Pearls and Pebbles; Or Notes from an Old Naturalist by Catherine Parr Traill (1802-1899) was published by William Briggs in 1894. The publisher’s edition in The Ryerson Press collection is unique in that the production values remain in remarkable condition, considering the book is nearly 125 years old. The cover has a linen base with silver embossed type and an image depicting “the flowers rather than the thorns that had strewn her path”.
The cover image may have been created by Mary Agnes Chamberlain, an artist and niece of Catherine Parr Traill, and daughter of Susanna Moodie. She also illustrated Catherine Parr Traill’s Studies in Plant Life, 1885.
Pearls and Pebbles is a collection of diary excerpts, poems and depictions of flora and fauna in and around the towns and villages of Peterborough, Belleville, and Lakefield, Ontario during the 1800s. Small vignettes of life show a remarkable sensitivity to nature during a lifetime that must have been an arduous and difficult way of life in rural Ontario in the 1800s. There are numerous depictions from her diaries of simple events such as this story of nesting birds:
“Some two years ago a great event happened to a pair of my yellow birds, which ended in a serious disappointment. One warm May morning, as my daughter and I sat sewing on the veranda, a little passing puff of wind blew away some snips of the white material that we had been busy with and carried them among the grass just below the syringa bush, where the foundation of a nest had just been laid by the female bird. Her bright eyes quickly caught sight of the scraps of muslin, and down she came from her perch in the bush and carried off the prize to her nest, coming back and diligently picking up all the bits she could see. Noticing that she was so well pleased with this new building material, we added some more scraps and some tufts of cotton wool to the supply. Charmed with her good fortune, and grown bolder, the pretty creature ventured nearer to us and took all the scraps we chose to scatter for her on the grass.”
The work of building went on so rapidly that in the course of two hours she had constructed a most delicate and dainty looking snow-white nest, and the pair took possession of this novel-looking house with festal song. But ah me! their joy was destined to be of but short duration.
Gang aft a-gley,”
and in the present case so it proved with our pair of little architects.
A heavy thunder-shower came on at noon of the next day. I leave my readers to imagine the result. The fairy-like palace, like all castles in the air, had collapsed, and, “like the baseless fabric of a vision, left but a wreck behind.” However, our brave little birdie cried, “Never say die!” and set to work once more, made wiser by experience, building a more substantial nest in a lilac bush close by; but with a feminine weakness for finery she paid many visits to the frail ruin, selecting such of the more substantial materials among the rags as she found likely to prove useful in binding the walls of the new nest together, but not sufficient to weaken the more suitable articles which she wisely adopted for her work.
The new nest was an excellent specimen of skill, and the bits so judiciously woven in this time proved highly ornamental. I fancied the little builder felt proud of her work when it was finished, and we gave it unqualified praise.
The ruined tenement excited the admiration of a cat-bird. She also had a taste for pretty soft bits of muslin and gay scraps of colored prints; so her ladyship set to work very diligently to repair the now dilapidated nest with the addition of dried fibrous roots, and grass, moss and all sorts of trash, which, with the rags, were, soon wrought up into a substantial nest which formed the receptacle for five bluish-green eggs. But misfortune seemed to cling to the coveted nest, for an accident, which might have ended fatally to the cat-bird, befel her one day. When about to leave the nest her legs became entangled in some loose strings which she had woven among the other materials, and, unable to free herself, she fell down head foremost into the midst of a rosebush, very stout and spiny, out of which she could not extricate herself, but lay fluttering and uttering the most doleful cries, more like the yells of an enraged cat than a bird.
The unusual outcry brought me to the rescue, and at my near approach she ceased her cries, and I truly believe the poor captive looked to me for help. I quickly perceived the cause of her disquiet, and with my scissors soon set her free. With a joyful cry she flew away, and, what seemed to me a remarkable proof of sagacity in the bird, she forsook the nest, never again venturing back to it, though it contained the five blue eggs. She evidently felt it better to forsake them unhatched than run any risk of danger to herself or her little brood. This, at any rate, was my own conclusion on the subject, though it may not have been that of the cat-bird.
While sitting on the eggs, and while the young ones are yet unfledged and helpless, the mother-bird becomes bold and excitable. If anyone approaches too near to her nursery, she flies round the nest with outspread wings uttering strange angry cries, as if resenting the impertinent attempt to pry into her family affairs, and should the intruder venture closer she would no doubt punish him with strokes of her bill and wings.
The cat-bird belongs to the same family as the southern mocking-bird, and by many persons has been known by the name of “False Mocking-bird.”
It is a common idea that the note of the cat-bird is most discordant, like the mewing of an angry cat; but this is, I think, a mistake. The true song of the cat-bird is rich, full and melodious, more like that of the English thrush. In point of fact, this bird is the best songster among the summer visitants in Canada.
I have fully satisfied myself that the harsh, wild squalling cry attributed to the parent birds is that of the young birds when the mother has forsaken them, leaving them to shift for themselves, and, like weaned children, the call is for food and companionship. This is my own observation from watching the birds.
The following is a list of the many publications of Catherine Parr Traill.
- The Tell Tale – 1818
- Disobedience – 1819
- Reformation – 1819
- Nursery Fables – 1821
- Little Downy – 1822
- The Flower-Basket – 1825
- Prejudice Reproved – 1826
- The Young Emigrants – 1826
- The Juvenile Forget-Me-Not – 1827
- The Keepsake Guineas – 1828
- Amendment – 1828
- Sketches from Nature – 1830
- Sketch Book of a Young Naturalist – 1831
- Narratives of Nature – 1831
- The Backwoods of Canada – 1836
- Canadian Crusoes – 1852
- The Female Emigrant’s Guide – 1854
- Lady Mary and Her Nurse – 1856
- Canadian Wild Flowers – 1868
- Studies of Plant Life in Canada, or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain – 1885
- Pearls and Pebbles – 1894
- Cot and Cradle Stories – 1895
After the death of her husband, Thomas, in 1859 Catherine Parr Traill purchased a cottage in 1862 with funds from her publications and named it Westove, after her husband’s old home in the Orkneys and after their first home in the bush on the shores of the Otonabee River, near Peterborough, Ontario. The house still stands on Smith Street in Lakefield, Ontario. An historical plaque marks the location.
Another entry tells the story of how Catherine Parr Traill received a patent for Polly Cow’s Island in the Otonabee River:
“In 1893, hearing of the likelihood of the sale of the little island in Stony Lake where a poor Indian girl was buried, Mrs. Traill wrote to the Department at Ottawa to ask that it should be granted to her. It was not but a tiny island, and her anxiety to preserve the Indian girl’s grave from desecration induced her to take this step. Mr. Sandford Fleming kindly interested himself in her behalf, and the request was granted.“
The downtown campus of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario is named after Catherine Parr Traill. Catharine Parr Traill College is the University’s main college for graduate studies. This remarkable author and naturalist, died in 1899 at Lakefield, Ontario.
Westover, today, is a private residence. A plaque commemorating the life and legacy of Catherine Parr Traill sits on the property.