Juneau Nature

Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

Juneau Nature - Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

Field notes on science & nature

Field notes on science & nature

Michael Canfield, editor. 2011 Harvard University Press. Foreword by Edward O. Wilson

Why naturalists should keep journals.

Why naturalists should keep journals.

Can you remember where you were and what you learned in late April, 1993? Does it matter? Canfield’s ground-breaking collection brings together reflections on journaling, along with fascinating samples from the notebooks of a dozen well-known ecologists, geologists, and scientific illustrators. The chapters cover ornithology, entomology, ecology, paleontology, anthropology, botany, and animal behavior.

A few examples: ●  George Schaller’s lion observations.  ●  Kenn Kaufman’s 1973 “big year,” and how his notes have evolved since then. ●   Piotr Naskrecki’s relational databases and electronic field notes.  ●  Bernd Heinrich’s sketches and reminder-scribbles.

Until now, few researchers have shared their private journals with more than a handful of friends and colleagues. Each author takes you behind the scenes, offering tips gleaned from a long, prolifically archived career. The concluding chapter is by Eric Greene, an ecologist at University of Montana. He notices that journaling, which originated in the field sciences, has ironically migrated into the lab:

“I’ve been puzzled by my student’s initial negative reactions to journaling for a field ecology class. . . To see if this is a general sentiment, I informally polled many of my colleagues in a broad range of fields at several universities . . .In general, lab scientists in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology tend to keep much better notebooks . . .than field scientists in ecology, behavior and conservation biology.”

Here’s an essay—drawn in part from an interview with editor Canfield—on why it still makes sense to draw (that’s right; with an actual pencil, a la Kathy Hocker.)

I finished reading Field notes in winter, 2015, as I was preparing a talk for the Alaska chapter of the Wildlife Society. Concluding that talk, on the intersection of science and natural history, I made journaling (along with making maps) one of two core recommendations to the group. That presentation is archived in our TOOLs section as Focus & breadth: science and natural history in Southeast Alaska.

And by the way, lest you too consider journaling just a chore—by the end of Greene’s ecology class, most students are enthralled by process. The trick is to find a system that fits your goals and personality, something too fun to neglect. For more tips, check out our page called Journaling and blogging.