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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/July 1886/Animal and Plant Lore I

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | July 1886


OUR modern scientific methods of education are slowly correcting hosts of popular errors regarding every-day subjects of observation, and doubtless a succeeding generation will have outgrown many queer conceits and myths now held as facts by the great majority of country children. It will hereafter be interesting to have preserved a full record of such misapprehensions. The wish to add a trifle to such a record has led me to note some common superstitions concerning animals and plants, which have come under my own knowledge. Children have quick perceptions, and therefore are good observers or seers. The observations they make, however, regarding the animals and plants about them, while often in themselves quite accurate, lead to very incorrect conclusions. This is because children do not reason deeply. It takes a long time for them to learn that not once or twice, but a great many times, must one phenomenon follow certain other preceding phenomena to warrant the use of the logical terms effect and cause. Caution in forming deductions comes only with experience and education. Children have keen eyes for any strange peculiarities as well as for real or fancied resemblances, and are quick to appreciate the qualities of plants. An enthusiastic botanist and teacher, speaking of children, said, "They bow as to some fetich before poisonous plants." Monstrosities in Nature fascinate them. Double apples, strangely shaped knots from trees, grotesque roots, curious lichens adorn many "play-houses." Their readiness to get hold of the properties of plants explains how it is that children (boys particularly, because they are more in the out-door world) find so many things to eat in the woods and fields. A boy accustomed to tramp about will seldom go a hundred rods afield before he begins to nibble or chew something that he finds growing in his path. Can you not recall a dozen wild things of which you were fond in childhood which long ago passed from your list of edibles? Sassafras-bark, both of twig and root, spice-wood, "slippery-elm," the buds of the linden-tree, the tender shoots from the spruce and larch, all tickle the palate of the boy or girl. Men whose boyhood was passed anywhere in Northern New England may recall how fond they once were of something which was called "sliver," the cambium layer of the white pine. In certain places it is the fashion to chew the leaves of the Antennaria, "Indian tobacco"—in others, thistle-blossoms. Will ever honey taste as sweet as did the dainty droplets taken direct from some unfortunate bumble-bee captured and dismembered by the boy seeking what he may devour? The tubers of the squirrel-corn and rootstocks of the pepper-root are sought after with a diligence deserving of a treasure. The birds are not the only harvesters of the pretty moss known as robin-wheat.

The numerous observations, then, of children, regarding the appearances and properties of plants and animals, give them a widespread series of premises, chiefly of a practical character, from which to draw inferences. Children are proverbial for asking questions, whose depth is often astonishing. Their eagerness to have their inquiries answered often leads them to take their own hasty, illogical inferences for correct answers, though they may really be quite absurd. Their natural credulity makes it easy for children to accept as a fact any notion once formulated; hence many of their superstitions may have arisen. Some of these are shared by ignorant people of mature years, who, intellectually speaking, are but children. Beliefs of this mythical nature vary somewhat with locality, but certain of them have become crystallized, as it were, and grown to be common property, and are as generally accepted by country boys and girls as any theological dogma among their elders.

The snake-tribe has given rise to an unusually large number of superstitions. Among peoples of every degree of civilization and of all times, from the dawn of history to the present day, some form of serpent-worship has prevailed. This is not improbably due to the air of mystery which attaches to the stealthy movements of the animal, and to the awe-inspiring effect of the bite of poisonous snakes. And, just as serpent-worship prevails most among savages to-day, so among civilized peoples, children, most of all, feel a fearful, superstitious interest in all that concerns snakes, and have invented many myths about them. In Central Ohio, when one child kills a snake, the lookers on universally call out,"Its tail won't die till sundown." This notion, I find, is one of wide acceptation, and doubtless arises from the persistent vitality of the muscular contractility of the snake. In Southern Ohio it is now generally believed that a snake will not crawl over ash-wood; and a man over eighty years of age tells me the same belief was common in Massachusetts when he was a boy, and he thinks it is by no means yet extinct. In certain localities in Massachusetts a reputed final cure for toothache is to bite into a living blacksnake. An old saying—

"Break your first brake,
Kill your first snake,
And you'll conquer all your enemies"—

is often recalled by the first snake one meets in the spring, or at sight of the earliest fern. I find few children can be persuaded that our common snakes are not "poisonous." And here and there throughout New England it is believed that the common water-adder (Tropidonotus sipedon) is most venomous, and that it carries "a sting in its tail"! This fictitious appendage of the adder suggests the remarkable hold that the belief in "hoop-snakes," and their extraordinary gymnastics, has obtained in many of the remoter and more heavily wooded portions of the country. This imaginary creature is said to have a sting in its tail, which, when about to make an attack, it takes in its mouth, so as to form a hoop, then it rolls along (by preference down a steep hill-side) toward the intended victim, whom it strikes in passing with its sting. I can find no foundation for belief in any such animal.

Some dozen years ago, while I was connected with a high-school in Northwestern Missouri, my pupils tried hard to convince me that "jointed snakes" were not uncommon there. I was told that, if one of these snakes were struck a sharp blow, it would quickly break into many pieces, which, being very brittle, were apt to fly about in different directions, so that it would be difficult to find all of them; but if left alone, after the danger was past, these scattered parts or "joints" would "crawl together," fall into order, and creep off as good as new. There was so much testimony concerning this marvelous reptile, that I was tempted to think there was some basis of truth for the belief in its existence, but, after minute inquiry, I concluded that the whole story had probably grown out of the fact that there is a certain lizard (Opheosaurus ventralis), popularly known as the "glass-snake," whose tail is so fragile that it breaks easily when struck. I find that, at least in one village in Eastern Massachusetts, the boys insist that, if you cut off the head of a certain kind of snake, it will grow on to the body again and the snake will live.

Another most absurd notion whose connection with the subject of snakes is, however, wholly nominal, is that horse-hairs, if allowed to remain in a pond or puddle of water, will become living creatures "turn into snakes" is the technical term among boys, I believe, for the supposed metamorphosis. It would seem that, by way of teachers long before this, Professor Agassiz's article on this subject might have worked its way even into very provincial districts. Nevertheless, only last year, a young man in a thriving Western college earnestly supported the theory, and tried hard to convince his professor in zoölogy that he had known of cow-hairs turning into short, thread-like worms. He probably had seen either young specimens of Gordius or some other nematode worm in the barn-yard and also seen plenty of loose hair lying about and connected the two facts as cause and effect.

From the time when there was an unwavering belief in the existence of a jewel in a toad's head and faith in its great medical virtues to the present day, a good many queer notions have been propagated about toads and frogs. Farmers' boys from Maine to Indiana are often cautious about flinging stones at either toads or frogs, lest their death should "make the cows give bloody milk." Throughout New England the killing of a barn-swallow is believed to have the same effect. East and West, North and South, the common name of our fresh-water confervæ, "frog-spittle," very generally bears a literal meaning to the country boy or girl as well as to many grown-up persons. The teacher in country schools will not always find it easy to convince her pupils that this floating green scum is a mass of growing plants. It is a very common belief that the tails of tadpoles literally "drop off" as might a loose finger-nail. Boys appreciate sufficiently a frog's strong hold on life to say "he has seven lives." I have met several children who thought that the fungi known as "toad-stools" derived their name from their being an actual resting-place or shelter for toads. I do not, however, know that this idea has any extended range. Speaking of toads, I wonder if the wide-spread but erroneous belief, that the touch of a toad will produce warts, first came about from the accidental discovery that the secretion of the glands of the skin is very acrid? This might easily have been guessed from the alacrity with which a dog will drop a toad if he has by chance bitten one. But is it not more likely that the fallacy regarding the production of warts is a result of some such theory as the "doctrine of signatures"? This, you remember, led physicians, in the infancy of medicine, to adopt as remedies many herbs quite destitute of curative powers merely because of some external characteristic which, so the doctrine supposed, indicated the disease to be cured by the use of the several plants thus employed. For this and no other reason the little eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) was enrolled in the early materia medica as a panacea for diseases of the eye. The rough coat of the toad would naturally suggest the idea of warts, and a single suggestion very easily grows into a theory, and a theory into a belief.

Some reputed remedies for warts may be in place just here. In Southern Ohio the children believe that the juice of the Osage orange (Maclura aurantiaca) will remove these disagreeable excrescences. In other parts of the same State the juice of the tiny creeping "milkweed" (Euphorbia maculata or E. humistrata) is said to be a certain cure for warts. This latter notion I also find common in many places both east and west of Ohio; while in Eastern Massachusetts the same curative quality is thought to be possessed by the milky juice of the Asclepias cornuti. Now, does not the fact that plants which differ so widely from one another, save in the one respect of secreting a white or milk-like juice, are alike reputed to possess this power of removing warts, probably show that this virtue is entirely imaginary and the result of the accidental similarity in their juices? With or without reason, in Eastern Massachusetts it is thought that bathing warts with rain-water that chances to stand in a yellow-oak stump will cure them. Another remedy is to rub them with a bean-leaf and then hide the latter. Or, again, steal a bean, rub the warts, throw the bean on moist earth or bury it, and, as the bean sprouts, it is supposed the warts will gradually disappear. Another "cure" is to cut a notch in a sprout of an apple-tree, rub the wart across the notch, and as the notch grows up the wart will be removed.

Those who were pupils in Western district schools twenty or thirty years ago probably remember how if a child was stung by a wasp or bee the immediate cry from the playfellows was, "Get three leaves!" "Rub it with three leaves!" And forthwith three leaves were plucked from any three plants whatever, quickly crushed in the hand and held on the bee-sting, and, no matter what leaves had been found, there was perfect faith that the pain would soon be relieved.

There is a saying among young sportsmen that, to spill shot in the first load in hunting, means "no game."

Many a half-grown lad believes that virtue is imparted to the bait by rubbing it, before casting his line into the water, with the hard callosity from a horse's fore-leg; these horny growths are therefore eagerly sought about the stable or the horseshoer's shop and are carried about in the pocket in spite of their strong scent. Another supposed charm is to spit on the bait. It is just possible that some odor lent the bait by either of these substances does attract the attention of the fish, but I have no sufficient evidence of this. In some parts of New England boys dislike to meet a lone crow when going fishing, as they say this foretells bad luck. Silence is the law of good anglers (of larger growth), but boys sometimes hope to "get a bite" by repeating over and over

"Fishy, fishy, come bite my hook,
I'll go captain, and you'll go cook
(ed in the pan)."

The confidence which children have in the various incantations which they repeat for certain purposes is most interesting. In different localities they utter various formulæ when an ant-lion's den is discovered. Children I knew years ago in Northern Ohio would quickly bend down over the little funnel in the sand and solemnly repeat in rather a loud monotone, "Mooly-up," "Mooly-up," until the sand began to be stirred by the creature concealed below, which doubtless was attracted by the crooning sound, and supposed it to be made by some hoped-for victim. In another part of the same State the required call was—

"Jack, Jack, come up the world!
Bread and butter, bread and butter," etc.

I've rarely seen on canvas so interesting a genre picture as a tableau vivant one may often see, in Western farming districts, a child standing in the burning summer sun, holding securely with one hand a grasshopper, while he earnestly repeats

"Spit, spit tobacco-juice!
Spit, spit tobacco-juice!"—

and the established rule of the children is to detain the queer, awkward little captive until as a ransom he "spits," when he is to go free. In New England these lines to the grasshopper are

"Grasshopper, grasshopper gray,
Give me some molasses,
Or I'll cut off your head
And throw you away!"

I suppose every one knows the familiar call to the lady-bug whenever one is seen by a child

"Lady-bug, lady-bug, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children will burn!"

I have wondered if this is merely a putting into words the idea of flame which is suddenly suggested by the sight of one of these beautifully colored beetles. What child can resist pulling a seed-dandelion and blowing the feathered head, "to see if my mother wants me to go home"? And plenty of children believe that holding a buttercup under the chin really indicates whether one likes butter or not. Many a little country girl thinks that the color of her next new dress is foretold by the color of the first butterfly she sees in the spring. In some places in Western States there is a superstition that, if you make a wish the first time you see a new-born calf, your wish "will come true."

One of the queerest myths regarding animals I learned from a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The boys there, fifty or sixty years ago, were quite certain that, if a live coal were put on a turtle's back, the animal would come out of his shell and crawl away, leaving the latter behind him!

In some parts of Eastern Massachusetts if the children see a "daddylong-legs," they exclaim, "Don't kill him, or it'll rain to-morrow!" In the same localities there is great faith in the good fortune brought by the capture of what they call "lucky-bugs" the common whirligigs (Gyrinidæ), insects of an oval shape and blue-black color, which may be seen in swarms whirling ceaselessly about with a sort of waving motion on our ponds and streams. The notion is that if you can catch one of these busy little fellows, bury him and make a wish, you will certainly "get your wish." I do not know how general is the belief that it is ill-luck to kill a spider or a cricket, but several persons have told me of this. As far as I can learn it is quite universal for children to feel that there is something uncanny about the dragon-fly. The common doubt and fear of the insect is vividly expressed by the child's name, "devil's darning-needle," so generally given it. It is usually thought to possess a poisonous sting, and in some places the belief is held that this winged needle will "sew one's ears together" if opportunity permit. In some localities in New England another superstition, indicated by the common name of the creature, is that there is danger that the earwig will creep into the human ear and eat out one's brains. An equally absurd and ungrounded fancy is that the mole regularly comes out of his burrow every day for a few moments at just twelve o'clock.

I have found in both Eastern and Western Massachusetts that children are fond of eating what they call "swamp-apples." This "fruit," upon investigation, turns out to be an excrescence, very frequently occurring on the Azalea, which is caused by the sting of an insect. One young girl told me, after I had ruined her appetite for the woodland delicacy, of which she had been very fond, that she "had thought it strange that the fruit always appeared on the plant before the flowers." "Oak-apples" or "oak-balls," the galls so frequently found on oaks, are also very often believed to be true fruits.

Many years ago in Northern Ohio I remember that among the wild flowers we children most highly prized, I suppose because comparatively rare, was one of the orchids, probably the putty-root (Aplectrum hyemale), which we called "Adam and Eve." Whenever this beautiful plant was found, the children at once began to look about for "the devil," as they called a third leaf, which frequently was found near by, and which was probably a new plantlet sent up by the creeping root-stock beyond the older portion of the plant.

I do not know how general is the very queer notion that an apple sprout, planted upside-down, will produce a tree that will bear apples without any core.

In various parts of New England, when roast goose is served for dinner during the autumn or early winter, the children are eager to examine the breast-bone to see what sort of a season is foretold. If the bone be mostly dark, it is said to signify a rainy winter; but if the bone be mainly white or light-colored, then much snow is to be expected. Another New England superstition concerning geese is that wild ones in their changes of position while on the wing form the various letters of the alphabet.

As a remedy for the disease prevalent among young chickens, commonly known as "the gapes," children, as well as grown-up people, in some parts of the West, remove the little scale that is found on the end of the bill of a newly hatched chick. It would be of more practical value did they know that the real cause was a little thread-like worm far back in the throat. This worm may easily be removed by a loop of horse-hair, or destroyed by the application of proper remedies. In the same localities I remember that when I was a child "luck-eggs," as we called the very small eggs, now and then dropped at the end of the laying-season, were highly valued by children, as they believed that so long as one of these small treasures was kept unbroken good fortune would attend the possessor. Children in some parts of New England have a very singular notion that it is the yelk of the egg which, during the process of incubation, develops into the body of the chick, while the white gives rise to the feathers. With this instance I may close the present brief account of such specimens of the animal and plant lore of children as a moderate amount of inquiry has enabled me to procure. I have mentioned approximately the regions where I knew the various superstitions were entertained, but doubtless many of them have wider range than has here been indicated. More extended research, particularly in out-of-the-way localities in the South and West, may greatly add to the list of such beliefs.

Note.—The writer will gratefully acknowledge the receipt of additional myths of similar character to those here given, with a view to subsequent fuller treatment of the subject. Beliefs of adults will be acceptable, as well as those held only by children, and it will be of service if considerable detail be given in regard to the geographical or social boundaries of the superstition, and if the latter be stated as explicitly as possible. Address Mrs. Fanny D. Bergen, P. O. box 253, Peabody, Massachusetts.