By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
Field work can be exhilarating for the committed collector, but sometimes a series of unfortunate events can shake even the strongest of wills. Bugs, heat, cold, earthquakes, volcanoes, fires, flood, illness, and (unexpected) animals have all been known to color collecting trips. Field work can range from a bit uncomfortable to downright dangerous.
Ellsworth Paine Killip’s field notes from 1929 in Peru tell of an incident when the house he was boarding in caught on fire. He writes,
“Sun. July 7. While I was working, the arriero watching me, we heard a roar like a blast furnace door being opened. Rushed into the bedroom there where the presses were and found everything in flames, the fire creeping up the bamboo wall. The whole house was of bamboo, it should be said. Fortunately, there was a big bucket of water in the kitchen and this we poured on the fire, children bringing up additional water from a stream some distance away. Soon we had it under control but what a mess our plants were! Straps, ropes, curtains, and press-ends all burnt.”
Fortunately, most of the specimens came out ok, as did Killip himself.
Alice M. Cornman describes a scene in which flooding rains caused her and fellow scientists and assistants to spend a wet and unprepared night (with no supplies!) in the Panamanian rain forest. They had been so caught up in collecting ferns they didn’t realize how hard it was raining. Once the group reached the river, they found it impassable. Cornman writes,
"…we tried several times to cross, wading into water above our waists, all holding hands, but the current was too swift, and we were finally convinced that a night in the jungle was a lesser of two evils.”
It gets worse! She continues,
“The sand-flies and mosquitoes were so numerous that we could not have slept, even if we had been comfortable.”
Edward Palmer had an unfortunate accident in 1906 while attempting to collect a succulent plant in Mexico. The entry for this specimen (Echeveria, collector number 248) reads:
“4 plants from holes in the side of box canon [sic]…broke from plant in the effort to secure it I fell and received several contusions and am injured [+ sprained] with left hand.”
It certainly takes fortitude to scale a canyon in pursuit of a plant (though echeveria are a favorite of mine). Palmer doesn’t add any other details of his injury, though it can be assumed he recovered quickly as he made several other collections soon after.
Perhaps, unluckiest of all was William Ashbrook Kellerman, who was infected with Malaria while collecting in Guatemala in 1908. The trip ended up being his last, as he died from the illness upon returning to the United States. The Smithsonian has the last field book Kellerman kept on that fateful trip.
So there you have it. I know that I’m guilty of romanticizing the exotic trips of scientists collecting specimens in the field, but it’s no simple feat. It takes a lot of work, and perhaps, a bit of luck.