Given current events, hunting moths in a swamp sounded like a better idea than I would have thought possible, so I downloaded Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1909 novel A Girl of the Limberlost. Like her impossibly noble heroine, Elnora Comstock, Stratton-Porter enthusiastically explored the Limberlost, a vast region in northeastern Indiana rich in plants and animals. Stratton-Porter built a multimedia career by sharing her encounters with nature in books, photographs, and films, playing a vital role in the conservation movement and expanding ideas about what girls and women could do with their lives.
Even as Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) wrote about the Limberlost, it was under threat. Developers wanted to drain its swamps for farmland, cut down its trees, and mine its deposits. While Stratton-Porter’s pen didn’t prevent the incursion, it did call attention to endangered wilderness, and her novels and nature studies inspired other writers to take up the cause, many of them women. Ultimately, Stratton-Porter’s writing was instrumental in the restoration of several hundred acres of the original Limberlost. Today those lands are part of Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve.
“Little Bird Woman”
Time has erased Stratton-Porter’s name from bestseller lists, but her books were hugely popular with young readers and parents, who admired the wholesome lessons and exemplary protagonists. Writing in a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, Kathryn Aalto compared the Progressive Era author’s success to that of J.K. Rowling, noting, “Only 55 books published between 1895 and 1945 sold upwards of one million copies,” and Gene Stratton-Porter wrote five of them. By the time Stratton-Porter died in a car accident at age 61, she had redefined the landscape for women as dramatically as 20th-century development changed her beloved Limberlost.
Geneva Stratton, the youngest of 12 children, was a born naturalist. Aalto describes her unlikely kinship with hundreds of birds nesting on the family farm, delivering insects and worms to more than 60 nests, learning birds’ calls and cultivating their trust to the point that birds approached her without fear. The Strattons nicknamed her “Little Bird Woman,” a name that would reappear in her fiction. The natural world was the starting point for everything Stratton-Porter undertook professionally.
At 21, she married Charles Dorwin Porter, despite her misgivings about the effect of marriage on women’s lives. However, Porter, a wealthy banker 13 years her senior, was a good match for the ambitious Stratton. The couple moved to northeastern Indiana, where Porter ran a bank and "Gene" had access to the territory she’d use in writing fiction and nonfiction.
A Girl of the Limberlost follows Elnora’s struggle through adolescence. She is determined to go to high school in town, and on to college, despite having no money for clothes or books, and receiving no encouragement from her widowed mother.
Elnora’s father drowned in the swamp when she was an infant, and her mother, Kate, the novel’s most complex character, mysteriously blames the tragedy on her daughter. She belittles and mocks Elnora’s efforts to earn money and sabotages her efforts to get an education. Well into the book, this behavior is explained and Kate reforms, but by then she has been so despicable that it’s hard to trust the transformation.
The text is littered with phrases like “hard knocks” and “a bully little chap,” which were relatively new a century ago and have now become everyday speech or long ago fell out of use. While the inguistic texture gives a sense of the period, Stratton-Porter’s dialogue can be stilted. This is even more noticeable compared with the writer's eloquent descriptions of setting, for instance, Elnora’s first sight of a high-school assembly: “Elnora stared into the largest room she ever had seen. The floor sloped to a yawning stage on which a band of musicians, grouped around a grand piano, were tuning their instruments … a bevy of daintily clad, sweet-smelling things that might have been birds, or flowers, or possibly gaily dressed, happy young girls, pushed her forward.
In one of the book’s funny exchanges, between Elnora and a young lawyer, the author’s dated language makes a point that still resonates with women:
“Oh, all girls want to go to college,” said Philip. “It’s the only proper place to learn bridge and embroidery; not to mention midnight lunches of mixed pickles and fruit cake, and all the delights of sororities.”
“I have thought for years of going to college,” said Elnora, “but I have never thought of any of those things.”
Novels and nature studies
Stratton-Porter often uses sound to create a sense of place: “Back in the deep woods a hermit thrush was singing his chant to the rising sun. Orioles were sowing the pure, sweet air with notes of gold, poured out while on wing. The robins were only chirping now, for their morning songs had awakened all the other birds an hour ago. Scolding red-wings tilted on half the bushes.”
Though she made use of her audience’s ears, Stratton-Porter knew the value of showing how things looked, and enthusiastically embraced visual media to bring nature to people. Upon receiving a camera from Charles and their daughter Jeannette, she took up photography, creating a darkroom at home and toting ladders, ropes, and heavy glass plates into the swampy woods on horseback. And when disappointed by the films other people made of her books, the family moved to southern California so she could establish Gene Stratton-Porter Productions.
When Elnora’s benefactor, the Bird Woman, explains why she collects butterflies and moths, she doubtless speaks for the author herself: “We Limberlost people must not be selfish with the wonders God has given to us. We must share with those poor cooped-up city people the best we can.”