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Take Note

The connections between art, science, and detective work are no more apparent than in the field journal. Through the mostly hand-written notes recorded by botanists, novelists, and police officers, the raw materials of who, what, when, and where are documented over time so that eventually patterns can be discerned and the big questions of “how” and “why” find some kind of answer.

In his introduction to Field Notes on Science & Nature, E.O. Wilson once again hits all the bases and brings the biological-emotional connection home: “If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits, among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Wilson is not alone in his ability to communicate love and biological observation at the same time. He is joined by 13 “kindred spirits” in this book, mostly renowned researchers, all of whom have filled their share of field books with in situ observations of life from butterflies to birds to dinosaur bones and shark teeth. Among them are Bernd Heinrich, author of the classic The Mind of the Raven and George Schaller, author of The Mountain Gorilla and The Serengeti Lion. These scientists, who also happen to be successful authors, credit the taking of notes in the field as the first layer in the process of forming an eventual narrative.

Those of us always reaching after ways to make concrete the intuition that even human consciousness is an extension of the natural world can reflect on the words of Anna Behrensmeyer, a paleoecologist who says that “in recording fieldwork [I am] creating my own time capsules. Studying paleoecology gives me a fundamental appreciation of the transmission of information across time – whether it involves fossils of extinct organisms or written passages conveying ideas or descriptions…..”

There are many layers to the observations and discussions in this physically gorgeous book, which is replete with reproductions of pages from a wide assortment field guides. Some of these are pages of hand-written numbers; something about handwriting even when you don’t know the whys or wherefores of the subject is entrancing – why? Maybe personal sensibility comes through in handwriting; different people sure have different styles. Most of the scientists contributing here praise digital tools and photography as immeasurably helpful in keeping accurate records, but also note something each of us has directly experienced, which is that technology is great on amassing but not so good on organizing and making sense of things. Pages of Jonathan Kingdon’s drawings of a “caracal cat” flagging its ears and head are ample illustration that physical drawings convey dimensions photography just doesn’t capture. One of the most beautiful pages in the book is a page of Meriwether Lewis’s journal, made on February 24, 1856 while the Corps of Discovery was in Oregon. His finely detailed drawing of an Eulachon fish is flanked with careful script noting his observations about the specimen. This not only gives us the fish in its time and place, the page gives us a glimpse into American history up close and personal.

Editor Michael Canfield, who teaches at Harvard, reflects that “myriad approaches to field recording balance certain common variables…[a] tension between fact and theory, data and narrative.” Sounds to me like consciousness unfolding, fully immersed in the natural world. The second best thing to filling in your own field journals is delving into this volume.

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