By Emily Hunter and Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Happy 174th Birthday, John Muir! The Field Book Project team is celebrating a day early; conservationist John Muir was born on April 21, 1838.
Who was John Muir? Muir was perhaps the most influential conservationist in the United States. Muir is credited by the National Park Service, Sierra Club, and many other sources with being the father of the U.S. National Parks. Have you ever enjoyed the natural splendor of Yosemite National Park or Sequoia National Park? If so, you’ve experienced one of the national treasures we have as a direct result of Muir’s efforts. John Muir campaigned tirelessly to establish national parks in order to preserve the pristine beauty of our country. He’s also the founding president of the Sierra Club.
In the spirit of Muir, we would like to take a moment to discuss conservation, and the role that field notes may be able to play in research on conserving and sustaining our natural environment.
Field notes often include an amazing variety of information that does not get reported in resulting publications. Over the last few years, historic field work and field books have been increasingly used by researchers for a number of conservation efforts including tracking changes in climate and bird migrations.
- Richard B. Primack, Professor of Biology at Boston University, is using information from a variety of sources including the journals of Henry David Thoreau, along with current field research, to reflect and predict changes in climate and biodiversity in the northeastern United States.
- The Christmas Bird Count, one of the longest running citizen science programs which collects and records individuals’ observations of wildlife, has been used to predict changes in bird migrations.
- Researchers at the Benthic Ecology Lab at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have used documentation of a biological survey along the coast of Woods Hole, Massachusetts (1911), to create a map showing the geographical distribution of species and habitats.
What about the field books that we are cataloging? The potential is there to use them in conservation work. According to Rusty Russell, Field Book Project Co-PI, the value may be in the descriptions and first hand observations that the field notes provide.
John Muir spent significant time documenting the natural wonders of Yosemite, including Mariposa Grove. His published words help the general reader visualize the beloved national park as seen in this quote from Our National Parks.
The more famous and better known Mariposa Grove, belonging to the state, lies near the southwest corner of the park, a few miles above Wawona. The sugar pine (Pinus Lambertiana) is first met in the park in open, sunny, flowery woods, at an elevation of about thirty-five hundred feet above the sea, attains full development at a height between five and six thousand feet, and vanishes at the level of eight thousand feet. In many places, especially on the northern slopes of the main ridges between the rivers, it forms the bulk of the forest, but mostly it is intimately associated with its noble companions, above which it towers in glorious majesty on every hill, ridge, and plateau from one extremity of the range to the other, a distance of five hundred miles, the largest, noblest, and most beautiful of all the seventy or eighty species of pine trees in the world, and of all the conifers second only to King Sequoia (page 109).
A field book of F. Raymond Fosberg documents the same locations but for a specialized audience. Take this entry, for example, which covers the same territory as Muir’s quote above.
Here Fosberg is documenting what he sees. What looks like a list of plants is actually a source of valuable data. Fosberg is creating associations between specimens, and linking them to a specific date and time. Rusty Russell says, “he’s not just creating a relationship, he’s painting the picture.”
That kind of picture could be invaluable. Russell says that one way that field book information could be used is in planning habitat reconstruction. So, we at the Field Book Project wondered, “How else could this information be used”?
We are actively seeking examples of how field book notes are used in various types of research, including conservation. If you’d like to share how you use field work documentation, please leave a comment below or email Carolyn Sheffield at SheffieldC@si.edu.
Audubon Society. What are the Birds Telling Us About Global Warming? Retrieved April 9, 2012 from http://chapterservices.audubon.org/what-are-birds-telling-us-about-global-warming
Environmental Research Center. The 1911 Database. Retrieved April 9, 2012 from http://www.serc.si.edu/labs/benthic_ecology/community_ecology/accessdata.aspx
Muir, J. (1901). Our National Parks. Boston, New York : Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Retrieved April 18, 2012 from http://archive.org/details/nationalparksour00muirrich
Primack, R. B., & Miller-Rushing, A. J. (February 2012). Uncovering, Collecting, and Analyzing Records to Investigate the Ecological Impacts of Climate Change: A Template from Thoreau's Concord. BioScience. Vol. 62, No. 2. University of California Press. Retrieved April 9, 2012 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2012.62.2.10
Sierra Club. John Muir: A Brief Biography. Retrieved April 11, 2012 from http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_biography.aspx Smithsonian