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The American Nature Study Society (ANSS), founded in 1908, is America’s oldest organization for environment ….’ devoted to the appreciation and understanding of our natural world’. ANSS played an important role in helping to bring about and nurture the Nature-Study movement in the early 20th century. 

ANSS was founded at the 1908 annual meeting in Chicago of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), by a large and distinguished group of its academic members to promote and teach school science. Also, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt convened his famous Conference of Governors that resulted in several actions of lasting significance: most notably the creation of state conservation departments throughout the United States.

Cornell University’s Liberty Hyde Bailey, ANSS’ first and sixth president, was appointed by Roosevelt as the first Chairman of the National Commission on Country Life which called for revitalizing American agriculture. Among Baily’s many accomplishments were agricultural extension services, the 4-H movement, the nature study movement, parcel post and rural electrification. ANSS’ fifth president Anna Botsford Comstock worked extensively with Bailey at Cornell establishing New York State’s conservation efforts and subsequent education programs. Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study (1911), still in print today, and the Rural School Leaflets series written and published while she and Bailey were at Cornell were integral pieces of a major campaign to educate children and families and keep them on the farm.

Two of the most significant nature study publications in the first half of the 20th century were Comstock’s Handbook and E. Laurence Palmer’s Fieldbook of Natural History (1949). While Bailey, Comstock and Palmer authored numerous books and manuals focused on science and science education they served as editors and (monthly) contributed articles, illustrations, inserts, poetry, editorials etc. to several publications including Nature Study Review and Nature Magazine for decades.

ANSS survived financial and organizational ups and downs throughout the 20th century and at its peak membership grew to include individuals, authors, universities, public and private schools, state and local chapters and libraries across the U.S. and Canada. It incorporated as a tax exempt, not-for-profit organization in 1954. Throughout the century ANSS’ ‘business and operations’ including membership, publications and services were facilitated by numerous individuals and organizations throughout the United States with ‘offices and addresses’ at the Holden Arboretum in Ohio, Massachusetts, Virginia and more.

ANSS continued to serve its constituency in providing open Board meetings, annual meetings, conferences, workshops often co-hosted with state/province, regional and continental environmental/conservation/science education organizations including (not limited to) the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), the Alliance for Environmental Education (AEE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Association of Interpreters (NAI), the International Union of the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the American Museum of Natural History. Numerous state and local organizations included (not limited to) the New Jersey Association for Environmental Education (ANJEE), the Pennsylvania Association for Environmental Education (PAEE) and the New York State Outdoor Education Association (NYSOEA).

The Society periodically sponsored/co-sponsored and led field trips in natural, cultural and historical settings of interest and significance …these field trips were led by experienced and distinguished interpreters, authors, illustrators and guides for small groups of ANSS members.

ANSS’ official publications helped the public gain a deeper appreciation for nature: The Nature Study Review edited by Comstock was succeeded in the 1920s by Nature Magazine edited by Cornell’s E. Laurence Palmer, Professor of Nature and Science Education. In the 1970s ANSS’ Nature Study Journal became the Society’s most treasured (and final) official publication series. The Journal was first edited by John Gustafson and Helen Ross Russell; the first woman PhD graduated from E L Palmer’s department at Cornell.

Nature Study Journals, in 3-4 annually themed issues contained in-depth articles on environmental education, its trends and issues written and compiled by its members and guest writers. Journal themes included Interrelationships, Insects, Water, Amphibians, Forest, Winter, City and Writing for Children. Books for both children and adults, many authored by members, were reviewed in each issue.

ANSS Newsletter, mailed quarterly (at first) 1943-1999, kept members posted on Society and member news, featured 1-3pg Teaching Tips, nature writing excerpts and announcements of upcoming regional, national and international events.

ANSS was sustained for a century without a mission statement by its continuity policies. ANSS’ memorable seven-word slogan: Excellence in Nature Study, Writing and Appreciation gave it focus for a century. ANSS became a magnet for nature writers, many of whom besides Bailey, Comstock and Russell, became Presidents of the Society, notably Roger Tory Peterson and Edwin Way Teale. Biographical information for ANSS Presidents including Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1908 to Talbert Spence in 1983 can be found in Nature Study Journal Vol 37, Nos. l&2 – the 75th Anniversary Issue. ANSS Presidents ‘messages’, included in some of the Society’s Newsletters from 1943-1999, often reflected the Society’s philosophies, growth, trends, issues and transitions.

In the 1960s, the annual Eva L. Gordon Award for Outstanding Children’s Science Literature was created and presented to an outstanding author. Named for an author, teacher and reviewer of children’s literature at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture, the award was presented to more than 30 authors from 1964 – 1999. It recognized many literary heroes and writers like Millicent Selsam, Jean Craighead George, Golden Nature Guides author Herbert Zim, Edwin Way Teale, Helen Ross Russell, Eric Carle, Peter Parnell, Byrd Baylor and more. Awardees often and eagerly contributed essays and artwork for publication in both the Newsletter and Nature Study.

A Service Award called ‘the Gus’ for John Gustafson, its first recipient who had served as President’, editor for Nature Study Journal and then Treasurer for years had many worthy recipients.

The Liberty Hyde Bailey Award was established in 1987 on the Society’s 80th Anniversary. The Award was bestowed to individuals espousing his highest ideals. It was inspired by the Burroughs Medal awarded by the John Burroughs Association and the New York State Outdoor Education Association’s highest honor, the Gold Award for one of its founders, SUNY Cortland Professor Harlan “Gold” Metcalf.

As previously stated, ANSS played an important role in helping to bring about and nurture the Nature-Study movement (for over a decade) in the 20th century.  Nature study has/had a broad interpretation encompassing science education including all the science-ology’s, not just the natural sciences. Glacial geologist Louis Agassiz had famously admonished educators in the mid-nineteenth century teaching by rote from antiquated texts to “Study Nature; not books”.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, ANSS first and sixth president wrote (1903): “Nature-study is not synonymous with the old term “natural history”, nor with “biology”, nor with “elementary science”. It is not “popular science”. It is not the study of nature merely. Nature may be studied with either two objects: to discover new truth for the purpose of increasing the sum of human knowledge; or to put the pupil in a sympathetic attitude toward nature for the purpose of increasing his joy of living.”

ANSS Raccoon LogoAnna Botsford Comstock, ANSS fourth president, eloquently clarified mistaken notions about science in her Handbook introduction: “Nature-study is science brought home. It is a knowledge of botany, zoology and geology as illustrated in the dooryard, the cornfield or the woods back of the house. …nature has furnished the material and laboratories on every farm in the land.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, nature study continued to evolve to include all the multidisciplinary non-science disciplines we teach today as embraced by numerous organizations including the New York State Outdoor Education Association (NYSOEA), the Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Green Teacher, the John Burroughs Association (JBA) and many more. ANSS not only embraced this evolution but strived to nurture it as well. ANSS’ Nature Study Journals, Newsletters, Teaching Tips and events reflected this evolution.

Rarely is there a single cause or event(s) that precipitates an organization’s systemic change and eventually what could seemingly be described as its ‘end’…such could be said or written about ANSS. Since its inception, ANSS functioned as a volunteer organization. Its operations, membership, publications and events were all initiated, maintained and facilitated by individuals vested and committed to its goals and message. Simply put…’things change’, people move, change jobs, retire, pass away and what was once commonly and unconditionally supported by individuals and agencies became harder to rationalize, afford and maintain. It has been reflected that by the 1990s, excellence in reading and writing were being ‘replaced’ by what could fit on a computer screen (or later on a cell phone). Certainly, tech advancements in the 2000’s, eBooks, digital newsletters and journals are more quickly and inexpensively produced and are more readily available … but also more (quickly) disposable.

In 1997 ANSS’ operations found a home at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) in PA and in 2015 the Brandwein Institute (NY) agreed to help manage ANSS resources and communications and investigate and support options for the digital retention of ANSS archives and insure they would be accessible and retrievable to all interested parties, organizations and individuals. The American Nature Study Society’s 100 plus-year legacy of Excellence in Nature Writing, Nature-Study and Appreciation is now available to educators everywhere.

These compilations and resources are brought to you in part by the American Nature Study Society, the Brandwein Institute, The New York State Outdoor Education Association, the Lime Hollow Nature Center, the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) and the individual archive ‘collections’ and oral and print recollections of Jack Padalino, Frank Knight and John Gustafson.