We Gathered to Study Nature

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

by Alfred F. Satterthwait, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist. Members at first gathered in his office, where they organized into various nature interests, then fanned out on weekend outings. Later, as their numbers grew, each interest group began meeting monthly at the home of its leader.

Most of the members joined as amateur naturalists, yet some advanced to the status of noted professionals. Julian Steyermark became Missouri's best known plant taxonomist while Phil and Nellie Rau authored numerous scientific papers on bees and wasps.

Marshall Magner, a noted entomologist retired from the Monsanto Corporation, is currently leader of that special interest group. Marshall first met his wife, Ernestine, on an early WGNSS field trip and when he told me about this, he added with a twinkle in his eyes, "All of us met interesting naturalists on our outings."

But all credentials aside, WGNSS can claim outstanding naturalists. One early summer day two of its most capable botanists, Father James Sullivan, a Catholic priest, and the late Art Christ (pronounced Krist) came upon a species of club moss unknown to them while exploring the wilds of Ste. Genevieve County. Then, in checking Flora of Missouri to identify it, they noted that the author, Julian Steyermark, had reported it from only one spot in the state. And yes, years later, they had rediscovered it at the same spot.

I wish there was space here to recognize other excellent WGNSS botanists, but I'll drop just one more name from among its notable clan: the late Edgar Denison, author and illustrator of the popular field guide Missouri Wildflowers.

When I joined during World War II, bird watching was a relatively new outdoor pastime. One day James Earl Comfort, then leader of the ornithology group, was birding by himself at the old Alton Lock and Dam, scanning with binoculars for wintering ducks and bald eagles. Suddenly he found himself apprehended by a St. Charles County deputy who suspected that he might be a wartime saboteur.

He was frisked, harshly questioned then finally released. I still recall Earl telling me later, with barely a smile, about this traumatic experience. The fact was, few people back then had ever heard of birding.

Fast forward to the spring of 1973. Well-known WGNSS birder Dick Anderson gets a phone call from the Pentagon. Could he show Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger the Eurasian tree sparrow for his listing?

Dick explains where the birds might be

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