Field Notes on Science & Nature – edited by Michael Canfield

Field Notes on Science and Nature cover

Image courtesy of this Harvard University Gazette post:

Well I have just finished Field Notes on Science & Nature edited by Michael Canfield.  What a lovely read.  I think this book could be incredibly useful for incoming and current graduate students in ecology or any field biology discipline.  I wish it had been published prior to my entering the EEB department at Michigan way back in 2007.

The book was a very fast read – with each chapter telling the story of some field biologist’s approach to documenting, describing, drawing and deliberating on the field.  In general, authors of chapters explain their process of taking field notes and how that has evolved over time.  While this might sound dull, I found it simply wonderful.  The book is sprinkled with high-quality color images of pages from the authors’ own field notebooks which were fascinating to see.  This historical take on field notes was valuable from both a ‘history of ecology’ perspective (e.g. their chapter on ‘the Grinnell system”) and a personal perspective (e.g. getting to read about authors’ reflections of their own evolution in how they view their field notes and written or drawn observations of their past trips).

One of my favorite chapters came towards the end.  Chapter 12, Why Keep a Field Notebook? by Erick Greene really struck a cord with me because he succeeds in a goal I find challenging (though not, by any means, unobtainable).  Greene writes that he assigned a project for his upper level ecology class:

I asked my students to pick one “thing” and observe it carefully over the entire semester.  The “thing” they chose could be anything from a single plant, one place, a beaver dam, their garden, a bird feeder, and so on.  They had to record their observations at least once a week in a field notebook.

He goes on to say that one of his goals in assigning this project was to show students that although it can be difficult to come up with “fresh new ideas,” by keeping such a field notebook and building up a deep understanding of a “thing,” a person can start to ask questions they would not have thought about before.

What struck me, though, was that he says his students were highly dubious, skeptical and downright annoyance about having to do this semester-long assignment at first and then by the end of the term, they were completely enlightened and positive about the experience.  What a success story!  And it makes me want to pick up nature journaling myself.

Greene goes on to speculate a bit about the culture of keeping notebooks in the realm of science amongst undergraduates.  He notes that in molecular biology, for example, keeping a lab notebook is not only not questioned but expected.  However, Greene says:

When I asked undergraduate and graduate students in ecology and behavior how they kept field notebooks and wehre they learned to do it, I mainly received blank stares.  These were typically followed by responses such as: “I have a GPS for that.” “My data are in a spreadsheet.” “I write things down when I get home.” “I have a computer.”  The general consensus seemed to be that field notebooks are quaint, archaic, and obsolete in field biology.

Greene’s chapter is a “plea” to reconsider the field notebook, to discuss why they are important, what their value is and some best practices around keeping a field notebook.

As I read this book, I found myself thinking back to the period of time between the summer of 2007 through the summer of 2009 when I was a masters student in ecology doing field work at a remote field station in Alaska.  We had field notebooks (always rite-in-the-rain) with forms for data entry pre-printed on many of the pages depending on the anticipated field sampling scheme for the summer.  There were a few pages in back that were empty for notes to be filled in.  There was never a huge emphasis on the creative side of field note taking, though we tried to remember to record the weather (indeed there was a spot for it) or other “important” aspects of our sampling for the day.  I never quite understood why most of the “extra” stuff was important (though we didn’t take down too much “extra” stuff that I remember) – but this book has put all that in context for me.

Again, I think this would be incredibly valuable for any incoming or current graduate student doing field work of any kind.  Perhaps, I would even dare to recommend it to seasoned field veterans or those with graduate students to remind them that those coming into the field now may arrive with different preconceived notions about fieldwork and its methods.  I could see any ecologist picking this up and gaining something from it.  So, off you go!  Off to your local library…!


4 thoughts on “Field Notes on Science & Nature – edited by Michael Canfield

  1. Thank you for the recommendation. I also wished I had someone teaching me the importance of good field journalling during my time at school. Nothing like finding new inspiration or ideas from old field entries.

  2. Whoa. Did you see that, on the rotating banner of the Toolik homepage, there’s a picture of what must be a rite-in-the-rain notebook labeled “Field Notes”?

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