Pick from the Past
Natural History, September, October, November 1946


Editor’s Note: The current “Letters” column in the magazine is devoted principally to correspondence concerning recently published articles. At times in the past, however, readers’ questions on a variety of subjects were also entertained and responded to. The letters below represent the complete correspondence from September 1946 and several follow-up letters from the subsequent two issues.


     I should like to subscribe to your . . . NATURAL HISTORY Magazine.

     For your information, I made my first acquaintance with your periodical at the time when some American internees in Java were transferred to another internment camp and left some copies to me. Those issues have survived the many surprise searches made by the Japanese in our camp; and in the days I suffered of starvation and diseases, the periodicals became real friends and they remained so up to now. My love for nature gave me spirit, and though I read the articles again and again they never bored me but gave me diversion to appreciate life. I am convinced that they helped me to leave camp with a sound mind . . .

G. A. Sombeek.
Schiedam, Holland.


     I was interested in W. B. Gray’s letter (June, 1946) on the climbing powers of snakes. Last year I captured a common gartersnake 18 inches long and put it in an empty fish tank on the windowsill until a more suitable container could be provided. A wire screen was placed over the tank and weighted down with a large dictionary. The next morning the snake was nowhere to be seen.

     There was a great deal of excitement; a search of the apartment revealed nothing. A few hours later, however, I chanced to lower the Venetian blind over the window, and the snake fell out of his hiding place atop the uppermost slat. The only way the snake could have gotten up there was by climbing up six feet of 3/16 inch cord.

     The snake was then placed in the tank and watched. He (it was a male) squirmed out of the tank, and with no hesitation at all made straight for the cord and climbed right up it, reaching the top (after many slips and slides) in about two minutes. The cord had no knots or twists that might have aided the snake . . .

Mark Berenson.
New York, N. Y.


     Something happened this morning that seemed stranger than fiction! While phoning from the ninth floor of our 68th Street apartment, I looked out on our terrace and saw a large park squirrel! How he got there is a mystery.

     He seemed so inquisitive and friendly that I offered him various tidbits. What made the greatest hit was some peanut brittle from Savannah, Georgia. He could not get enough of this and kept nibbling away for over an hour, despite the presence of our Belgium schipperke, who seemed to welcome the visitor.

     One solution to the mystery of his lofty appearance might be in the outside fire escape belonging to the Institute for Deaf and Dumb Children which adjoins our apartment house.

     We are confident that he will return, if only to recover the pecan nut he cached under our weeping willow tree . . .

Mrs. B. H. Namm.
New York, N. Y.

Squirrels are frequently seen in rather unexpected places, and it is not impossible that this one might have climbed up the wall. The fire escape offered an easy route for him, and even a brick or stone building usually provides many footholds for an animal no heavier than a squirrel.

     The nearly vertical-sided Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (described in NATURAL HISTORY for November, 1942, page 205) is almost as difficult to climb as an apartment house wall; yet when the top was first explored, chipmunks were found making their homes on this natural skyscraper.

     Shiva Temple, one of the most isolated rocky formations in Grand Canyon attracted a great deal of attention a few years ago. A press agent, whose imagination ran away with him, visualized a “Lost World” on top of this precipitous peak, with ancient types of animals living in seclusion there. Actual exploration showed that pack rats, chipmunks, mice of several sorts, not different from those of the main plateau, lived on the rock, and even some of the larger mammals, such as the bobcat, had climbed it.

John Eric Hill,
Assistant Curator of Mammals.
American Museum of Natural History,
New York, N. Y.


     The accompanying photograph shows two curious

Curious trees: If you are as good a woodsman as the people who first made use of these trees, you should know why they have taken this curious form.

C. P. Fox Photo
white oaks growing in our neighborhood in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. They stand about 20 feet apart, and both point west. I have long suspected that these trees were crippled in this manner by Indians who used them as markers. But I have had no success in verifying this explanation and would appreciate it if you could give any opinion.

C. P. Fox.
Oconomowoc, Wis.

A typical Indian trail sign with a single new stem

Photo by Raymond E. Janssen [Feb. 1940 issue]
Mr. Fox’s theory is indeed likely to be correct. As explained in an illustrated article by Dr. Haymond E. Janssen in NATURAL HISTORY for February, 1940 (page 116), many trees deformed in this peculiar manner have been found. The Indians had the custom of bending saplings over and fastening them in position by means of a tough vine or piece of rawhide so that the direction of the bend would indicate the route to be followed. Care was taken not to break the trees, and as a result they continued to grow in the deformed position. The tree would then send up new stems, or secondary trunks, and the original branches would die and decay, leaving this strange "arm and elbow" appearance.

[Editor’s Note: The following two letters, published in the October 1946 issue, offered different explanations.]


     I have noted with interest the letter of C. P. Fox (September NATURAL HISTORY) and the accompanying picture showing two deformed oaks. In this instance, I think there is a simpler explanation than that the trees were bent by Indians as trail-markers. Early settlers often hacked young trees and bent them over to form a fence or hedgerow. This picture shows a bank in the foreground and a wire fence in the background. Apparently a hedgerow was formed along a roadway, and at a much later date a wire fence was built along the same road.

     I first noticed this condition while working in central Long Island some 40 years ago. There a ditch had been dug and the hedgerow formed along the top of the bank, the combination forming a more effective fence. As new branches grew up they had been hacked and looped over again. In some cases this had happened two or three times and had produced some fantastic forms. Trees vary in their resistance to such treatment. Some die in a short time. The oaks seem to recover and continue to grow better than any of the others.

O. L. Ayrs.
Birmingham, Alabama


     . . . This writer is convinced that those trees were the work of some early settlers —not Indians—who cut trees to make what we of eastern Long Island call a lop fence. This was made by cutting the tree half-way through and then binding it over in the direction the fence was to run, this process continuing around the field to be inclosed. Remains of these fences are still in existence here.

     To make a lop fence that would turn horses, cattle, and sheep required real skill with both mind and ax, and the writer well remembers several experts, one of whom—it was said—could make a fence that even a quail could not go through. And I might add that there were no strings or binders used in construction.

Morgan Topping.
Wainscott, L. I., N. Y.

“Just as the twig is bent . . .” These trees were twisted together twelve years ago. This unusual sight was photographed in Shawnee, Oklahoma, by Dean Burch.


     Several times last winter just before heavy snows I noticed that the birds, the juncos in particular, would congregate in the yard to fill up on the grain we supplied (about 40 pounds during the entire winter). It seemed that the birds almost knew when bad weather was coming. After I had noticed this rather superficially, I watched more carefully and saw the same thing happen before the next two snows. . . . I can’t help wondering whether they do not have an extra sense, or some way of telling what the weather is going to do.

Mrs. Charles M. Kennedy.
Harrisburg, Pa.

The following comments are offered by Dr. John T. Zimmer of the American Museum’s Department of Birds:

     Birds have no “weather sense” that has ever been proved. Unusual activity pre- ceding storms is due, I suspect, to a decrease in daylight which may give the birds a false impression of oncoming evening, with a consequent tendency to "get filled up" before bedtime. The same sort of increased activity has been observed during eclipses of the sun.

     If birds had an accurate sense of impending storms as such, they probably would seek shelter in advance and would not be caught away from it as many of them are. But a good piece of work could be done by anyone who would keep a careful record of exact weather conditions, including apparent diminution of light, and the attendant variation in the activity of birds. There is sure to be a correlation that would be worth investigating.

     Some insects react in the same manner. Perhaps readers have noticed how Stomoxys, the stable fly, ordinarily particularly obnoxious in the evening, becomes troublesome before storms.

The following letter on science and religion is similar to many that come to the American Museum. Because it embraces some of the main points in an unusually clear and complete way, we take the opportunity to publish it, with the answer by Dr. George Gaylord Simpson of the American Museum’s Department of Geology and Paleontology. —Ed.


     Would you please answer the following questions?

  1. Is there a missing link in the evolution of man?
  2. Most Catholic schools teach evolution as a theory. Is evolution a fact or theory?
  3. If evolution is a fact, does it contradict the Bible?
  4. Are most anthropologists or men of science agnostic, atheist, or do they believe in God?

I’m really confused and would like the answers to these questions.

(Name withheld.)
Dear Sir—

     You have asked some very difficult questions in your letter. I would have to write a book to give the whole answers, and you would have to do a great deal of studying to understand complete answers or to be able to decide intelligently for yourself. I will try to answer as well as I can in a letter, because I see that you are sincerely interested and because these important questions deserve the best sort of answer that a scientist can give.

  1. When the idea that man evolved from a monkey-like animal was first widely discussed, opponents of evolution pointed out that no animal was known that was intermediate between living monkeys or apes and living man. They called this hypothetical intermediate form “the missing link.” Since then not only one but a whole series of fossils have been found that are intermediate between modern apes and modern men in their anatomy. Therefore it is quite fair to say that “the missing link” is no longer missing—in fact, several of them are now known.

  2. In another sense, however, it would be possible to agree that there are still “missing links,” although this is not now a valid argument against the truth of evolution. If man evolved from a monkey-like ancestor, as I and most scientists are sure is true, then there was probably through the ages a whole series of creatures, starting with one that was wholly monkey-like and leading up to man through thousands of steps, each a little bit more manlike than the last. It is only by a rather unusual accident that such creatures are buried, become fossilized, and then are found again by us. The chances of ever finding every single one of those thousands of steps are practically nil. But some of them have been found and they show that the series did exist even though there is no real hope of finding every last step in it.

  3. Whether evolution is a fact or a theory depends on what you mean by “fact” and by “theory.” Scientists and non-scientists use the words in different ways. A scientist often calls an explanation a “theory” when a non-scientist would call it a “fact,” so that they do not always understand each other very well. Someone who is not a scientist is likely to mean “guess” when he says “theory.” To a scientist, a theory is not guesswork but is an explanation of a set of facts. Theories in science may be more or less firmly established. If a scientific theory explains only a few facts and there is doubt as to how others would fit in, then it is not considered well-established. If, however, it explains thousands of known facts and scientists have looked for opposing facts and have not found any that do not fit in, then it becomes a firmly established theory and is generally accepted as true among those who have made a real study of the matter. Speaking in anything except super-cautious scientific language, this sort of theory would be called a fact by almost anyone who understood it. Evolution is in this class. To the scientists who study it, it is a theory, thoroughly established and accepted as true. In popular speech it is a fact.

  4. Whether evolution contradicts the Bible also depends on definition. Some people maintain that every word in the Bible was meant to be taken in the most literal sense. For instance, they claim that the word “day” in Genesis means precisely 24 hours, no more and no less. If you take this view, then evolution does contradict the Bible, or the Bible contradicts evolution, whichever way you want to put it. Other devout students of the Bible believe, on the other hand, that parts of it are figurative or poetic, especially those parts that have to do with the creation of the world, animals, and man, and such subjects now studied by scientific methods. They say that the Bible was not meant to be a treatise on science and it would not have been understood if it were, because science was primitive when the Bible was written. If you look in the dictionary you will see that “day” can mean either “twenty-four hours” or "“a time or period, an age.” These Bible students say that “day” in Genesis has this second meaning, not the first. If you interpret the Bible in this way, then evolution does not contradict the Bible. I would prefer to express this differently and to say that modern scientific knowledge, including evolution, shows that the Bible should not be given the most literal interpretation at all points.

  5. Some scientists are agnostics or atheists; just as some business men or some mechanics are agnostics or atheists. Scientists may have more tendency to be agnostics, because they are used to questioning evidence and not taking too much on faith, but I am not sure that there would be a larger proportion of agnostics among scientists if we really knew what people believe in their hearts. I do know that many outstanding scientists believe in God. I think that most scientists are religious, in some sense of the word. Many of them who are really deeply religious cannot subscribe to the narrow dogmas taught in some churches. A scientist who believes in evolution and also in God is naturally likely to rebel against a church that teaches that belief in evolution is sacrilegious.

[Editor’s Note: The following two letters, published in the November 1946 issue, were in response to George Gaylord Simpson’s commentary.]


     A few days ago you sent me some literature describing your magazine NATURAL HISTORY, and I thought that it would be just what my children, who are in school, would need to keep them informed on up-to-date things and events. . . . The first copy arrived yesterday, being the issue for September, 1946.

     In looking through the magazine last night, I noticed on pages 342 and 343, the letter on Science and Religion and the answer to it by Dr. George Gaylord Simpson . . . After reading his statements about evolution, I decided that I did not want such a magazine coming into my home for my children to read. Please cancel my subscription immediately. Enclosed is a money order for fifty cents, which is the regular price for a single copy of the magazine.

     It is too bad that you are holding on to those “old fogey” ideas about evolution . . . If you expect to hold the attention of the modern generation, which is thinking for itself, you will have to stop publishing such lies as those in Dr. Simpson’s article.

Delmar Bryant.
Big Prairie, Ohio

Dear Dr. Simpson:

     Your answers to the letter printed on page 342 are, in my humble opinion, inspired. They must represent hours of careful thought on your part. May I tell you the time was well spent? I read it to my husband last night. He said, “That is a master stroke. Thank you for reading it.”

     We parents who have thinking children who attend Sunday School, know we shall be asked questions along these lines. Your clarity and directness will be of great help to us.

     I wish the magazine would think of reprinting just this section, available at a reasonable cost to parents. Far too few have access to this superb magazine. I am taking the liberty of calling it to the attention of both Parents’ Magazine and Readers Digest.

     I believe it is a genuine contribution to our equipment as parents. "Much in little,” and oh, so much!

Frances C. Howe.
Winthrop, Mass.

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