By Lesley Parilla, Cataloger, Field Book Project
Special thanks to the “volunpeers” at Smithsonian Transcription Center for their assistance with this post.
Specimens and field documentation can come from unexpected sources. We’ve touched on a few of these sources in the past—road kill and expeditions with former presidents to name two. We came across another one that just had to be highlighted, and maybe it will even help you choose your summer reading list! It turns out that some well-known novelists contributed to natural history collections.
The search started after learning about the book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, (University of Chicago Press, 2014). In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday, the author Richard B. Primack discussed how he was able to use information Thoreau recorded in his personal journals to document changes in climate. This was partly due to Thoreau’s strong interest in the natural world; he didn’t just record details about weather but also about plant phenology. I came to wonder, did he limit his interest to recording natural history observations, or did he perhaps collect specimens?
It turns out that Thoreau has botanical specimens deposited in the herbarium at the University of Connecticut! So we began to wonder, are there other writers who may have helped document the natural world? Here are a few we found.
- Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, had a well-documented fascination with butterflies. His specimen collection is part of the holdings at Harvard University’s Comparative Zoology department.
- John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, collected with marine biologist Ed Ricketts in the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck describe the trip in his book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941).
- In 1934 Ernest Hemingway, author of the The Old Man and the Sea, helped to collect fish with Henry W. Fowler for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Do you know of other novelists that expressed their interest in the natural world through collecting? Let us know in the comments section below!