A Wildlife Woodcut
In all of the years that we’ve admired the book illustrations of outdoor and natural history artist Henry B. Kane, we had never seen a stand-alone piece of his artwork on the market until recently finding this woodcut (now sold).
It is a portrait of a mouse (likely a white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus), rendered in a small scale befitting its subject (frame size: 8.5” wide x 9” high; woodcut size: 4” square). The crisp black and white contrasts that comprise the image of the mouse nestled on a small branch of a red pine in its woodsy home habitat, are the distinctive attributes of woodcuts. The artist was able to achieve great clarity of detail by carving a block of wood so that when inked and pressed onto paper the portions of the woodblock that were raised in relief join with those that were gouged away to create a stunning black-and-white image.
This woodcut is one of a limited edition, number 16 of 100, and is signed by the artist in pencil in the lower right.
The artwork was matted and framed in Boston, not far Lincoln, Massachusetts where Kane lived for many years with his wife, two daughters, and a son.
While Kane’s personal and professional lives were rooted in the Boston area, his artistic abilities and book projects allowed him to travel in his mind’s eye, by immersing himself in the variety of habitats and settings that his collaborating authors explored. He was a rare individual who was equally drawn to and adept at science and art, as well as skilled in administration. What else do we know about this accomplished man?
Henry B. Kane
Henry Bugbee Kane (1902-1971) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attended high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and went on to college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduating in 1924. He was already publishing artwork while a student at MIT, contributing cartoons to its satirical magazine Voodoo. After graduation he worked at the Boston Edison Company as an illuminating engineer planning lighting systems for buildings and outdoor areas, and then moved into the company’s advertising and promotion departments.
After several years at Boston Edison, Kane returned to MIT as an employee, first as an administrative assistant to the president and then in 1940 as Alumni Fund Director, a position he held until retiring in 1966. With only one co-worker in his department, Kane was able to take the alumni fund from its inception to becoming the fifth largest such fund in the U.S. MIT now bestows an annual “Henry B. Kane ’24 Award” to recognize exceptional volunteer alumni fundraising service. A note in Kane’s MIT profile hints at a possible factor in his success as a fundraiser: in addition to contributing countless illustrations to various MIT publications, his drawings and cartoons also appeared in the Alumni Fund appeal letters he wrote, no doubt charming the money right out of alumni’s pockets.
His professional success as a university administrator is paralleled in his simultaneous and prolific career as a book illustrator and nature photographer. His book illustrations typically included both woodcuts and line drawings that were often interspersed within the written text.
Kane was a sensitive reader of the books he illustrated, bringing to life certain passages with drawings embedded in paragraphs exactly where they enhanced and complemented rather than distracted from the narrative, as in the following excerpts from his illustrated edition of Thoreau’s The Maine Woods:
Flora, fauna, and outdoor life were Kane’s passions, which enabled him to bring them to life so precisely and evocatively in his artwork. He was a keen naturalist whose art not only accurately captured the detailed, physical features of plants and animals, but also of entire habitats.
In addition to illustrating numerous books for other authors, Kane wrote and illustrated over a dozen of his own nature books for children.
“The Tale of a Mouse” was his first book, which he wrote after realizing that there was a great lack of “factual stories of native wildlife told in a manner calculated to entertain while they instruct.” His first children’s natural history book was followed by a series of “The Tale of…” books about animals such as a crow, a moth, and a bullfrog, as well as “The Tale of…” habitats such as a wood, a meadow, and a pond.
We haven’t uncovered enough biographical information about Kane’s life to know exactly how he became a student of nature, although his work makes it obvious that he spent much time in the outdoors. There are however, hints about part of his outdoor life in the 1947 book Cache Lake Country which is enhanced with over two hundred of Kane’s illustrations. The book’s author, John J. Rowlands, was Kane’s friend and MIT colleague (Rowlands was the Director of the MIT News Service from 1925-1957).
In Cache Lake Country, which is one of our favorite outdoor books of all time, Henry Kane appears as a character, as well as being its real-life illustrator. Rowlands wrote the book in the first person voice of a timber cruiser who comes upon a small lake in the Ontario wilderness, a place with which he is immediately and deeply enthralled, writing: “I have seen maybe a thousand northern lakes, and they all look alike in many ways, but there was something different about that little lake that held me hard. I sat there perhaps half an hour, like a man under a spell, just looking it over.”
Eventually the narrator is invited by the lumber company to build a permanent base at this place he had named Cache Lake, from where he could keep watch over the timber country. The book chronicles how he builds a log cabin and lives in this wilderness camp throughout twelve months of a year. Although it is a fictionalized account, it is based on Rowland’s real life experiences in the Canadian north country.
Figuring prominently in the book is Rowland’s relationship with a Cree Indian named Chief Tibeash, from whom he learns the ways of the woods. Tibeash was a real person whom Rowlands hired as a guide in 1911 when he just 19 years old and working as a prospector and surveyor for a mining company in Ontario. He lived with Tibeash for a season and they stayed in touch on visits over the next five years until Tibeash died in 1917.
Equally prominent in the book is the narrator’s relationship with “Hank.” He describes meeting Hank one June day when the lumber company’s float plane
“brought in a young fellow who was making his living by drawing and photographing wild animals and birds. And a first rate artist he was. His name was Henry—we called him Hank—and the letter he brought from the company asked me to be neighborly and make him at home for as long as he wanted to stay.”
The Chief and the narrator like Hank immensely, so he eventually decides to stay on and build his own cabin on a nearby lake. Thus begins a series of seasonal adventures among the three men. The book has elements of Boy’s Life stories built around the fantasy of moving to the wilderness with one’s best friends, while all the while the book’s author and illustrator were actually grown men with work-a-day jobs in a city.
It is documented, however, that Rowland and Kane took periodic trips to northern Canada together.
Whether Kane was already an outdoorsman as well as a naturalist before meeting Rowlands is hard to say. In any case, they shared a love of the wild. It is easy to imagine the two of them taking wilderness excursions in Ontario, since there are episodes in Cache Lake Country in which the narrator and his friend “Hank” do exactly that.
The two of them also share a love of campcraft throughout the book – from making maple syrup, candles, raspberry shrub, and bean-hole beans, to crafting snowshoes and building canoes. They also watch nature unfolding around them, seeing Hepatica bloom and baby Ruffed Grouse emerge in the spring, to seeing moose rut in the fall. Rowlands reveals that the character Hank was a particularly enthusiastic nature observer, which is most likely based on his perceptions of the real Henry B. Kane:
“Hank loves to stretch out in his stave hammock between two pines close to the shore of the lake and watch the young ducks feeding along the lake shore…Hank always has his binoculars handy and he lies back as comfortable as you please and studies the birds by the hour.”
As the book jacket says: “Cache Lake Country holds the secrets of how to live well in the woods. It is a tale of contentment and simple living in a friendly wilderness…a storehouse of valuable information on woodcraft and nature.” The book is also a testament to the range of Kane’s talent, from expert execution of pen and ink drawings of plants and animals,
to precise “how-to” line drawings,
to evocative whole-page woodcut images.
Back to the Mouse
The white-footed mouse, which Kane so accurately captures in the woodcut that has inspired this testimonial to his talents, occupies an important niche as an herbivore in the lower echelons of food chains. The mouse is an integral component in the ecology of meadows and woods, helping to sustain ecological systems, just as creating and appreciating art sustains human spirits. We can thank Henry B. Kane for inspirationally melding these two aspects of existence.
Selected Books Illustrated by Henry B. Kane:
Cache Lake Country: Life in the North Woods by John J. Rowlands
The Woods and the Sea by Dudley Cammett Lunt
The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau
Spindrift: From a House by the Sea by John J. Rowlands
Wilderness World of John Muir by John Muir
The House on Nauset Marsh by Wyman Richardson
One Day on Beetle Rock by Sally Carrighar
Icebound Summer by Sally Carrighar
Natural History of New York by Edward Freeman
How to Hunt Deer by Edward Freeman
One at a Time: His Collected Poems for the Young by David McCord
Take Sky by David McCord
For Me to Say by David McCord
All Day Long: Fifty Rhymes of the Never Was and Always Is by David McCord
Far and Few by David McCord
Flash: The Life Story of a Firefly by Louise Dyer Harris
Wings in the Meadow by Jo Brewer
Selected Books Written and Illustrated by Henry B. Kane:
Thoreau’s Walden: A Photographic Register
The Tale of a Wood
The Tale of a Meadow
The Tale of a Pond
The Tale of a Mouse
The Tale of the Wild Goose
The Tale of a Bullfrog
The Tale of the White-faced Hornet
The Tale of the Crow
The Tale of the Promethea Moth
The Alphabet of Birds, Bugs & Beasts
Wings Legs or Fins
Four Seasons in the Woods
A Care for Nature: Creatures and Happenings in a Suburban Back Yard