By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
As a field book cataloger, there are two types of field materials that I tend to come across the most: specimen lists and narrative field notes. Specimen lists are just that—lists of specimens collected in the field. I’m currently working on cataloging field books from the Department of Botany, so these include lists of plants collected in the field, usually with collector numbers (numbers assigned in the field by the collector) as well as name (scientific, if known at the time, or common if the specimen is to be identified later). Other information may be included as well, including the habitat the plant was found in, locality, date of collection, altitude, etc. Specimen lists are informative--they are the original source materials for catalog records of specimens.
Narrative field notes, however, are my favorite to catalog. They tend to be descriptive, allowing botany novices (such as myself) to get a visual picture of the collecting trip conditions, the route taken, the landscape and location, and the plants collected. Sometimes they read like diaries or journal entries; they describe daily activities and include reflections, thoughts, and opinions. I’ve found some collectors possess a real power of description. It seems to me, there is an art of using the English language to paint a visual picture and convey information to others or even to oneself (to remember at a later date).
As an undergraduate studying art history, the skill of written description was invaluable for relating the look and feel of a work of art. But this skill translates to the sciences as well. As we mentioned in a recent blog post on John Muir, detailed habitat descriptions can be invaluable for conservation efforts such as habitat reconstruction.
Edward Palmer was particularly adept at description. Palmer was an ethnobotanist, who collected both plants and anthropological objects in Mexico, circa 1890-1910. While his handwriting was unique and his spelling and grammar a bit, ahem, unusual (punctuation was rare), his real talent was describing what he saw. Take, for example, this entry describing a plant on a trip to Durango, Mexico in 1906:
145. One of the finest blooming plants Grows in dence [sic] shade, base of mountain several long stems hanging about other plants at base some are two or three inches diameter + 25 or more feet long, flowers are cream at first then by age change to a mixture of snuff and orange the inside has bands of purple with light purple shading on each side
Can you picture it? It’s a brief entry, but Palmer hits on size, color, shape, maturity. He even throws in a mention of the plant’s superlative beauty. With a little help from the Smithsonian’s NMNH Department of Botany staff, I was able to read the determination written on the entry as Solandra guttata. I also found an image of the living plant, to compare to Palmer’s description. Check out the picture below!
Pretty good, huh? I think my old Art History professor would be proud.