I had warts as a child. Not as bad as my younger sister who once had a wart on the end of her nose. But even on my fingers, mine were still ugly and painful. After many tears and several failed attempts at trying to get rid of them, my mother gave me a secret cure. I was to take a raw potato, cut it in pieces and rub each piece on my warts. Then I was to put it back together and bury it under a full moon and my warts would go away. With all the innocence of a 10-year-old I followed my mother's instructions and several days later, my warts started to fade!
I remember going outside at night with a trowel as the moon was peeking through the trees and digging a hole for my potato. I felt as if I was summoning some mysterious and ancient power that night. Now, this story is more about the power of positive thinking (and the resourcefulness of mothers) rather than the medicinal properties of a potato. But the recent recollection of this story got me thinking about where my mother got this information and how this kind of information is spread. Did she hear about it from her mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother? Or did she just make it up?
There are a multitude of old wives' tales like the one above, as well as superstitions and myths about the natural world. These are usually blindly accepted and are passed down from generation to generation. And sometimes there's a bit of truth in them. Superstitions are associated with good or bad luck. It is generally considered bad luck to have black cats cross your path but good luck to carry a buckeye in your pocket. Myths are unproven or false beliefs. Many people think that if you touch a baby bird, the mother will smell you and abandon the baby. We can probably come up with a very long list of notions like this.
A common nature myth is that touching toads will give you warts.
Many people believe that touching baby birds will cause the mother to abandon the birds.
Despite being untrue, these ideas are perpetuated, often for a very long time. I remember being told by my grandfather not to touch baby birds. I believed and probably shared that myth until I worked at a nature center and learned I could touch a baby bird without fear of causing its death. Despite the myth, if you do handle a baby bird, the parents will come back. Birds have a poor sense of smell.
As humans, we are both naturally curious and want to solve problems. Myths and superstitions are ways of both explaining and fixing the world around us, even if we don't understand it completely. And therein lies the problem. We don't understand. We often unintentionally spread myths, believing they are true. So, what? It is not a bad idea to tell kids not to pick up toads for fear of getting warts. It better protects the toad from the squeezing hands of children. However, it also teaches them to be unnecessarily fearful of toads. And the experience of catching a toad and looking at it up close and feeling its bumpy skin cannot be replicated.
There are some myths, however, that have more serious consequences. For example, if you believe snakes to be evil, you are more likely to kill them when one shows up in your garden. The more we understand the truth about the natural world, the more we appreciate it. And the more we appreciate it, the more we value it. And the more we value it, the more we will work to protect it. And the more we work to protect it, the more of it is there for people to appreciate and enjoy in the future and so on and so on.
It turns out my mother didn't believe in the medicinal power of potatoes, but just made it up with inspiration from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. She thought a potato would be easier to access than a dead cat, recommended in Tom Sawyer by Huck as a cure for warts.
Speaking of superstitions, there is a Friday the 13th in January. What better day to learn about nature superstitions and myths? Join us at Audubon Friday night from 6 to 8 p.m. for an indoor program where we'll have fun busting more nature myths and meeting some of Audubon's misunderstood animals.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon who doesn't get warts from toads. (Knock on wood.)
Don't forget - birdseed orders are due Jan. 13 for pick-up on Jan. 28!
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The building is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Mondays and Saturdays, and 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. The trails and Liberty viewing are open dawn to dusk. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call 569-2345.