Monday, December 16, 2013

My Hero - Herbert S. Zim

There was a post at the American Birding Association blog recently by Frank Izaguirre taking up the issue of "spark" books. That would be akin to the "spark bird" that birders speak of - the bird that triggered their interest in watching birds as a hobby. I was going to comment there, and I may still, but I can't really associate a single book with my dive into birding.

I'm a bibliophile. My personal library is hovering around 1,100 volumes right now, give or take 50, depending on how you define "book." I grew up in a home that was essentially a library, so books are air and water to me. When I think back on my most treasured possessions as a young child, they're always books.

My original copies.

As a youngster I would have had an avid interest in nature with or without good books. My dad was a naturalist and we lived in the rural mountains of western Pennsylvania. But there were good books, and as a kid nothing caught my attention like the Golden Guides. The spark books for my life as a naturalist were in my hands when I was seven years old: Non-Flowering Plants and Pond Life.

I found a wonderful collection of Golden Guides on a visit to Harris Nature Center's library here in Michigan.

The Golden Guides were intended for primary and secondary school level readers. The beauty of them is that they were not dumbed-down in the slightest. There was nothing cutesy about them, nothing flashy, just good drawings, figures, and facts. Scientific names were used, technical terms were explained - and then used. These books presumed - correctly, I believe - that children's attention could be held by fascinating facts about nature without resorting to a clown-and-flashing-light show. It's hard to find nature books for kids that take that route these days.

The passion and force behind the Golden Guides was a man whose name appeared on the spine of many them, Herbert Spencer Zim.

The one and only photo of the one and only Herbert S. Zim

We don't know a whole lot about Mr. Zim, but a few facts are floating around. He had a PhD from Columbia, taught in public schools for thirty years, and wrote or edited over 100 science books. He introduced laboratory science into the elementary school curriculum. He founded the Golden Guides in 1945 and continued working with them until he began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease around the age of 80 (1990). He died in 1994.

There was a Golden Guide for any topic that could capture a young mind. Reptiles & Amphibians, Landforms, Mexico, Tropical Fish, Cacti, Indian Arts. There were others that were introductions to entire disciplines, rather than just guides. Ecology, Botany, Evolution. Evolution? Yes, Herbert Zim deserved to have a medal pinned on him for that single act - he produced a Golden Guide to evolution! (Credit is due to Frank T. Rhodes who wrote the evolution book as well. Zim was editor-in-chief at the time.)

Just look at the cover art for Ecology and Botany! Is it any wonder I developed a passion for both? The new printings have photos on the front, which is disappointing to me. 

The small guides directed at school children weren't the only popular books to bear ZIM on their spines. The field guide Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim, and Singer first appeared in 1966. Back then, Peterson was pretty much the only game in town when it came to bird field guides. I remember the Golden Guide being the official bird guide in my house for feeder watching. While it doesn't measure up to most modern guides, it's still a pretty good book. After not looking at it for more than two decades, I picked one up a couple years ago as my birding hobby was becoming rabid. I'd seen a new birder carrying one at Magee Marsh in Ohio. I tactfully suggested some options for more modern and serviceable guides to the man, but if the Golden Guide is what got him out in the swamp with some dime-store binoculars, who am I to do anything but salute? He'll have a Sibley guide and Zeiss bins in a year or two. And more importantly, he'll care about preserving birds and habitat. Pin another medal on Herb Zim.

The art of Arthur Singer was a staple of any bird books Zim edited or wrote.
 It doesn't take much to capture the imagination of a school kid. Pond Life and a dip net likely got at least a couple wetlands ecologists on their life's path. Kids don't need flashing images. They don't need the smallest words possible. And, guess what! Adults don't either. Here's a toast to folks like Herbert Zim who recognized that. He respected young minds and impressionable minds of all ages. And he nurtured them.

In the preservation and proliferation of any craft, discipline, or passion, the highest calling is to teach.

Herbert Zim taught.

A battle-scarred copy of Birds of North America from the collection of my wife's late grandfather. Today it resides with exalted company - where it absolutely belongs. 


  1. What an interesting person and life. Amazing that Zim was able to do so much while maintaining a teaching career. Is the bog named after him?

  2. That's the same thing my wife asked! No, it isn't. At least I don't think it is. The bog is named for the towns of Sax and Zim and Herbert Zim lived in California, New York, and Florida, so doesn't seem likely. There is a Zim Sod company. That's a great name.

  3. Nice tribute/bio to HS Zim. I too grew up on Golden Nature Guides. My old copies (Orchids, Butterflies, Insects) fell apart from too much use. I'm sure they had a formative influence on me: I'm a botanist.

  4. Your writing brought back great memories of my formative years in the wild, and the wonderful books that guided my way. Pond Life was my bible, but other favorites included Fossils (I made my own collector's bag based on the recommendations in the book), Reptiles & Amphibians, Birds, Mammals, Insects, Fishes...oh, heck - I loved them all. Well, I must admit - I struggled with Spiders and Their Kin. HA!

  5. Interesting blog.