LOOK AT YOUR FISH

by Samuel H. Scudder

[As printed in: Marlys Mayfield. 1994. Thinking for Yourself:Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through Reading and Writing. Third Ed.Wadsworth: Belmont, California; minor correction of paragraph order from thatversion.]

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of ProfessorAgassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the Scientific School as astudent of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object incoming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed touse the knowledge I might acquire, and, finally, whether I wished to study anyspecial branch. To the latter I replied that, while I wished to be wellgrounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself speciallyto insects. "When do you wish to begin?" he asked.

"Now," I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic "Very well!" he reached from ashelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol. "Take this fish," he said,"and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you haveseen." With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as tothe care of the object entrusted to me.

"No man is fit to be a naturalist," he said, "who does not know how to takecare of specimens."

I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten thesurface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stoppertightly. These were not the days of ground-glass stoppers and elegantly shapedexhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge neckless glassbottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks, half eaten by insects, andbegrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology,but the example of the Professor, who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottomof the jar to produce the fish, was infectious, and though this alcohol had a"very ancient and fishlike smell," I really dared not to show any aversionwithin these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were purewater. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazingat a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home,too, were annoyed when they discovered that no amount of eau-de-Cologne woulddrown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started insearch of the Professor--who had, however, left the Museum; and when Ireturned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upperapartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as ifto resuscitate the beast from a fainting fit, and looked with anxiety for areturn of the normal sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothingwas to be done but to return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half anhour passed --- an hour --- another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. Iturned it over and around; looked it in the face --- ghastly; from behind,beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters' view --- just as ghastly. I wasin despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, withinfinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour Iwas free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the Museum, but hadgone, and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busyto be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideousfish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use amagnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, mytwo eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger downits throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in thedifferent rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happythought struck me --- I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began todiscover new features in the creature.

Just then the Professor returned.

"That is right," said he; "a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad tonotice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked."

With these encouraging words, he added: "Well, what is it like?"

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whosenames were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum;the pores of the head, fleshy lips and lidless eyes; the lateral line, thespinous fins and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I finished,he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment: "You have not looked very carefully; why," he continued more earnestly, "youhaven't even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which isa plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!" and heleft me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I setmyself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another,until I saw how just the Professor's criticism had been. The afternoon passedquickly; and when, towards its close, the Professor inquired:

"Do you see it yet?"

"No," I replied, "I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before."

"That is next best," said he, earnestly, "but I won't hear you now; put awayyour fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in themorning. I will examine you before you look at the fish."

This was disconcerting. Not only must I think of my fish all night, studying,without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature mightbe; but also, without reviewing my discoveries, I must give an exact account ofthem the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by the Charles River ina distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the Professor the next morning was reassuring; herewas a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myselfwhat he saw.

"Do you perhaps mean," I asked, "that the fish has symmetrical sides withpaired organs?"

His thoroughly pleased "Of course! Of course!" repaid the wakeful hours of theprevious night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically ---as he always did --- upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask whatI should do next.

"Oh, look at your fish!" he said, and left me again to my own devices. In alittle more than an hour he returned, and heard my new catalogue.

"That is good, that is good" he repeated; "but that is not all; go on;" and sofor three long days he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to lookat anything else, or to use any artificial aid. "Look, look, look," was hisrepeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had --- a lesson whose influencehas extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the Professorhad left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, whichwe could not buy, with which we cannot part.

The fourth day, a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first andI was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two;another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and awhole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor hadbecome a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old, six-inch,worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories.

The whole group of haemulons was thus brought in review; and whether engagedupon the dissection of the internal organs, the preparation and examination ofthe bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz's trainingin the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement was everaccompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.

"Facts are stupid things," he would say, "until brought into connection withsome general law." At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctancethat I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I had gained by thisoutside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigationin my favorite groups.

A year afterward, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandishbeasts on the Museum blackboard. We drew prancing starfishes; frogs in mortalcombat; hydra-headed worms; stately crawfishes, standing on their tails,bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes with gaping mouths and staringeyes. The Professor came in shortly after, and was as amused as any at ourexperiments. He looked at the fishes.

"Haemulons, every one of them," he said; "Mr. _______ drew them."

True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but haemulons.


A haemulon

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