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Minnie Howell Champe: The Tumblebug Habit by Helen Campbell

The country child, probably, whether boy or girl--the country boy certainly--has watched the methods of that singular insect he knows as tumblebug, and wondered at one moment how it knows so much, at another how it knows so little. In the one case, with infinite care and patience its eggs are inclosed in the little ball of dung which insures to them an even temperature and safe hatching, and this it rolls over and around all obstacles till a place of safe deposit is attained; in the other, any small, round object arouses equal but aimless zeal, and the tumblebug, compelled it would seem by irresistible impulse, spends its energy on a bit of wood or stone.

This is fatuity, entertaining to the student of bug nature, who, if philosophical in his tendencies, naturally carries out the analogy into human life. Like the tumblebug, a multitude of human beings are engaged in rolling any round and rollable thing that comes in their way, and herin lies the reason of the enormous per cent of business failures recorded yearly in Bradstreet, and the larger mass of unrecorded failures in friendship, in love, in marriage--in short, in all ill-considered, hastily-formed human ties and relations. This is the tragic side, yet with a gleam of comedy in its perverse manifestations, over which, we may be sure, the highter powers smile with much the same sense of gentle wonder and curiosity as fills the watching child.

The tumblebug habit, however, does not confine itself to human relations. It enters no less into occupations and general interests, even into what we call cultivating our minds. And at this point, from the list of typical cases life affords, we have one, fatuous to an unbelievable degree, yet going on calmly and labeled "progress" by every one involved.

There is a little town in Kansas--it might also be in Maine or Pennsylvania or North Carolina or anywhere that the tumblebug habit prevails, but it is in Kansas. This singular State suggests to the Eastern mind chiefly cyclones, grasshoppers and mortgages, but is is characterized also by the determined push forward that underlies all life in an increasing ration from the Mississippi to the Pacific slope. This town, the seat of a minor college, owns also the curious conservatism of its early settlers, too busy wresting a living from unruy soil and perverse elements to take any note of general progress for the world at large. Ignorance owns conservatism as its firstborn child. So it chances naturally that sanitation is counted a notion and a Board of Health another--nor does argument do more than clinch these opinions.

Up and down a street, old fro Kansas since it numbers over fifty years--a street lined with comfortable-looking houses--outhouses and barnyards are all within easy draining distance into the wells. Autumn for a good many years has brought an outbreak of typhoid fever which is a source of perennial surprise to the townspeople. On a little hill above the town is a small reservoir which supplies the fire department and the seven houses known to have bathtubs. The remainder of the 3,700 inhabitants wash as they can. Sanitary journals of various orders are in the reading-room of the little college library, but if in Sanscrit could not be of less practical application, hygiene being taught only to girls in one term of the senior year just as their relation to college is ending.

To the college, and indeed to all Kansas, the head of the State Board of Health sends out each year his appeal to the people to boil all drinking water, knowing well that the mass will not read his reasons as set forth, that it is thus the merest form, and shaking a discouraged and pessimistic head as the returns of typhoid for the State begin to come in.

"If the women cared," said one of his most valued assistants some two years ago, "something might be done. Wherever they do care it has been done. But for the most part there are just two kinds of women in Kansas, or at any rate I don't know but two--the pious ones that call a case of typhoid a dispensation of Providence, and the scoffing ones that say, as they have to me many a time, "Shucks! as if boiling water made any difference!"

"Yes," pursued the unhappy little doctor, gradually working himself into a rage, "I went up to that place and stayed a fortnight. Nasty? You'd better believe it. I was in the house of a first-rate woman, too, young and brisk, tremendous worker--regular Kansas cyclone herself--public school graduate, but no more notion of living than a young prairie dog, nor as much. Had a girl of ten, nervous, anaemic little sinner, fed on cofee and hotcakes mostly. Schools don't teach how to live. I tell you our system, except where here and there wisdom is taking hold of it, is the grave of intelligence.

"Well, I came home one afternoon and found a lot of womne in her parlor--a women's club. Good thing, too, but what do you suppose they were doing--those women with an epidemic in their midst and every drop of drinking water packed with typhoid microbes? Taking the Chautauqua course in German literature, the most of them with precious little knowledge of their own.

"'I've got to do Herder next time,' said Mrs. G. at supper. 'Jeewhitaker! There'll have to be some one alongside to pronounce them names for me."

"And that woman worried out a paper on Herder with the aid of an old volume of Blackwood from the college library. I went to hear her read it the next week and at the end rose up, complimented the club on its energy and asked if it wouldn't turn some of it into the study of hygiene and its application to the everyday town life. The president grew red as a turkey cock, and came to her feet in a moment.

"'I don't know as we need to have our duty pointed out by a stranger,' she said. 'Sickness is a part of our earthly discipline, and I'd like to know where'd we be if it wasn't for just such trials to develop us? I think there is too much said about our insides, anyway, and I have to say that I should never encourage the club to drop things that are very elevating and cultivating for things that are none of our business.'

"You think this is a joke--an exanggeration? I wish it were. It's sad, sober truth, and what to do the Lord only knows. Her lesson came when her oldest son died of typhoid, and she got it into her head at last that she might be responsible. Wherever there is a case of typhoid somebody deserves hanging, and that's a fact. If capital punishment is to go on, let it be for the fool folk that foul their own drinking water. I came across one woman's word the other day that means something," and as I murmured, "the tumblebug habit again," the little doctor threw back his head and in his deepest voice recited:

"A man would build a house, and found a place
As fair as any on the fair earth's face:
Soft hills, dark woods, smooth meadows richly green,
And cool, tree-shaded lakes the hills betwee.
He built his house within this pleasant land,
A stately, white-porched house, long years to stand;
But rising from his paradise so fair
Came fever in the night and killed him there.
'O lovely land,' he cried. 'How could I know
That death was lurking under this fair show?
And answered Nature, merciful and stern,
'I teach by killing; let the others learn!'"

Congregationalist, 09 Mar 1899.