Brain Pickings

Field Notes: A Glimpse Inside Great Explorers’ Notebooks

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On the singular joys of observing nature firsthand, or the best way to draw a bilaterally symmetrical sphinx moth.

In our age of screens, pencil and paper have lost some of their cultural status, but a new publication wants to remind us of their value in recording and understanding our world.

Just out from Harvard University Press, Field Notes on Science and Nature is as much a scientific travelogue as a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment. Full of beautiful reproductions of original journal pages, Field Notes takes us from Baja, California with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

In the words of the book’s editor, Michael Canfield (himself a biologist at Harvard), we can all “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

The simple satisfactions of mindfully documenting our surroundings are probably best summed up by E.O. Wilson, who penned the book’s introduction:

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.”

Let Field Notes be your guide to seeing both the wonders of biology and your own backyard with new eyes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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