shrubby pasture, beyond whose limits gleam the
waters of a pond, backed by a round-topped hill. In the foreground
stretches a rail fence, with a gateway whose bars are dropped; and this
open pathway to the wild fields and waters he has suggestively entitled
“An Invitation.” That invitation was continually pressing upon him. He
always felt it, outweighing all other calls, summoning him from every
other career, bidding him take to the fields and the woods and the
hills, to listen, to see, to learn, and to impart. In 1867, when he was
a boy of seventeen, convalescing from a severe illness, he wrote to a
dear friend:

[Illustration: “_Cypripedium Acaule_”

(“_My Studio Neighbors_”) _Copyright, 1897, by Harper & Brothers_]

“You ask me what I do all day. This question is very easily answered. It
is the same thing over and over again day after day. The great part of
the time I spend in the woods, alone. I start off about ten o’clock in
the morning and ramble through the woods and thickets. There is one spot
in particular which I frequent the most, because there are two
wood-thrushes which invariably come and sing to me. This spot is a
singular little dell. It is situated in front of a precipice two hundred
feet high, in among ferns and large rocks which are shaded by hemlock
trees. It is on these trees that the wood-thrushes sit and chant their
songs by the hour. Oh, I do not believe I could be happy if this
pleasure were taken away from me. I am always happy alone in the woods.
I dare say I am destined to spend half my life in just such places. This
is the daily program of the way I spend my time. Silly isn’t it? But I
can’t help it. It is my nature to enjoy nature, and I mean to do it at
every opportunity.” That outburst struck the keynote of Gibson’s life
and spirit.

But his love of nature, like his knowledge of it, was broad and
catholic. He was not a specialist in any narrow or pedantic sense. He
was botanist, ornithologist, entomologist, biologist, all in one. A
butterfly had as much interest for him as an evening-primrose, a
chipmunk as a nuthatch. Everything was grist that came to his mill.
Nothing could better illustrate this universal love of all living
things, than a note which he left, on which he intended evidently to
base a sketch. Imperfect as it is, it is an admirable illustration of
his method and of his broad sympathy and interest. He begins with
several experiments at a title, and then outlines his plan; after which
he enumerates the “available episodes,” as he calls them, to fill the

“‘A Rare Day with the Speckled Trout. Speckled Beauties. A Rare Day’s
Trouting.’ See Burroughs’s ‘Speckled Trout,’ Prime’s ‘I go a-Fishing,’
Isaak Walton.

“Begin: It was the 29th of June. A glimpse of a large platter of
speckled trout, a one day’s catch displayed with pride by a neighbor,
revived my old-time zeal and reminded me that there was but one day left
in which to beat the record. I consequently start off fully equipped,
and meet with an interesting train of episodes, and an accumulation of a
basket of specimens,–plants, insects, bird’s nests. Following the
course of the stream, the incidents are such as are perfectly
appropriate to this setting and the season. A trout occasionally alluded
to, as an accessory, jumping, etc.

“Or begin with quotation about ‘Not even a minister is to be trusted on
the subject of fish.’ Fish stories. I have one to tell which however it
may compare with others has at least the merit of truth. It is true that
I once caught forty-nine trout, within an hour; but that was not a
circumstance to the fortune which has often since befallen me. My last
is a fair sample of these lucky days.

“End something in this vein,–after an enumeration of natural beauties:
And, by the way, the trout? There in the rippling pools; for I left them
all there! And yet there are those who would have followed my trail, and
have brought home nothing but a basketful of dead fish. Finish with some
apt quotation or quaint proverb, of how one went and brought back chaff,
and another fetched the kernel.”

It is plain that such a man as this did not love Nature for the sake of
the contribution she made to his particular sport or his favorite study.
He was one of that class whom Professor John Van Dyke has in mind, in
entitling a certain book of his “Nature for Its Own Sake.” He was out
after anything that mother Nature vouchsafed to put in his way, and he
gathered up reverently whatever he found, as something good for him
because it came from her. Witness a single incident in which he modestly
attributes to fortune what was quite as much due to his own habitual

“By a fortunate train of weather conditions I was once favored with a
phenomenon by which almost the entire vegetable bill of fare of the
winter birds, at least in the way of seeds, was spread out before
me–brought to my feet, as it were.

“Walking upon the firm and polished snow-crust, picking my way along a
rail-fence at the foot of a steep, sloping pasture, I suddenly aroused
into flight a flock of small birds from behind the bulwark of drifts
with which the fence was hemmed in and partially buried. So loud was the
united flutter of their wings that it at first suggested the whir of a
partridge, until I saw it dissipated in the flock of smaller fry above
the edge of the drift. They proved to be, as I remember, mostly
snowbirds, white buntings, and goldfinches, though doubtless the
cedar-birds, winter-wrens, tree-sparrows, pine and purple finches, were
also among them. Their noisy flight was the signal for a general alarm
all along the line, following the fence for several hundred feet, each
zigzag corner sending up its winged bevy to perch and twitter upon the
upper rails. Almost every projecting beam showed its chirruping

“Interested to discover the secret of such a great feathery convocation,
I crept up to the edge of the slippery drift and looked over. Beyond the
fence rose the steep, white, glistening slope of the pasture, a distance
of a furlong or more, its surface mottled with its brown withered
vegetation. Following the rambling rails on either side were drifts of
the most fantastic form, now and then almost peering above the fence
riders, and between them ran a winding valley, in which the old fence
seemed to be walking knee-deep in snow. It needed only a second glance
into this hollow, whence the startled flocks had flown, to understand
its attractiveness for the birds. Its depths were fairly littered with
the choicest kind of allurement. The very cream of the pasture had
flowed into this trough. It was the hopper which had received the entire
wind-blown tribute of the weedy upland that looked down upon it, and of
the overhanging woods far up the slope. Here were wind-rows of various
seeds which had been dislodged from the weeds and trees and blown along
the glassy snow to be caught in this convenient bin. The small
goblet-shaped hollows around the projecting grass-stems were full to the
brim with their good cheer, and the deeper vales and gullies were marked
out everywhere by their brown meandering lines of intermingled chaff and
seeds, often to the depth of two inches or more. A happy valley and a
land of plenty, surely!

“A single handful of this grist taken up at random presented a
surprising variety of elements, offering a wide choice for the most
fastidious bird appetite. Curious to test this question further, I
followed the fence for a long distance, occasionally sampling the meadow
crumbs, and continually discovering some new ingredient of fruit or

“Even the powdery chaff which I blew away in order to better reveal the
larger morsels, proved to be the fine seed of various grasses and
sedges; while among the more conspicuous which remained I noted the
following considerable list, not to mention others which were then
beyond my limited botanical knowledge. The seeds of the alder, birch,
hemlock, ragweed, bur-marigold, and wild-carrot, were, perhaps, the most
numerous and general. There was an exclusive colony of dried grapes
assembled in one particular corner, doubtless laying their plans for a
future arborescent monopoly of the rails in their vicinity. I found,
also, numbers of larch seeds, both with and without their wings.
Stag-horn-sumach, poison-ivy, ash, and hop-hornbeam representatives were
frequent, and one chaffy handful, downy with goldenrod and aster seeds
was lit up with a bright scarlet berry of black alder, like a tiny live
coal in a bed of ashes. There was an occasional withered poke-berry to
be met with, also fruits of sheep-berry, _ampelopsis_, juniper, and
hawthorn. Another sample challenged my audacious familiarity with the
fangs of a _Cenchrus_ bur–the spiny fruit of the hedgehog grass, and
still another was pretty well doctored with the poisonous seeds of
stramonium, or jimson-weed, a line of which followed along the base of a
drift like an open trail fuse of blasting powder leading up to a drill
hole well calked with chaff. I recall also a few samaras of the
tulip-tree, some hazel-nuts, oats, foxtail-grass seed, as well as
several other queer diminutive forms which were unknown to me at the
time, and which I cannot now identify from memory.”

If we were to name the quality most characteristic of his work as a
naturalist, it would be his habit of close and accurate observation. He
saw more of the objects and incidents of the natural world in a square
rod, than most men, even fairly observant, would see in a square mile.
His books are a mass of evidence of the minuteness and the accuracy of
his observations; and his note-books tell with still greater force the
story of his patience and industry in preparing himself to report what
he had seen. They show that he looked and saw for himself, and that his
stories of plant and insect life are genuine studies, at first hand. A
fine instance of the personal observation and actual experience which
lay behind his work is afforded in the case of the chapter upon the
“Bombardier-Beetle” in “Sharp Eyes.” It is but a brief sketch, and
reports only a curious performance on the part of a rather rare insect.
But the observed facts on which it is based are set down in a record
almost as long as the sketch itself, and in a manner to show the
foundation of close attention and scrutiny to which he was continually
subjecting the face of the earth. He writes under date of September
28th, at Williamstown, Massachusetts. The note begins with a memorandum
to the effect that he carried his camera, with four plates, and that he
observed tumble-bugs, ichneumon flies, and dung beetles. “In turning
over a large stone, as is my habit in my walks, I discerned beneath it a
little beetle which I at first supposed to be the common species, so
closely resembling the Bombardier beetle of Europe. I had no special
desire to capture it, and as it escaped beneath the grass and debris, my
attention was arrested by a series of queer detonations, which made me
suspect that some kind of a toad lay concealed near by. As I rummaged
among the leaves I heard the queer report right at my fingers’ ends, and
at the same time noticed a tiny cloud of smoke emerging from the same
quarter. The fact then dawned upon me that perhaps I had discovered a
genuine Bombardier. A moment’s search revealed the little fellow, and he
discharged his battery six times or so. I captured him. I have not yet
read of this species having been discovered in America. And certainly
the allied species of this country possess no such detonating power.
Before the detonation the body of the beetle would swell considerably. I
kept the beetle and several of its allied species in a box some weeks
afterward, and observed the explosion several times. Mrs. Gibson also
heard it once and distinctly saw the small cloud of smoke of the
volatile fluid. About two days after the capture of the Bombardier, I
espied a beetle crawling on the floor of my room, and thinking that my
pet had escaped I captured the insect. It proved to be another of the
same species, but evidently of the other sex, and it was undoubtedly
seeking for its imprisoned mate. There are numerous parallel instances
in my own experience, but in this instance it is especially remarkable
that I should find a second individual of a species so rare in America
that I had never been able to find one before; and although I overturned
at least a thousand stones during my stay in Williamstown, I was never
able to discover another specimen.”

A few weeks earlier in the same summer, he recorded another incident
which shows his alertness of eye and the success with which it was
constantly rewarded. He was on a trip to South Amboy, to study orchids
in a conservatory there. He wrote:

“In a ramble near the station I found (as usual) exactly what I had
started out to hunt for, a large patch of milkweed. This luck is an
every day experience with me and has long since ceased to be a surprise.
Once let my vision be set on the qui-vive for any given object, and I am
led to it as by some irresistible intuition. No matter whether the
object sought be a four-leaved clover, a certain flower, a rare
caterpillar, a gold-bug or a ‘walking-stick,’ I am soon rewarded. I was
desirous of discovering a specimen of an insect laden with pollen of
milkweed. In less than ten minutes I found a large tract of pollen, in
full bloom. In an instant more I detected a beautiful Cetonia beetle,
nestling in a tuft of blossoms. Soon there came a small yellow hornet,
which I captured. Its legs were fringed with the pollen-masses. So were
the toes of the beetle.”

Probably Gibson explains his own success in a sentence or two in one of
his own chapters: “Anticipation is an equipment, the surest talisman to
discovery, and anticipation may be quickened, either by pictorial hint
or previous experience. The retina must be on the alert.” That certainly
was true of his own eye, and the fact that he was such an enthusiastic
seeker accounts in large measure for the fact that he was such a
successful finder.

His notebooks show the broad scope of his observations and of his
studies. They cover every corner of natural life. One day he would go
out and bring back material for pages of memoranda concerning the chase
of what he believed to be a hermit thrush. On another day he makes an
entry of fourteen varieties of golden-rod analyzed, six kinds of aster,
and, as he adds, “many others.” One page of his notes gives the results
of careful experiments with three dozen dandelion blossoms, to determine
how long the flower requires to pass from bud to the state when it
floats away in silvery down. Another passage records in a minute
description his first observation of the snapping of the witch-hazel
seeds, to which he adds a list of a dozen subjects for illustration. He
counts the number of different plants he finds in his city back-yard.
He sets down the things seen in a walk through the Park with a lantern,
from nine o’clock to eleven at night. He notes that on a certain June
29th, in the midst of a heavy thunder storm he heard the song of the
Wilson thrush in the woods near his house. He makes liberal memoranda of
the things most touching his attention after a fresh snow-fall. He sets
down a list of more than a score of birds whose song he heard “in a
continuous roundel,” while sitting on his porch on a quiet Sunday.
Thoreau in his hermit haunts at Walden was not more minute and attentive
in his observations than this eager three-fold worker, hurrying from
city to country and back to city again, equally busy at sketching, and
writing, and observing. There are pages upon pages of his notes which
read like the “Natural History of Selborne” in their detailed and
leisurely narrative of things seen and heard in the fields and beside
the brooks. In these records of his intermittent life in the country one
never hears the faintest echo of the bustling round of the dweller in
cities. He drops all that when he locks the door of his town-house
behind him. Once in the open air he is again the free and buoyant youth,
preoccupied only by the purposes and the pursuits which belong to the
open air, the meadow, and the wood. Indeed it seems as if his early
training and experiences, those school-days at the “Gunnery,” the
passions there born, the habits there fostered and confirmed, lay at
the basis of all his life afield. He himself somewhere said: “To the
average observer, if the eye is ever thus to be a means of grace, it
must store up its harvest while hearts are light and life is new, when
eyes are bright and undimmed. How many a prisoner caged in city walls is
living on the harvest stored in free, unburdened youth, which has never
been replenished.” Perhaps that was true of this observer so much above
the “average,” and caught for half his time in the city’s durance.

But even there he proved again the truth of Lovelace’s lines:

“Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage.”

He made the city rural, and told others his secret:

“How little do we appreciate our opportunities for natural observation!
Even under the most apparently discouraging and commonplace environment,
what a neglected harvest! A back-yard city grass-plot, forsooth, what an
invitation! Yet there is one interrogation to which the local naturalist
is continually called to respond. If perchance he dwells in Connecticut,
how repeatedly is he asked, ‘Don’t you find your particular locality in
Connecticut a specially rich field for natural observation?’ The
botanist of New Jersey or the ornithologist of Esopus-on-Hudson is
expected to give an affirmative reply to similar questions

[Illustration: _Upland Meadows_

_From a Painting_]

concerning his chosen hunting-grounds, if, indeed, he does not avail
himself of that happy aphorism with which Gilbert White was wont to
instruct his questioners concerning the natural-history harvest of his
beloved Selborne: ‘That locality is always richest which is most

“With the possession of a back-yard, then, there is still hope for the
most case-hardened cit. Let the quickened sod have its freedom of
expression, and the grasses and weeds a respite from the sickle. Give
the cold shoulder to the gardener, or, if need be, confine his arts to
the fence border, and if you would repeat my experience, let the
chrysanthemum claim the chief part of his attention. Twenty-five
varieties of this plant bloomed in my borders last season, and they won
my admiration, not less because of their beautiful display of color,
which more than once relieved itself against a background of snow, than
for the sterling wisdom they had displayed in biding their time until
the rival wildlings of my grass-plot had seen their day.

“Next summer my square of turf shall again contribute to my enjoyment,
yea, though I seed the whole community with thistles, tares, and
fleabane, and run the gauntlet of the city ordinances.”

Gibson was mindful of the exhortation, “To do good and to communicate,
forget not.” He could not contain himself, when he knew so many
interesting things. He was a born teacher, a communicator and medium of
knowledge. His studies all had a real if unconscious aim. He could not
content himself with making them simply as a contribution to the field
of facts, nor to the formation of theories. He wanted them to go farther
and furnish information to other men. He craved an audience. He needed
pupils, or at least auditors. It was not for the sake of being heard by
others, or of hearing himself, either; he wanted others to know and to
enjoy the great store of wonderful and fascinating things which mother
Nature keeps in store for those who love her. He was a genuine
missionary of science, an apostle of art, a herald of the wonders and
beauties of the world. His social nature, eager for companionships,
sought associates in knowledge. He loved to share what he had received.
And he took others into his confidence as soon as he had unearthed a new
secret of the world around us. He had the same spirit in scientific
knowledge that sends men and women to preach the gospel to the ignorant
and misguided. Indeed, in one of his letters, outlining the idea of his
“Sharp Eyes,” he uses the word “missionary,” which he repeats in the
introduction to that volume. The whole paragraph in which it occurs
shows Gibson’s feeling toward those who, “having eyes, see not:”

“Recognizing too the evident hunger for information concerning
every-day objects in Nature, and that where one individual would write
for enlightenment one hundred would wonder in silence and ten thousand
would dwell in heedless ignorance, I realized that such a book might
also go forth as a missionary to open the eyes of the blind, or at least
to quicken a desire for fuller comprehension of the omnipresent marvel
and beauty of the commonplace.” One can realize how to such a nature,
with such a sense of responsibility to others, a letter like the
following would appeal, written by a friend of his who had given much of
her time and strength to thought and labor for the interest of working

“It has come to me through my association with these working girls that
the meagerness of their lives does not so much mean the lack of _things_
as the lack of _thoughts_, and I have been planning these talks which
have been running through the winter in answer to the question ‘What
shall we think about?’ I have asked every one to make the talk simple
and plain and I have tried to impress upon them that it is to be _only_
a talk, not a lecture. I have also sought for simple themes, so that
they need not be so far above the comprehension of the untrained minds
that it would find no answering chord in their desires. If we can take
the every-day things which you and I know are full of a wonderful
interest, if one but know how to see them, and open their eyes to their
wonders, I have believed that one would be opening doors into an
undreamed-of fairy land to them. So you see why I come to you. You are
one of the door-keepers into that fairy land. Will you open it for us?”

This desire to inform others kept him wholly free from anything like
pedantry. He had none of the self-importance of men who try to make a
little knowledge go a great way. Nor was he forgetful of the
difficulties of less instructed minds. His style in picture and in
speech was simple and direct. He had no passion for long words. He did
not find it necessary to befog others with the technical speech of the
specialists. He was the friend of children and simple country folk and
the unlearned everywhere; and they will owe him a debt of gratitude that
he spoke in their language and made them understand him. “I wonder,” he
once said, “if the time will ever come when a man may read a botanical
work without understanding Latin.” It was one of his ambitions to write
such a book; he meant to make a botany in English, and illustrate it
himself. Over fifteen hundred drawings, as we have seen, are in
existence which he had accumulated with this work in view,–one more of
the many schemes that fertile mind was projecting, never, alas! to be
carried out.

Of all the great nature students of our time, Richard Jeffries ranks as
the one most closely in touch with the sub-human world, the earth and
all the life it bears in and on its bosom. His whole soul seems
exquisitely in tune with the cosmos. He breathes with the respirations
of the earth; he sighs with the breath of the winds; his senses and his
thoughts sway with the bending of the grain and the waving of the
tree-tops. “To know him,” says his eulogist, Mr. Ellwanger, “is to
approach nearer the heart of the flower, the mystic concave of the sky,
and the elusive verge of the horizon.” But in this respect he has a peer
in William Hamilton Gibson. No man ever lived on friendlier terms with
nature. As close, as accurate, as patient in his observation as any of
the classic characters in nature love, he has a distinction all his own,
a peculiar personal attitude toward all extra-human life. He feels and
he expresses a sort of fellowship with life in other than human form. He
accepts the lesser things as little brothers and sisters of the human.
He gives the right hand of fellowship to whatever has life. He
humanizes, if one may so term it, the life which lies below man’s in the
vital scale. What writer since the days of the primeval fairy tales ever
brought the worlds of human life and other life so near each other? He
seems a modern Siegfried, into whose ears the birds talk, and the grass
whispers as it grows. When he comes back from an exploration into the
insect realm close to his own doorstep, he reports what he has seen and
heard precisely as if he were recounting the talk and doings of his own
kind. He translates this life of beetle and spider and bee and ant and
bird into the terms of human life and activity. He makes all life seem
related to our lives, all being to appear of one substance, all to be
worthy of interest, sympathy, love, and reverence. More than any other
mind of his generation he leads us to feel that kinship of all life
which Drummond has asserted in “The Ascent of Life,” and which Professor
Shaler has condensed into a phrase in calling it “The Bond of the
Generations.” That was a shrewd and sagacious disclosure of character,
as well as a bit of fun, which led his mother to write, in the letter
already quoted, “How are your friends and dear companions, the worms?”
He was on terms of friendship with all living things. But to any mind at
all sensitive to the real and deeper meaning of nature, to its spiritual
origin, its profound unity, this underlying affinity of all its forms of
life, there was a bit of true philosophy in the mother’s comment. It was
certainly truer and wiser than the criticism once made upon his
intellectual temperament in the columns of the “Tribune.” “So
thoroughly,” said this reviewer, “was he absorbed in the life of the
humbler animals and plants that one suspects he was quite out of his
element elsewhere. He was incapable of assigning them a relative place.
To him they were always supreme. And because they were supreme they were
colored and transformed by his humanizing and anthropomorphizing
whimseys. He was always reading into them his own charming qualities of
mind and heart, at the same time that he was imitating their own
quickness and alertness. Indeed, natural life always appealed not so
much to his imagination as to his fancy. He was absorbed in nature as a
child is absorbed in its playthings. With all his minuteness of
knowledge, he never fully and unqualifiedly faced the two great facts of
the natural world, the struggle for existence, and the survival of the
fittest. He exaggerated and instinctively transformed the natural world,
and to the using of it as the source and stimulus of his own acute
poetic ingenuity, devoted all his energies and interest.” The criticism
is brilliant, but superficial; and its kindly temper does not atone for
its total injustice and perversion of values. It is pure assumption, in
the first place, to call the “struggle for existence, and the survival
of the fittest” “the two great facts of the natural world.” Who
authorizes the ranking of those facts as prime or principal? Why not
assign the highest place to the continuity of life, and the conservation
of advantages, and the advance of types? These are quite as impressive
facts as those others. And if they are suggestive of quite other
inferences neither Gibson nor any nature lover need be disparaged for
choosing to dwell upon those inferences. If he, like a growing company
of later students and observers, was impressed with the fraternity of
all lives, great and small, with the analogies between the human and the
dumb creation, and felt the kinship of even insects and birds, with
their later and more favored human cousins,–if we may not use a closer
term,–why should this keener insight be called a “whimsey,” and this
deeper divination a “fancy”? And because he had a nature which thrilled
and fired with the delight of knowledge and all the mental activity
which it sets in motion, why should he be accused of using his growing
store of that knowledge as a wine to warm his fancy and a spur to the
making of similes? The fact is, Gibson not only saw and faced the law of
struggle and of survival, but he saw a great deal more. And if he did
not dwell upon these facts with the lugubrious emphasis which
characterized so many of his contemporaries in science, it was not
because he saw them out of relation, but in truer and clearer
perspective. There has been too little sympathy, too little of the
“humanizing and anthropomorphizing” spirit in scientific research.
Gibson was a prophet, in advance of his day. What he was doing is fast
becoming the dominant spirit of investigators. And many more laws and
principles will be laid bare when men come to realize that all living
things are of one blood, than are to be discerned through the cold and
unsympathetic gaze of old-fashioned science. Gibson’s habit, moreover,
was not a “humanizing” of animal and plant life, in the sense of trying
to force our life upon theirs, attributing human thoughts and aims and
feelings to the lower creation. It was rather an effort to link their
life to ours, by insight, sympathy, and study. He simply made men feel
the kinship of all living things. In that he was fully in the spirit of
the most advanced science. He believed thoroughly in the truth contained
in a sentence which he quoted from “the rapt philosopher of Walden”:
“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist and look at nature directly. He
must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look
at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone.”

How thoroughly he grasped the spirit of the “new botany” which traces
the links between the animal and insect worlds one passage will suffice
to show.

“What startling disclosures are revealed to the inward eye within the
hearts of all these strange orchidaceous flowers! Blossoms whose
functions, through long eras of adaptation, have gradually shaped
themselves to the forms of certain chosen insect sponsors; blossoms
whose chalices are literally fashioned to bees or butterflies; blossoms
whose slender, prolonged nectaries invite and reward the murmuring
sphinx-moth alone, the floral throat closely embracing his head while it
attaches its pollen masses to the bulging eyes, or perchance to the
capillary tongue! And thus in endless modifications, evidences all of
the same deep vital purpose.

“Let us then content ourselves no longer with being mere
‘botanists’–historians of structural facts. The flowers are not mere
comely or curious vegetable creations, with colors, odors, petals,
stamens, and innumerable technical attributes. The wonted insight alike
of scientist, philosopher, theologian, and dreamer is now repudiated in
the new revelation. Beauty is not ‘its own excuse for being,’ nor was
fragrance ever ‘wasted on the desert air.’ The seer has at last heard
and interpreted the voice in the wilderness. The flower is no longer a
simple passive victim in the busy bee’s sweet pillage, but rather a
conscious being, with hopes, aspirations, and companionships. The insect
is its counterpart. Its fragrance is but a perfumed whisper of welcome,
its color is as the wooing blush and rosy lip, its portals are decked
for his coming, and its sweet hospitalities humored to his tarrying; and
as it finally speeds its parting affinity rests content that its life’s
consummation has been fulfilled.”

How closely he observed and how much he read “between the lines” appears
in his account of his introduction to the study of entomology, the first
awakening of his real interest in what became the object of a consuming

“It was a day in early June, and nature was bursting with exuberance.
The very earth was teeming with awakening germs–here an acorn, with its
biformed hungry germ–parody on the dual mission of mortal life–one
seeking earth, the other heaven; here

[Illustration: “_The Bobolink at Home_”

(“_Strolls by Starlight_”)

_Copyright, 1890, by Harper & Brothers_]

an odd little elf of maple, with his winged cap still clinging as he
danced upon his slender stem; while numerous nameless green things clove
the sod and matted leaves, and slender coils of ferns unrolled in eager
grasp from their woolly winter nest.

“But dear to my heart as were these familiar tokens, how quickly were
they all forgotten in my contemplation simply of a little stone that lay
upon a patch of mold directly at my elbow, and my wandering eyes were
riveted upon it, for it seemed as though in the universal quickening
even this also had taken life.

“I can see it this moment. It moves again, and yet again, until now,
with a final effort, it is lifted from its setting and rolled away,
while in its place there protrudes from the ground a chrysalis risen
from its sepulcher. Filled with wonder, I sit and watch as though in a
dream, awaiting the revelation from this mysterious earthly messenger,
when suddenly the encasement swells and breaks, the cerements are burst,
and the strange shape gives birth to the form of a beautiful moth–a
tender, trembling thing, which emerges from the empty shell and creeps
quivering upon an overhanging spray.

“Now followed that beautiful and wonderous unfolding of the winged
life–the softly-falling crumpled folds, the quivering pulsations of the
new-born wings eager for their flight, until at length their glory
shone in purity and perfection–a trial flutter, and the perfect being
took wing and flew away!

“Thus did I become a votary to that science known as ‘entomology.’ What
wonder, then, that it should yield to me in after life a winged
significance, a spirit of unrest that bursts the shell of mere
terminology, and enjoys a realm of resource not found in books, except,
indeed, between the lines? For the entomology which I would seek is not
yet written, and it is beyond my conception that any one among its
votaries could witness unmoved by its deeper impress a spectacle such as
this, or could find through the retina of science alone an ample

It is a curious feature of his experience that even the birds and the
beasts seemed to feel this sympathy of his, and permitted him to take
such liberties with them as they seldom grant. So many stories of his
power and its exercise have gone out, that it seems best to let him give
his own version of it. The first instances are narrated in a letter
written from the Thorn Mountain House, Jackson, New Hampshire, in
September, 1883:

“Among other things that Mrs. Farr has confided to a few of her newly
made friends at the Intervale, is my remarkable power over animals and
birds, by which I take them in my hand alive in the woods, and tame
them. But while this idea of hers originally started in a joke, I am
gradually becoming convinced that I _have_ the power she attributes to
me, but fail to develop or utilize it. On the very day she first spread
the rumor, I walked with herself and husband in Cathedral Woods. He
espied a squirrel jumping along the pine needles with a cone in his
mouth. I suddenly conceived the notion to capture him. I followed him
for a few paces and finally succeeded in placing my hand over him and
catching him, holding him in my hand for several minutes afterward, as
my fingers still bear witness from the network of scratches they
exhibit. On the following day I almost caught a chick-a-dee, and to cap
the climax, of all things, to-day, after dinner, while sitting on the
porch I observed what I supposed to be a day-sphinx hovering over a bed
of flowers across the lawn. I approached and soon discovered it to be a
humming-bird, and was about to turn back when the thought suggested
itself to try and catch the little fellow. Accordingly I approached and
watched him closely for a moment or two, drawing nearer and nearer the
while. He soon seemed to get accustomed to my presence and came to sip
the honey from some verbenas at my feet. I lowered my hand slowly, and
closed it about his tiny body with perfect ease and he seemed to make no
effort to release himself. I took him to my room and closing the windows
gave him wing. I played with him for nearly an hour and he at length
became so tame that he would alight upon my finger and jump from one
finger to another placed in front of him, and even preen his feathers.
He was a dear little creature and I almost wanted to keep him. He would
alight upon the window shutter, and when I held my finger an inch or so
in front of him he would jump on it and fluff out his feathers. I could
pick him up at any moment and lay him on his back in my hand, where he
would remain perfectly quiet, with his bright black eyes moving all
about as alive as could be. At length I concluded to give him his
freedom, but in order first to allow the guests of the house an
opportunity to see my diminutive captive, I tied a long piece of cotton
twine loosely in one knot about one of his tiny feet and thus exhibited
him. The twine was so heavy that it eased his occasional flight and the
softness of it prevented injury to his foot. When all had seen him I cut
the string close to his leg and away he went like the wind, no doubt
taking his first opportunity to pick off the loose fold of string still
dangling to his leg. Once before I almost picked a humming-bird from a
flower, and I believe I can do it again and again with a few trials. So
I feel less than ever like disabusing the mind of Mrs. Farr of what at
first seemed so incredible and improbable.”

In the chapter on “Woodnotes” in “Happy Hunting Grounds” Gibson
describes the incident which was mentioned by Dr. Raymond at his
funeral. He was once standing in line with many others at the polls in
a voting-place in Brooklyn, when a dove flew down and into the room, and
came straight to him, alighting upon his shoulder. No one in the place
knew anything about the bird, or had ever seen it before. No one could
see why it should have chosen him over all others in the group of
voters. Possibly Mr. Gibson’s own explanation will have to answer. In
his note of the incident he says, “I remarked to the bystanders, ‘That
bird knows a good Republican when he sees one.’”

Others also recall the incident of Dr. Abbott’s visit to Washington,
when Mr. Gibson pointed out a bird in a near-by tree and began to
describe its peculiar markings. Soon he rose impulsively, went up to the
tree, reached out for the bird, and took the little creature in his
hand, without its appearing in the least alarmed or hurt. Then, when he
had finished his description and thus illustrated it from life, he
replaced his specimen in the tree, whence it flew away. He certainly
seemed to have that about him which made even the birds feel that he
loved them and meant them no harm.

His crowning work as a naturalist was done in the lectures upon the
cross-fertilization of plants which fascinated so many audiences with
the novel story of one of nature’s most amazing manifestations of
adaptation and of resource. For years he had been a careful student of
Sprengel, Darwin, and Müller, whose experiments and studies he
supplemented with careful observations of his own, upon the relations of
plant-and insect-life. He accumulated a mass of studies and of notes. He
brooded over this theme for years. And at last, driven to utterance, he
prepared himself, as few men are able to, for a series of lectures,
illustrated with charts of his own invention and his own making. The
machinery of these lectures was a superb test of his triple powers as
naturalist, as artist, as writer. They were based on a solid and
accurate knowledge of natural history. They were illustrated by a master
hand in mechanical technique, reinforced by an artist’s skill in drawing
and in color. They were set forth in a text which was clear, vivacious,
and forceful. They constituted one of the most delightful and popular
courses ever given before the American public. His own account of the
origin of these lectures is most interesting. He had been in the habit
of giving informal talks and lectures upon natural history in his summer
home at Washington, illustrating them by rapid sketches on the
blackboard. “When I came,” he said, “to touch upon the topic of
inter-association and inter-communion of insects and flowers, especially
the mechanism of flowers, their movements and forms, I found that I was
handicapped, as many other scientists had been, by the difficulty of
expressing motion by fixed drawings and descriptions. It occurred to me
to make a drawing of the sage-blossom with its tilted stamen fastened on
separately to show the movement. This I did. It proved to be a
revelation to myself and I made several other sectional charts of
flowers and of insects that same summer. They served to demonstrate
ocularly and simply, without the slightest effort on the part of my
audience, what had heretofore been presented only in difficult technical
descriptions. There really seemed to be a new field for work, and I
accepted the indications and concentrated my thought upon the theme.” A
writer who had been an attendant at these lectures gives this
description of them:

“The lecture describes some general principles about a group of flowers
and their associated insect-visitors, and while the listener is
endeavoring to induce his imagination to form some picture of the
process, Mr. Gibson steps to a screen, hangs up and unfolds a
beautifully executed sketch of the flower, and gives an ocular
demonstration of the thing he has just described. One sees the bee crawl
into the sage-blossom, tilt the pivoted stamens, and come out with the
pollen upon his back, which burden he is now ready to carry to another
blossom, upon whose pistil he partly unloads it. The same busy bee
creeps into the pogonia and straightway two powdery anthers are clasped
to his side, leaving their visible deposit of yellow dust. The orchids
are made to clap sticking-plasters upon their visitors, or to hurl
bombshells of pollen on their heads. There is no room for failure to
understand. The whole process is demonstrated before the sight, by a
mechanism which works to a charm, a visible and artistic unfolding of
the most subtle operations of the plant and insect world.”

An instant and complete success awaited this new venture. Everywhere
there was a demand for the lectures, and they were received with a
popular interest rather surprising when one considers how thoroughly
scientific they were. The farmers of his own neighborhood; the members
of sedate city clubs; school-children and society-women,–all classes
and types of people with any appetite for knowledge, or any sense of the
wonderful in nature, joined in the applause which greeted Gibson’s
appearance as a lecturer upon natural history. He repeated upon the
platform the success he had won as a writer and an artist. He
established his reputation as a master in scientific demonstration. It
was truly said of him that the field he entered in these lectures “had
not since the days of Agassiz been cultivated with such success as by
Mr. Gibson.” As a popular teacher of scientific fact no man in this
country since Agassiz gained such a hold or did such a work as he. There
is no doubt that if he had lived he would have won an international
renown in this field as well as that of art.

It was written deep in the constitution of his spirit that William
Hamilton Gibson was to be a naturalist and an artist. By endowment and
by desire he was marked for that career which made him at once the
observer of nature and her illustrator by pencil and by brush. But the
predestination does not seem so clear in the case of his authorship. It
does not appear to have been so plainly provided in his nature that he
was called to be a writer of books. Here the prophecy could not have
been so surely made–beforehand. Gibson himself used to declare that he
drifted into authorship; that his writing was not premeditated but
accidental. He was not impelled to this mode of expression as he was to
his drawing and his painting and his lecturing. He described to a friend
the manner in which he began to write, and his first attempt at such
work as afterward gave him standing as an author:

“The way in which I drifted into literary work was quite natural, and in
a way this work became imperative if I was to gain a livelihood. I had
my sketch-book and portfolio full of drawings from nature. As a
beginner I could not illustrate, I could only show these specimens,
which would not sell alone by themselves. But there were certain things
in natural history which my sketches did illustrate. This fact suggested
to me the possibility of writing up matter to go with my sketches. In
this way I found entrance into the illustrated publications, and
eventually secured a good hold for myself. But I had never yet had the
remotest idea of becoming a writer. The way in which I happened to take
up more serious writing was through a suggestion of Mr. Henry M. Alden,
the editor of Harper’s Magazine. I returned one summer from a vacation
spent in Washington, Connecticut, and was describing to him my
school-life, telling him little episodes which had been recalled by my
visit to Mr. Gunn. Mr. Alden seemed interested, and when I was done,
said to me, ‘I want you to write that out for the magazine.’ This
suggestion led to an article called ‘Snug Hamlet,’ which to my surprise
and gratification was received when it appeared, with a good deal of
favor. Then Mr. Alden suggested that I prepare an article to go with it,
which, as this had to do with summer, should treat of winter. This, too,
was written, ‘The Winter Idyl.’ Then followed others upon spring and
autumn. With these four sketches I had enough for a book; and ‘Pastoral
Days’ was the result, which proved a great success.”

Such was his introduction to literature. He always regarded it as a
pendant to his other work, something to introduce his sketches, to help
along his art. He never became confused by his various aptitudes, nor
lost sight of his great passion and purpose. He kept the essential
spirit of his life and work quite clear of any entanglement with what
was accidental. He had never expected, never intended to be a writer;
and his success at literary work was a surprise to him, as it was to his
friends. They apparently had never thought of him as a possible author,
and scarcely knew how to take his achievement.

When the press-notices of “Pastoral Days” began to come in, they were
almost unanimous in according to the newly fledged author unstinted
praise for the literary portion of his work. The chorus of appreciation
is almost unbroken; and one feels, through all the perfunctory
graciousness of the reviewers, so hard-pressed at Christmas-tide, a note
of sincerity and real pleasure in the new writer’s production. When one
considers that Gibson the writer was an unknown aspirant for favor, and
that he was competing with Gibson the artist, the reigning favorite
among American illustrators, the success of his literary venture is
really amazing. Repeatedly the book is called “a prose-poem.” “Although
there be no poetry in it, the book in its totality is a most exquisite
poem.” “There is a smooth and tender rhythmic flow in the phrasing, an
affluence of diction which constitute one of the indispensable elements
of poetry, and almost entitle the sketches to be named among the poems
of the language.” One of the most competent critics, in a journal of the
first rank, wrote of his prose:

“William Blake is the most noted poet-artist of this century, but not in
his work is to be found such unity and harmony between what he does as
pictorial and literary artist, as exists in ‘Pastoral Days.’ We have
used the words poet-artist advisedly in connection with Mr. Gibson. He
is above all a poet-artist. Not a poet alone, nor an artist alone, but
the two together, a combination as rare as it is charming.”

Even the “Evening Post” calls them “Mr. Gibson’s four sympathetic,
appreciative, poetically interpretative essays upon the seasons.” And it
puts the question to its readers, “Need we say that this author-artist
is a poet although he writes in prose, or that his text and his pictures
are essentially a poem of the New England year?” But two of his
reviewers–one in the “Utica Morning Herald,” and another in the “Boston
Literary World”–actually cite the same passage in his prose which
“reads with the movement and rhythm of blank verse.” The latter of these

“Mr. Gibson writes with a curious study of rhythmic effect; his whole
book, in fact, might easily have been converted into blank verse,–as
witness this extract from pp. 127-8, which, to help the illusion, we
print in that form:

Silently like thoughts that come and go,
The snowflakes fall each one a gem,
The whitened air conceals all earthly trace,
And leaves to memory the space to fill.
I look upon a blank whereon my fancy paints,
As could no hand of mine, the pictures and the poems
of a boyhood life:
And even as the undertone of a painting, be it warm or cool,
Shall modify or change the color laid upon it,
So this cold and frosty background, through the window,
Transfigures all my thoughts, and forms them into winter
memories, legion like the snow.
Oh, that I could translate for other eyes, the winter
idyl painted there!
I see a living past!

“All this, understand, and the rest of a hundred and fifty and more
pages like it, is sober prose; but it makes one think of
eighteenth-century poetry like Graham’s, which is very good descriptive
poetry by the way.”

Says one enthusiastic critic, speaking first of the make-up of the

“It is almost too beautiful to read; but with a determination to see
what lay beyond this vision of the beautiful, we commenced to read, and
found the author to be a high-priest of nature. We were led along by the
charming simplicity of the writer, till at last, in midsummer we seemed
to be surrounded by scenes so familiar that we almost suspected that by
some strange mishap the author had misspelled the name of the school of
early days, and had written ‘Snuggery’ for ‘Gunnery.’ How is this?…

“The letter-press of such books is usually a make-weight for the
illustrations; but in this case it is hard to decide which of the two
merits the palm.”

Another speaks of the text of the book, saying:

“Here quite as strikingly as in the designs for illustration is shown
that loving familiarity with all the infinite variations in nature’s
moods and works. Without the pictures altogether, these sketches would
compel admiration as very notable specimens of word-painting.”

It will be news to many of his admirers to know that Gibson’s first book
was published in 1876. It was entitled, “The Complete American Trapper,”
and was published by James Miller, of New York. The book was republished
in 1878 by Bradley & Co., and again in 1880 by Harper Brothers under the
title, “Camp-Life in the Woods; and the Tricks of Trapping and
Trap-Making.” It was written out of the joyous and ample memories of his
youth, supplemented by his reading and intercourse with hunters and
woodsmen. He refers in the preface to his own boyish days, and to “one
autumn in particular which shines out above all the rest; and that was
when his traps were first set, and were the chief source of his
amusement. The adventurous excitement which sped him on in those daily
tramps through the woods, and the

[Illustration: _A Winter Hunt_]

buoyant, exhilarating effect of the exercise, can be realized only by
those who have had the same experience.” This little book, which still
appeals to the juvenile mind,–a new edition was put out as lately as
1899,–has had a singular charm, not only for boys, but for those grown
men who never quite lose the heart of boyhood. Gibson himself brought it
to the notice of Charles A. Dana, of the “New York Sun,” and handed him
a copy to read. The result of that chance courtesy was not a perfunctory
review by a subordinate of the staff. The “chief” himself read it and
wrote an enthusiastic notice of over two columns’ length. The young
author–he was only twenty-six–went to Mr. Beecher for a notice, at the
time he first changed publishers. He wrote this account of the call to
his mother:

“NEW YORK, _July 22, /78_.


“I sent you the day I wrote this letter, four papers and a
magazine. The magazine is quite well printed and the bird article
has created a regular ‘sensation.’ I hear of it on all sides, hear
people talking about it on the ferry-boats and in restaurants, and
have received many enthusiastic congratulations. The press (those
which have yet spoken) are appreciative, as you see, and there will
be doubtless many more equally commendatory notices. It is a
pleasure unspeakable.

“I have got a little bit of news which I think will please you. You
remember I told you that I thought of getting a line from Mr.
Beecher on my book to be used on a circular. Well, I called upon
him and took my bird proofs with me. He was delighted, even
excited, over them, and manifested the keenest interest in all
pertaining to them, particularly as regarded Mr. Parsons. I told
him all about the thing and he ended up by saying ‘Well, Will, your
progress is simply stupendous. I’m proud of you.’ I then told him
about the change in my book, and he was again delighted at the
mention of Mr. Bradley’s name. He said that I might travel the
world over and would not find a nobler man than Bradley, and the
business push of the firm was second to no other in this or any
other country–that it was a ‘feather in my cap’ to secure such men
as my publishers. I broached the subject of the ‘opinion’ from him,
asking him if he could conscientiously give me about ‘ten words.’
He turned about after a minute’s thought, and penned two pages of
note paper, and such a two pages! The following is a copy:

“‘Why was I born so early? Why did not the messenger angel sent
with me defer his visit to earth until the ‘Complete American
Trapper’ had been published? I even mourn to think of what I was
deprived of in my youth. I can’t imagine a country boy, a real
American boy, who would not go without his dinner for months if in
this way only he could obtain this wonderful boy’s book! And that
parent is hard-hearted, and may even be in dread of I Timothy 5;8,
who will not buy this book for his boys; and for that matter, a man
is a boy until he is fifty years old. I am all the more interested
in the book because Mr. Gibson is one of my boys, brought up under
my eyes in old Plymouth, and by good hard work has deserved


“On the morning after receiving the above I found a letter from Bradley
& Co., in which they remarked that they hoped I would succeed in getting
a word from Mr. Beecher. I sent the notice to them and would like you to
see the letter I got from them in acknowledgment.”

Dr. J. G. Holland was another friend to whom he looked for a word of
approval. He was not quite so sure of his own mind, and wrote in a much
more guarded way. His humane heart was a little troubled about the
effect of the book. In truth, Gibson himself became, in later years,
quite uneasy about it. His own sympathy with animals increased, and his
love for them, as little brothers and sisters of the wood; and he grew
more and more averse to whatever gave them pain. But he rested in the
intent of his book as he describes it explicitly in the preface: “If the
poor victims are to serve no use after their capture, either as food,
or in the furnishing of their plumage or skins for useful purposes, the
sport becomes heartless cruelty, and we do not wish to be understood as
encouraging it under any circumstances.” He would probably have
strengthened that utterance at a later day, and possibly have written
another preface. Dr. Holland’s letter runs thus:

“NEW YORK, _Nov. 7, 1878_.


“I have been looking over your book with an interest mingled of
dread and delight. It is so easy to pervert all these traps of
yours into instruments of cruelty that the book seems almost a
dangerous one. But, after all, what good thing is there that is not
liable to be perverted? The capture of animals for food is entirely
legitimate. The capture of the fur-bearing animals is quite as
proper, while the destruction of those that are dangerous to the
life of men and domestic animals cannot be objected to on any

“These purposes cover your field, or nearly cover it, and you
certainly have met them with a book which, so far as I know, has no
equal. It is a good book to put in the hands of every boy who is
not so cruel as to deserve to be caught in a trap himself.

“Yours truly,


It should not be supposed that Gibson was so confident of himself and
his own resources that he disdained the work and experience and
knowledge of others. He was a good reader and a hard student. The pages
of his books are crowded with passages out of his favorite poets, and
his note-books show the careful husbanding of the fruits of his reading
on all the themes nearest to his heart. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and
Browning, in all that they have seen and sung of nature, were his
authorities often cited, and annotated, and winnowed into his
note-books. The New England poets he knew and loved, and shared all
their honest preference for those home products which so many count
homely and call commonplace because they happen to be common. Thoreau he
knew thoroughly and loved as a master in the great profession of
nature-study; and his references to him are always those of a modest
disciple, his bearing and attitude that of deference and respect.
Hawthorne, too, was one whose subtle and spiritual genius found a
sympathetic and ready interpreter in his own imagination. Darwin he
knew, and all his works which bore upon cross-fertilization had
mastered. When he gave the wonderful talks on flowers and their insect
allies to the townspeople and farmers of Washington, an old “native”
came to him, and in the dialect of old New England said: “Mr. Gibson, do
you mean to tell me thet thet’s whut Darwin’s been tellin’ ’baout?”
“Yes,” was the reply, “that is one of the things he has been talking
about.” “Wal,” was the rejoinder, “I never took no stock in Darwin
afore, but I sh’ll think a heap on him naow.” Indeed, there was, in all
his lectures, the frankest acknowledgment of his indebtedness–of the
common debt of all of us–to those pioneers in this fallow field of
knowledge. He stinted no praise, no honor to their names, and used their
work with hearty acknowledgment. He knew Sprengel, Darwin, Müller, well
and, following their lead into the enchanted and enchanting country of
new knowledge, soon made himself a student at first hand of the things
he had been taught by these great masters.

Gibson was by no means an “easy” writer. His page, as it stands, revised
and corrected, hardly gives a sign of the pains taken to bring it into
smooth and fluent shape. It seems to be a natural, spontaneous
running-on of a mind as sure of its expressions as it is of its
impressions. But the effect was purchased only by the hardest and most
conscientious labor. His “first drafts” show all the experiments he made
in words, phrases, expressions, and construction. Many times the text is
hardly legible, it is so crossed, recrossed, cut, interlined, and
rewritten altogether. If Sheridan’s judgment is to be accepted, that
“easy writing’s curst hard reading,” Gibson comes honestly by his
pleasing style. The patient work of the author has smoothed the way for
the reader. He had both the qualifications which Pope declares
constitute the secret of good writing,–“to know thoroughly what one
writes about, and not to be affected.” And to these he added a third; he
took pains.

In a letter written to Mr. Gunn in 1880, Gibson pours out his heart, as
he always did to his old teacher, and reveals incidentally the spirit in
which he took his literary work, as well as the honest and conscientious
purpose behind it all.

“140 NASSAU ST., N. Y.

“_June 7/80._


“If you only knew how much happiness your letters always give me
you would never feel it necessary to accompany them with any
apology whose need exists only in your imagination. There are a
hundred reasons why I value a letter from you more than that of any
other friend in the world, even though it should be all that you
seem to think, in ‘tameness.’ I like your so-called tame letters. I
don’t care how you write, so long as you write when you feel like
it. Your appreciation of my ‘Springtime’ gratifies me more than all
the ‘press’ encomiums put together, for you combine all the
qualifications for the most perfect criticism, both as regards the
question of truthfulness and style. I appreciate your praise, more
than I can tell, albeit I may inwardly feel that it is not
deserved. When I write on the subject of nature, there seems to be
an unseen impulse that guides my hand and fairly overwhelms me with
memories. It is difficult for me to select from the enormous mass
of reminiscences and vivid pictures that crowd upon me. Dates and
figures I cannot remember, but verily it does seem that every bit
of animate or inanimate nature, whether in the form of insect or of
flower, whether subtle tint of bark or lichen, crumpled leaf or
dried and broken twig among the herbage, every one comes up before
me as though by magic spell, and I thank my happy life at the
Gunnery for the inspiration that led to the thoughtful study of the
infinite beauties of nature. How thankful I am that they are
infinite, that so long as I live I shall always find fresh food for
contemplation. I am now in my element and as happy a man as walks
the earth at this moment. My future is without a sign of
disappointment, and so long as I keep convinced of a present lack
of fulfilment of the powers within me, so long am I sure of
progress and happiness as far as my work is concerned. My work is
so full of faults to me, that I am amazed that others do not see
them. So long as I improve I am satisfied and I am greatly
gratified that you consider my latest an improvement on the former

“I have just finished a set of drawings for an article to complete
the series. It is an ‘Autumn Reverie,’ to appear in October. The
drawings are better I think than ‘Springtime.’ The article is yet
unborn but exists in chaos in my brain, an immense tangle in which
at present it seems impossible to find the loose end. But I shall
get hold of it in a few days and it will reel off all right I
suppose. This literary work was a strange result of circumstances.
I can thank the Gunnery for this also, for it was only after
narrating my happy experience at Washington that I was urged to
write it up. The article was a success and of course another
followed and another, each apparently an improvement, until now I
find my literary work at a premium….

“When it comes to extended landscapes I would rather paint them on
larger surfaces than a few inches. Don’t count too much on my
‘climbing.’ I have not written much yet. You may yet have the
chance, but not if I know it. I have been utterly amazed at the
ignorance shown by the people (who are supposed to be writing from
the ‘inspiration of Nature’) both in their anachronisms and in
their wild ideas about our fauna. Thus in September ‘Harper’s’ will
appear five large drawings by me illustrating a poem written by
some fellow who you would imagine was fresh from England with his
skylarks and fieldfares, etc. I called the attention of the editor
to it, but I suppose it will go in all the same. My portfolios are
full of sketches and studies and notes thereon as to dates, etc.
In writing haphazard I fall into many errors, but I let no
manuscript leave my hands carelessly prepared. I have been
criticised on my ‘coltsfoot,’ some thinking only _Tussilago
Farfara_, whereas I used the ‘common’ name in our section for the
_Asarum Canadense_. So also with my partridge, I knew better; but
should I have alluded to a ‘ruffed grouse’ in Sandy Hook, they
would have thought I was talking Latin!”

There is an interesting letter, much prized by Gibson, in which his old
friend gave him such unstinted praise as seldom comes from so exacting a
critic in the field in which the young man was at work. Mr. Gunn wrote

“_Sunday, June 6th, 11 P.M._


“I have thought of you 7 times every day, ever since the
publication of your beautiful Idyll of Spring. You expected me to
write; but I cannot do that even now. Everything that I think and
much more everything that I think on paper, seems so flat and
unworthy to be written. Other men seem content to write and say
little, or little to the purpose. The fact is, Willie, there are
few men who know the spring. They know a little about it, a few
flowers, a few birds, a few showers, a few facts and phenomena–but
I don’t know any artists, poets, or other men but you and John
Burroughs that know it all. I don’t see how or when you

[Illustration: _Springtime_

_From a Painting_]

learned it all. I have never met a man that knew so much of the real
life of Nature as I know myself–and how did you come to see and hear it
all? I remember it now that you recall it to me–I even thought one
night in my bed, that I had detected a slip in your chronology. I
thought you had delayed the flower which you euphoniously denominate the
‘Swamp Cabbage’ till too late a day. I looked in the morning in the
Magazine and there it was promptly ready in the wild days of March. I
venture to say that no poet has before been so true to nature as you
have been. I thought no man except John Burroughs had seen or heard so
much in the woods as I am wont to see; but lo! one of my own boys has
seen with keener eyes, has heard with more acute ears, and has had
genius and taste to tell it all in words, and to paint it all with a
magic brush. Other men don’t know which most to admire in you, the
artist or the naturalist. Well I don’t; but who before has described
spring without a blunder? They draw a nightingale where I heard a
whippoorwill, or they set Venus to glow in the east on a summer evening.
I have not detected a slip. And what an old fool I was to keep pencils
away from you, when you were born with a whole magazine of them. I
cannot write. I ought not to have begun. I think ‘Spring’ by far the
richer article of the two–full of the nicest touches both with pencil
and with pen–and you are a dear good fellow, and so is your wife. God
bless you both. Go and see Abbie at 36 Garden Place.


“F. W. GUNN.”

To this Gibson made speedy answer, giving full absolution and much more:

“Do not chide yourself for keeping the pencils from me, for it is not
true. You never did–you tried, but gave it up. When you were wont to
say every few minutes in school ‘Gibson, what are you doing?’ I used to
answer, withdrawing my eyes from the window ‘Nothing, sir.’ You never
dreamed of the true amount of thinking that was going on within my
cranium. Lazy as I seemed to be, I was never idle in my mind and I can
see now the flickering light and shade among the leaves of the old
school-house maples–see the squirming caterpillar dangling from his
silken thread, swinging in the summer breeze.

“The white-faced wasp upon the window-sill is as distinct to me now as
if he crawled upon this paper. These and a thousand more I recall, and
even the first glimpse of the first day of my happy life at Washington
comes up before me with a freshness in decided contrast to the memories
of the later years. You well remember ‘Amy’s Grotto’ in the pasture lot.
You took me to see it and my eyes were wide open also in those early
days. Little thing, as it was, it has impressed itself upon my memory
as indelibly as anything in my entire life? I recall its every sprig of
green and hear the tuneful drops in the limpid pool.

“Where then did I learn it all, except from your own dear self in the
happiest season of my life? You it was who turned my thoughts towards
nature, and inspired the desire in me to follow up the study. If I have
lived to see the day when you are ‘proud of me’ or when I can in any way
contribute to your pleasure as a meagre return for the many years of
happiness you have given me, I have not lived in vain, for this very
desire has been a factor in the ends and aims of my ambition.

“Whew! Talk of letters! Don’t you ever say another word about your
letters. A page of your handwriting acts like a talisman that conjures
up a host of reminiscences, and sets my pen and thoughts going like a
saw mill; and here it is six o’clock, and my wife told me to be home by
that time, as we are both going to call upon Mrs. Gunn this evening by
appointment. Gracious! and only to think that I haven’t got a moment to
spare to dot my i’s and cross my t’s, nor send it to the binders. I hope
you will be able to make it all out. I’ll page it for you anyhow.

“Good bye, with much love from

“Your old boy


“Alias WILLIE.”

The chief sources of the interest of his literary work appear in those
lines. He had something to say; and he said it in his own way. There are
no better recipes than those for concocting a lasting success in

His style was, like all good style, the outcome of his spirit. He had a
marvelous power of telling because he had such exceptional power of
seeing. In the passage describing the night stroll in the woods, he
fills the mind with the mystery of the outward scene, and makes it seem,
without any sense of undue artifice, just the setting for the mysterious
transaction which ensues between the primrose and the moth.

“Our misty primrose dell is fast lighting its pale lamps in the
twilight. One by one they flash out in the gloom as if obedient to the
hovering touch of some Ariel unseen–or is it the bright response to the
firefly’s flitting torch? The sun has long sunk beneath the hill. And
now, when the impenetrable dusk has deepened round about, involving all,
where but a moment since all was visible, this shadowy dell has
forgotten the sunset, and knows a twilight all its own, independent of
the fading glow of the sky. It was a sleepy nook by day, where it is now
all life and vigilance; it was dark and still at noon, where it is now
bright and murmurous. The ‘delicious secret’ is now whispered abroad,
and where in all the mystic alchemy of odors or attars shall you find
such a witching fragrance as this which is here borne on the diaphanous
tide of the jealous gliding mist, and fills the air with its sweet
enchantment–the stilly night’s own spirit guised in perfume? Yonder
bright cluster, deep within the recess of the alders, how it glows!
fanned by numerous feathery wings, it glimmers in the dark like a
phosphorescent aureole–verily as though some merry will-o’-the-wisp,
tired of his dancing, had perched him there, while other luminous spires
rise above the mist, or here and there hover in lambent banks beyond,
or, like those throbbing fires beneath the ocean surge, illume the fog
with half-smothered halo. This lustrous tuft at our elbow! Let us turn
our lantern upon it. Its nightly whorl of lamps is already lit, save one
or two that have escaped our fairy in his rounds, but not for long, for
the green veil of this sunset bud is now rent from base to tip. The
confined folded petals are pressing hard for their release. In a moment
more, with an audible impulse, the green apex bursts asunder, and the
four freed sepals slowly reflex against the hollow tube of the flower,
while the lustrous corolla shakes out its folds, saluting the air with
its virgin breath.

“The slender stamens now explore the gloom, and hang their festoons of
webby pollen across their tips. None too soon, for even now a silvery
moth circles about the blossom, and settles among the outstretched
filaments, sipping the nectar in tremulous content. But he carries a
precious token as he hies away, a golden necklace, perhaps, and with it
a message to yonder blossom among the alders, and thus until the dawn,
his rounds directed with a deep design of which he is an innocent
instrument, but which insures a perpetual paradise of primroses for
future sippers like himself.”

The reader feels the pure delight he takes in the beauty of bird-and
flower-forms; and there is no stinting of phrases in his determination
to convey some sense of them to those who, “having eyes, see not.” He is
as accurate as Audubon and as poetic as Lowell in his description of the
rose-breasted grosbeak and his rich song.

“Hark, from the apple-tree in the field below, that note so full and
ripe and mellow! ‘A robin,’ say you? No; nor an oriole. There is a
distinct individuality in that song, which, while suggesting both these
birds, still differentiates it in many respects as the superior to
either, as though from a fuller throat, a more ample vocal source. It is
one of the rarest, choicest voices among all our feathered songsters, in
_timbre_ and volume surpassing the thrush, and in these qualities
unequaled, I think, by any of our birds. Listen to the overflowing
measure of its melody! How comparatively few the notes, and yet how
telling!–no single tone lost, no superficial intricacies. Sensuous, and
suffused with color, it is like a rich, pulpy, luscious, pink-cheeked
tropic fruit rendered into sound. Such would seem the irresistible
figure as I listen with closed eyes to the swelling notes–a figure
entirely independent of, though certainly sustained in, the
ornithological form pictured in the song, sitting quietly on an upper
twig, with full plump breast as carmine-cheeked as the autumn apples now
promised in the swelling blossom calyxes among which it so quietly
nestles. I can see the jetty head, and quills splashed with silvery
white, and the intervals of song seem spanned with rosy light as pure as
the prism released from those upraised wings as the singer preens his
plumage with ivory bill. This is the rose-breasted grosbeak, with his
overflowing cup, his pastoral cornucopia, his musical horn of plenty.”

There is something about the description of the piping of the frogs in
the distant marsh which brings tears to the eye of him who reads it with
a hundred boyhood memories to make it real. This is the passage which
excited the admiration of the critic in the “Saturday Review,” and led
him to say: “People must be strangely constituted who do not enjoy such
pages as Mr. Gibson has presented to us here. It is not merely that he
writes well, though he possesses a style that is full of felicities, but
the subject itself is irresistibly fascinating.”

“A plaintive piping trill now breaks the impressive stillness. Again and
again I hear the little lonely voice vibrating through the low-lying
mist. It is only a little frog in some far-off marsh; but what a sweet
sense of sadness is awakened by that lowly melody! How its weird minor
key, with its magic touch, unlocks the treasures of the heart. Only the
peeping of a frog; but where in all the varied voices of the night,
where, even among the great chorus of nature’s sweetest music, is there
another song so lulling in its dreamy melody, so full of that emotive
charm which quickens the human heart? How often in the vague spring
twilight have I yielded to the strange, fascinating melancholy awakened
by the frog’s low murmur at the water’s edge! How many times have I
lingered near some swampy roadside bog, and let these little wizards
weave their mystic spell about my willing senses, while the very air
seemed to quiver in the fulness of their song! I remember the tangle of
tall and withered rushes, through whose mysterious depths the eye in
vain would strive to penetrate at the sound of some faint splash or
ripple, or perhaps at the quaint, high-keyed note of some little
isolated hermit, piping in his somber solitude. I recall the first
glimpse of the rising moon, as its great golden face peered out at me
from over the distant hill, enclosing half the summit against its broad
and luminous surface. Slowly and steadily it seemed to steal into view,
until, risen in all its fulness, I caught its image in the trembling
ripples at the edge of the soggy pool, where

[Illustration: _Lake Waramaug_

_From a Painting_]

the palpitating water responded to the frog’s low, tremulous monotone.”

He loves a swamp, and is repeatedly telling of its charm, which he
celebrates in a brief paragraph that swings through the whole cycle of
the natural year, and finds a new theme to celebrate for every month.

“I know of no other place in which the progress of the year is so
readily traced as in these swampy fallow lands. They are a living
calendar, not merely of the seasons alone, but of every month
successively; and its record is almost unmistakably disclosed. It is
whispered in the fragrant breath of flowers, and of the aromatic herbage
you crush beneath your feet. It floats about on filmy wings of
dragon-fly and butterfly, or glistens in the air on silky seeds. It
skips upon the surface of the water, or swims among the weeds beneath;
and is noised about in myriads of telltale songs among the reeds and
sedges. The swallows and the starlings proclaim it in their flight, and
the very absence of these living features is as eloquent as life itself.
Even in the simple story of the leaf, the bud, the blossom, and the
downy seed, it is told as plainly as though written in prosaic words and
strewn among the herbage.

“In the early, blustering days of March, there is a stir beneath the
thawing ground, and the swamp cabbage-root sends up a well protected
scout to explore among the bogs; but so dismal are the tidings which he
brings, that for weeks no other venturing sprout dares lift its head. He
braves alone the stormy month–the solitary sign of spring, save,
perhaps, the lengthening of the alder catkins that loosen in the wind.
April woos the yellow cowslips into bloom along the water’s edge, and
the golden willow twigs shake out their perfumed tassels. In May the
prickly carex blossoms among the tussocks, and the calamus buds burst
forth among their flat, green blades. June is heralded on right and left
by the unfurling of blue-flags, and the eyebright blue winks and blinks
as it awakens in the dazzling July sun.

“Then follows brimful August, with the summer’s consummation of
luxuriance and bloom; with flowers in dense profusion in bouquets of
iron-weed and thoroughworts, of cardinal flowers and fragrant clethra,
with their host of blossoming companions. The milkweed pods fray out
their early floss upon September breezes, and the blue petals of the
gentian first unfold their fringes. October overwhelms us with the
friendly tokens of bur-marigolds and bidens; while its thickets of
black-alder lose their autumn verdure, and leave November with a
“burning bush” of scarlet berries hitherto half-hidden in the leafage.
Now, too, the copses of witch-hazel bedeck themselves, and are yellow
with their tiny ribbons. December’s name is written in wreaths of snow
upon the withered stalks of slender weeds and rushes, which soon lie
bent and broken in the lap of January, crushed beneath their winter
weight. And in the fulfilment of the cycle, February sees the swelling
buds of willow, with their restless pussies eager for the spring, half
creeping from their winter cells.”