By Rusty Russell, Co-Investigator, Field Book Project
As a twelve-year-old in southern Indiana, I fell in love with plants while riding my bike all over Brown and Monroe Counties, collecting tree leaves for an 8th grade science project. A boy could do that then and not be viewed as odd in the least. The cornfields appeared to extend to the horizon the minute I pedaled past the Bloomington town line, and limestone quarries and family cemeteries were as common as trolley cars in my original hometown of Baltimore. Stopping to carefully collect and press the leaves of trees about which I knew nothing–osage orange, mulberry, buckeye, catalpa and Kentucky coffeetree–my innate curiosity was raised the way exercise increases endorphin levels. There is, unfortunately, no evidence of these precious childhood memories, nothing to show my children and soon-to-be first grandchild.
Prior to my first professional collecting trip in 1976, as a field assistant in Brazil for the world renowned bamboo specialist, Tom Soderstrom, I was advised by F. Raymond Fosberg, another eminent 20th century Smithsonian botanist, to take careful notes and record my observations. He was adamant. I didn’t. Sure, the collections survive in the United States National Herbarium as testament to the ten weeks we spent collecting bamboo in Bahia, an excursion that resulted in many new species and two new genera. And, sure, it wasn’t technically my responsibility to take notes. But not having embraced the opportunity to record the impressions of a 22 year-old neophyte during what was a pivotal moment in my career has become one of my greatest regrets.
Maybe these subconscious shadows inspired the creation of the Field Book Project. But these two stories have been actively haunting me since reading Michael Canfield’s history and “how-to” of scientific note-taking, Field Notes on Science & Nature (Harvard University Press). What Mike and his contributing authors have accomplished is to thoughtfully merge the clinical with the emotional, to value precision and passion side-by-side, and to provide each reader with that sense of awe, curiosity and wonder that I recall from childhood. However, they also make clear that there is a responsibility on the part of the traveler to not only collect, measure, and describe but to interpret, imagine and communicate ideas forward. The importance of this last point is well conveyed by contributing author Kay Behrensmeyer, a Smithsonian paleobiologist, in her chapter entitled Linking Researchers Across Generations. “You may have no idea about the future significance of these experiences when they are happening, and it is far better to assume that they will be of interest to someone in the future ….” Why is it that, while we value the writing of past field workers, we don’t think that our notes and musings will be considered important in the future? If you can get over that, the next time you find yourself caught up in the inspired beauty of a walk through the woods, you’ll pick up a pen (permanent ink, please) or pencil and start writing (on good paper, of course).
However, the manner by which we record information is changing. Piotr Nasrecki, a colleague of Canfield’s at Harvard and the developer of software to aid field work, describes the efficiencies of electronic data capture in the field in his chapter Note-taking for Pencilophobes–I’m certain that last is not a word. Is this development an improvement over hand-written notes? Nasrecki thinks so. Certainly there is improved data consistency and time efficiency to be realized. But contributor Jim Reveal, my botany teacher at the University of Maryland, worries that a computer-based field book “lacks anything personal about the writer (and doesn’t encourage or accommodate other notes …).” But I suspect, as with anything else, a smart field worker will incorporate both options.
Beyond the chapter content that describes experiences in the field, beyond the sometimes tedious explanations of how notes should be taken, beyond the intriguing inclusion of contributors’ actual field book pages (with diagrams, sketches, photos, maps, and personal notes), and beyond attempts to answer such broadly stated questions as “Why Keep a Field Notebook?” (Erick Greene), “What is the value of these journals?” (Roger Kitching), “Why Sketch?” (Jenny Keller), and “What is the Field?” (Michael Canfield), the most compelling pieces to these contributions are reminiscences of childhood. For it is here that, like me, so many careers began in curious wonderment of the natural world.
Two statements jumped out at me as witness to the dedicated efforts in which Field Book Project staff members are engaged–one from a mentor, the other from a hero. Again from Jim Reveal, “… the fate of original field books often is less certain … all naturalists should recognize that such books are vital records capable of providing significant information to future researchers.”. I couldn’t have paid him for a clearer expression of concern for these one-of-a-kind objects. And from the Forward by E.O. Wilson, one of my Dad’s and my personal heroes for all that he has meant to our appreciation of nature, “If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance … I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists).” Ha!
When I read Mike Canfield’s blog contribution on this blog last May, about the gift his great grandfather created for posterity, I finally understood The Field Book Project. As scientists we get all academical–I’m sure that’s not a word either– in mining these objects of history for the data, descriptions, and scholarly content found between their covers. But their legacy is more than that. Field books are personal. They are, regardless of the age of the scribe, simply a reflection of the time spent roaming the world in search of those feelings we first experienced as youngsters. And, in the absence of my notes from Indiana and Brazil, the Field Book Project is my gift to my children, their children, and their children ….