By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Looking for some summer reading? How about some recommendations from one of the Smithsonian’s field collectors?
Field book content often includes personal and professional details. Some collectors spend so much time in the field that the two merge almost seamlessly in their accounts. Vernon O. Bailey is one of these collectors. Bailey collected primarily for the US Biological Survey under the US Department of Agriculture from 1887 - 1933. He collected extensively in botany, mammalogy, and ornithology across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. His field notes from 1894 to 1941 have been cataloged by the Field Book Project.
Bailey’s personal and professional life had strong connections. He was in the field nearly every year, from 1894-1941. In addition, several family members worked in the natural sciences. His wife, Florence Merriam Bailey, was a noted ornithologist. His brother-in-law, Clinton Hart Merriam, was the Chief of the newly created Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, which was later renamed the Bureau of Biological Survey. So perhaps I should not have been surprised to find references in his accounts to interests ranging beyond science.
Jenny Mathias, a summer 2011 intern, cataloged Bailey field books housed at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. She found poems written presumably by Bailey about some of the wildlife he observed. These light hearted rhymes came to mind as I cataloged his field books in the Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History, and found several literary references. It appears that Bailey had an affinity for poetry, as evidenced by quotes written on loose inserts or in his notebooks, as well as in his accounts of field outings. The poets to which he refers were award winning figures of their day, like Juan Ramon Jimenez and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. I found one quote in his notes, the opening stanza to Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), particularly moving. These provide intriguing glimpses into Bailey’s mind. Over the days I spent cataloging his field notes, I had noticed his entries could evince a mood with an economy of words. Several times I wished to know more, when he wrote entries like:
[New Hampshire, 1932] On the way home found an airdale dog full of porcupine quills and took him home to Joe Collidge who had pulled quills out of him three times before.
[Utah, 1888] Sister Sidwell killed a lynx in her henhouse last night. It scratched her face and bit her hands. Killed it with an ax.
These all give an intriguing view into his interests and personality. Bailey’s own compositions show a true affection for his work. Below, I’ve included Bailey’s poem, which inspired this blog post, found last summer by our intern.
1. We ever had left the Mt. tops
The valley shrouded lay
And I was hunting Dipodods
Just at the close of day.
2. I was on the wild Nevada plains
A cool November eve
And the number of animals I saw
You never would believe.
3. Some were only common kinds
And not the least bit rare,
Among which yard count the cottontail
And blacktailed Texas hare.
I must admit that I even tried my hand at setting Bailey’s composition to music. I think it would make a great sing-along by a campfire.
* Tamias minimus pictus
** Tamias leucurus has since been reclassified as Ammospermophilus leucurus.