Herbert S. Zim: Natural Patriot


Over the last few weeks, while piddling around the project site (i.e., yard), pulling weeds, attempting to ferret out the invaders from the natives, puzzling over bugs, and pondering where I might site a small pond (and how to sell the idea to my spouse), I’ve had occasion to dust off my venerable Golden Nature Guides, beloved little books of childhood.

For me, there are few physical objects that can conjure the idyllic, big wide world of childhood gone by than these wonderful little gems of natural history. They were frequent companions for me as a youngster and I still take them out with a certain reverence to look through the pages, one for each species, each a marvel of textual and pictorial concision, with a short description of the creature’s habits and natural history, a map of its distribution, and a simple but beautiful painting of it in its characteristic habitat. These books somehow hit on the perfect formula for conveying the beauty and fascination of living things to kids.

And we owe it all to a guy named Herbert S. Zim.

Not exactly a household name. But if you still have a dog-eared copy of one of the dozens of Golden Nature Guides that were eventually published over the decades starting in 1949, you will notice that virtually all of them were written, co-written, or edited by Herbert S. Zim. His curriculum vitae, in brief, from Wikipedia:

“Zim was born 1909 in New York City, but spent his childhood years in southern California. At the age of fourteen he returned to the east, and took his degrees (B.S., M.S., Ph. D.) at Columbia University. Zim wrote or edited more than one hundred scientific books, and in a thirty-year career teaching in the public schools, introduced laboratory instruction into elementary school science. He is best known as the founder, in 1945 (and for twenty-five years, editor in chief) of the Golden Guides, pocket-size introductions for children to such subjects as fossils, zoology, microscopy, rocks and minerals, codes and secret writings, trees, wildflowers, dinosaurs, navigation and more. He was the sole or co-author for many of the books, which were valued for their clarity, accuracy and attractive presentation—helped by the illustrations of his friend, Raymond Perlman.”

insects.jpgConsider the impact that this single unsung man (so unsung, in fact, that the pixelated snapshot above is the only one I could find of him online!) has had on the environmental awareness of an entire generation — perhaps even two or three generations — of American citizens. Who can say how many kids in the 50s and 60s and 70s decided, while browsing through one of these little books, to spend the afternoon outside hunting for caterpillars instead of yielding to the seductive stupor of the cathode ray tube? Who can say how many of today’s alternative energy entrepeneurs and scientists and educators and conservationists caught fire as a result of a spark generated by one of these books? I can’t, but I know one: me.

By way of illustration, three personal anecdotes:

rocks_and_minerals.jpgWhen I was a kid, my family drove cross-country (in a van without air-conditioning that was prone to overheating in the desert and climbed the Rockies at about 18 mph, etc.), from Arlington, Virginia to LA, every three years, where we spent the bulk of three weeks visiting my aunt and her family. When I tell people this they think my parents were crazy. But it was a the adventure of a lifetime and an incomparable learning experience for kids. We saw a lot of the country, did a lot of camping, and my parents occasionally allowed us to visit the cheesy fake Indian trinket shops that were common along the dustier stretches of Route 66 in the olden days. One day when I was probably about seven (this would have been the late 1960s), we were visiting Walnut Canyon, which is somewhere in the southwest, and I convinced my parents to buy me the Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals. I felt so grown up to have a real book instead of a kid’s book. It was an early watershed moment in my life as a bookworm and naturalist.

reptiles.jpgNevertheless, I was not destined to be a geologist. For one thing, rocks are dead. Or so they seemed to me. I found animals much more interesting. Second anecdote: Around the same time, in second grade, I became obsessed with turtles. I take this herpetophilia to be a common, though poorly understood, genetic trait located somewhere on the Y chromosome, since it is so commonly expressed among young boys. This is despite the fact that my white-bread suburban neighborhood turned out, to my dismay, to be nearly devoid of reptiles. I saw maybe two or three box turtles, and no snakes at all, in the wild while I was growing up despite frequent expeditions mounted for that purpose to the local park where I spent much of my youth. But I can remember sitting rapt with the pocket-sized Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, studying the pictures, memorizing what they ate, looking at the ingenious maps that showed purple where the summer (pink) and winter (blue) ranges overlapped. This genetic propensity has in fact been transferred to my son, who latched on to my antique Reptile guide in an uncannily similar way and spent a lot of time with it (it is now bound with duct tape).

Anecdote three: One of the standard operating procedures of the cross-country trips was that, periodically, we would take a rest stop and every kid (of which there were ultimately six, though we never made the trip as a complete group) got to choose a magazine or coloring book or something to keep them quiet for 6 or 8 minutes after we hit the road again. On this trip, I think I was about ten and, instead of getting the standard Mad magazine or puzzles or comic book, I chose the Golden Nature Guide to Birds. Paging though that book as we droned along the highway, through southern Canada if I remember correctly, was the first time I actually noticed that birds (and other animals) had distinguishing marks that could be used to identify them. Perhaps the first tentative roots of my later interest in taxonomy.

pond_life.jpgIt appears that I’m not the only one with such fond memories. Evidently the original versions of the Guides have recently become “collectible“. Many have since been reprinted, albeit without the engaging covers of old, and are available from St. Martin’s Press.

Now then: I was appalled to read, as I was surfing the web in search of intel on Dr. Zim, that the famous PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame had disparaged the gentleman’s name — simply because as a lad PZ lost a library copy of Zim’s Golden Guide to Mammals and got into deep doo-doo with the librarian. Even today, these decades later, the Golden Guides have traumatic associations for him.

Note to PZ: Dude, Herb didn’t lose your book — you did! Suck it up.

So I am here to clear the man’s name. Let us lift a glass to the late great Herbert S. Zim, pioneer of biophilia and Natural Patriot: we salute you.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Books and media, Education, Natural Patriots, Science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Herbert S. Zim: Natural Patriot

  1. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hi Miriam — nice to hear it’s not just boys! (I actually knew that) Probably herpetophilia involves a complex genotype x environment interaction, but it does seem that there might be some sort of amplifier on the Y. Interesting dissertation topic for someone . . .

    Long live the Golden Guides!

  2. I so admire The Natural Patriot and have put it on my blogroll. But this post really tops it off! I still have many of my own Zim guides, have used them in my teaching, and agree completely about their probable impact. Books can be magical in the right time and place – an elementary library biography of Raymond Ditmars got me started with snakes and herpetology in 4th or 5th grade. Long live nature lore books! – though nature blogs are nice, too.

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for the kind words, John, and welcome aboard. I suspect there are many of us Zimophiles around. Several people, including Miriam above, have since told me anecdotes abut some of their own favorite Golden Nature Guides.

    And keep up the good work at Raleigh Nature!

  4. GT Regan says:

    Zim’s series helped many a student preparing for the dreaded MCAT and asking my advice for the last few days, when there was no hope of reading another full book. How many copies of the zoology book I gave away for that purpose, with good effect. GT

  5. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hey Professor GT – great to hear from you! Ah yes, I well remember your advice and poring through Zim’s Zoology book the night before, not the MCAT, but the GRE. A model of textual and esthetic concision like the others in the series. And much easier going than a hard-core textbook under the circumstances.

  6. Prof. Bleen says:

    Thanks for the memories! We, as kids, had all four of the books pictured plus Weather. I’ve noticed that when I try to explain certain concepts, such as the increased solar irradiation during summer or the Coriolis force, I crib from Zim’s diagrams.

  7. I was delighted to stumble onto your blog while I was looking for a cover illustration for Rock and Minerals, which I’m using to prepare a presentation on rock and mineral identification. Great to see the same covers for R&M and Insects in your entry, as well as your paean to Herbert S. Zim.

    I’d been hearing that the old Golden Guides were becoming collectible, and I’ve been picking them up as I find them, though more just for the sake of nostalgia than anything. I can’t say that I’m a fan of the new covers, but the contents are still the same, as far as I can tell.

  8. Dan says:

    Always enjoyed drawing animals. These are great books for such a reference. Thanks in advance for keeping these unique books in the forefront

  9. Great choice in books. They are not as pixelated as you think. =)

  10. Brust says:

    Lot of memories with this kind of books. As kids we were looking for the nice things in life :-)

  11. As kids you are more interested in life and you learn from books like this kind. I loved them very much. I grew up with them and i still have them.

  12. Tom Gurney says:

    Wow, i used to love these types of books, plus anything about dinosaurs. Sadly, now its all about Playstations and things like that.

  13. jcbrown says:

    When I was a kid my uncle gave me a copy of “Reptiles and Amphibians” and it opened up a world which still intrigues me…reptiles and amphibians. Even today I consult the book for info on some lizzard I don’t recognize or to see if salamanders actually spend a lot of time out of water. In fact, I’m sharing it with my own nephew now–age 11–who’s discovering this new world of life for himself. This book is well-presented and easy-to-use, as well as full of great illustrations that alone make it worth reading through. Profiles of each reptile and amphibian are thorough withough being overwhelmingly scientific. A timeless classic for young or old…one to share over the generations.

  14. Art Smith says:

    Nice selection of books, have not read any but will have to lookout for them.

  15. Tim Burke says:

    I read many of Mr. Zim’s books during the middle ’60s. After watching a Science Channel show about dinosaurs, I remembered his name and did a webseach. Great books!

  16. Robert says:

    Herbert Zim had a great influence on my awareness of the world around me! The covers above bring back many memories, I think that I read all of those! I proudly lift a glass to Herbert S. Zim!!

  17. gary hiel says:

    Web sites (tho’ I’m no Luddite and love the internet) will never replace those beautiful, rich, engaging little Golden Guides. They helped spark the interests which led me to science and teaching. They remain timeless and beautiful – no surprise that they are so attractive to collectors!

  18. Ellen Martin says:

    Thanks for this: I was looking for a picture, and he turns out to look just as he should. “Rocks and Minerals” was one of the little gospels of my childhood. I now have one copy in a house in one state, another in an apartment in a city, and a third in my car. When I look into them, I not only learn or confirm something about geology, but become again the curious mind inhaling the world that we all begin as. The Sideling Hill Cut and the Shonkin Sag are still magic.