In this edition of Conversations with the Artist, editor Glenn Hovemann chats with Jeannine Atkins, author of Girls who Looked Under Rocks. Jeannine writes of Maria Sibylla Merian, who sailed from Europe to South American in 1699 to study and paint insects; Anna Comstock, the first woman professor at Cornell and founder of the movement to teach nature in schools; Frances Hammerstrom, who left a modeling career to study wildlife on the prairies; Miriam Rothschild, who let her mansion grow wild with the weeds that butterflies prefer; Rachel Carson, who told the world how chemical use can upset the balance of nature; and Jane Goodall, whose study of chimpanzees shows that the differences between some animals and humans may not be as great as previously thought.
Glenn: Jeannine, were you a girl who looked under rocks?
Jeannine: Yes! I was lucky to grow up besides woods, which seemed big at the time, where I was allowed to wander alone. As an adult I live by another patch of pinewoods, which my dogs insist we walk through every day. Even though I’m there often, small creatures or plants still take me by surprise.
Glenn: Is writing your way as an adult to continue looking and wondering?
Jeannine: Yes! Writing means I have to pay close attention to the world, including the world on the page, and the more I see, the more I find to write about.
Glenn: What gave you the idea for Girls Who Looked Under Rocks?
Jeannine: When I was a girl, I liked to pretend that I was someone from another time, such as writer Louisa May Alcott, soldier and saint Joan of Arc, or a pioneer girl like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Back then, I didn’t know the names of any of the naturalists I wrote about in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks. I wondered if my life would have been different if I’d known that a girl besides (the wonderful!) Marie Curie could grow up to be a scientist, and so I wrote the book for girls like me.
Glenn: There are at least two themes in your book. One is the magnificent obsession with the natural world, and the other is how girls in particular, especially in earlier times, had to push past a lot of resistance and obstacles to pursue science.
Jeannine: It’s always good to hear from readers that books have a theme, so thank you! My writing process is messy and long. I put many words on paper before choosing stories that I hope will give the essence of a great life. I think the love these naturalists had for their work kept them going when others suggested they couldn’t or shouldn’t. They listened to the natural world as well as to people, and while bees, prairie chickens, chimpanzees, fleas, and other beings don’t speak English, I feel certain they gave their observers messages to keep on.
Glenn: Some of the women naturalists you write about in Girls are well known, like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. But others are not well known at all, like Maria Merian and Anna Comstock. How did you find out about them sufficiently to really write about them, especially as children?
Jeannine: Writing about women from history often brings me to my next subject, as one life may bump into another. Both Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall wrote beautifully about their own experiences, and expressed thanks to those who taught them, which led me on paths back. For instance, Rachel Carson’s mother used Anna Comstock’s massive book to answer her daughter’s scientific questions, and since Anna Comstock had been a respected professor, her letters and notes had been saved. While a woman such as Maria Sibylla Merian isn’t a household name now, she was highly respected in her day, then essentially forgotten. I love doing the “detective work” of going back to buried records of achievement.
Glenn: Anything else you want to add?
Jeannine:I just spoke about loving researching and writing, which is absolutely true. But I might add another layer and say that doesn’t mean that I race to my writing table with glee every day. I have days of discouragement or running into dead ends or times when people question my goals. But I wouldn’t trade my life. When I get stuck, I look out the window, where this January morning chickadees and woodpeckers fly from snow to bushes to feeder. It’s their work, and it’s lovely, and soon my eyes turn back to the screen and I try out another sentence.