by Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
So where do poo, our field books, and the history of our nation meet? I found two connections: Alexander Wetmore during his work in the Pacific islands for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Vernon Bailey during work in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, for the US Biological Survey.
One of the first collections I cataloged was that of Alexander Wetmore. Wetmore was an ornithologist (all-around great guy) who worked for the USDA and was later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He took part in the Tanager Expedition (1923); my blog post on this expedition discusses the ramifications of the guano industry in the Hawaiian Islands, but it wasn’t until after I wrote the article that I learned about the Guano Act of 1856.
Pelagic birds migrating across the Pacific Ocean return each year to the Hawaiian Islands and leave their guano behind. Guano, at one time, could be found multiple feet in depth. Harvesting bird guano from these islands was a major industry during the late nineteenth century. In fact, the US Congress passed the United States Guano Act of 1856 that allowed a US citizen who,
Discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States. (R.S. Sec. 5570 derived from act Aug. 18, 1856, ch. 164, Sec. 1, 11 Stat. 119. Taken from the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, US House of Representatives)
Through this law, citizens could legally take possession of “unclaimed” islands on behalf of the United States. Islands like Midway, Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands, among others became part of the Unites States in this way. Alexander Wetmore’s notes, maps, and materials from the Tanager Expedition give a graphic depiction of the inadvertent environmental aftermath of human activities of these islands.
If you want to know more about the history of Laysan Island and its guano industry, Smithsonian Institution Archives also has the family journals of Maximillian Joseph August Schlemmer who worked with the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company, which mined guano. During his time on Laysan Island, Max introduced rabbits as a food source. These rabbits later populated at such a fast rate that they decimated the island flora and fauna over the next twenty years. Ironically, Wetmore recruited Max's son Eric to be part of the Tanager Expedition in 1923, during which expedition participants were finally able to successfully eradicate the rabbit population and allow the island ecosystem to recover.
Back on the mainland…
Interest in the uses of guano was not just in the Pacific. There are references to its uses in some of Vernon Bailey’s field notes for the Biological Survey. Bailey studied bats across the United States, documenting populations, habitat, and interviewing local inhabitants about their observations of bat populations and utilization of guano. While in the southwest United States investigating bat populations in 1924, interviewing locals about bat roosts etc., he wrote:
Dr. Campbell says he gets about 2 tons a year of guano from this roost and give it to his wife for pin money. She sells it in 10lb bags at $1 a bag to florists, gardeners, etc.
Vernon Bailey spent time studying bats in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in 1929. He also published about his time in Kentucky, giving some great background and history on the caves. This is how I found the connection to guano that helped make Mammoth Cave famous. Bat guano does not just make for a great fertilizer; it is also a source of saltpeter, an important ingredient in gun powder. Mammoth Cave was an important source of this ingredient during the War of 1812. To learn more about it, check out the National Park Service website.
Poo, for all its less than pleasant characteristics, can be a powerful tool for natural history study, agriculture, and (at one time) national defense. Its importance to the world economy may have changed, but it has influenced world history in significant ways, and will continue to be a source of new and important information about the natural world.