TFN: The War Years

“As members of this club we now commence a new season of fellowship in meeting and field trip. At the recent meeting of your executive committee it was decided unanimously that it would be unwise to cease our activities because of the unhappy struggle into which we are now plunged. Now is the time, if ever, to remind ourselves of the constancy of nature, of eternal beauties, of unchanging truths. So far as we possibly can we should keep ourselves from the contemplation of hostility, horror, and hatred. We have got to deal sometime with a future of settlement and peace. That should never be forgotten, for if it is, we fight to no purpose, and when that future comes to be formed it will be well made only if we maintain balance of mind and serenity of heart and soul. Those who know how to live in truth with nature have one means of performing that duty to themselves and to their nation that others do not have. Let us cling to it.”

The Newsletter of the Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, Number 8, September 1939

That was the announcement of the start of World War II in the TFN newsletter, published only days after Canada had declared war on Germany. Over the course of the next two years TFN kept fast to the pledge of avoiding contemplating the horrors of WWII and relishing instead the beauty of nature. As the first wave of Canadian troops rallied in Scotland in December of 1939, the newsletter celebrated the “extraordinary number of barred owls” the city was enjoying. Just prior to the launch of the Department of Munitions and Supply in April of 1940, it spoke of the song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatch by Grenadier Pond.

Of course, the impact of the war, despite the vast distance between the home front and the front line, was felt quite directly by TFN members. As noted in Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club: Its History and Constitution (R .M. Saunders, 1965):

“In the first executive meeting after the outbreak of hostilities, some time was given to the ‘difficulties’ encountered by several members of the club–they had been intercepted by the police while observing birds. It was voted that a warning be given members at the next regular meeting ‘not to use binoculars near hydro stations or other guarded areas’. Some of the activities of the club had to be cut out temporarily. A poster contest in the schools was eliminated. Certain places were debarred to field trips, either because of war use or gasoline rationing. Men leaving for service reduced the number of leaders available for field trips.”

The war would not make any significant appearance in the pages of the newsletter again until December, 1941. The issue opens with a impassioned plea for the tightening of laws surrounding recreational spring- and air-guns, weapons used not only in “battles between gangs of youth” on suburban streets but for shooting cardinals, goldfinches, and other songbirds in our ravines, just for fun.

“Quite apart from the above considerations it is very strange that in the present grave crisis when we are asked to conserve all kinds of materials, especially metals, which can be used for the prosecution of the war, that these utterly useless and dangerous weapons should still be sold freely and used recklessly. The metal which goes into these air-guns and their ammunition should rather be going to war industries which are working for the protection of us all. And if we are asked to turn in pots and pans to be melted down, why should not air-guns that are only a source of amusement at the best–there are many other and better sources of amusement for our youth–be turned in even more readily.”

Metal was, of course, only one scarce material during the war. Of specific concern to club operations were paper shortages. In the November, 1942 issue of the newsletter, mere months after the failed Dieppe Raid cost nearly 1000 Canadian soldiers their lives, the editor cited these shortage as a reason that future circulation would need to be strictly limited to club members only. More significantly, however, as described in Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club: Its History and Constitution (R .M. Saunders, 1965), the very publication of our newsletter altogether was threatened:

“At one time the Wartime Prices and Trade Board inquired seriously into the right of the club to continue publication of the Newsletter. After proper investigation, though, permission to continue issue was granted ‘provided the amount of paper for any one issue does not exceed four tons’. Happily, this still left us a little leeway. As a matter of fact, the club was able to use the Newsletter to help its members who were abroad to keep in touch with home, by sending copies to them and other interested naturalists who were on active service. Letters from these men, relating nature observations made near military camps and at the front also found their way into the pages of the Newsletter.”

The letters from those on active duty, publication of which began in January, 1944, are perhaps the most fascinating relic of TFN’s war years to appear in print. Exploring these back issues is well worth your time, but here are a few brief excerpts:

“Have been seeing lots of super birds, which banishes dull moments, for there is always something to look at. Most of them I have not proper identification for yet, but some I have managed to specify, – Flamingos, Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, White Terns, Hoopoes, Wilson’s Petrels (Atlantic), Levantine Shearwaters, Pelicans, Buff-backed Egrets, and Black Swans, plus many other species of Shearwaters and Fulmars. It just about drives me nuts seeing millons of birds, the names of which are unknown to me. However, there is a big museum here which should have some information for me.”

– Clifford McFayden (merchant marine, Melbourne, Australia), The Newsletter of the Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, Number 42, Feb., 1944.

“I have kept a list of the summer migrants and the dates I first saw or heard them, but as you won’t know the birds it’ll hardly interest you. There’s a nightingale somewhere in the scrub around the hut in which I sleep. From time to time one hears him during the day, and any decent night he’ll be singing from shortly before blackout to about midnight (double DST midnight, I mean, of course). The nightingale strikes me as an over-rated singer. Some of his notes are very pure and sweet – but some are almost harsh. Where he excels other birds is in his vigour – almost violence. How imbecile poets could fancy that the nightingale sang from the tender pangs of disappointed love I can’t imagine …. “

– Lt. R. G. Glover (HQ Army Troops, 1st Can. Army), The Newsletter of the Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, Number 46, Oct., 1944.

“I have shifted my theatre of operations somewhat – down to sunny Italy in fact. I had a grand sea voyage down. It was calm with beautifully warm weather. The sea birds were really disappointing however. I saw kittiwakes, greater and lesser Blackbacks and one Iceland Gull somewhere off N. W. Scotland. Then all kinds of Manx Shearwaters, one Petrel and Gannets as far south as Gibraltar (mostly immature). In the Mediterranean more Shearwaters and Mediterranean Herring Gulls – darker mantles and yellow feet and bill

Since I landed in Italy I have seen few new birds, a European Kite, Woodchat Shrike, Crested Larks, Subalphine Warblers being the highlights. But I came immediately into action … To-day I had a swim in the Liri River – some fun (except for the odd dead mule)”.

– Capt. F. Banfield (l7th Cdn. Mot. Soc.), The Newsletter of the Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, Number 46, Oct., 1944.

The first few months of 1945 saw the newsletter return to its prior commitment to avoiding “the contemplation of hostility, horror, and hatred”, and publication of these letters from the front lines had ceased. As Canadian forces withdrew from Italy and deployed to the Rhineland Campaign, Toronto Field Naturalists’ lamented how few winter finches, snow buntings, and pileated woodpeckers were spotted on recent outings. As the First Canadian Army struggled to clear the Netherlands of German forces, the arrival of bitterns and a sighting of a male pine warbler were documented. TFN’s summer hiatus, which back then included the month of May, immediately preceded Germany’s surrender.

By the time TFN activities resumed in September, V-E Day had been declared, Fat Man and Little Boy had fallen and, with the surrender of Japan, the Second World War was officially over. The September issue celebrates the nation’s return to relative normalcy, and provides warning not to let moral relief and freedom of movement dilute our “deeper sense of obligation to our [local] community.” But it is the final paragraph in this post-war message that is perhaps most notable, for it speaks not only to the continued spirit of our organization, but foreshadows where we find ourselves and our city today.

“One of the most positive contributions that naturalists can make in this respect is to encourage their communities to include the preservation and the development of their distinctive natural attractions among the plans for reconstruction. Every town, village and community has such natural attractions, though they may not now be recognized as such save by a few naturalists. A wood, a marsh, a bit of lake shore, a stretch of river, or any of a score of other types of territory might be selected by any community. Such an area could be designated as a nature reserve. In it not only would naturalists be free to pursue their hobbies, but school children, boy scouts, or others could mark out nature trails under the guidance of the naturalists. On such trails, trees, bushes, flowers, geological phenomena, and other things could be indicated on signs. Lists of birds of the region, even with illustrations, might be placed in frames at suitable spots. These endeavours could be linked with school work, with boy scout and girl guide activities, and with the social work of other organizations. The readiness with which so many young people take to an interest in nature is certainly an invitation to those who are concerned about some of the less happy actions of young people today, to find in the study of nature a more suitable counter interest. Socially conscious naturalists should consider seriously getting after their local nature clubs, town councils, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis or any other organizations that can be interested in the furtherance of such community projects. The release from the war can be for naturalists a chance to serve both the cause of their hobby and the life of their community in a more constructive way. May they seize their opportunity.”

The Newsletter of the Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, Number 53, Sept., 1945.

The Toronto Field Naturalists wish to acknowledge this land through which we walk. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississauga of the Credit River. Today it is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to be on this land.