Nature's Ways: Lore, Legend, Fact and Fiction

Nature's Ways: Lore, Legend, Fact and Fiction

by Ruth Binney
Nature's Ways: Lore, Legend, Fact and Fiction

Nature's Ways: Lore, Legend, Fact and Fiction

by Ruth Binney


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Trying to understand the ways of the natural world has been a human preoccupation since the earliest times. The knowledge of which animals were helpful and which were dangerous, which plants had the power to heal and soothe and which to harm and kill was of obvious importance, not only to learn, but to remember and pass on.

It is therefore hardly surprising that from all corners of the earth, a wealth of stories, signs, symbols, myths and legends about animals and plants have been passed down to us. There are sound principles in some of the traditional advice, wisdom in many of the stories and observations of nature, but there are also highly fanciful superstitions, tall stories and amusing anecdotes. Ruth Binney has collected them all into this entertaining and fascinating volume.

Nature's Ways is a fascinating and absorbing miscellany of traditional wisdom, stories, signs and symbols of the natural world. There are intriguing tales of everything from mythical monsters and magical plants to domestic pets and humble weeds, as well as generations of advice, both sound and dubious, from age-old country remedies to predicting the weather through the observation of nature.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780715334218
Publisher: F+W Media
Publication date: 10/27/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Ruth Binney has been studying the countryside and nature for over 50 years. She holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University and has been involved in countless publications during her career as an editor. She lives near Weymouth, Dorset.

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The characters of animals have become an integral part of our descriptive language. Owls are wise and lions are brave; bears are strong and monkeys mischievous. As they were establishing the first civilizations, humans must have quickly come to recognize which of the creatures who shared their world were harmful and dangerous and which were useful – whether to guard their homes, as means of transport, or as sources of food.

So strongly embedded are the supposed characters of many animals that the ancients believed these creatures to be the embodiments of deities or to be closely linked with them. In countless tales told down the ages – and, of course, in the Bible – the powers of animals are colourfully recounted, often with some kind of moral attached. As a result it has become only natural to think of snakes as evil (though they can also be good), of rats as dirty and of donkeys as stupid. From their typical behaviour, and their place in lore and legend, certain animals have also become symbolic of all kinds of attributes. So the dove is a bird of peace, the eagle an emblem of victory and the swan the symbol of pure beauty.

In folklore, animals can do almost anything. They can be friends and foes to the people with whom they share the planet, and can talk to each other with ease. They can be evil witches and devils in disguise and the objects of hate and opprobrium. They can bring good luck and bad. In real life they can, as our domestic pets, be our dearest companions, to the point of sheer worship, even helping to heal our ills.


Since ancient times birds, because of their keen eyesight and aerial view of the world, have been linked with wisdom and knowledge. Owls and ibises are believed to be especially wise.

A wise old owl sat in an oak, The more he saw the less he spoke, The less he spoke the more he heard, Wasn't that owl a wise old bird?

In the days of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the owl was linked with the wizard Merlin, and was customarily depicted on his shoulder. The 'real' Merlin was probably a Celtic bard.

Thus runs the children's rhyme (which is as much a lesson in listening as on the good sense of the owl, and has the alternative last line 'Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?'). However the owl's association with knowledge stems largely from the fact that the bird was companion to Athene, Greek goddess of wisdom, sciences and arts. So strong was the connection that Athenian coins bearing the head of the goddess on one side were marked on the other with an owl and an olive branch (symbol of peace and plenty) from the tree believed to have been given to the earth by Athene. However, there is no known link between the owl's symbolic wisdom and its naturally 'bespectacled' knowing looks.

In the Christian tradition, the owl is associated with St Jerome, who was described as the fountain of wisdom, a reputation earned from the fact that he was a translator of the Bible and the foremost biblical scholar of his day.

In ancient Egypt the god Thoth, creator and commander of the universe, god of writing and knowledge, protector of scribes and keeper of the records of the dead, was commonly depicted with the body of a man and the head of an ibis, whose reputation for wisdom may have stemmed from its annual arrival in Egypt at the time of the Nile's inundation. Later, Thoth became linked with keepers of dangerous secrets and the occult.


The crocodile is the embodiment of hypocrisy – the creature who 'smiles' at you, then gobbles you up. The alligator (early writing made no distinction between the two) is equally feared.

It is a widespread urban legend that alligators inhabit the sewers of New York. They are said to be adult versions of small, rejected pets bought in Florida and flushed down toilets.

The crocodile, described by a 16th-century explorer as 'cowardly on land, cruel in the water', was said to lure its prey with moaning sounds then, having devoured its meal, shed tears of false remorse. Its hypocritical habits are wonderfully evoked by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene, in these lines depicting the meeting of 'a weary traveller' and his attacker,

Outwitting the crocodile:It takes the cunning of a fox to foil a crocodile, as in this South African folktale. A big crocodile was killing sheep, cattle and people, and the king called a meeting to see how it might be banished. Fox jumped up and said: 'O King, I am small but wisdom surpasses bravery. Why do you wait for your enemy to grow strong? What do I do? I eat crocodiles while they are still in the eggs. Get rid of your enemy before he is stronger than you.'

Which, in false griefe hyding his harmfull guile, Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender teares: The foolish man, that pitties all this while His mournfull plight, is swallowed up unwares ...

Crocodiles do certainly make mournful noises, though their 'tears' are thought by zoologists to be the creature's natural mechanism for shedding excess salt rather than revealing their temperament. And not all who approach are attacked. After feeding, the Nile crocodile will lie with its huge mouth agape and allow small plovers or 'crocodile birds' to clean its mouth, teeth and throat.


Birds in the crow family, especially magpies, crows, ravens, jays and jackdaws, have a deserved reputation as nature's thieves – and one is the subject of a well-loved opera.

Ravens were long feared as harbingers of death. In The Jew of Malta Marlowe refers to 'The sad presaging raven, that tolls/The sick man's passport in her hollow beak.'

Shiny objects, including money and jewellery, are attractive to these birds, and have led to many stories, including the true one on which Rossini's opera The Thieving Magpie is based. In it, a servant girl is executed for stealing from her master but, after her death, it is discovered that the magpie was in fact to blame.

Another story is told by Jonathan Swift in Thoughts on Various Subjects of 1711: 'An old miser kept a tame jackdaw, that used to steal pieces of money, and hide them in a hole, which the cat observing, asked why he would hoard up those round shining things that he could make no use of? "Why," said the jackdaw, "my master has a whole chest full, and makes no more use of them than I."'

The corvines are relentless stealers of other birds' eggs and chicks. They nest in colonies of 20 or more birds, using church towers, mills, and the like – any building with a cavity that gives shelter and shade – from where they will sally forth on foraging expeditions.


Everything about the fox's looks and behaviour portray an expert in cunning. This inveterate night hunter will trick its pursuers by tracking in circles and even by making friends with the dogs trained to chase it down.

Legends of many lands relate that the vixen is a sorceress in disguise, lurking in the forests and sometimes assuming the looks of a beautiful woman who, once she had cast her evil spell, changed to animal form.

Farmer and fox have long had an uneasy relationship. As plunderer of poultry the fox is a hated enemy, but he also catches the rabbits and other vermin that destroy crops. It's nature is contradictory – it is both destructive and creative, bold but timid, defensive yet at ease in almost any environment, from open fields to city streets.

The fox figures widely in fables. In Aesop's story 'The Fox and the Crane' the two creatures are apparently on good terms. Fox invites the bird to share a meal, but for a joke serves soup in flat dishes. Fox laps it up with ease but Crane cannot eat. Crane then invites Fox to dine and serves soup in long-necked bottles, which only Crane, with his long bill, can reach. The moral of the tale is that turning the tables is fair play.


The cunning of the fox is cemented into the English language in dozens of sayings, including:

• When the fox preaches, then beware your geese.

• It is an ill sign for a fox to lick a lamb.

• The fox preys farthest from his home.

• An old fox is not easily snared.

• If you deal with a fox, think of his tricks.


Many animal characters take on the role of tricksters, able to behave and talk like humans. With the coyote and the wolf such stories undoubtedly arise from observations of the natural cunning that helps these creatures survive in the wild.

The 'wolf in sheep's clothing' is the trickster in disguise. To 'cry wolf' is to set up a false alarm, like the shepherd boy who cried 'Wolf!' to taunt his neighbours then (with them) was eaten up when the animal really came calling, because no one any longer believed his repeated warnings.

No doubt the character and behaviour of the real animals led to their characterization as tricksters. Typical is the contradictory ferocity and skulking cowardice of wolves, including the prairie wolf or coyote. Among Native Americans, stories about this creature abound, with the trickster always on the lookout for opportunities to get his way. Typical is the story of 'Coyote and the Dancing Ducks':

One day, Coyote saw a flock of ducks by a lake. How he fancied a nice duck dinner! He stuffed a bag full of grass and walked past the ducks, singing a catchy tune. 'What's in the bag?' asked a duck. 'Songs,' replied Coyote. 'Please sing your songs for us,' implored the ducks. After much pleading, Coyote agreed, but only if the ducks stood in three lines with the fattest at the front, then closed their eyes and danced and sang as loudly as they could. So Coyote moved up and down the line, thumping the ducks on the head and stuffing the stunned birds into his bag. But one scrawny duck at the back opened his eyes, saw what was going on, and shouted a warning. At this, the surviving ducks made their getaway. Coyote was happy – he had plenty to eat. The ducks went home and mourned their dead, and gave thanks to the Great Duck that one of them had been wise enough to open his eyes, and that the rest had been wise enough to listen to the one who had raised the alarm.


It was once believed that the porcupine could transfix its enemies by shooting its spines at them. Though this is fanciful, the creature retains its place in folklore as an animal never to be underestimated. The hedgehog is another animal that it is prudent to approach with caution.

If you grow fruit, beware – at night, a hedgehog will carry off both apples and grapes on its prickles. And farmers accuse hedgehogs of milking cows during the hours of darkness.

The porcupine's reputation for 'killer quills' probably comes from the fact that if one of its spines becomes embedded in an enemy it is easily shed by the porcupine but, being barbed, is difficult, if not impossible to remove. A porcupine in full attack raises its spines and rattles them together, stamping its feet. The charge is not made head on: instead the creature reverses at speed, ramming its quills into its victim.

As a character in Native American tales, Porcupine regularly encounters other masters of subterfuge, including Coyote. One popular Plains Indian story relates how Porcupine, wanting a meal and also needing to cross a stream, hitches a ride with a buffalo. He is cunning enough to wait until he has been helped across before killing his carrier, but he is out-witted by Coyote. The two have a contest to see who will get the meat, agreeing,

Shakespeare called the hedgehog the 'hedge-pig' because of the snorting sounds it makes. These, in folklore, are warnings that ghouls and ghosts are on the prowl.

at Coyote's suggestion, that whoever manages to jump over the carcass shall have it. Coyote, of course, jumps over but short-legged Porcupine cannot. In revenge Porcupine kills Coyote's children.


The 19th-century poem by Mary Howitt that begins '"Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly' sums up the spider's cunning in luring its prey into its web. These creatures, feared by many to the point of phobia, get their name from the Old English wordspithra,a spinner.

'Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude' was the tagline of the 1990 movie Arachnophobia, in which a South American killer spider hitches a lift to the US in a coffin and starts to breed and kill.

In West Africa, where it's said, 'The wisdom of the spider is greater than that of all the world put together', the supreme trickster is the spider Anansi. People also say: 'Woe to him who would put his trust in Anansi – a sly, selfish and greedy fellow.' One story relates how a farmer put a gum doll (a kind of sticky scarecrow) in a field to stop his crops being stolen. Confronted with the doll, Anansi kicked him, but his feet and hands got stuck. Finding his thief, the farmer beat Anansi until his body was flat, and had the mark of the cross on his back.

The arachnids, the zoological group to which spiders belong, are named from the spider's association with Arachne, a Greek girl who was renowned for her skill at spinning and weaving. When she dared to challenge the goddess Athene to a weaving contest, the tactless Arachne completed a wonderful depiction of the loves of the gods. Consumed with fury at her rival's skill, Athene changed Arachne into a spider, condemning her to a life of eternal weaving.


Protect spiders and their webs because:

• When Jesus was born in a manger, he was protected by a spider's web.

• Sweep a spider out of the door and you will sweep away your luck.

• Spiders and cobwebs in stables prevent horses from going lame.

• 'If in life you want to thrive,/Let a spider run alive'.

• A spider's web on a boat will prevent the craft from sinking.


In lore and legend the whale is renowned more for its symbolic association with rebirth than for its sheer size. And the ancient practice of whaling is surrounded by ritual.

The 'whalebone' used in women's corsetry for nipping in the waist from the early 17th century was not bone at all, but horny baleen. This hangs like combs along the sides of the whale's mouth, and the creature uses it to filter vast quantities of krill and other plankton from the sea.

Whether or not the big fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah in the Bible story was a whale, the two remain inextricably linked. Though ordered by God to travel to Nineveh to reprimand its people for their wickedness, Jonah instead boarded a boat sailing across the Mediterranean. When the ship hit a storm Jonah confessed that this might be God's revenge on him for his disobedience, and was tossed into the sea by the sailors – where he was swallowed by a 'fish'. Despite his pleas to the Almighty, Jonah was kept captive in the animal's stomach for three days. Once free, Jonah completed his mission to Nineveh, where God forgave the people and saved them from destruction.

In medieval allegory Jonah's ordeal became symbolic of the three days which passed between Christ's death and resurrection, when he was believed to be in a dark place 'under the earth'.


Though whaling is now banned in many parts of the world, customs like these reflect past practice:

• Before a whaling expedition, sprinkling ashes on the ice will dispel evil spirits and protect the whalers.

• To celebrate a catch, a whaler's wife and children should dance within a circle made from the bones of a whale.

• After a whale has been killed there must be three days of mourning, ending with a ritual return to the sea of any remaining flesh, so that both the spirit and the body of the animal may be reborn.


In Christian symbolism the pelican is the bird of charity, a tradition that has arisen from a misinterpretation of both the creature and its behaviour. In some old bestiaries, the pelican was virtually interchangeable with the phoenix.

According to ancient lore the pelican pecks at its breast and makes itself bleed; it is this blood on which the chicks feed. A more embroidered tale relates that the female pelican, provoked to anger by her growing young, kills them. But three days later the father returns to the nest, covers the dead chicks with his wings, smites himself in the chest and pours his blood over them to bring them back to life.


Excerpted from "Nature's Way"
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Copyright © 2006 David & Charles Limited.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, 6,
Animal Ways, 9,
The Power of Plants, 61,
Healthy and Wise, 105,
Predictions and Superstitions, 151,
Of God, Spirits and Monsters, 205,
Index, 250,

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