Letter to A.D.R., October 4, 1930

620 West 122nd Street
New York City
October 4, 1930

My dear Mate:

Your letter arrived here on Wednesday, the 24th of September. I remember that, because it was sent on the 22nd, and I remember my delight and amazement, and my admiration, too, for this world of wonders. A letter across the continent in two days? What next?!

I sat down at once and wrote an answer to it–yes, the very day I received it, mind you. Then, on reading my letter, it seemed too puny and putrid to exist, and hopelessly inadequate, so I tucked both your letter and my embryonic one away in a drawer. Then came the week-end–a week ago, and I firmly intended to answer you then. You see, Saturdays and Sundays are my only real days, and so I save up everything all week to do then, with the result that I get about half of the things done.

Well, I thought so very much about your letter, and my answer to it, that I thought myself into a state of believing that I had answered it, and it didn’t really occur to me until this morning that I hadn’t, and that my embryo was still lying in a drawer. You don’t know (yes, I guess you do, though) what a day–a week–is like in New York C I T Y (as our friend Leo Meyette always writes it on envelopes!).

Now whatever I was going to say has entirely slipped me, so I’ll begin over, having all day to do it in–that is, if I neglect my washing, and the meals, and my week-end home-work, etc., etc., etc., which I intend to do if I desire.

Your headlines are very juicy. Of the four I deciphered one–the one about the icy doom stilling the heart, don’t you know, and the record thrust within clothing. I suppose that was eventually intelligible to me only because I have been following, off and on, the tragic discoveries in the Arctic. Speaking of the Arctic: the other day my red hair was made to rise stiffly on end (like quills, etc.) by seeing a little piece in the Tribune about an air-plane which effected a rescue of the crew of a trading-ship somewhere north of Alaska–a ship owned by the Seattle Fur Trading Company. My high pitch of excitement (to put it mildly) did not abate even when I learned that the ship was a motorship, with a name which not even a newspaper reporter could have confused with my C. S. Holmes.

Imagine Phoebe studying punctuation and grammar! The funny part of that is that I, also, am studying punctuation and grammar. At the commercial school whose walls enfold me half of every week-day, they require one to take a little subject known as “business correspondence”–more briefly, “correspondence.” This embraces spelling  (such words as “separate” and “February,” and others that Anderson would laugh at), also grammar (such things as the “can” and “may” hitch, etc.). Apart from this it is quite interesting, and I think I am getting something out of it–although some of my friends would doubtless say that what I mostly need is not a correspondence course, but a hush-up course.

But this is a mere digression. What I started to say in the paragraph above this one is that Phoebe is a brick of the best no. A1 material. Isn’t it disgusting–how Things Are? Degrees and credits——bah! To sweat for one’s shelter, clothing, and bread! Ye Gods, let’s go to Tahiti. I like, and I don’t like, to think of Phoebe in school. It isn’t right, and yet it’s marvellous of her to be attacking her dragon by the hind legs and pinning him down.

There is school, and there is school. Sabra seems to be enjoying hers terrifically. She is happy as can be–comes out at one o’clock hopping and prancing and singing. She learns cooking, and handicraft, including carpentry, painting, etc.–really they show a great deal of imagination and skill down there. The children mess around with smocks on, make as much noise as they like (within reasonable bounds, of course), do more or less what they like. As you perhaps know, this Lincoln School is a so-called “progressive school.” That means that children are not “sat on” or “squshed,” or boomeranged with “mustn’ts” and “don’ts” and “be quiets.” Which is an extremely good plan–for that tender age, at least.

“Green Pastures” is easily the most tremendous thing, in a dramatic line, that I’ve ever seen or heard of. I think it beats–for effect and appeal to one’s innermost vitals–Hamlet, or R. and J., or any of the old stand-bys. Is this a literary sacrilege? Well, I can’t help it if it is. When Jehovah (a kindly, fatherly old preacher in a frock-coat) produced the firmament in a terrific thunder-clap, I wept and wept. I don’t know why. They have staged it to perfection. The thunder shakes the theatre. They have a real sea for the Ark, and a long sandy stretch of road along which God walks for miles, it seems, while bushes and trees and houses float past. It is a rolling platform, of course, but one gets the effect of walking forever and ever, and before the end of it comes everyone aches from head to foot, so real it is. I suppose someday the play will leave New York, don’t you? If it ever gets within reach of you ——— well, I guess you don’t need any advice on the subject.

Such things are—-what’s the plural of oasis?—-oases, I suppose, though it doesn’t look right. They are—-that—-in a desert of grindstones, inhabited only by dragons with scalesome, flailsome tails. Isn’t that a picture? I bet Phoebe could draw it admirably. Get her to try her hand at it, if it appeals to her. The dragons would be something like Kipling’s Bi-Colored-Python-Rock-Snake, I imagine.

I have set aside a few days around the middle of this month–marked them off mentally with red ink–for the days during which I may hear from my wandering sailor. Of course one can’t tell–I might hear tomorrow, or I might never at all. Rather uncomfortable suspense. I don’t know quite what would happen to me in that case, and I don’t care to speculate. If I don’t hear before November, I shall be worried. I haven’t many bulwarks. My family isn’t a bulwark at all. You are, and he is. He is so simple at heart that he would be laughed at by some of this world, and distrusted by most of the rest–my farents, for example–my fermenting farents. He is the soul and essence of the sea. He can sit on a schooner’s taffrail at night and become so utterly a part of the ship and the sea and the night that it makes you cease your breathing for awe. He is rugged and uncut, and, though so far above the standard of most sea-farers, he still falls far short, in some ways, of the shore-world’s standards. He is ignorant–of the little things that don’t matter. But he is so real that he puts to shame thousands of people who probably would consider themselves far “above” him.

And he answered a need of mine that nothing and no one else could answer, by knowing how to laugh, and by being serene and tranquil and deep as the trade-wind Pacific. Bulwark, oasis, anchor–what-you-will. Mysterious, too, in his comings and goings, as the sea with its tide. A romantic soul. “Sure. Don’t I know? Haven’t I sat on deck in the moonlight and let fancy put on its seven-league boots and go roaming among the stars?”

He and Conrad would have hit it off grandly.

Forgive my “uplift” trend (as old M’Andrew would have said), but one does get a bit romantic and poetic over the week-ends. At last I know what the week-end really means to the hordes and hundreds! Helen and I stand by the front windows and watch the pantomimes across the street and in the park opposite–you have no idea how interesting it all is, to see these hundreds of human figures, young and old and medium, gesticulating and running and arguing and laughing–like a puppet-show, don’t you know. It is excruciatingly funny, and excruciatingly sad–sometimes we laugh at it, sometimes we weep. Always we feel about three centuries old–in comparison to Sabra, for instance, who is so full of energy that she quite appalls both of us.

Well, what’s one to do? Here we are, all of us, kicking and straining and growing black in the face to keep up to some invisible, tyrannical Mark. I don’t know, but I’m in the fight. The shorthand? I don’t know how much longer, but I know that I can’t afford it forever. I think about a month more, and then I shall get a little job out here in Columbia. I have made some important friends, got them interested in me, and built for myself a reputation which I probably can’t live up to. More struggling–to keep up with that. There is nothing very Iridescent in sight. Helen has no job, and neither the MS nor the house is sold. Cheerful! Ja gewis. Fox Film Corp. has given up all outside readers. So farewell to the putrid novels–farewell, also, to that handy little twelve or eighteen dollars a week!

What more shall I say? I don’t wish to end this in a minor key. You are NOT to think I’m discouraged, or despondent, or anything, because that would be disobeying orders, and at sea we respect orders from mates. And anything can be shattered with a laugh. Remember what dear old Satan said about that, in The Mysterious Stranger? “Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution–these can lift at a colossal humbug–push it a little–weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Besides, it’s Good to be alive and healthy and young, wherever you are, or whatever you’re doing; and there are wonderful things even in the newspapers. In the last Herald Tribune Magazine there were a couple of pictures which an astronomer-artist-engineer had painted of the planet Mars, viewed form one of its own moons. Could anything be more glamorous than that?

Yours for fair winds,

Barbara.

In Defense of Butterflies

Published in the February, 1933, issue of The Horn Book Magazine

In Defense of Butterflies
by Barbara Newhall Follett

A flash of black and orange outside the upstairs window; I sprang up, leaving arithmetic problems to solve themselves. “Butterfly!” I yelled, for the information of anyone who wanted to know. I grabbed my net and raced outdoors. A butterfly as lustrous as the one that had just sailed by was a tremendous adventure. Ever so much more exciting than arithmetic! what did anyone care about stodgy old numbers when the sun was shining and there were butterflies about?

I chased the shining wings over to a big red rhododendron bush. He hovered at the top of it, sampling flowers ruminatively, then swooped off toward the wide green field, I after him, net in hand, with all the energy of any healthy nine-year-old who wants very badly to capture a large black and orange butterfly.

My collection! Sheets and sheets of paper, a good-sized manuscript. But where were the butterflies? They were all safe and free, playing out in the field in the sunlight, communing subtly with buttercups. This butterfly collection did not consist of dry, faded wings. I had typewritten long, detailed descriptions of these iridescent friends, not couched in entomological terms, because I knew none, but in the prettiest words I could conjure up. While I was writing one of these portraits, the butterfly itself would flutter under a sieve placed beside my typewriter. When the last shining spot or stripe had been carefully recorded I would set him free once more.

By this time I was able to typewrite fast and accurately enough so that I enjoyed it immensely. It seemed to me a very efficient, logical, and delightful way of getting things said. Furthermore, at that time I was beginning to find a good deal that I wanted to talk about. When I discovered beauty in bird-songs, apple-blossoms, music, sunsets (but chiefly butterflies), I yearned to put it into tangible form so that I could keep it, hold it, understand it. I wrote masses of stuff, about everything under the sun, just for the pleasure and relief it gave me. This relief I could not have had in any other way. Handwriting would have been out of the question at that time, except for an occasional painfully scrawled line or two.

My little battered “portable” grew to be my best friend–with the possible exception of the butterflies. It was a constant companion, and the most important thing in my life. When I was happy or sad, ecstatic or anxious, I flew to the typewriter and poured my heart to it. It produced thousands of letters for me. It ticked off small stories and snatches of verse. A good many yards of its black ribbon went for purely fanciful purposes–a prodigious waste of time, if one believes that time spent happily is ever wasted.

It gave me hours of good practice in descriptive writing. Beside the butterflies, I kept a collection of sunsets. I would sit ensconced at a west window with the typewriter, feeling very much in touch with cosmic affairs, and write about the changes in color and cloud shapes as they took place. New Hampshire woods in the summer were full of things to be described. No sooner did I see light breaking silver on wet leaves, a smooth little red lizard in green moss, or some of Mr. de la Mare’s fairies ducketing among wild flowers, than I could write–write joyously about it all. And I was very happy.

Eventually daydreams took the form of a story, which grew into a small book, “The House without Windows.” This was the first more or less permanent result of the thousands of words I had typed since I was four years old. I don’t know anything about the importance of this story, in a literary sense; but it was important to me in that I had a great deal of fun writing it, editing, reading it in actual, honest-to-goodness galley proof, and eventually seeing it bound and sent out mysteriously into the world. (All this was in the happy, happy days before I awoke to learn that good writing does not flow like a singing brook, but must be hammered and beaten drop by drop from the heart’s blood!)

But beside daydreams and butterflies, the typewriter recorded faithfully actual events, such as mountain trips, canoe trips–thus taking the place of drawing or photography. From a ten-day voyage in a three-masted schooner, another small book was created, “The Voyage of the Norman D.” And of course, when my mother and I sailed on our very romantic roamings about the West Indies and the South Seas, our typewriters were our most important articles of baggage. As a matter of fact, they took the place of pocket-books!

I do not mean to imply that these two books were the most important result of my having learned to typewrite, or of my desire to write intensely about whatever entered my head. I should feel the same about the importance of the typewriter even if I had never written as much as a single word that would be permanent.

Too many people have for too long thought of the typewriter as an instrument or purely commercial value. I want to stress the point that for me that was the least of its values. It was not until after twelve years of intimate association with it that i made any use of its commercial value in an office. And this seemed decidedly a more tawdry use of its magic. Its beauty for me lay in the fact that it gave me a way to talk, to describe butterflies fluently and neatly–a way to keep my butterflies without putting pins through their shimmering wings.

I was gloriously free to talk about whatever I wished, whatever I considered important or beautiful. So I began to explore fare and wide in search of still more beauty which I could set down and make my own. I thought about flowers, and learned their names. I watched leaves and light, water and clouds more carefully. I listened for familiar bird-songs. I became acquainted with ferns and mosses, small flickering fishes in the lake, squirrels and chipmunks rustling the leaves. My typewriter was the efficient medium through which I poured out a young adoration of nature.

And then, somehow, the whole thing broke. I no longer could rattle off pages about anything that interested me. Writing began to involve an anguish of concentration, word by word production, revision, much rewriting and rearranging. The spontaneity and fluency were lost for me on the day I longed for sentences to be more perfect, words better chosen, paragraphs more artistically put together. I set for myself a standard which I was never able to reach. I should never again be able to sit down casually and innocently beside a sieve to describe a butterfly. I was gradually growing up, and it wasn’t much fun. It made the writing problem all of a sudden strangely complex and difficult.

But even now the typewriter did not fail me. It patiently limped back and forth across the pages with me. It was made to retrace its steps, to cross out words it had labored over, two write between the lines. Often an unfinished page would be torn from it impatiently, and we would have to start all over. And it very seldom lost its temper!

Sometimes, when I am in the throes of wrestling some beastly paragraph, I stop and sigh for the days when I could put words together as fast as my fingers could tap the keys. And I’m ore and more positive that having a typewriter during all that time was the best thing that could have happened to me. I have often wondered what would happen if every child of four were given a typewriter to work and play with. Knowing nothing about education or psychology or children of four, I couldn’t even venture a guess. Perhaps there would simply be a terrific wholesale destruction of typewriters. An effort would have to be made to impress upon children that a typewriter is magic, and a thing to be handled with gentle reverence. But seriously, I wonder if any child in the world would  not find his life more full of meaning and of beauty, if he could have at his command a means of setting down the things he feels and enjoys.

Once I attended for a short time an up-to-date business school. I was rather dismayed when I saw how typewriting was being taught. It was terrifying to look at rows and rows of big belligerent business typewriters, without a single letter on a single key–blank, mute, expressionless. You knew, theoretically, where the letters were. You didn’t look at the keyboard anyhow. This, along with many charts on the wall, dreary exercise books, etc., constituted the modern “touch” system. Learning to typewrite was a matter of hard work and deadly earnest.

I smiled as I remembered how I had learned to typewrite. I hadn’t even known the letters of the alphabet for very long at that time. I could spell only a few simple words. Hands were so very insignificant that only the forefingers were strong enough to stand the strain of tapping typewriter keys. I began by writing my favorite words, notable “butterfly” and “clock.” Gradually, of course, I learned the proper fingering, and developed familiarity with the keyboard. But at no time was the typewriter a matter of dull, deadly drudgery and practice; it was never less than sheer delightful magic.

I should think, then, that the earlier a child can learn to handle a typewriter, the better. At seven or eight years old, the enchantment of butterflies (using the word now as a symbol of anything and everything) begins to come with a wild rush. With a typewriter, something can be done about it. Those first young appreciations of beauty can be cared for and made to grow, instead of being forced to fend for themselves in silence and perhaps to grow dim or fade out altogether.

Just what use now are all those pages of nature-worship I wrote long ago? I cannot answer that for sure, but I venture the suspicion that such things as leaves and flowers, mountains and rivers, and especially butterflies, mean very much more to me know that they would have meant if I had been forced, through lack of a proper tool, into mere passive acceptance. I should not, perhaps, been lured out over the fields in pursuit of brighter and rarer butterflies, had I not known that it was in my power to make them forever my own–immortal, as it were. And I imagine that the same holds true for many other things. This seems to hint at the rather momentous conclusion that perhaps all of life has for me been subtly affected, brightened, because it was never dammed up and forgotten, but given a constant outlet and stimulation through that little old “portable” or mine. Life was a running brook, instead of a tranquil pool. And if this is true of me, why not of others?

Perhaps this is a mere fanciful theory, which any educational expert would at once disprove. Anyway, I still like butterflies. And–but don’t tell anyone–I still don’t know their Latin names. I doubt very much if they need Latin names.