Rediscovering Virginia Eifert

When I was researching my 4H speeches last year on endangered/nearly extinct birds, I came across the writings of American nature writer, naturalist, and artist Virginia Eifert (1911-1966). She was an amazingly prolific writer, an early conservationist, and a strong believer in outdoor education, but it seems that few people — even passionate outdoors types — know about her nowadays.

I love the opportunity to rediscover amazing naturalists, because it’s like finding hidden treasure. And these are people who have blazed a path for the rest of us. And because Mrs. Eifert was a writer, an artist, and a photographer — three things I’m working hard on besides my birding — she is a great example for me. If you want to see what I mean, just look at this example from one of Virginia’s journals when she was 16,

A page from Virginia's 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

A page from Virginia’s 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

And I thought it would be fun to share this special treasure, and help remember someone who in her lifetime was “one of the more well-known nature writers in America”, according to her biography by John E. Hallwas of Western Illinois University. You can find the biography, as well as some of her essays, and some of her books which are now available as Kindle editions after being out-of-print for a long time, at a website maintained by Mrs. Eifert’s son Larry Eifert, an artist.

Professor Hallwas also wrote “The Achievement of Virginia E. Seifert” in 1978, which includes some more information. Mrs. Eifert lived and wrote in Illinois and became an expert on nature and wildlife in the state. She was born in Springfield on January 23, 1911, the oldest of three children. Her mother “had a lively interest in nature” and they spent lots of time outdoors, enjoying picnics and excursions. Virginia learned at an early age that nature could be found nearby — some of their favorite destinations were nearby city parks. In fact, according to her sister, Virginia “practically grew up in Washington Park”. Until her last year of high school, Virginia spent a great deal of her time outdoors, and at school, where her favorite subjects were nature study, writing, and art. Her favorite books were nature titles by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Gene Stratton Porter.

But in her senior year, she contracted an illness which was probably rheumatic fever, though it wasn’t accurately diagnosed at the time. She was confined to her room, where the only nature available to her was what she could see from her window. And she never finished high school. However, according to Professor Hallwas, with information from her younger sister,

The time of her confinement may actually have accelerated her learning, however, for the number of library books on nature that she read during that period was enormous. Writing and drawing helped to fill the long hours of physical inactivity. She slowly regained her strength, but the disease left her with a legacy of heart damage that eventually shortened her life.

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

After Virginia recovered, around the age of 19, she became very busy with a number of writing projects. The family’s neighbor, the editor of The Illinois State Journal, invited Virginia to write an unpaid nature column, which she did on a number of subjects — “Beautiful Springfield”, “The Christmas Stars”, “The Laws of Nature”, “Wild Goose Chase”. She also began a paid project, writing and illustrating her mimeographed weekly “Nature News”, which she distributed to regular subscribers for five cents an issue.

Virginia attended Eastern Illinois University for one semester, in 1934-35, taking courses in botany and zoology. Without a high school diploma, she couldn’t enroll in the degree program. But it didn’t matter, because as Prof. Hallwas wrote, “she evidently did not care for a rigorously scientific (non-humanistic, non-artistic) approach to nature.” He added that a fellow student remembered her saying, “I’ll never let science ruin my love of nature.” Prof. Hallwas wrote that while “Virginia gradually developed an enormous understanding of the scientific principles relating to the natural world…. [it] was nature for the sake of a broader general understanding of the world and a more intense appreciation of life that became her central commitment.”

In the early 1930s, Virginia joined the new Springfield Nature League (which would later become the Springfield Audubon Society). She was a contributing editor for the Nature League’s bulletin, conducted hikes, and directed a bird group. And it was through the Nature League that Virginia would meet her husband, Herman Eifert, in 1934. He was a college student then who would become a high school teacher of English, biology, and physiology. They were married two years later, at the summit of Starved Rock, Illinois, at sunrise.

In 1939, Virginia was hired by the Illinois State Museum to write, edit, and illustrate a new promotional publication, The Living Museum. It was a job she would hold until her death in 1966. What began as a four-page, mimeographed leaflet would become a printed, multi-page journal with a circulation of 25,000. Prof. Hallwas wrote that

Virginia was essentially free, for twenty-seven years, to write the kind of essays she wanted to write. Much of her very best writing is within the pages of the 326 issues that she produced, and those essays provide a remarkable record of her interests and development after 1939.

The earliest essays are very short and sometimes end by referring to exhibits in the museum. But Virginia gradually moved away from that format towards lyrical essays that re-created the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. …

The best of her lyrical essays are very poetic indeed, and they are among the finest pieces of descriptive nature writing in American literature.

Prof. Hallwas wrote that Virginia’s writing may have benefitted indirectly from the tenor of the times — “Many of her essays recommended the balm of nature to war-weary readers.” For example, in the 1942 essay “Inevitably, Spring”, Virginia wrote,

The man-made world may seem all wrong, but the natural world is still, reassuringly, comfortingly, the same as it always has been. In spite of headlines, there will soon be meadowlarks and robins, bluebirds and doves. In spite of priorities, the raccoon soon will be dabbling for crawfish in the creek.

From her essays, Virginia branched out to writing and illustrating guidebooks for the museum — Birds in Your Backyard (1941), The Story of Illinois (1943), Flowers That Bloom in the Spring (1947) and so on. From there she moved to full-length books.

Virginia spent much time travelling around the country. In her twenties, she accompanied her younger brother through a number of states in his Model T Ford. From 1957 until her death in 1966, she taught many classes in Wisconsin at The Clearing, an outdoor school for adults in Ellison Bay founded by Jens Jensen in 1935. She also travelled more than 5,000 miles along rivers, on towboats and steamboats. She wrote several books that clearly show her love of America’s rivers: Mississippi Calling (1957), River World: Wild Life of the Mississippi River (1959), Delta Queen: The Story of a Steamboat (1960), and Of Men and Rivers: Adventures and Discoveries along American Waterways (1966). Rivers also feature in some of her biographies for young readers: Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln (illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton), and Louis Jolliet: Explorer of Rivers (1964). In his biography, Prof. Hallwas writes, “For Virginia the exploration of North America was a vast chronicle of discoveries by travelers in the wild who were not really explorers, but writers, artists, and naturalists.”

Over the course of her 55 years, she wrote 18 volumes of nature writing, cultural history, and biography, along with hundreds of articles on natural history subjects for publication such as Audubon Magazine, Nature Magazine, Natural History, and Canadian Nature. I am sure her photographs and illustrations are countless. Almost as if she knew that her life would not be that long, she wrote in River World, six years before she died,

I stand on the shore and know that it was here yesterday, and will be here tomorrow, and that, therefore, since I am a part of its pattern today, I also belong to all its yesterdays and will be part of all its tomorrows. This is a kind of earthly immortality, a kinship with rivers and hills and rocks, with all things and all creatures that have ever lived or have their being on earth. It is my assurance of an orderly continuity in the great design of the universe.

One of my favorite essays by Mrs. Eifert is “These Birds Are America”, on the importance of bird conservation, which was first published in Audubon magazine in 1945 and then reprinted in January 1973 for the publication’s 75th anniversary. It would have been a very powerful article in 1945, even more so in 1973 during the height of the ecology movement, and now, more than 60 years after Mrs. Eifert first wrote it, we more than realize why the work must continue. Just a few months ago, at BirdLife International’s World Congress in Ottawa, “The State of the Birds” report said that declining bird populations around the world provide evidence of a “rapid deterioration in the global environment” that affects all life on earth.

I’ll share that article, “These Birds Are America”, tomorrow, now that you know a little bit about Virginia Eifert and her life.

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