Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie
My research explores the effects of climate and land use change on Mount Desert Island, Maine. I’m a graduate student in Biology at Boston University and my field work aims to re-survey the abundance, distribution, and flowering times of plants. When I am studying long-term changes in plant communities, I often wish that I could time travel. What did the island look like a century ago? What plants grew there? How abundant were they? And did they bloom later than they do now?
To answer these questions, I turn to field notes from the late 19th century. For over a decade, dedicated fieldwork was undertaken to catalogue the island’s flora, create an herbarium of specimens, and publish a book on the subject. However, these notes were not penned by professional scientists, or even graduate students — the entire project was the work of college kids on summer vacation. In 1880, a handful of Harvard boys sailed to Mount Desert Island and camped on Somes Sound. They hoped to study the natural history of the island — botany, geology, meteorology and ornithology — and dubbed themselves the “Champlain Society” after the 17th century French explorer who named the island.
In 1880, Acadia National Park would not exist for another three decades, and Bar Harbor’s reputation as a summering place for the East Coast elite was in its infancy. The Champlain Society allowed Harvard gentlemen a chance to get out of Cambridge and into the wild. Samuel A. Eliot, one of the Society’s members, remembered the origin of their plan:
Why not select some particular region and put in the summer studying its geological formations, its flora and fauna, its birds and fishes, its trees and shrubs? There would be a happy combination of work and play; sea and land; tramping, sailing, and reading.
It didn’t hurt that Samuel’s father was the president of Harvard, with a yacht available for the sail, and a cache of camping supplies held at the head of Somes Sound.
For a decade, the Champlain Society returned to the island each summer. While the ornithology and meteorology studies eventually lost out to the luster of society ladies, hops in hotel ballrooms, and moonlit boat rides, one determined young man, Edward L. Rand, cleaved to the botanical mission. Throughout his undergraduate years, the summers while he was a law student, and then while a practicing lawyer, he always came back to his annual fieldwork. The Flora of Mount Desert Island (1894) stands as a testament to his dedication. Rand co-wrote the book with John H. Redfield, an accomplished botanist and retired businessman who summered on the island. Other botanists also contributed to the Flora; Rand reported on their efforts in the Champlain Society’s Camp Logs. Today, paging through the Flora, I can use their work to analyze changes in the plant communities here. Rand and Redfield described the abundance of each species they found on the island, and these notes provide a baseline for my comparisons. Species that were once common have become rare; one-fifth of the species that were recorded here in the 19th century have since disappeared from the landscape.
To understand the methods behind the Flora, I looked at the Champlain Society’s Camp Logs. These journals record the daily activities of the Society during their early Mount Desert Island summers, often infusing them with schoolboy humor: “Monday, July 21st 1884 — Rand went on a botanical expedition to Cedar Mt. Swamp, finding a great many specimens of black flies.” Through the Camp Logs, I was able to time travel to an earlier island, peek into the canvas tents that once peppered a field along the now forested sound, and peer over Edward L. Rand’s shoulder as he pressed botanical specimens in the evening and added annotations to his growing species list.
Champlain Society Camp Logs, Mount Desert Island Historical Society (http://www.mdihistory.org/)
Champlain Society At Northeast Harbor-1880 Compiled by Dunbar, Charles F. at Northeast Harbor Library (http://www.nehlibrary.org/)