Anna Comstock

A Force of Nature

Students and teachers show off their newly constructed birdhouses in the Nature Study Leaflet Series in 1898. Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Published by Cornell University Library

American conservationist and nature study artist Anna Comstock was one of the first educators to bring teaching from the classroom to the outdoors. Her aim, wrote the trailblazer, who lived from 1854 to 1930, was to cultivate the child’s imagination, love of the beautiful, and sense of companionship with life out-of-doors.”

Portrait of Anna Comstock. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by nature, Comstock began a lifetime of scientific illustration by producing detailed wood engravings for her husband’s Cornell University lectures and publications on insects. Throughout her career, she engraved more than 600 plates of plant and wildlife illustrations for books written by her and her husband.

A Comstock engraving of flowers and a spider web.
A Comstock engraving of daisies.

The Nature Study Movement, which began in the 1890s, introduced more people to Comstock. As the movement spread, people across the country found new enjoyment in studying nature in their backyards. The New York Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, along with Cornell University, enlisted Comstock’s help in creating a nature study program for schools in Westchester County, New York. Comstock formulated lesson plan leaflets for teachers to help them add outdoor nature studies to their curricula. This ultimately led her to write the Handbook of Nature Study, which became a classic.

Today, national wildlife refuges across the country carry on the outdoor learning tradition begun by Comstock through environmental education programs for children of all ages. These programs offer teachers new ways to deliver science, art, reading and math curricula. Students and their families enjoy these unique and exciting outdoor learning experiences about wildlife and natural resources. Here are a few New York wildlife refuges that have kept the spirit of Anna Comstock alive and well through hands-on learning.

Students examine an arthropod found at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in New York. Photo: USFWS

For the past 20 years, on the last Saturday of April, Friends and volunteers at Iroquois Refuge have hosted an annual birdhouse building project as part of Spring into Nature (SpIN) festival. Children learn how to assemble bird houses while they learn about the birds that use them.

Children build bird houses at New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS

At Montezuma Refuge, staff teach children how to raise and care for monarch butterflies over the course of a year. Then students release the insects. In summer, youngsters set up butterfly roosting houses around the gardens near the butterflies’ favorite food: milkweed. In the fall, children learn about monarch migration to Mexico. During the Day of the Dead celebration in October, students learn about the butterfly’s importance in Mexican culture. Many of these activities are in collaboration with the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Auburn, New York.

Butterfly roosting homes. Photo: USFWS
Children showcase their Day of the Dead offerings. Photo: Andrea Van Beusichem/USFWS

Anna Comstock’s legacy continues to enrich lives and influence future biologists, scientists and conservationists from the very beginning of their education.

Written by Sandra Hodala

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