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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Taking Things for Granted

by Mary Everest Boole
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 699-703


A wise old lady used to say to me that most of the muddle in life comes not from anything erroneous that anyone has said, or has actively thought, but from things lazily taken for granted. A few illustrations of this principle occur to me, which may be interesting to young naturalists.

Walter Scott, in describing the lightness of Ellen's footstep (Lady of the Lake, I., 18), says that "E'en the slight harebell raised its head elastic from her airy tread." He had probably seen the occurrence as he describes it, and taken for granted that, had the girl been of heavier build, the results would have been different. But as a matter of fact, the fate of a trodden harebell depends not on the weight of the walker, but on the part of the stem trodden on; a comparatively slight force applied at the root will break the stalk, but I have seen a harebell "raise its head elastic," and seem in no way the worse, after an exceptionally heavy man had stamped, with all his might, on the upper end of the stalk.

Usually, however, it is not the writer but the reader who takes things for granted, to the great confusion of his ideas.

Students of botany sometimes take upon themselves to be supercilious over the fact that Milton, in his Lycidas, invites to grace the same funeral a variety of flowers which we in England never see at the same time. They take for granted that he was thinking of an English garden (although he invokes the Sicilian muse). In some countries of Southern Europe cool breezy hills alternate so closely with hot valleys that the flora of many climates and seasons may actually be gathered within the course of a morning's walk, and Milton apparently knew this, although some of us do not.

Shakspear, again, describes samphire gathering as a "dreadful trade." I used to wonder how so great a man as Shakspear came to make such a mistake. Having gathered the material for many quarts of "samphire pickle," and found the occupation not dreadful at all, but eminently delightful, I supposed that Shakspear had been as inaccurate as Scott, that he had seen the plant growing, as, of course, it sometimes does, in inaccessible places, and had assumed it could not be found within easy reach. Long afterwards I learned that it was I who had blundered. The salicornia, which grows on low, flat shores, looks like young shoots of samphire, and is very nice to eat, and I had on one occasion made salicornia pickle by mistake. The true samphire, however, can be gathered by children; the rock-ledges on which it grows are often safe enough, when once access has been gained to any part of the cliff. In this respect, as in many others, things are made easy for us now-a-days, and I had not realised how different all kinds of sea-side gatherings must have been in ancient times, before coast-guard authorities and local improvement boards had cut steps and made paths along our shores.

Most readers take for granted, as I used to do, that when a poet speaks of "the toad," he must necessarily mean the slow, grey reptile (Bufo vulgaris) so well known to all who walk on summer evenings along muddy lanes, or in kitchen-garden paths. I have often wondered how old writers could be so inartistic as to enshrine this helpless-looking nonentity among the paraphernalia of terror and witchcraft; for though the "toad" is not a beautiful object, there is not enough appearance of intensity about it to justify its occupying any prominent place among the dramatic accessories of black magic. The ordinary visitor to, or even resident in, the country hardly ever, now, sees a natterjack (Bufo calamila); it has almost disappeared in cultivated regions. It must have been formerly far more often seen than now, and probably it was this creature the old poets meant when they connected "the toad" with the notion of uncanny wickedness. I believe it is in reality as harmless as its grey-brown cousin of the muddy lanes, but its appearance and behaviour might well suggest weird ideas to any imaginative mind. The other day I was sitting on the sea-shore when one of these creatures walked up to me and stood apparently staring hard at my face. It was very much larger than the ordinary toad, being quite as broad across the haunches, and so long as to be proportioned like a frog. Its back and head were sea-weed-brown, with large warty spots of blood-red. It had big prominent red eyes. Its walk and attitudes were as personal (so to speak) as those of a dog. When touched it "shammed dead" for a minute or two, then a sort of shiver passed through it, and it proceeded on its way. It walked down to the edge of the rising tide, scrambled on to a bunch of growing sea-weed, and stood there letting wave after wave wash over it. After that, as it was walking towards the cliffs, one of our party turned it over on its back, whereupon it "shammed dead" again in a most masterly style, with all its four feet cramped into four different positions; expressive of agonized convulsions. The under side was yellow, spotted with lead colour, which, as it lay still, gradually swelling up, deepened into inky black. It was much too interesting to be repulsive (at least to me, who have been accustomed from childhood to pets of various kinds, including toads, owls, spiders, newts, worms, snakes, and snails), but I can only describe it as the most utterly eerie creature I ever saw in a wild state. Of course, many animals in zoological gardens are more odd than it, but the artificial surroundings disturb the impression they would otherwise make. The natterjack, when one meets him unexpectedly in his normal habitat, is really a startling phenomenon.

Why the toad was considered specially poisonous is not known. Both species secrete, when frightened, some fluid which must have an unpleasant effect on the mucous membrane; a young dog or owl will snap eagerly at a toad, but after a few moments will drop it with a comic expression of disgusted terror. I have heard that if the secretion touches a human hand where the skin is cut, it sometimes produces inflammation, but it has no perceptible effect on healthy skin.

The sham death of many animals looks to human eyes like the result of a quite supernatural cleverness; therefore, it may legitimately be taken, for artistic purposes, as an expression of devil-prompted cunning. It should always, however, be remembered that an artistic or emotional impression is quite a different thing from a scientific opinion, and never should be allowed to mislead us into forming an unscientific prejudice.

The power to feign death, so far as it exists in man in normal health, is the result of deliberate purpose, and of highly-cultivated skill; it has, therefore, been taken for granted that it must be so in animals also. This kind of assumption--the rough-and-ready translating of impressions into opinions--leads to many mistakes, and to cruel misjudgments; no one can be considered educated who does not often stand for a time patiently in front of some hitherto unknown fact, receiving in full force whatever impression it is fitted to produce, and then pull himself sharply together by an effort of will, and correct the first impression by the light of reason and scientific observation. It is well, therefore, to exercise, even when we are studying beetles and toads, that faculty of self-correction which is so essential if we are to deal justly by our fellow men. The phenomenon of sham death may in reality be a trance of terror, a suspension of the ordinary faculties, due to fear, and which, in some species, facilitates the secretion of a defensive fluid.

The habit of taking a sympathetic interest in animals, even in the uncanny and repulsive-looking, always seemed to me so valuable that when my first child was born I resolved never to let her be taught to shrink in disgust from reptiles and insects. I took for granted that she would (if encouraged to do so bestow her affections on the same kinds of out-of-door friends as I had myself loved in childhood. Very early in her little life she began to educate her mother! She toddled up to me holding her pinafore carefully rolled round some cherished object, and sobbed out: "Cook won't kiss my pretty birdie; she says it's a nasty thing, but you'll kiss it, mother?" and, unrolling her pinafore, presented to me a blackbeetle* from the kitchen--one of the very few kinds of live things to which I have a thorough dislike. It was evident that if I refused I should not only grieve the already wounded heart, but introduce into it an element of doubt as to the sincerity of my own teachings. The look of relief that came into the tear-stained little face when the kiss had been duly administered to the "birdie" showed me what a moral precipice we might have fallen into had I not screwed up my courage to the necessary point. Our children do sometimes give us a very bad quarter of an hour by simply pushing a little further than we intended some principle which we have been trying to instill; we must never take for granted that they will stop where our own progress left off!

Well, the moral of all this is that when we are trying to study nature we must take no link in any chain for granted; and when we are trying to understand an ancient poet (poet means maker, creator, artist), we must always distrust ourselves; we often come upon evidence of careless, slip-shod inaccuracy and misadjustment, but we are much more likely to have been guilty of it than he.

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* The so-called "blackbeetle" is not really a beetle; it is allied to the cricket tribe, but seems to have lost its hopping powers and become degenerate.