From: The True Citizen How To Become One
We get out of Nature what we carry to her.--Katherine Hagar
Fools learn nothing from wise men, but wise men learn much from fools.
The non-observant man goes through the forest and sees no firewood.
Some men will learn more in a country stage-ride than others in a tour
of Europe.--Dr. Johnson
The world is full of thoughts, and you will find them strewed
everywhere in your path.--Elihu Burritt
All conscious life begins in observation. We say of a baby, "See how he
_notices!_" By this statement we really call attention to the fact
that the child is beginning to be interested in things separate from and
outside of himself. Up to this time he has _seen_ but not
_observed_, for to observe is to "see with attention"; to "notice
with care"; to see with the mind as well as with the eye. There are many
persons who see almost everything but observe almost nothing. They are
forever fluttering over the surface of things, but put forth no real
effort to secure and preserve the ideas they ought to gather from the
scenes through which they pass.
Every boy and girl in the land, possessing a good pair of eyes, has the
means for acquiring a vast store of knowledge. As the child, long
before he can talk, obtains a pretty good idea of the little world that
lies within his vision; so may all bright, active boys and girls
obtain, by correct habits of observation, a knowledge that will the
better fit them for the active duties of manhood and womanhood.
The active, observing eye is the sign of intelligence; while the vacant,
listless stare of indifference betokens an empty brain. The eyes are
placed in an elevated position that they may better observe all that
comes within their range. These highways to the soul should always stand
wide open, ready to carry inward all such impressions as will add to our
No object the eye ever beholds, no sound, however slight, caught by the
ear, or anything once passing the turnstile of any of the senses, is
ever again let go. The eye is a perpetual camera, imprinting upon the
sensitive mental plates, and packing away in the brain for future use,
every face, every plant and flower, every scene upon the street, in
fact, everything which comes within its range. It should, therefore, be
easy to discern that since mere seeing may create false impressions in
the mind, and that only by careful observation can we gather for future
use such impressions as are thoroughly reliable, we cannot well
overestimate the importance of its cultivation.
It is beyond question that childhood and early youth are the most
favorable periods for the cultivation of this faculty. Not only is the
mind then more free from care, and, therefore, more at leisure to
observe, but it is also more easy to interest one's self in the common
things, which, while they lie nearest to us, make up by far the greater
portion of our lives. Experience also proves that a person is not a good
observer at the age of twenty, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he
will never become one. "The student," says Hugh Miller, "should learn to
make a right use of his eyes; the commonest things are worth looking at;
even the stones and weeds, and the most familiar animals. Then in early
manhood he is prepared to study men and things in a way to make success
easy and sure."
Houdin, the magician, spent a month in cultivating the observing powers
of his son. Together they walked rapidly past the window of a large toy
store. Then each would write down the things that he had seen. The boy
soon became so expert that one glance at a show window would enable him
to write down the names of forty different objects. The boy could easily
outdo his father.
The power of observation in the American Indian would put many an
educated white man to shame. Returning home, an Indian discovered that
his venison, which had been hanging up to dry, had been stolen. After
careful observation he started to track the thief through the woods.
Meeting a man on the route, he asked him if he had seen a little, old,
white man, with a short gun, and with a small bob-tailed dog. The man
told him he had met such a man, but was surprised to find that the
Indian had not even seen the one he described. He asked the Indian how
he could give such a minute description of a man whom he had never seen.
"I knew the thief was a little man," said the Indian, "because he rolled
up a stone to stand on in order to reach the venison; I knew he was an
old man by his short steps; I knew he was a white man by his turning out
his toes in walking, which an Indian never does; I knew he had a short
gun by the mark it left on the tree where he had stood it up; I knew the
dog was small by his tracks and short steps, and that he had a bob-tail
by the mark it left in the dust where he sat."
The poet Longfellow has also dwelt upon the power of observation in the
early training of Hiawatha. You will perhaps recall the lines:
"Then the little Hiawatha
Learned of every bird its language,
Learned their names and all their secrets,
How they built their nests in summer,
Where they hid themselves in winter,
Talked with them whene'er he met them,
Called them 'Hiawatha's Chickens.'"
The most noted men of every land and age have acquired their fame by
carrying into effect ideas suggested by or obtained from observation.
The head of a large commercial firm was once asked why he employed such
an ignorant man for a buyer. He replied: "It is true that our buyer
cannot spell correctly; but when anything comes within the range of his
eyes, he sees all that there is to be seen. He buys over a million
dollars' worth a year for us, and I cannot recall any instance when he
failed to notice a defect in any line of goods or any feature that would
be likely to render them unsalable." This man's highly developed power
of observation was certainly of great value.
Careful observers become accurate thinkers. These are the men that are
needed everywhere and by everybody. By observation the scholar gets more
out of his books, the traveler more enjoyment from the beauties of
nature, and the young person who is quick to read human character avoids
companions that would be likely to lead him into the ways of vice and
folly, and perhaps cause his life to become a total wreck.
JOHN JAMES AUDUBON.
In 1828 a wonderful book, "The Birds of America," by John James Audubon,
was issued. It is a good illustration of what has been accomplished by
beginning in one's youth to use the powers of observation. Audubon loved
and studied birds. Even in his infancy, lying under the orange trees on
his father's plantation in Louisiana, he listened to the mocking bird's
song, watching and observing every motion as it flitted from bough to
bough. When he was older he began to sketch every bird that he saw, and
soon showed so much talent that he was taken to France to be educated.
He entered cheerfully and earnestly upon his studies, and more than a
year was devoted to mathematics; but whenever it was possible he rambled
about the country, using his eyes and fingers, collecting more
specimens, and sketching with such assiduity that when he left France,
only seventeen years old, he had finished two hundred drawings of French
birds. At this period he tells us that "it was not the desire of fame
which prompted to this devotion; it was simply the enjoyment of nature."
A story is told of his lying on his back in the woods with some moss for
his pillow, and looking through a telescopic microscope day after day to
watch a pair of little birds while they made their nest. Their peculiar
grey plumage harmonized with the color of the bark of the tree, so that
it was impossible to see the birds except by the most careful
observation. After three weeks of such patient labor, he felt that he
had been amply rewarded for the toil and sacrifice by the results he had
His power of observation gave him great happiness, from the time he
rambled as a boy in the country in search of treasures of natural
history, till, in his old age, he rose with the sun and went straightway
to the woods near his home, enjoying still the beauties and wonders of
Nature. His strength of purpose and unwearied energy, combined with his
pure enthusiasm, made him successful in his work as a naturalist; but it
was all dependent on the habit formed in his boyhood,--this habit of
close and careful observation; and he not only had this habit of using
his eyes, but he looked at and studied things worth seeing, worth
This brief sketch of Audubon's boyhood shows the predominant traits of
his character,--his power of observation, the training of the eye and
hand, that made him in manhood "the most distinguished of American
ornithologists," with so much scientific ardor and perseverance that no
expedition seemed dangerous, or solitude inaccessible, when he was
engaged in his favorite study.
He has left behind him, as the result of his labors, his great book on
"The Birds of America," in ten volumes; and illustrated with four
hundred and forty-eight colored plates of over one thousand species of
birds, all drawn by his own hand, and each bird being represented in its
natural size; also a "Biography of American Birds," in five large
volumes, in which he describes their habits and customs. He was
associated with Dr. Bachman of Philadelphia, in the preparation of a
work on "The Quadrupeds of America," in six large volumes, the drawings
for which were made by his two sons; and, later on, published his
"Biography of American Quadrupeds," a work similar to the "Biography of
the Birds." He died at what is known as "Audubon Park," on the Hudson,
now within the limits of New York city, in 1851, at the age of seventy.
[Footnote: For fuller information concerning Audubon, consult "Life and
Adventures of John J. Audubon," by Robert Buchanan (New York,
1869); Griswold's "Prose Writers of America" (Philadelphia, 1847); Mrs.
Horace St. John's "Audubon the Naturalist" (New York, 1856); Rev. C. C.
Adams's "Journal of the Life and Labors of J. J. Audubon" (Boston,
1860), and "Audubon and his Journals," by M. R. Audubon (New York,
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