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Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers

by Rebecca Ripperton
March 11, 2019

Our family's experience reading Little Britches

We first read Little Britches aloud as a family when my brother and I were somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. Over the years, we read a lot of books together, but this one was certainly one of everyone’s favorites. I don’t remember how quickly we went through this book, but I do remember that we begged our mom to please read just one more chapter every single night. (We were also very glad to discover that Ralph Moody wrote 7 more books in his autobiographical series – but more on those in another post). 

Westward bound

Little Britches is the captivating story of a New England family that moves to Colorado in the beginning of the 20th century to take up ranching. The book is narrated from the perspective of the young Ralph Moody, or as he comes to be called, “Little Britches.” Moody does a fantastic job of capturing the excitement of the rural west at that time, as well as many of the dangers and inherent difficulties of living there. In reading this book, it's hard not to become entranced with farm work, horses, and especially with the entire Moody family.

When the Moodys first arrive in Colorado, their land allotment is poor and the house promised to them in a dilapidated condition. Most of their savings had been poured into the move, so the only animals they can afford at first are two old nags – both far from ideal for farm work. Additionally, Mr. Moody's health continues to suffer, despite the fact that the family had moved to Colorado in hopes of improving it. 

But nevertheless, the family places their faith in God and is determined to make the best of their less than ideal circumstances.

Becoming a “cow poke”

The responsibilities that Ralph assumes in Colorado are serious ones, and the work he undertakes suitable for a much older man. When he is 10, his father agrees to let him spend an entire summer on a ranch about 20 miles from home. There, he works with a gang of “cow pokes” that take him under their protection and tutelage. These ranch hands adore and respect him, and Little Britches looks up to them in turn. 

Ralph's job at the Y-B ranch is simple, so to occupy the rest of his time, a cowboy named Hi Beckmann helps Ralph break in a beautiful blue roan mare called Sky High. Hi also teaches Ralph to perform all sorts of stunts and tricks with her.

Over the course of the summer, Ralph becomes an excellent rider and horseman, and even competes as a pair with Hi in the Labor Day Round-Up trick riding competition. Ralph’s description of trick riding is definitely the high point in this book, and quite possibly even more exciting than going to see an actual rodeo!

Overcoming the on-going difficulties of ranch life

Although the family does begin to fare better, their life in Colorado is never easy and they continue to be a family of relatively humble circumstances. Their crops occasionally fail, and from time to time an animal might become injured or die. In times of drought, Ralph’s father and his neighbors fight over water access with men upstream of them, with shots fired on both sides. Mr. Moody’s health also deteriorates as the book progresses.

But no matter how poor in means they may be, the Moody family remains rich in integrity, spirit, and resourcefulness – a fact that makes them well-respected and even beloved members of their community. The Moodys also pride themselves on being rich because they have a God who provides for them, and also because they have one another as companions.

The Moody family

Throughout the book, Ralph’s family reads aloud together – on picnics, in the evenings, and on holidays. Usually mother reads aloud to them, although later on the entire family acts out plays from Shakespeare. The children and the parents all cherish this special time that they are able to spend together. Each member of the family plays an important part on the farm, whether it be taking care of the animals, helping father in the fields, or mother around the house. 

Ralph has a particularly special relationship with his father, and this relationship is to me the most moving aspect of the book. Mr. Moody is a man of few words, but remarkable character. Ralph respects him more than anybody else in the world and always strives to make him proud. In particular, Ralph feels tremendous pride when his father asks him to be his “partner” on the ranch, and begins to shake his hand whenever they part. When his father speaks to him of his wrongdoing, conversely, Ralph takes heed and does not need to be admonished twice.

Becoming a man of integrity

Ralph’s father also speaks to him often about the importance of character and of always ​being “open and above-board.” In an episode where Ralph has deceived both of his parents about his reasons for borrowing a horse, his father tells him:

“A man’s character is like his house. If he tears boards off his house and burns them to keep himself warm and comfortable, his house soon becomes a ruin. If he tells lies to be able to do the things he shouldn’t do but wants to, his character will soon become a ruin. A man with a ruined character is a shame on the face of the earth.”

This memorable allegory stays with Ralph through the remainder of his life, even after his father passes away.

Ages

The first book is recommended for children ages 9-12. It can be read independently, although I would suggest that it makes a phenomenal read aloud. It is an especially good read aloud for boys or any child with lots of energy and a love of adventure.

Ralph himself is between the ages of 8 and 11 in this book, and notes that he is placed in 3rd grade in the beginning of the book and then in 6th grade at the end. (His sister Grace is 2 years older than he is, while the rest of their 3 siblings – Phillip, Muriel, and Hal – are younger.) It could be both interesting and exciting for children to read when they are his same age, although older children and adults will enjoy it, as well. 

As a note of caution: there are some difficult moments in this book, all of which are related to the realities of homesteading and none of which are gratuitous. The book, for instance, begins with both of the Moody’s horses falling through a train trestle. Although both animals ​do survive the ordeal, this section can be hard to read. If you have younger or more sensitive children, you may want to read the first two or so chapters to get a sense of how the author addresses these difficult topics before reading them aloud with your family.

Share your experience

Have you or your children ever read Little Britches? If so, tell us about your favorite memory of reading it in a comment below!

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Reviving Your Nature Studies This Spring with Dallas Lore Sharp’s Nature Books

by Lisa Ripperton

​March 7, 2019

When the first signs of spring appear after a hard winter, the urge to spend time out of doors is stronger than at any other time of the year. "How eager and restless a healthy child is for the fields and woods with the coming of spring! Do not let your opportunity slip," writes Dallas Lore Sharp in his The Spring of the Year.  

In keeping with Sharp's proclamation, we believe that the springtime presents an ideal opportunity for taking your children out of doors and pursuing nature studies with them. And Sharp's nature book series serves as an excellent guide to this end. These books offer a variety of activities to try, along with a good idea of what to expect at each season.

Establishing or renewing a nature studies practice

Spring can bring renewed vigor to the practice of a family already exploring their natural environs several times a week. For those who have yet to start, it offers a strong impetus. At this time of the year, there are so many exciting things to observe, coming in quick succession. To begin with, you could take your children to a place nearby where they can see green shoots emerging. There, encourage them to watch for returning birds and buds bursting into bloom. Perhaps they will even begin a list of the birds you have spotted and one of the types of frogs you have heard!

Sharp's vivid pictures of spring

In The Spring of the Year, Sharp shares some experiences in spring he finds exhilarating, then offers a whole chapter of Things To See This Spring. He doesn't merely list them, though. Sharp instead paints a vivid picture of each. Consider this description of the lowly skunk cabbage as an example:

​You must see the skunk-cabbage abloom in the swamp. You need not pick it and carry it home for the table—just see it. But be sure you see it. Get down and open the big purple-streaked spathe, as it spears the cold mud, and look at the "spadix" covered with its tiny but perfect flowers. Now wait a minute. The woods are still bare; ice may still be found on the northern slopes, while here before you, like a wedge splitting the frozen soil, like a spear cleaving through the earth from the other, the summer, side of the world, is this broad blade of life letting up almost the first cluster of the new spring's flowers. Wait a moment longer and you may hear your first bumblebee, as he comes humming at the door of the cabbage for a taste of new honey and pollen.

In another section, Sharp describes the piping sounds of the spring peeper:

You should see a "spring peeper," the tiny Pickering's frog—if you can.  The marsh and the meadows will be vocal with them, but one of the hardest things that you will try to do this spring will be to see the shrill little piper, as he plays his bagpipe in the rushes at your very feet. But hunt until you do see him. It will sharpen your eyes and steady your patience for finding other things.

Guidance for young naturalists

Later, in the chapter on Things to Do This Spring Sharp inserts some advice to the budding naturalist along with the activity he suggests:

Boy or girl, you should go fishing—down to the pond or the river where you go to watch the birds. Suppose you do not catch any fish. That doesn't matter; for you have gone out to the pond with a pole in your hands (a pole is a real  thing); you have gone with the hope  (hope is a real  thing) of catching fish  (fish are real  things); and even if you catch no fish, you will be sure, as you wait for the fish to bite, to hear a belted kingfisher, or see a painted turtle, or catch the breath of the sweet leaf-buds and clustered catkins opening around the wooded pond. It is a very good thing for the young naturalist to learn to sit still. A fish-pole is a great help in learning that necessary lesson.

Listening to hear the grass grow

Lastly, in the chapter on Things To Hear This Spring, Sharp describes a number of bird songs. Then, without delay, he encourages the youthful explorer to hear the grass grow!

What! I repeat, you should hear the grass grow. I have a friend, a sound and sensible man, but a lover of the out-of-doors, who says he can hear it grow. But perhaps it is the soft stir of the working earthworms that he hears. Try it. Go out alone one of these April nights; select a green pasture with a slope to the south, at least a mile from any house, or railroad; lay your ear flat upon the grass, listen without a move for ten minutes.

Sharp continues on by asking questions of the student. Although in part rhetorical, in doing so, he also encourages students to experience the wonders of the natural world for themselves.

You hear something—or do you feel it? Is it the reaching up of the grass? is it the stir of the earthworms? is it the pulse of the throbbing universe? or is it your own throbbing pulse? It is all of these, I think; call it the heart of the grass beating in every tiny living blade, if you wish to. You should listen to hear the grass grow.

​Sound advice for going afield

Sharp gives six bits of sound advice for going afield in The Fall of the Year that apply throughout the year. We include the first two here as examples. To begin, Sharp's first recommendation is:

Go often to the same place, so that you can travel over and over the same ground and become very familiar with it. The first trip you will not see much but woods and fields. But after that, each succeeding walk will show you particular  things—this dead tree with the flicker's hole, that old rail-pile with its rabbit-hole—until, by and by, you will know every turn and dip, every pile of stones, every hole and nest; and you will find a thousand things that on the first trip you didn't dream were there.

In the first place, start where you are even if that means in a small backyard. Within a small space you may have ants to watch or logs to turn over. (There you may even find pill bugs and centipedes hiding underneath!). To illustrate, in our small front yard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we had a chipmunk living under our breezeway, a cardinal nesting in the bush outside our dining room window, a towhee scratching under the bushes by the walk, a skink who sunned himself on our front stoop, and a spider that spun webs crossing our path to the driveway.

Next, Sharp's second piece of advice is :

When you go into the woods, go expecting  to see something in particular—always looking for some particular nest, bird, beast, or plant. You may not find that particular thing, but your eyes will be sharpened by your expectation and purpose, and you will be pretty sure therefore to see something.

Awakening to the natural world

Even if you do not encounter what you expect to see, the mere suggestion that you might activates the senses. As a result, you and your children will likely be more alert to whatever presents itself than you otherwise would be. As an illustration of this very phenomena, Nicole William has a remarkable story on her blog at Sabbath Mode Homeschool where she writes about what her family was able to discover in a familiar woods when they were primed to look for a particular thing.

Charlotte Mason herself writes, "The real use of naturalists' books at this stage is to give the child delightful glimpses into the world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sort of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desire to make discoveries for himself." (Home Education, p. 64) We have found that Dallas Lore Sharp's seasonal books satisfy those criteria on all counts.

Ages

Although originally targeted for ages 12 to 14, The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter can be enjoyed by all. Older readers, however, may find that they get more out of them than younger ones.

In the 2017-2018 Alveary, these books were scheduled for Natural History in Form 1A (Ages 7-8). Some students even reported the Sharp books among their favorites for the year!

​Learning more

To learn more about the use of naturalists' books, we especially suggest listening to Episode #21 Nature Lore from A Delectable Education.

In addition to In the Spring of the Year, Sharp's books on the other three seasons have similar content. All have chapters on Things To See, Things To Do, and Things to Hear, interspersed with stories of his own discoveries in that time of year.

Please share any experiences inspired by these books in the comments below!

Purchase Books at Amazon

The Spring of the Year
by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Fall of the Year
 by Dallas Lore Sharp

Winter
by Dallas Lore Sharp

Read Online

Get Ebooks

Get access to the ebook editions of The Spring of the Year, Summer, The Fall of the Year, and Winter by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Collection, Nature Study through the Seasons

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com.
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