The Conservationism of a Nature Educator: Anna Botsford Comstock

April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.

Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.


Anna Botsford Comstock c1914 StClair RMC.jpg

Anna Botsford Comstock, a naturalist educator who championed childhood curiosity in nature. The conservationism of Comstock fueled the impetus of her work for children to understand nature and take ownership of their environment. Her’s was to celebrate one’s kinship with the earth by being a positive ecological participant of nature, and not just a spectator. Photo taken by Karen Penders St. Clair at Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.

Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) held a significant role as a proponent of nature education at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, at the turn of the 20th century. Comstock was born in New York State, the only child to Quaker parents at the edge of the pioneer era. The doctrine of her parents, Marvin and Phoebe Botsford, was one of appreciating a higher creation in all things natural. It is in this philosophy in which a young Comstock was raised, and it was her mother who particularly influenced her child’s curiosity, and knowledge, of the surrounding natural wonders of the world.

Comstock was a voracious reader and was deeply influenced by the romanticism writings popular in her youth. Her own nature writing mirrors the technical and collective philosophical influences of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), James Russel Lowell (1819-1891), and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) (she always carried Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850) in her travels). However, it was Comstock’s admiration of the writing of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), with his detailed notes, language, and observations, which guided Comstock’s hand in the nature lessons she wrote and the nature literature courses she lectured.

The conservationism of Anna Botsford Comstock lies not in one particular focus of activism to preserve a particular aspect of our natural world.  She shared in inspiring the collective belief of her time that it was crucial our imprint as humans on our wild and natural landscapes be understood. Instilling this love and appreciation of the natural world around us, and to know that we also play a crucial part as participants, is the capstone achievement of Comstock’s work.

Comstock’s “Nature is full of surprises” approach appealed to children directly, as it did with her contemporaries. She believed that “future citizens” should be set on inheriting our Earth by learning of its environments, and of the interactions of the living systems therein. She shared with her peers that earthly care was a moral responsibility to be built upon with each successive generation. Comstock emphasized that children should discover their environment through the use of their five senses and careful observation. Through their own individual investigations, the child could thereby cultivate a sense of connection and responsibility for our Earth. Comstock expressed, “It is a great asset to the conservation of our natural resources to have the children of our land be interested in the wild life in such a chummy and intimate manner.”

Early in her career, Comstock captured the range of plant life with dozens of Cornell Rural School curricula leaflets (in active publication from 1896 to 1956) through The New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University. The topics in her botanical leaflets included seeds, wildflower study, cultivated and flowerless plants, and trees. Additionally, through her artistic association with the entomological research and writings of her husband, John Henry Comstock (1849-1931), founder of the department of entomology at Cornell University, Comstock broadened her educational base to include insects.

Penning her detailed nature articles and lesson plans, Comstock was systematically inclusive of earthborne, waterborne, and airborne species, emphasizing humanity’s connection to microbes, insects, plants, animals, earth, and sky. Comstock’s work kept to principles of observation and trusting one’s senses. Comstock’s pedagogy encouraged the development of a child’s curiosity by “opening one’s eyes to our natural surroundings.” Her appeal to the parents and teachers of these progeniture was in helping these adults foster their childrens’ awareness of, and interactions with, nature. This was a shared advocacy of many conservationists of Comstock’s time including, but not exclusive to, John Muir (1838-1914), John Burroughs (1839-1921), and Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1948).

title page for handbook of nature study

Title page. Comstock, Anna Botsford. Handbook of Nature-Study for Teachers and Parents, Based on the Cornell Nature-Study Leaflets, With Much Additional Material and Many New Illustration. 1911. Contributed in BHL from MBLWHOI Library.

To encourage children to become explorers, Comstock worked closely with other nature educators at Cornell University for several years and ultimately compiled her collective work and publications into her inspiring The Handbook of Nature Study (1911). Still in print today and in its 24th edition, this notable book is used throughout the world and has preserved the work of these early nature study initiatives. In this tome of natural life, Comstock wrote about diverse topics of the earth with her modules “Stone and Minerals”, “Soil”, and “Water” (in all its forms). Practical instruction of the sky includes the seasons, weather, and astronomy. Lessons geared towards small mammals, birds and their habitats, invertebrates, and fish are also included within the gigantic book. Her lessons are timeless and poignant still today as The Handbook of Nature Study continues to inspire new generations of nature lovers.

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“He holds the bowl of the spoon with both front paws while he drinks the milk.” Editor’s proof of an original pen & ink image of Furry, the red-squirrel, first drawn by Anna Botsford Comstock for publication in Boys & Girls (January, 1903), and later used in her Handbook of Nature Study (1911). Photo taken by Karen Penders St. Clair at Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.

text and illustration for nature lesson on tadpoles

Lesson XLIII: The Tadpole Aquarium. Comstock, Anna Botsford. Handbook of Nature-Study for Teachers and Parents, Based on the Cornell Nature-Study Leaflets, With Much Additional Material and Many New Illustration. 1911. Contributed in BHL from MBLWHOI Library.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has access to several of the earliest issues of The Handbook of Nature Study and other notable works by both Comstock and her husband, John Henry Comstock, whose entomological writings she helped to illustrate. Included in the BHL collections are most of Comstock’s scientific writing, and of particular interest for budding naturalists is her Syllabus of Lecture Series: Nature Study (1900).

Pre-dating her magnum opus, the Lecture Series lessons helped pave the way for Comstock to communicate directly with the educators of her time and listen to what they demanded for their students. This small book lends itself as a great portable field-book for those wanting to take their classes, or their family, out-of-doors. Supplementing the Lecture Series notebook with the larger Handbook of Nature Study as a reference tool combines two wonderful pieces of nature literature that are as timeless and relevant to conservation appreciation today as they were over one hundred years ago.

text for "what nature study does for the child"

“What nature-study does for the child.” Comstock, Anna Botsford. Syllabus of Lectures. Nature Study. 1900. Contributed in BHL from University of California Libraries via Internet Archive.

Comstock carries the voices of nature study educators, along with her own, to inspire all generations to learn about and appreciate their immediate natural surroundings. These are the voices that remind us to be mindful of our own conservational impact on the environment, and like Comstock, to think beyond our own sphere of home, fields, or woods towards a collective fellowship and world community. Her’s is a voice that transcends time with her appreciation for our Nature resources and lends towards our conservationist efforts into the 21st century.

To learn more about Anna Botsford Comstock, a woman who was an artist, philosopher, educator, naturalist and conservationist, explore The Handbook of Nature Study  (1911), Syllabus of Lecture Series: Nature Study (1900), and her other notable works, within the auspices of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Author’s Note: Dedicated to Dr. Betty Jean McKnight (1928-2020, Cornell ’65) who was a pioneer in her own right. Betty was an educator, naturalist, and conservationist in the best sense of each. Above all, Betty was my friend and mentor who never failed to sparkle with my stories of Mrs. Comstock during my doctoral research. You will be missed.

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Karen Penders St. Clair received her doctoral degree with the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture section, at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) in 2017. Dr. St. Clair spent five years researching the archival papers of several notable Cornellians for her dissertation, Finding Anna: The Archival Search for Anna Botsford Comstock. St. Clair is an academic writer and archival researcher with a strong motivation to preserve, and elevate, the voices of the past.