Homes and Habits of Wild Animals / by Justine Lee Hirten

Since bringing Minn of the Mississippi into my collection some other little picture books have found a home on my shelves. One surprising find was Homes and Habits of Wild Animals — a true vintage piece from 1934 with exceptional illustrations from Walter Alois Weber and text from Karl Patterson Schmidt. My first impression from the cover was that this would be a quaint woodland storybook — it looks like two fawns striking up a friendship with a squirrel in a scene reminiscent of Disney’s Bambi. Opening to the endpages, however, reveals a much more serious and traditional wildlife art style featuring an array of solidly rendered mammals in reddened graphite. As I have seen in many older books, and frankly still in many people’s vocabulary today, the term “animals” is often used to indicate mammals rather than the animal kingdom as a whole. As these endpages suggest, the entire book describes the homes and habits of mammals alone and other animals are only referenced in passing as prey or predators. 

As with Minn, the book delivers its information in a writing style that is palatable to both young and adult readers and contains a generally balanced level of anthropomorphism. Although Schmidt felt a need to dedicate multiple pages to describing the “wolverene” as a gluttonous, evil creature, most of the book describes the natural charms of wildlife in terms that are relatable to the reader without making such dated moral judgements. Weber's black and white illustrations tucked into the corners and margins around the text are also full of personality and are bustling with activity. Every few pages there is a full-page, color artwork, but for me it is the margin illustrations that are most striking and effective — the full paintings feel a bit stiff and staged in comparison to the dynamism featured in the margins.

I particularly like the illustration for the section of the book about squirrel hunting. It’s a straight-forward composition — the squirrels pour from a tree like cascading waters; the branches, fence line, and foliage all appear windswept by the rushing energy; it’s a force-filled image and one of the largest of the spot illustrations in the book.

The text describes a time in the mid 19th century when gray squirrels were so widespread in New England that organized hunts would kill more than 20,000 squirrels per county. It goes on to describe an enormous southward migration of gray squirrels that “gathered in armies and troops, and traveled for weeks.” Gray squirrel migration is actually not something I was aware of before reading this book. Living in Connecticut I see these squirrels in abundance all year round and get no impression that they would need to travel great distances or cross dangerous terrain. It seems that population booms between 1842–1852 caused food shortages which pushed the squirrels to travel south and southwest en masse, a phenomenon that apparently returned in the great squirrel migration of 1968. We had an acorn mast here a few years ago but no population explosion large enough to cause mass exodus, perhaps the environmental changes of the past 50 years have altered the dynamic. As a wildlife rehabber I can’t imagine facing this kind of force of nature — squirrels flooding the roads, drowning in rivers, suffering from starvation, it would be a total rehabilitation emergency and I hope it will not pass through this area again.

I discovered that this book also has a connection to SAIC and to the Field Museum as well. Walter Alois Weber is another SAIC alum and went on to have a successful and prolific career working with the Field Museum, National Parks Service, National Museum of Natural History, and most notably he served as a chief artist for the National Geographic Society until his retirement. While I found these early-career paintings in Homes and Habits to be a little bit lackluster, his later color work from the 40's and 50's are stunning, exemplary pieces of wildlife art — you can view a great slideshow of some of his National Geographic ornithological artworks here

The author Karl Patterson Schmidt was a respected herpetologist and chief curator at the Field Museum, but is most famously known for his self-documented death after being bitten by a highly venomous boomslang snake in 1957. I had not heard this story until I started research for this blog post, I won’t recount it here in detail since there is already a good video from SciFri that goes through the events and has excerpts from his notes:

Having lived in Chicago made his story all the more vivid to me as I could perfectly envision him walking down the museum steps and getting on the commuter train, recording his symptoms as he headed home to the suburbs. This little book is not too high on my list for artistic inspiration but the facts and stories I have uncovered through reading and researching it has made it a very worthwhile purchase. Sometimes the pathways a book leads you down are not within its actual pages.