by Orvetta M. Robinson – Illinois State Museum librarian retired.
With an introductory essay by JohnE. Hallwas – Western Illinois University, retired.
Published in conjunction with the Virginia S. Eifert Exhibit at Western Illinois University Library September – November 1981, Published jointly by Western Illinois University Library and the Illinois State Museum. Copyright 1981 by Western Illinois University Macomb, Illinois.
The illustration and others in this booklet are from the Virginia S. Eifert Collection at Western Illinois University Library and is used by permission.
by John E. Hallwas – Western Illinois University
Virginia S. Eifert, the noted naturalist, author, and artist of Springfield, Illinois, was born on January 23, 1911. In a life that lasted only fifty-five years she produced eighteen volumes of nature writing, cultural history, and biography, along with hundreds of articles on natural history subjects. Long before she died, she had become the most popular and articulate writer on the natural world of Illinois in the state’s history, as well as one of the more well-known nature writers in America.
During the past few years, Western Illinois University Library has assembled an extensive collection of her books, booklets, articles, letters, photographs, and art works in an effort to provide the public with convenient and perpetual access to her legacy. The Virginia S. Eifert Collection has been assembled through the donation of materials by her many friends and admirers. To browse among the literary and artistic works that Mrs. Eifert produced is to develop a greater sensitivity to the natural world, for her main purpose as an author and illustrator was to promote that kind of development.
Some of her finest writing appeared in The Living Museum, the Illinois State Museum publication that she initiated in 1939 and edited until her death in 1966. Month after month, she turned out nature essays of high quality, such as “Day in March” (1963), which concludes with a vivid description of the Illinois countryside at sunset:
“Now at sundown flocks of redwings and grackles stream over in the glow. A robin in the top of a maple sings a brief song. And in the long twilight, while an orange sky lingers behind black trees, the wet black fields with pools of melt-water reflect the dregs of light. Over an orange pool flies a stubby, long-billed bird which whirls upward with a whickering of wings, up, up, against the glow—the woodcock, calling nasally, spirals in its spring evening flight. Horned larks in small groups fly low over the muddy fields to grass clumps for the night, and in the transcendent light of dusk the great glowing body of Venus, the evening planet, is huge and low and bright.”
For Mrs. Eifert, to deeply experience the natural world, by being aware of the various activities and processes going on at a particular place and time, was to live in “the thrilling present” of nature, a realm of “unending mental and physical adventure.” Her vibrant nature writing has encouraged many people to seek that kind of experience.
Virginia Eifert was convinced that sensitivity to nature could be, and should be, taught and that our sense perception could undergo dramatic improvement. Of man’s too-often-neglected auditory ability, for example, she once wrote,
“The sense of hearing is something to be cultivated. It must first spring from a willingness to be aware, of not letting all the sounds out of doors become a blur which merges with the general, rushing undercurrent of the sounds of civilization. To listen—really to listen —is to hear the difference in the night songs of snowy tree crickets and black crickets, in orchard orioles and Baltimore orioles; it is to take note of small sounds of birds flying over on a spring or an autumn night, to hear the pulsations of a bat’s wings swooping past, to distinguish trees by the rustle of their leaves.”
Mrs. Eifert herself exhibited a very heightened perceptual sensitivity, to the frequent amazement of those whom she took on nature walks in the Springfield area and at The Clearing in Door County, Wisconsin.
Moreover, she urged people to become aware of “the powerful, complicated simplicity of nature,” its deep and pervasive symmetry, its repetition of design. In an essay called “The Wave” (1962), for example, she made the following comments:
“The wave breaks on the shore, disperses, draws back, forms, crests, comes forward white-combed, and breaks again as waves have been breaking on shores ever since there were waters and winds and shores, almost as long as the earth itself has existed. As the water draws back—sea-shore, lake-shore, pond-shore, mud-puddle in the path—the waves leave their mark in an undulating pattern. It is like an unwound spiral laid there. The same unwound spiral carves the dunes and rocks. The same wave pattern is plainly designed on many sea shells and in their contours, as if they were ornamented to fit their environment. The trees on the horizon present an undulating line against the sky. So do clouds, the wind over wheat, the course of a stream or river, the leap of a grasshopper, the grace of antelopes, the flight of bats—that same basic wave-form which archaic waters imprinted on beaches long since turned to stone.”