By Judith Geer
Every community has people whose intellectual and/or artistic gifts far exceed the rest of the populace. My hometown of Holland has certainly had its share of people whose talents overflow the brim of what’s considered average, and the tale of two of these folks has captivated me for many years.
Separately, these two exceptional people left those of us who knew them, as well as those in generations to come, with truckloads of natural and creative beauty. Their relationship to each other, though, remains largely unknown, and is one of those wonderful happenstances life sometimes affords.
To begin the story we need to go back in time to a small farm town in Connecticut in the late 1800s. Two girls named Mabel and Edith became friends and, eventually, classmates at Mount Holyoke College. Mabel loved the outdoors and even talked the college into letting her take nature walks instead of gym classes. After graduation, she taught science among other jobs.
Edith married a printer named William Pratt. The Pratts moved to several upstate New York places, eventually settling in Holland, as William had found employment with a newspaper nearby. Before the births of their third and fourth children – twin boys – it was decided that Mabel would quit her job near New York City, which she had found to be unsatisfactory anyway, and move in with Edith and William to help with child care.
The magic in this story starts here with what certainly seemed then like a mundane request for domestic assistance from one friend to another. As the Pratt babies kept arriving, finally numbering 11 in all, the two women divided up the children in their care, each giving special attention to a few of them.
One of the children Mabel took under her wing was one of the twins born shortly after she joined the family. His name was David and early on he showed a propensity for drawing and a love of form and color. Meanwhile, Mabel began teaching her young charges her love of nature, and as her vast knowledge of flora and fauna became known in the community, her contributions to the world of conservation increased exponentially.
Today Mabel James – for that was her full name – is renowned as probably the foremost naturalist in Western New York history. She was a founder of Beaver Meadow Audubon Center and the Moss Lake Nature Sanctuary, and was the inspiration for the Conservation Trail, part of which is named for her, among many other efforts to preserve our environment.
What many people don’t know, however, is her influence on little David Pratt, who grew up absorbing Mabel’s insights into the natural world. Through her exacting observations, he was undoubtedly privy to the differing tones of color when the petals of flowers overlapped each other or the startling mesh of brightness on the Holland hills in the autumn or the languid flow of a seagull in flight.
David began painting, in watercolors and oils. He took classes at the Art Institute of Buffalo in the 1930s, and after World War II his work, mostly of Buffalo and the countryside surrounding his Colden home, brought him recognition as one of the preeminent Western New York artists. His work now hangs in Buffalo City Hall and Burchfield Penney Art Center, as well as in multiple private collections. Over the decades he has won numerous art awards and been featured in many one-man shows.
Mabel and David are gone now, but they have left us with more than their individual accomplishments. They have also bequeathed a remarkable sense of wonder at the seamless interweave of science and art.