By Jenny Mathias, Cataloging Intern, Field Book Project
One of the first collections I cataloged for the Field Book Project was the notebooks of mammalogist Vernon Orlando Bailey, Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7267. At the time I encountered Bailey’s notebooks, field books were new to me as a genre of archival material and it was through the Bailey field books that I first experienced the pleasure of reading someone else’s field notes. Bailey proved an excellent travel guide and his field books introduced me to just how much fun these guys and gals have while collecting specimens all over the world, and how much contemplation and observation takes place out in the field. The Bailey field notes introduced me to the concept of Life Zones, popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century by Bailey’s mentor, collecting companion, and eventual brother-in-law C. Hart Merriam. While Bailey’s specimen lists were at first difficult to decipher, his sparse, and insightful narrative passages and poetic ponderings gave me my first clues to what it was he was doing in the field.
He wrote articles on the subject for scholarly and popular audiences. Manuscripts of some of these articles are also available as a part of Record Unit 7262. One particular favorite of mine is the annotated manuscript was originally titled “Bobbity and Bitty: The long and solitary lives of two little Pocket Mice”. In it, Bailey describes the collection and observation of two Perognathus pacificus using humane traps. The little pocket mice he named Bobbity and Bitty were from the coastal sand dunes of southern California and he chronicles their behavior both in their natural habitat and within the human–made world of Bailey’s own family and friends.
Bailey devoted himself to the design and manufacture of more humane traps and the education of the public on how to use these traps in order to control and study animal populations. At his funeral in April 1942, Reverend John Van Schaick quoted from the Eighty-fifth Psalm: “Mercy and truth have met together.” (Zahnsiser, 1942, p. 6). Bailey strove for both truth in the form of scientific research and mercy in the form of compassion for his wild subjects. He consistently advocated for the simultaneous rights of humans to study the creatures of the natural world and for the rights of these wild animals to be treated with the dignity they deserve.
Zahniser, H. (January 01, 1942). Vernon Orlando Bailey 1864-1942. Science (New York, N.Y.), 96, 2479, 6-7.