By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book ProjectWhen I travel to a new place, I often keep a journal. Although my journals are self-indulgent—how I feel, what I think, what something means to me (yawn)—I can’t help but fall into a pattern of recording, by text or image, the subjects I find most compelling. Street signs, billboards, food carts, rusted out gas stations and convenience stores, dusty streets, and people, strange and interesting people, fill my camera and notebooks. I usually end up tossing out half of it a year later. But old habits die hard. The next trip, there I go again: the same rust, the same dust, the same neon signs, the same crooked smiles and haggard eyes.
That’s why I’m not surprised about Killip. Elsworth P. Killip (1890-1968), Head Curator of the U.S. National Herbarium from 1946 to 1950 and expert on South American phanerogams, kept a travelogue of a fun filled canoe trip down the Adirondack rivers. This travelogue is available for reference within the Smithsonian Institution Archives collection, Ellsworth Paine Killip Papers, 1914-1950. Like me, Killip couldn’t resist his habits, turning the travelogue of his vacation into part field book of observation and documentation. Although I didn’t find any evidence in the travelogue that Killip collected anything during his canoe trip, his record of the flora in the Adirondack Mountains in the summer of 1914 provides a portal through which modern researchers can observe perhaps a bygone habitat.
It’s rather clear throughout the travelogue that Killip is on vacation. The titles (“An Account of My Canoe Trip through the Adirondacks: My First Travelogue” or “Camping in the Adirondacks”), the entries on the trials and triumphs of canoeing, and the goofy pictures of Killip staring strangely into the camera, all illustrate this well. Soon after the first few pages, however, Killip begins switching back and forth between my-summer-vacation entries and scientific recording. Killip logged the various plants he observed and included general descriptions of the flora in localities he visited. When I found photos of plants with identifications, I knew his habits had taken hold. Killip was turning his vacation into a field trip, as we have seen with so many of these darn scientists. Even in an unsuspecting image of “Mountain Pond,” the subject seems suspiciously (and purposefully) obscured by the foliage on the edge of the pond.
I don’t think there is much skepticism among our readers that such observations can be extremely useful, especially when coupled with dates and accurate locality information (but I’m still going to talk about it). Because Killip’s journal is foremost a travelogue, every location he visits is well documented. At the end of his journal, Killip even includes an itinerary of travel. That’s right Killip; go crazy and record every single plant you see if you want to. Each observation of plant life you form, Killip, is clearly associated with a date and locality. Thank goodness.
If after reading Killip’s travelogue there is any doubt that Killip’s hobby, habit, obsession—whatever you want to call it—became a large part of his trip, one need only look at the three page list of plants observed that is included in a sort of appendix.
For Killip and many other scientists at the Smithsonian (dead and living), this habit of field booking seems more like a compulsion because it shows up during times you’d expect these people to just RELAX. Knowing this, however, a scientist’s personal travelogues or diaries should not be immediately discounted from containing useful scientific information. When the record of a scientist’s travels are available, it might be worth taking a few minutes to see if they couldn’t help but record some field observations. Along with finding a unique personal narrative, you may be unlocking untapped biodiversity information.