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We Gathered to Study Nature

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

There are different pathways to conservation, or what Aldo Leopold called the ecological conscience. Youngsters on farms may find the way by hunting, fishing, trapping or simply exploring the back 40. City kids may do so with guidance from good teachers, summer camp counselors and - if truly lucky - from outdoors loving parents.

While growing up in St. Louis 50 years ago, I found yet another pathway. I had good teachers, plus summer camp experiences, but for me there was also the Webster Groves Nature Study Society. As a teenager I took to the WGNSS like a bluegill takes to worms. I became nature-hungry, a compulsive naturalist.

The club recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. WGNSS (sometimes dubbed "Wigness") is not an exclusive club restricted to a particular suburb of St. Louis. Its roster currently boasts 450 members from all corners of Missouri, plus 50 more from out of state. Over the decades it has nurtured interests ranging from geology to astronomy, ichthyology to herpetology, entomology to botany to birds.

The benefits of my joining as a teenager way back in the 1940s were then best expressed by the mother of a schoolmate: "As long as you and Kenny are birding or botanizing, I know you won't get in trouble."

Back then the WGNSS enjoyed leased privileges and its own log cabin on the wooded Ranken estate of St. Louis County (much of which is now the Beaumont Boy Scout Reservation). The cabin had been crafted by WGNSS members in 1929 and furnished with cooking facilities, assorted books on nature plus locally collected pressed plants, insects, fossils and other nature objects.

I was one of several youngsters granted use of the cabin on weekends as a junior member, and none of us dared abuse the privilege. We had been told that a few years before vandals had broken in. And so, in effect, we occasionally served as weekend watchdogs.

Nevertheless, a senior member had put up a sign next to the cabin door with this warning: "Beware of caged snakes." So far as I know, there were no more break-ins during my teenaged years.

In 1947 the St. Louis Boy Scout Council acquired its portion of the Ranken estate, thus terminating all WGNSS privileges to it. The cabin had to be vacated, its furnishings auctioned off, and all nature books plus the collections divided up. The members had temporarily lost their home base.

The WGNSS was founded in 1920 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 located and agrees to be there at the designated time. The Secretary is dropped nearby via helicopter, then whisked to the site by limousine. Dick shows him the Eurasian tree sparrow and they bird together for an hour.

In that relaxed setting, Dick poses the question, "Mr. Secretary, is birding your favorite pastime?" Schlesinger's response: "These days, with all the pressures on my time, it's how I maintain my sanity."

The world's top birder - the observer with the longest life list - is a St. Louis County member of the WGNSS. Phoebe Snetsinger, a housewife whose children have flown the nest, recently identified her 8,000th bird species in the field. She spotted the rufus necked wood rail in a Mexican swamp.

Late in the 1960s WGNSS members were generously granted a new base for their activities. This resulted from an invitation by Burrell and Ruby Pickering to adopt their 500-acre retirement property, which they called Sunny Ranch. The Pickerings, both devoted to conservation, joined the WGNSS, then established marked nature trails and a nature museum in an old barn they renovated for that purpose. They also invited the various interest groups to regular outings on the property.

Sunny Ranch was a lovely spread with sizable fields, maturing oak-hickory woods, a small creek and several ponds. The membership studied plants, birds, insects and even fossils there. Burrell's personal project was an extensive bluebird trail. He built and set out the boxes himself, tripling their number from 20 in 1968 to 60 by 1972.

Each one was numbered and WGNSS families - also school classes with their teachers - were recruited to keep tabs on all young bluebirds leaving the boxes. Records show that in 1968 some 62 bluebirds fledged at Sunny Ranch, and that by 1972 that number had jumped to 299.

A particular concern of the Pickerings was to make their land a safe haven for wild, native creatures that had been confiscated due to illegal possession, abandoned or otherwise abused. These were mostly animals from St. Louis, and they ranged from bats to birds, raccoons to coyotes. Some might have called Sunny Ranch a dumping ground for critters; WGNSS members recognized it as a refuge for wayward wildlife.

The wonderful relationship between conservationist landowners and organized nature enthusiasts continued until 1981 when Burrell Pickering died and his estate passed on to heirs. Yet today, even though WGNSS members no longer claim a home base, they find plenty of natural habitats in conservation areas and state parks to explore in pursuit of their special interest.

For me, as a 50-year member, what other benefits can I ascribe to the 75-year old WGNSS? Obviously, we are getting older, but we are not less active. Though we eagerly welcome younger members, we also claim many retired people who maintain active interests and exercise active bodies.

An example: one day when Edgar Denison was in his early 80s he led a botany group into the hills of Hawn State Park. Pausing along Pickle Creek, he explained to his charges how every year the local rocks were growing bigger and the hills rising taller. Then he added with his somewhat German accent: "Nature's peculiar that way." Having said this, he resumed leading his group up the creek in pursuit of fascinating plants.

Peggy Leonard, the current president, reports that when the WGNSS was founded 75 years ago, "The only requirements for membership were a sincere interest and one dollar per year for adults, two-bits for juniors. Now, even with higher dues, sincere interest is still the important thing."

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