By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
When I talk to others about the rich information within field notes, I am thinking of the field notes of James A. Peters. As it happens, Peters’s field notes (Smithsonian Institution Archives RU007175) were one of the first collections I cataloged back in 2010. Why has it taken me so long to write about Peters then? “Why” indeed.
Mostly narrative and diary-like, these notebooks contain overflowing accounts of specimen collecting, travel, and landscapes. If you can get past my silly subheadings, you might begin to understand why these notes are exceptional.
The specimen is the thing
I have seen many examples of field notes with abundant specimen detail, yet Peters’s notes still rank among the most impressive. For some entries, Peters goes so far as to include traced illustrations of species from cited publications accompanied by descriptions of a specimen collected. Also typical of Peters are entries like this one from 28 February 1949:
I found three sceloporus under a single piece of bark on a large log about 3 feet above ground [...]. The center of the belly is light orange in 2, greenish in the 3rd. This light area is bordered in all 3 by a very bright orange. The sides are black with greenish spots and strips. They have more or less defined green dorsocatgal lines.
Above, Peters not only records information about the habitat of the specimens by noting exactly where they were found, he also very precisely notes colors and distinguishing marks.
Location, location, location
By including locality information at the head of nearly every journal entry, Peters instilled unrealistic expectations in me; I soon realized many other collectors were not so meticulous. Further (often more granular) locality information was also available within the journal entry. His entry for 31 July 1950 is an excellent example of this: “Coalcoman, Michaocan” is included at the head of the entry; within the body, Peters writes, “shot one [Ctenosaura pectinata] at foot of Sierra de Guzman, about ½ mi SE of Coalcoman.” Peters must have understood the value of locality information to be so exact. One of his books even contains a Gazetteer of localities with brief descriptions.
Seeing the forests and the trees
Recording information about the surrounding environment during field work is important for understanding the types of habitats in which specimens live and thrive and can provide future generations with a historic picture of that landscape. Many of Peters’s field notes include such observations. On 27 June 1950, Peters writes:
The thorn scrub begins about 50-75 feet back of the beach line, and continues wherever it has been allowed to survive clear back to the town of Coahuayana, which is quite low. I walked west of C. as far as the river which is about 4-5 kilometers, […] it is all this same type of scrub. There are a few fig trees, quite a bit of organ pipe cactus and also a lot of the flat, round cactus, which was in bloom (ocotillo?).
The use of distance measurements and lists of vegetation above paints a vivid image of this locality. Although Peters was a herpetologist, he even attempts to identify one type of cactus. This flowing account continues for nearly three pages before any mention of a herpetological specimen.
Adding to his rich descriptions of environment, Peters also often includes information on elevation, weather, air temperatures, and water temperatures, so that an accurate idea of the condition in which specimens were collected is known.
After nearly two years working for this Project, Peters remains one of my favorites to use as an example of field notes. His patience and diligence in recording so many useful details of his collecting trip are impressive, and I hope that young naturalists can not only benefit from the data Peters recorded, but also learn from his comprehensive style of note taking.