Butterfly Bookmark, and Parables From Nature

In the mid-1800s a lady writer, Mrs. Gatty, published a book called The Parables From Nature.  Margaret Gatty was the daughter of a Navy chaplain and the wife of a vicar.  She and her husband had ten children together, most of them largely educated at home by Mrs. Gatty, with some help from the oldest girls.  Mrs. Gatty contributed to the family income, and the morals of a nation, by writing much beloved stories for children (and their parents).

She was interested in nature, particularly the sea and marine life. She wrote a popular book about local seaweeds, and corresponded with scientists and naturalists of the day about scientific topics. She was able to write about science in accessible language that appealed to her young readers.


Some of her Parables from Nature carry the following introduction:

“THERE are two books,” says Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici, “from whence I collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature- that universal and public manuscript that lies expanded unto the eyes of all those that never saw Him in the one have discovered Him in the other.” And afterwards, as if giving a particular direction to the above general statement, he adds “Those strange and mystical transmigrations that I have observed in silkworms turned my philosophy into divinity. There is in these works of Nature which seem to puzzle reason something divine and hath more in it than the eye of a common spectator doth discover.”

Surely these two passages, from the works of the celebrated physician and philosopher, may justify an effort to gather moral lessons from some of the wonderful facts in God’s creation: the more especially as St. Paul himself led the way to such a mode of instruction in arguing the possibility of the resurrection of the body from the resurrection of vegetable life out of a decayed seed. “Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die! Thou fool, fool! not to be able, in thy disputatious wisdom, to read that book of “God’s servant, Nature,” out of which there are indeed far more actual lessons of analogy to be learned than we are apt to suppose or can at once detect!

Assuredly, the changes of the silkworm and the renewal of life from the vegetable seed are not more remarkable than the soaring butterfly arising from the earth grub- a change which, were the caterpillar a reasonable being capable of contemplating its own existence, it would reject as an impossible fiction!

It was not however, Sir Thomas Browne’s remarks which gave rise to these Parables; for the first was written in an outburst of excessive admiration of Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, coupled with a regret that, although he had in several cases shown his power of drawing admirable morals from his exquisite peeps into nature, he had so often left his charming stories without an object or moral at all. Surely, was the thought, there either is, or may be devised, a moral in many more of the incidents of nature than Hans Andersen has traced; and on this view, “the Lesson of Faith” was written; an old story- for the ancients, with deep meaning, made the butterfly an emblem of immortality- yet to familiarize the young with so beautiful an idea seemed no unworthy aim….”

“Nothing but the present growing taste for the use of the microscope and the study of Zoophytes, among other minute wonders of sea, earth, and sky, could justify the selection of so little popular a subject for a parable as will be found in ‘Knowledge not the limit of Belief.’
The moon that shone in Paradise was the exclamation of a very melancholy mind which failed to recognise in the thought the hope it was calculated to convey and which it has now been attempted to teach May the Lesson of Faith and the Lesson of Hope each work its appointed end, and may they combine to enforce on the mind of youth the value of that still more excellent gift of charity, which hopeth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things.”


And so, concluding her introduction with a few other remarks about Sedges (unlike in her tale, the females apparently do not sing) and other things, Mrs. Gatty begins her first parable:

“LET me hire you as a nurse for my poor children,” said a Butterfly to a quiet Caterpillar, who was strolling along a cabbage leaf in her odd lumbering way.  “See these little eggs,” continued the Butterfly, “I don t know how long it will be before they come to life, and I feel very sick and poorly, and if I should die who will take care of my baby butterflies when I am gone: Will you, kind, mild, green Caterpillar?”

Miss Mason assigned her books to quite young children. Her Parables From Nature is recommended in the 1913 book Kindergarten Teaching at Home, as well as many other books in the early 1900s on teaching kindergarten.  Today, her books are still in print, used by many homeschoolers.  However, many consider them too difficult, heavy going, and impossible for children to understand. This should give us pause. What is it that has changed, and are we sure it is an improvement?

Rather than despairing over this circumstance, I suggest that what was once widely enjoyed and understood by youngsters could once again by enjoyed and understand by other youngsters (and their parents).  We just have to make up our minds that it is possible, and then begin.

Here are some suggestions:

If you have time in advance, read a story through yourself and when you finish, quickly jot down all the points you can remember, as fast as  you can.  This technique is one revealed by research to be one of the most effective methods for retaining almost any subject studied, so keep it in mind and apply it to other readings, sermons, lectures, audio books, podcasts, anything you wish to retain as much as possible.  This will allow you to read it aloud with a better flow and rhythm to the words so that they can follow better.  Alternatively, use an audio book.

Keep the sections you read aloud, or expect your children to read, short.  Mason says when reading the Bible to children, to read just enough to encompass an episode, and then ask for a narration.  An episode could be about as much as would be a scene in a play or movie.  There needs to be enough for something to have happened that the narrators can tell you about.

Consider having the children draw a picture or make sketches of the characters in the story to use in their retellings.  You can also have them use legos, plastic utensils, toys they already own.  Keep it simple.  It is really a truth that the person doing the work, creating the prop, is the one who is making the most connections, remembering the details.  You want that to be your student. Do not print out elaborate, lovely finger puppets that appeal to your own personal aesthetic sense.  Let the children scrawl childish line drawings of butterflies and caterpillars using what you have- scraps of envelopes that enlosed old bills, crayons and pencils from the bargain bin at the second hand store if that’s what you need to use, sticks and twigs from outside slipped into those envelopes can make stick puppets, or use your own fingers and hands as props in a retelling (Here’s the caterpillar inching along the green leaf,this finger is butterfly, coming down to ask….).

Do not worry too much about vocabulary.  For the most part, if they are read to from a wide variety of well written books, children pick up the definitions of words over time. They will often have a sense of the word months before they could define it for you.  They can usually pick things up in context.    In the caterpillar and butterfly story in Mrs. Gatty’s Parables, the butterfly asks the caterpillar to nurse her babies when they hatch.  In America, that means breastfeed. In some countries in means provide medical care.  If your children are familiar with Victorian British children’s stories they will already know that here it just means to be take care of the children.

Occasionally, a word may have changed enough in use, or be a name for something your children are not at all familiar with,y co and you can explain it in advance, but it’s not really something to worry about. If you miss a word now and then, the children will have a strange picture in their heads for a while, but as they read other books, gradually, their mistaken notions will correct themselves.

Mrs. Gatty herself makes much of the morals of her tales, but it’s okay if your children do not articulate those morals themselves.  Just telling the general story is more than enough.  Many children have surprised their parents by seeming to be totally oblivious to the deeper meaning of the tale, and then three or four years later suddenly making a connection.

Do not let your own frustration or dislike bleed through and colour your children’s perceptions.  Read and discuss it as cheerfully and willingly as possible.   Do not shortchange your kids by underestimating their ability to understand these stories.  I am sure they are not stupider than the kindergartner of 1902.

Narrations happen once after each reading.  DO not read this story to four children and then have four children narrate the same thing in turn.  Choose one to narrate (random selection), and ask the others if they have anything to add.  Ask them to draw a picture and explain what they drew. Suggest they act out the story. Have them record their narrations separately if you want each to narrate. Split them up and have them narrate to each other while you change the baby’s diaper or get lunch going.

These are just a few suggestions. You wouldn’t want to do all these things for a reading on the same day.  Just pick one, make it simple, light as possible.  The work that counts is the work going on in the child’s mind and heart.

Free printable bookmark because I liked the vintage butterfly drawings and found a poem to match.

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