Without Benefit of Insects
Sadly my adult lifetime and that of famous entemologist Edith
Marion Patch had no overlap. I am a great fan of hers. If we had
been contemporaries I believe we would have gotten on famously. We
both were fascinated by the six legged denizens of our world, even
during those teen years when insects were commonly considered yucky
and an interest in them suspect. We both combined reading with field
work. Before a trip to Mexico when I was ten my mom helped me get a
permit in my name from the government enabling me to bring specimens I
collected back across the the border. We both cultivated monarch
butterflies to which we were quite partial. We both had a knack for
writing, an abhorance for giving children anything short of the truth,
and the awareness of how to write for different audiences. We even
believed in lucky stones.
I was never able to meet Edith Patch. However, I had the great
good fortune of living two years in Braeside, her former home. At
that time it was vegetarian student housing and I was in my doomed
attempt at a PhD. It thrilled me no end to eat in her kitchen, walk
the wood floors she had, look out the windows she had seen the world
through... I so badly wanted to learn more about her. Needless to
say, when I saw K. Elizabeth Gibbs' Without Benefit of Insects: The
Story of Edith M. Patch of the University of Maine I was over the moon.
Edith Patch was an amazing woman. Just to get to be a
University entemologist at the turn of the century (and I don't mean
the one we recently passed through) was a feat. The person who
appointed her was criticized for hiring a woman who (it was assumed)
"could not climb a tree, nor catch a grasshopper" retorted that it
would take a "lively grasshopper to evade her." Indeed she spent
plenty of time out in the field pursuing active inquiry on the life
cycles and alternate hosts of plant pests that jeopardized Maine crops.
That field work was not the only way in which Edith Patch did
not let herself be imprisoned by ivy towers. Unlike many academics
who speak fluent jargon and little else, she felt that it was
important to offer first quality information to lay people too. She
could simultaneously write pieces that would draw kudos from her peers
and ones that were suitable for popular magazine. She had a special
affinity for children and devoted a lot of time to writing books and
articles for them that earned praise for both accuracy and creativity.
Edith Patch was seriously ahead of her time and in some ways
ours. She showed how excellently women could serve in entemology--or
any science involving field work. Decades before Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring she expressed concern over the wide spread use of toxins
by those who considered insects nature's bad guys. "If the time ever
comes when insects are fought to the extent recommended by economic
entemologists, there will be in consequence the greatest of economic
disasters--due to the scarcity of insects." She considered pollinators
to be especially vulnerable. She also constantly urged parents and
teachers to encourage children to explore the outdoors and its
denizens rather than just learn from books in the classroom. I can't
imagine how she would react to the rote fact memorization to do well
on standardized tests emphasis domineering much of American education.
Basically, I think Without Benefit of insects is a must read for
feminists, entemologists, teachers, outdoors enthusiasts, and anyone
who wants to learn more about one of the most fascinating Maine
scientists ever. Read and be inspired!
On a personal note, I donated blood today. Tonight I will be at a
community center development committee meeting. Last night was school
committee. My week will also include volunteering at community
garden, Orono Library, and church. Am I turning into one of those
people my mom used to call pillars of the community?
A great big shout out goes out to the nurses and other people who made
the blood drive possible.
Julia Emily Hathaway
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