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We Gathered to Study Nature

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

There are different pathways to conservation, or what Aldo Leopold called the ecological conscience. Youngsters on farms may find the way by hunting, fishing, trapping or simply exploring the back 40. City kids may do so with guidance from good teachers, summer camp counselors and - if truly lucky - from outdoors loving parents.

While growing up in St. Louis 50 years ago, I found yet another pathway. I had good teachers, plus summer camp experiences, but for me there was also the Webster Groves Nature Study Society. As a teenager I took to the WGNSS like a bluegill takes to worms. I became nature-hungry, a compulsive naturalist.

The club recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. WGNSS (sometimes dubbed "Wigness") is not an exclusive club restricted to a particular suburb of St. Louis. Its roster currently boasts 450 members from all corners of Missouri, plus 50 more from out of state. Over the decades it has nurtured interests ranging from geology to astronomy, ichthyology to herpetology, entomology to botany to birds.

The benefits of my joining as a teenager way back in the 1940s were then best expressed by the mother of a schoolmate: "As long as you and Kenny are birding or botanizing, I know you won't get in trouble."

Back then the WGNSS enjoyed leased privileges and its own log cabin on the wooded Ranken estate of St. Louis County (much of which is now the Beaumont Boy Scout Reservation). The cabin had been crafted by WGNSS members in 1929 and furnished with cooking facilities, assorted books on nature plus locally collected pressed plants, insects, fossils and other nature objects.

I was one of several youngsters granted use of the cabin on weekends as a junior member, and none of us dared abuse the privilege. We had been told that a few years before vandals had broken in. And so, in effect, we occasionally served as weekend watchdogs.

Nevertheless, a senior member had put up a sign next to the cabin door with this warning: "Beware of caged snakes." So far as I know, there were no more break-ins during my teenaged years.

In 1947 the St. Louis Boy Scout Council acquired its portion of the Ranken estate, thus terminating all WGNSS privileges to it. The cabin had to be vacated, its furnishings auctioned off, and all nature books plus the collections divided up. The members had temporarily lost their home base.

The WGNSS was founded in 1920

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