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.”
Consider 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:
When 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
It 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.