Taking out slab containing three Merycochoerus skeletons. Excavations led by Barbour, Wortman, and Gidley in various locations throughout the United States, circa 1900-1935. From lantern slides found in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology Records. SIA2011-1416.
By Scott Thybony
Scotty Thybony at Canyon Diablo, Arizona.
Taking notes has become second nature for me. After scratching down a few observations in the field, I return and work them into narrative notes. They can end up being anything from a straight-forward record of events to stray impressions tied together into a storyline.
|A few of the notebooks used by the author in the field. Photograph by Scott Thybony.
On recent trips to the Grand Canyon, these fieldnotes have included an investigation of paint smears on a cliff wall where the artist Louis Akin cleaned his palette more than 100-years ago. They’ve described the dramatic unfolding of the last monsoon storm of the summer and traced the story of an old inscription carved on a rock face by the orphaned son of an Arctic explorer who died of starvation on a disastrous expedition.
So field notations in all their variety interest me – the journals of explorers, the notebooks of artists, and the diaries of scientists. At times I’ve found myself deep in the back rooms of the Smithsonian Institution among file cabinets and specimen drawers, deciphering the faded pen and ink records they contain. The field notebooks have a rawness to them I like, a spontaneity not found in monographs and memoirs. One day I sat in the research library reading the diary of Charles Walcott, a geologist who spent three cold months in 1882 and 1883 studying rock formations below the rim of Grand Canyon. I was searching for descriptions of the landscape between Nankoweap and Vishnu Temple written when he was seeing it for the first time, unfiltered.
Charles D. Walcott at Grand Canyon Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, SIA Local Number: 83-14116 or 75-2248
What I didn’t expect when I opened his diary was to encounter the human side of the geologist. Walcott, who would go on to become director of the U.S. Geological Survey and head of the Smithsonian, was 32-years old and had lost his wife six years before. As he rode the train west, he recorded in his diary a few routine observations and the normal chance encounters with other passengers. And then the tone of his writing changed. The scientist made a hurried entry beginning with the words, “Met a nonsensical girl . . .”. It ended with a bold flourish of the pen, the only flourish in the entire diary. And tucked between the pages I found a lock of fine blonde hair. Sensible geologist encounters nonsensical girl, and balance is restored to the world.
Once in the field, Walcott wrote about the geology, naturally, and the winter storms sweeping in, bringing snow and sleet. He mentioned the packers, who hauled in supplies and carried out specimens, and trails so difficult they lost a mule off the edge of one. He noted his frostbitten feet and water pockets freezing solid at night, forcing the men to place chunks of ice around the campfire to melt for the animals. Camped at the river he wrote about the crashing rapids sounding like Niagara Falls.
I took notes on his notes from the Grand Canyon, but that’s not what stayed with me when I left the archives. Walking down the street, I kept thinking about the wild flourish of the pen – and left between the pages of the diary, a single lock of hair, long forgotten.
A former river guide and archeologist, Scott Thybony writes books and articles for major publications. His interviews have ranged from astronauts to medicine men, while his travels through North America have resulted in award-winning magazines articles.
Local Number: 83-14116 or 75-2248
By Edward Davis, University of Oregon
|Original J. Arnold Shotwell Mammalogy field book, 1947. Photo by Lieke Dircks, 2012.|
Field books are the lifeblood of a natural history collection. It's hard to conceive of a museum without its field notes, but that's exactly what I found when I arrived at the Condon Fossil Collection of the University of Oregon (UO) Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH) in 2007: close to 100 years of collections without original field notes. Digging into the problem revealed that the notebooks weren't gone (a relief) but had just followed collectors when they left the museum.
Our fossil collection traces its history back to the pioneer geologist Thomas Condon, who began collecting in the area that is now John Day National Monument in the 1860s. Condon amassed almost 6000 specimens, with the majority of his collections from the John Day and Fossil Lake fossil mammal faunas. Upon Condon’s death in 1907, UO acquired his collection, forming the basis of the current MNCH, and in 1918 hired Earl Packard to succeed him.
|Original Shotwell Paleontology field book, 1952. Photo by Lieke Dircks, 2012.|
Packard had Condon's notebooks transcribed into a new printed catalog, which has been passed down to me through a series of mimeographs and photocopies of mimeographs. While I haven't yet seen Condon's original notebooks, I do have a good record of the provenance of Condon's fossils. I am still hopeful of finding Condon's original notebooks, and as time allows, I plan to visit the UO archives and other appropriate archives in the state.
Earl Packard’s field notes are a more difficult problem, but we seem to have found a solution. Packard oversaw the Condon Collection through the 1930s, when all natural science research at Oregon public universities (including the Condon Collection) was moved to Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. Shortly after Packard retired in 1950, the Condon Collection returned to UO, but Packard's notes have remained in Corvallis, where they are a part of the OSU archives. Elizabeth Orr, our still very active emeritus collections manager, has been instrumental in hunting down Packard’s missing records. While we don't yet have a complete set of Packard's notes, it is reassuring to know they exist and are protected at the OSU archives.
Transcribed Paleontology field notes from Shotwell, 1955. Photoby Lieke Dircks, 2012.
After Packard retired, the Condon Collection was incorporated into the UO Museum of Natural History under paleontologist J. Arnold Shotwell. Shotwell was a tremendous collector, amassing tens of thousands of specimens over his more than 20 years at UO. Unfortunately, a 1972 disagreement with the UO administration over budget tightening measures lead to Shotwell’s angry departure from the UO; he carried all his field notes with him. In the 2000s, Ted Fremd, then Head Paleontologist at the John Day National Monument, approached Shotwell, and the two developed a friendship. Over the following few years, Shotwell shared many of his notes with Fremd, who in turn has shared copies with us, allowing us to finally fully document Shotwell’s critical paleoecological collections. Unfortunately, Arnold Shotwell died in early 2012, but before he died the paleontologists at UO managed to reconcile with him, even recognizing him with a MNCH lifetime achievement award. His family has graciously agreed to pass on to MNCH the remainder of the notes, photographs, and maps documenting his field collections.
The UO paleontologists after Shotwell are still with the university, either as emeritus or active faculty, and have been contributing their field books to the MNCH archives. For all new collections, we archive digital copies of field books annually and add their printouts to the museum’s physical archives. I hope my story gives you a sense of the frustration I have felt tracking down these notes, knowing that the effort of decades of fieldwork is lost without them. A sense of scientific duty drives my new dedication to the immediate deposit of field notes. As ethical collectors, we must ensure that future workers won’t have to search for our field books; without supporting documentation, the specimens we collect today may as well be paperweights.
By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Image from P. A. Glick’s publication Collecting Insects by Airplane in Southern Texas in 1957. Image is Public Domain from Google eBooks.
Aviation has had significant effects on the nature of field work. It has changed not only how the collectors get to a site, but also how they see and collected, resulting in wide-ranging consequences.
By the mid-twentieth century, commercial aviation was dramatically changing the speed of travel; collectors, up to that time, would commonly travel long distances via train or boat. With commercial aviation, a weeklong boat trip to Africa became a multi-hour long flight. During the 1960’s when commercial air travel became more widespread, there was an influx of major surveys by Smithsonian departments involving large numbers of staff that would have proven far more logistically complicated prior to commercial aviation. The speed and ease of commercial air travel meant collectors could spend significantly less time getting to their sites and more time on-site. With the time they saved, collectors could spend longer at one location or visit additional ones.
The advent of planes also affected collecting by changing collectors’ perspectives. Collectors could see the environments they studied from an entirely new vantage, hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. Some scientists even took it a step further and used aviation as a way to collect the specimens. Perry A. Glick, an entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, used nets that attached to planes, enabling insect collecting in air to study the altitudinal distribution of insects. He produced several publications about this during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
By the 1940’s, there are examples of scientists attempting to integrate the aviation into their field work observations and collecting. Some of these attempts proved less than successful, while others helped demonstrate aviation’s value to field work. I found a reference to an unsuccessful attempt with a helicopter in a journal of C. O. Handley, Jr. Judging from the results, I am assuming they did not try it again.
[Thule, Greenland, 1948] The way it turned out he flew in the helicopter instead and spent the afternoon trying to fish from that. On the water, with its rotors off, the plane blows about like a kite even in a small breeze. Thus no matter where they would land, they would soon drift in to the beach. Another disadvantage was that when the helicopter starts on the water after its rotor has been dead, the whole thing spins with the rotor until the latter attains sufficient speed to stabilize the plane.
Though the helicopter proved less than useful over water, it yielded results over land. The journal includes hand drawn maps that indicate that survey results were successful, as seen in recorded observation taken via helicopter and on foot.
Example of F. Raymond Fosberg’s observations from an airplane. Photographed by Emily Hunter.
A more successful example of aerial observations is the work of F. Raymond Fosberg, (discussed in the February 24, 2012 article by Emily Hunter), who recognized the benefits of aerial observations alongside ground observations for his field of botany. Several of his field books include extended aerial observations of sites where he collected botanical specimens. Fosberg even published articles promoting the use of aerial photographs for surveying and studying botanical distribution. He proposed using military aerial photographs (that were taken during World War II) for this purpose. I have not been able to determine whether his hopes for these photographs came to fruition, but there are now a considerable number of examples of aerial photography being used for this type of botanical study.
Botany was not the only other field to make use of aviation. Harry S. Ladd used aerial observations in his field of paleontology and geology. Field notes document his observations via helicopter, noting the shape and character of reefs in Fiji, as seen below in a journal excerpt.
May 7, 1968 Tues - By Hill helicopter from Heron Id to Gladstone [Fiji]. Flying over reefs confirms impressions obtained on ground – i.e. if lee reefs and lagoons. Reefs appear to be more saw-toothed on lee than on windward. No suggestion of lithothamnion(?) ridge to windward – only what looks like a low marinol bulge (of debris?). Lagoon of Wistari(?) appears to have small ring-like structure-comparable to that seen yesterday in Heron lagoon plus irregular.
Since the 1960’s, the use of aviation and aerial photographs has spun off in a myriad of directions. Aircraft and aerial photographs are now used for monitoring and management wildlife habitat, locating and analyzing archaeological sites, and studying plant ecology. Scientists and even the National Park Service are beginning to utilize unmanned aerial vehicles.
All of the forms of transportation discussed in our transportation series have helped shape the research recorded by the field notes we document. Sometimes they present challenges to the collectors, sometimes a new advantage or perspective. For me, it demonstrates the flexibility and ingenuity of our collectors to see and to use opportunities as they present themselves. Field work often seems to be journey of the unexpected; I can’t wait to see what comes next.
By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
The relationship between railroads and field collecting is a story of expediency and access. Prior to air travel and the interstate system, collectors often found the easiest way to travel within the vicinity of their home institutions or long distances was by train. When cataloging field books I learned that where trains went and even how railroad lines were constructed helped shape the collections of the Smithsonian.
Railroad Station in Huigra, Ecuador, taken by A. S. Hitchcock, 1923-1924. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU229, Box 19, Folder 2. SIA2009-2925.
I first saw this in the collection of Bohumil Shimek. He spent a lot of time collecting and observing along railroads in Iowa. Shimek had an unusual perspective on natural history. He studied a combination of geology, paleontology, and botany, often in reference to erosion. Railroad lines provided an ideal environment for his work. As the railroads were built in the countryside, engineers made cuts into the terrain, which gave Shimek easy access to study the geological structure alongside surrounding vegetation. When reading Shimek’s field books, one can often follow long portions of railroad lines.
Initially I thought the use of railroads was unique to the study of geology and paleontology; it fit with the trend I saw in geologists’ and paleontologists’ field books of looking for already exposed strata (they often observed and collected in mines and eroded banks of waterways). As I looked through catalog records and talked with some of the Smithsonian scientists, I learned that railroad lines affect many other disciplines because collecting often occurs enroute.
Train in Puerto Pinasco, Paraguay during Wetmore's field work, September 4, 1920. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU007006, Box 170, Album I. SIA2012-0858.
Selecting a collecting site is not always a formal process. Although official investigations or expeditions might be organized to target specific localities, frequently specimen collecting occurs when a collector finds an opportunity. What does this mean? Scientists collect during lunch breaks, at home, and enroute to major collecting sites. This informal collecting style is one reason the Smithsonian has such a strong collection of specimens from the Washington DC / Baltimore area, often along old railroads that have since been removed.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, railroads were a major form of transportation on the east coast. Many collectors from the Smithsonian traveled by rail. While traveling, they recorded observations of terrain and vegetation; when the train stopped at intermediate points, collectors exited to collect in the vicinity. Travel by rail influenced the collecting of plant, mammal, and bird specimens. Below is just a sample of some of the collectors who utilized railroad lines during their collecting.
Now that I see the trend, it makes sense. Railroad lines made travel across long distances much easier. It seems only logical that scientists would take advantage of the railway system by collecting along its established routes. It makes me wonder, will I be able to write a similar post someday about the birth of the US interstate system?
By Carolyn Sheffield, Field Book Project
Dr. Anna Kay Behrensmeyer,
As part of our Beyond The Field Book Project section of this blog, we are initiating a series of interviews to learn more about who uses field books and for what kinds of research. The other week I had the privilege of interviewing Kay Behrensmeyer, PhD, in the Department of Paleobiology. She is a contributing author to “Field Notes on Science & Nature” and keeps meticulous field notes herself. She shared some great information on the role of field notes in her own research, which focuses on Paleoecology and Taphonomy. Taphonomy is the study of how fossils and organic remains are preserved. According to Dr. Behrensmeyer, “Taphonomy [has to do with] the transition from the biosphere to the lithosphere. The fossil record is a tiny sample of life in the past so a lot of my career has been devoted to figuring out what that little sample means in terms of the original animals, plants, and ecosystems. Field notes link the fossils and the age and the lithology and the ancient environments. And everything kind of comes together around that primary data.”
What role do the notes you take in the field play in figuring that out and how would you use that in a lab or how would you describe that process?
Being in the field is a wonderful experience that I love [but] it is a small percentage of my total research time. I learned that you can get distracted and not remember a lot of what’s going on when you do field work. So I began taking really careful notes.
One example I’m [working] with now are Pila snails, known today as “Apple Snails.” The opercula, or “trap doors” of these snails are mineralized in life and relatively easy to fossilize. We collected many of them as in the ancient strata of Pakistan, even though we never see the whole shell. There are bands on the opercula of Pila that could indicate a seasonal climate, so we need to know exactly where they came from. My field books provide that information.
In your piece in Canfield’s publication, it really stood out how important the visual materials – the photographs and the sketches—were to your work.
I’m very visual as a thinker—so if I can connect back with an image like this one of the bone beds, or the strata or even the people […] then I can really get my head back into that space.
|Dr. Behrensmeyer's notes and polaroid documentation of a bone bed near the Kenyapithicus Site, November 24, 1987.
I usually worked with an old style Polaroid camera that took black and white because the black and white survives better, archivally. The colors in Polaroid film just didn’t last very well. We used a color polaroid in Kenya, and if you scan them right away then you can archive them, but in the notebooks the prints fade.
And Pakistan--we can’t go back any more, of course, because of the politics. It’s doubly important there to have the diagrams and the Polaroids.
How would you use that information when you come back from the field?
For drawing the stratigraphic sections, the layers, into diagrams. You need to have all the information you can to reconstruct those layers and the strata when you’re back in the lab, and to filter the information about the fossils as well. It’s a tried and true axiom that you need good field observations to do this type of research.
|Dr. Behrensmeyer's notes describing the rock type at Kenyapithicus Site, October 9, 1990.
For example, here’s a date and these are the sample numbers. And the tiny writing to fit in as much information as possible on the page. This is a description of the rock type. Its tuff, which is a volcanic ash. This is very important for recording the name of that particular volcanic layer. There’s a rich fossil deposit here and it’s sandwiched between two very nice radiometric dates. It’s very important to document the age as well as the layers that this bone bed was in. We called this the Kenyapithecus site. This is an important early relative in human lineage. In the publication, there’s a much simplified version.
I do a lot of transferring of information from my primary field notes. And they’re always what I go back to if there’s a question.
Do you ever consult field notes that were done for another expedition, for example a historic expedition?
I also worked in the Jurassic Period early in my career. The bone searchers of that time, Marsh and Cope, were out looking for dinosaurs. We used their early records, especially maps, sketch maps, and books. All of that can be a real treasure trove of important information.
Do you find that those historic field books are generally easy to locate?
If it’s a well-known museum, you just ask them if you can visit and look at the field books. Or some of them are reproduced digitally now, although generally you have to go to the museum where the scientist worked. Field notebooks before the 1960’s are not available unless you go to the archives. It would be wonderful if they were more accessible.
So if these were made available online, how would you want to be able to search for them?
Definitely if there are maps, sketches, diagrams, I would want to see those. The place, latitude / longitude – some kind of GIS referencing system. Those are particularly valuable. I had an intern last summer who went to the field notes of the people who collected with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa, and there are catalogs of all the specimens they collected in 1911. It was a real problem figuring out what a place name, then, was now. And there were two identical names for rivers that were in opposite ends of Kenya.
Also any reference to fossils and, of course, the dates. The people that were involved; the institutions; where the camps were. Maybe weather. In a way, it’s a record of what climate was like then, too. In Wyoming, they got snowed-in in May or October, they were pushing the limit because they were on a treasure hunt and they were trying to get the dinosaurs out, according to some of the books you read about those early expeditions. There may not be heavy snow in May anymore. That’s more on the end of the human side of it. That’s also really valuable.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about the use of field books or the value of field books in your research?
They’re a really important part of our legacy and our research. They’re essential.
Thank you, Dr. Behrensmeyer, for sharing your insights on some of the valuable information that we can find recorded in paleontological field notes. Please join us next month for another installation in our interview series when we talk with Curator Emeritus, Storrs Olson, from the Division of Birds.
By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
If you’ve been reading our blog and viewing our Flickr sets, there should be no doubt in your mind the important role photographs have played in the field.
My most recent example of photographs documenting field research is found in the Charles Lewis Gazin Papers (Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7314). The “field books” (the textual records that we most often think of as field notes) corresponding to these photos are currently housed in the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History.
There is something to learn from each captivating image in Gazin’s collection. Both the mysterious nature of some of these photos and the difficulty of providing an accurate description prompted me to ask first myself, and later staff from the Department of Paleobiology, questions about what these images depicted. I share these photos, questions, and answers with you below.
Wyoming, 1941, Gazin, SIA 2012-3630, Box 18, Folder 16, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Wyoming, 1941, Gazin, SIA 2012-3654, Box 18, Folder 16, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Wyoming, 1941, Gazin, SIA 2012-3292, Box 18, Folder 16, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Wide angle photographs like those above are common in many of the field note collections the Field Book Project has catalog from various fields of biology. I wondered, however, if these images had particular significance for paleobiologists; could information about a location’s geology be ascertained from a photograph, for example? As Department of Paleobiology Fossil Preparator Steve Jabo told me, these beautiful images do serve a practical purpose. As with similar images in field notes for other disciplines, these images contain geographic data. “Besides the “wow” factor of seeing your campsite / locality in the context of the regional geology,” Steve says, “these photos are handy for re-finding your locality,” especially years later. Steve explains, “even though you put a dot on a topographic map, it’s not always easy to find the exact spot again.”
Finding fossils in the field
Uncovered specimen, 1959, Gazin, SIA 2012-3460, Box 19, Folder 16, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
The question when I saw this image was simple: “What’s going on?” My initial guess was that the person in this photograph was cleaning the dirt off of the specimen, but as I learned from Steve, the fragile fossil was actually being protected. The substance in the jar was painted onto the bones. When the substance dried, it kept the fossil and surrounding rock intact as they were excavated.
Not your 5th grader’s paper maché
Creating field jacket, 1951, Gazin, SIA 2012-7646, Box 19, Folder 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Creating field jacket, Panama, Gazin, SIA 2012-7645, Box 19, Folder 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Row of field jackets, Panama, 1951, Gazin, SIA 2012-7644, Box 19, Folder 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Some of my favorite images from this collection are above. I assumed that the people depicted in these photographs were creating molds of the fossils, and was amused to see that the process looked similar to the paper maché many of us made as kids. The idea of molds inspired more questions. Why make molds in the field? What was the purpose? Rather than continue this guesswork, I emailed FossiLab Manager Abby Telfer and learned that these were not molds at all, but field jackets. Because fossils are fragile they are often encapsulated in “jackets” typically made from plaster and burlap. Abby also noted that during the time of these photos, it was not unusual for paleontologists to use bandages instead of burlap. An image of an opened field jacket can be seen in Abby’s article Fossil Hunting under the Watchful Eyes of Lions on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History blog.
As someone from a library and archival background, I found that cataloging these particular photos provided an unexpected yet fascinating way to gain a deeper understanding of field work and techniques used by paleontologists. Thanks to help from Steve and Abby, Gazin’s images have now lost their air of mystery to me, but they will always remain spectacular examples of visual field notes of events and the places they occurred.
By G. Wayne Clough
Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Machu Picchu, Peru. Taken during Secretary Clough’s visit (2011).
Every great institution is built upon a bedrock foundation of timeless values that shape its culture and identity. The Smithsonian has always embraced a passion for learning. We are fortunate to have had a founder, James Smithson, and many other early champions who were deeply committed to acquiring knowledge through research. Mr. Smithson was a scientist of the Enlightenment period who chose to work in the new field of chemistry. One of his other passions was mineralogy—not only discovering new minerals but determining practical uses for them. Mr. Smithson prided himself on the work he did in the field to identify minerals. His work was highly regarded by his peers, and at a young age he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society of London. It was such a notable distinction that only one American of the time was so honored—Benjamin Franklin. After Smithson’s death, one of his mineral discoveries, zinc carbonate, was dubbed “smithsonite” in honor of his lasting contributions to the discipline.
The Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, a prominent scientist and engineer himself, continued the legacy of scholarly research. The subsequent secretaries in the Smithsonian’s formative years shared similar science and engineering backgrounds and reinforced the ethic of research and scholarship initiated by James Smithson and Joseph Henry. For 166 years, research has remained one of the Smithsonian’s core values essential to the Institution in all areas: science, art, history and culture. Its importance is permanently enshrined in the zinc statue Columbia Protecting Science and Industry. The statue is being cleaned now instead of standing at its usual spot atop the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building, but it still symbolizes the important contributions of the sciences and arts and pays tribute to the benefactor who made it all possible.
Tragically, most of Mr. Smithson’s comprehensive mineralogical field journals were lost in a fire after they had been transferred to the Smithsonian, but now, as then, field books are critical to what we do. They reflect the work of hundreds of Smithsonian scientists and scholars who have conducted comprehensive research at sites all over the world. Simply stated, detailed research requires going to the source, no matter the availability of resources online or through technology. You cannot understand the “why” of a botanical species if you do not know the “what” of its ecological setting. You cannot explain how a civilization created a Deer Stone monument in Mongolia if you do not visit the region where it was made. And you cannot understand how the Inka could possibly build a remarkable civilization in less than 200 years, only to see it disappear, except by doing the field research needed to understand the world of that time.
Smithsonian field books document the evidence-gathering phase of research. They capture the thoughts of scientists and scholars as they formulate hypotheses that will subsequently be tested by other scientists and scholars. They form the basis for conclusions, publications and educational materials that derive from the work of individuals. Collectively they represent the Smithsonian's institutional memory of thousands of expeditions and investigations.
Secretary Clough visiting field site at Machu Picchu, Peru (2011).
I was fortunate to have served as a faculty member at some of the most respected research universities in our country, and one of my joys was working on exciting research with my 34 PhD students. Field work has always been a particularly satisfying endeavor for me and was an important component in the investigations I undertook on landslides and earthquakes, here in this country and around the world. As Secretary of today's sprawling Smithsonian, my own
research interests have necessarily taken
a back seat to the needs of the Institution at large, but I still have the opportunity to live vicariously through the work of my talented Smithsonian colleagues. From time to time I have ventured back into to the field to see their work in action in places like Peru, Chile, and Kenya. Observing these talented experts in their element truly brings their impressive and important research to life. In each case I have documented these excursions with travel journals so I can share the remarkable efforts of our scientists and scholars. They are available for people to see at the Smithsonian Magazine website. It is important for everyone to see us in action and understand how Smithsonian research is making a difference, not just in Washington DC, but all over the nation and throughout the world.
Secretary Clough visiting field site at Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. (2010)
My travel journals are the closest thing to a field book I do today. Writing these journals requires extensive preparation and delving into the subject matter before I arrive at a site. Fully understanding the location puts the research into context and enables a deeper understanding, both for me and for readers of the journal. When I visit sites like the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming, as I did with NaturalHistory scientist Scott Wing, the effort pays off. While there, Scott arranged for me to crack open a shale fragment exposing a fossil from 55 million years ago that documents a time when the earth was much hotter than it is today. By applying the results of field work about this epoch, we can unravel the mystery of modern climate change and better understand the causes of rising temperatures and its potential effects on the planet. Scott’s field books document 15 years of remarkable discoveries he and his colleagues made in the Big Basin. These detailed logs explain what triggered a massive release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. His field books are invaluable research tools that will continue to serve as foundations upon which other scientists can build, sparking new insights into our planet’s climate.
Secretary Clough holding a fossil of a palm frond, demonstrating how warm the climate was. Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (2010).
Like our collections, field books are treasures of knowledge and information, but they also serve to document in real time how the scientific method is used to unlock the mysteries of our world. Previously, field journals have only been accessible to a select few. Now, thanks to my talented colleagues who have begun digitizing our field books, we can share these valuable resources with everyone. The Smithsonian is undergoing a renaissance, utilizing the modern tools of technology to fortify our traditional strength of scholarly research—and enhance the learning for everyone. It is an exciting new day for this venerable Institution.
Together the Royal Ontario Museum and Parks Canada have created a spectacular website about the Burgess Shale or Les schistes de Burgess. The English and French website contains high quality still and moving images of this amazing paleontological site located in Yoho National Park, part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. As you will read later, the Smithsonian played a small role in contributing to this project.
Approximately a half billion years old, the Burgess Shale is a Cambrian period formation and one of the earliest fossil beds in which soft-bodied fossils of animals and algae are preserved. The new website documents over 125 years of discoveries including current research by the Royal Ontario Museum Burgess Shale Expeditions through a number of dynamic features.
In addition to the features outlined above, the website also includes links to resources and information about Parks Canada.
Sarah Stauderman, Principal Investigator of the Field Book Project’s conservation efforts, is acknowledged on the Burgess Shale website credits page for her assistance with Smithsonian archival materials related to Charles Walcott.
The Smithsonian Institution maintains a substantial collection of photographic and other materials related to Walcott, including 42 field books housed within the Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7004, all of which have been cataloged by the Field Book Project. Although Smithsonian field books won't be available on the Burgess Shale website,the field books do provide rich information for further understanding the abundant information, media tools and resources available on the Burgess Shale website.
More about the Charles Walcott field notes
Charles Walcott’s field books at the Smithsonian Institution Archives range more than fifty years (1879-1940). Some of his early field notes were composed in a journal style, including general observations, daily work completed, sketches of landscapes, as well as geological information relating to the surveys he completed for the United States Geological Survey. Most of the field notes in his collection contain few general observations and more commonly consist of geological sections, descriptions, and observations of fossils seen, and pertinent details about surrounding vegetation and environment. Often his notes were on loose sheets of note paper removed from their original notebook and separated by entry.
By the time he studied the Burgess shale in British Columbia, Walcott’s field note entries consisted of several pages clearly listing location and describing observed sections, with height of each layer, its composition, color, texture, other characteristics, as well as presence of fossils. See examples of Walcott’s field notes below.
Field notes of Charles D. Walcott, August 6, 1909, describing of geological formation of
Moraine Lake at Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park, Canada.
Summer is drawing to a close for interns at the Smithsonian Institution. Our own interns, Jenny Mathias and Emily Hunter, have left us with well over 600 catalog records, blog posts, and two spectacular sets of images now available to view on Flickr's The Commons. These sets were created using images Jenny and Emily encountered during their internship. We asked Jenny and Emily what inspired their selections of the images in their Flickr sets. Here is what they had to say.
Field Book Lantern Slides by Jenny Mathias, MLIS Candidate, Pratt Institute
The first collection I cataloged for the Field Book Project consisted of lantern slides. Who knew these beautiful 3.25 x 4 inch, hand painted, glass objects were also field notes? Imagine my delight at seeing with my very eyes exactly what collectors saw in the field on the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition of 1909 (Smithsonian Institution Archives Acc. 06-093). The next collection I cataloged at SIA was a collection of lantern slides documenting the work conducted by Division of Vertebrate Paleontology (SIA RU424). These slides include images of Barbour, Wortman, and Gidley, and countless other unnamed field researchers collecting and preparing fossils of dinosaurs and large mammals for display in the museum. My flickr set contains just 19 of the 115 glass lantern slides I saw during the first 2 weeks of my internship. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Pacific Ocean Biological Survey by Emily Hunter, MLS, University of Maryland
After cataloging textual field notes by over 40 Pacific Ocean Biological Survey scientists, I was delighted to find two manuscript boxes of photographs, offering visual depictions of species I had read so much about. Most of the photographs in the collection are of birds, representing the major focus of the biological survey to observe and band sea birds. In creating this grouping of images, I was inspired by the range of species represented, the beauty of the photographs, and of the birds themselves. Images include photographs captured up-close of birds in their natural habitats, as well as interesting nest constructions, and eggs, and a couple of illustrations by researchers in the field.
I was struck by the level of detail of the markings on a Fairy term egg that seemed almost to be scribbled on with a magic marker like a modern work of art. A Black-footed albatross looking down towards the egg at its feet is kind of...well, moving. A photograph of birds swirling over building ruins on East Island freezes a moment of blissful chaos. Perhaps my favorite image, however, is a photograph of a Leach's storm-petrel specimen, held by its captor, and cropped square to show only the outstretched arm and hand holding the dead bird. There is something both gentle and sad about this image. The cropping, the soft background, and the warmth of the hand contracted with the sharp focus and stiffness of the specimen intrigued me. The content is scientific, but the photograph is quite artistic.