Accomplished amateur botanist and entomologist, Mary Treat (1830–1923), born in Trumansville, New York, on September 7, was a popular chronicler of the plant, insect, and bird life that shared her small Vineland, New Jersey, home. Treat, who was considered a peer and valued correspondent by countless scientists (including Asa Gray (1810–1888), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Gustav Mayr (1830–1908), and Auguste Forel (1848–1941)), was widely acknowledged as an authority on insectivorous plants, harvesting ants, and burrowing spiders. She is credited with discovering two species of spider, as well as rare fern and plant species. The recognition she received for her scientific research distinguishes her in the history of women in the sciences. It is her investigations into the nest-making actions of birds and insects, however, that illuminates her concern with ethics and the effects of human action in the natural world.
Treat's scientific nature essays, first published in Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly, then collected in Home Studies in Nature (1885), reflect the shift in scientific investigation prompted by the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). Treat described a world in which the landscape of morality changed significantly, where humans no longer resided securely at the apex of creation. Treat agreed with Darwin's notion of nature "red in tooth and claw"; she saw instances of struggle, violence, chance, and adaptation all around her. Yet Treat, unlike many other American intellects of the time, refused to see nature exclusively in these terms. Instead, she advocated a sophisticated brand of Darwinian evolution—one that incorporated ideas expressed in Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and the Animals (1872)—to explain how animals and insects construct their domestic spaces in the face of their struggle to survive.
Treat revised the model of nature she inherited from the tradition of women nature writers preceding her—nature is not simply a model for human behavior, nor is it something that exists solely for humans to control. Instead, as she learned from her reading of Darwin, nature is composed of separate but interrelated communities; the moral sense, as Darwin notes, comes into being with the social instincts that animals develop as they learn to live in a community. Treat focused her scientific studies on how birds and insects build their nests and observed that they, like humans, exercise reason in the construction of their homes. These observations led her to question the supposed difference between human and non-human, and she used nest construction to demonstrate kinship through reason. Humans, or at least those whom Treat called "good observers" of nature, cannot deny this kinship with non-human communities and are, as a result, obligated to act in an ethical way toward nature.
Treat did not escape the anthropocentric observer position common to many women writing about nature in the nineteenth century, but like her mid-twentieth century counterpart Rachel Carson, she used what she saw (and how she saw it) to justify her call for the ethical treatment of all inhabitants of nature.
Bonta, Marcia Myers. (1995). American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Creese, Mary. (1998). Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
Norwood, Vera. (1993). Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Treat, Mary. (1885). Home Studies in Nature. New York: American Book Company.