Writing, Writing, Writing: The Natural History Field Journal as a Literary Text

Cathryn Carson
February 2007
Photo of handwritten, nondescript text.

Nature is a resource for both the humanities and the sciences, taken up and transformed by them in a multiplicity of ways. That is conspicuously true of natural history, which characterizes the variation, distribution, and interconnection of the earth’s flora and fauna. At the same time as natural history paints a picture of untouched nature, it documents a world captured by human observers in a particular cultural frame. One of its key tools, the field notebook or journal, sits at the crossroads of literary subjectivity and methodological objectivity, re-marking an intersection of the humanities and the sciences.

In 2006, a Townsend Center G.R.O.U.P. summer grant gave me an unusual opportunity to pursue questions of subjectivity and literary form in modern natural history note-taking. With G.R.O.U.P. support I worked together with an undergraduate apprentice, Melissa Preston, to examine the field notes of Joseph Grinnell, held in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ).

Melissa is an Integrative Biology major with many courses in the humanities. She is well-versed in vertebrate natural history and a thoughtful reader of scientific texts. More than that, she has considerable experience doing ornithological fieldwork in Southern California, where the young Joseph Grinnell more than a century earlier had begun his career as an amateur birder.

My skills are complementary: As a historian of science, I have long been interested in the disciplining of scientific subjectivity and its literary expressions. Before last summer, I had examined it in a very different setting—the popular writings of a modern German physicist. However, for a while now I have been working with several colleagues (a sociologist, a philosopher, and two biologists) on the MVZ’s history. I was intrigued by the museum’s field notebooks, but my science is physics. I had no idea how to read the notebooks, and no natural history experience at all.

Together Melissa and I defined a project: She would read all Grinnell’s early field notes from 1894 to 1910—something I could not have done—and we would explore a selection of what she found. We wanted to use the notes as a window into Grinnell’s development: as an ornithologist and naturalist; as a theorist of environment and evolution; and as a scientific recorder with a distinctive style. We knew we wanted to treat the notes as texts as much as scientific data, looking for genre conventions, stylistic devices, and other literary aspects. What that meant would only come out of encountering the notebooks themselves.

These field notebooks, though largely invisible to outsiders, are a critical technology of natural history. From Darwin’s notes on the Beagle down to the present, naturalists have fixed their observations in written form. They have noted down numbers of species and individuals, comments on behavior and distribution, details of climate and habitat and other spare observations. Field notes have been the basis for some of the farthest-reaching thinking in the life sciences. Yet the field journal is an ambiguous genre, drawing from earlier and alternate ways of relating to and writing of the natural environment. It is potentially more similar to travelers’ and tourists’ diaries, memoirs, and letters than to the laboratory notebook of the controlled experimental site.


Photos of Grinnell field notes
courtesy the Museum of Vertebrate
Zoology, the University of
California, Berkeley.

Unlike other museums, the MVZ proudly displays its field journals. Its investment in the notes is written into current research and its effort to put all the notebooks online. Grinnell, the museum’s first director (beginning in 1908), worked on geographic distribution and speciation; he was one of the originators of the concept of the “ecologic niche.” Interested in change over time, he articulated a vision of the museum as a memory tool. And it was to be a specific sort of repository. For he saw its material as much in permanently recorded observations, matched to geographic and climatic tags, as in the usual physical specimens (California’s vertebrates, pickled, mounted, or stuffed).

Attuned to language, Grinnell was always “writing, writing, writing,” as one of his students recalled, obsessed by field notes and other graphic forms. Out of his own field experience he originated and propagated the “Grinnellian method” that is considered the origin of scientific field note practice today. Grinnell not only scientized previously freer forms of note-taking, but routinized them and taught the method to the museum’s cadre of field workers. In that sense he welded his associates and students into a single trained scientific observer.

Grinnell certainly developed a systematic note-taking technique—that much Melissa and I understood. Exactly how it happened surprised us, however. We started out guessing that his first journals would be discursive and personal. Later, we assumed, they would clamp down into formalized impersonality. Then our task would be figuring out how to read the later notebooks for traces and remnants of the older, less scientific style.

That guess was half right. In his earliest journals, Grinnell already showed remarkable birding knowledge, joined with keen attention to subspecies and distributional patterns. However, by his own later standards, the notes were amateurish. The reason was not that he interpolated anecdotes and imagery (though that he did). It was that he made simple presence/absence lists without attending to location and habitat. His notes were focused on the birder’s question: What species did I see? Yet if his were the lists of an amateur, they were already those of a specialized kind of observer. Before he was a scientist, Grinnell was not a generic traveler or diarist. In fact, his own travel diaries were mostly . . . lists of birds.

As he made himself into a scientist this would change, partly in ways Melissa and I knew to expect. He switched to leather-bound journals with fade-resistant black ink. He consecutively numbered his pages and put his name and the date on each one. He gave more consciously “scientific” descriptions of specimens. He began consistently including data on relative abundance, and he split up his species lists to match the theoretical framework he was adopting (Merriam’s life-zone belts).

In curious ways, however, Grinnell’s own field journals were irreducibly personal. Counter to what we expected, they became more so as he matured scientifically. For instance, we saw the notes increasingly defying the division between pure observation and theoretical reflection—even as natural history was seeking to become more “scientific” at this time. Grinnell was a sharp observer; he was known for that. In published papers, certainly, the modest naturalist put facts front and center. In the original field notes, his own thoughts—theories, speculations—were interwoven throughout. Reflecting was part of making a scientifically accurate record to start.

We also found that as Grinnell grew more confident as a naturalist, he purposely expanded his observations into quite strikingly literary description. He developed an extraordinary skill at scene-painting, capturing species in their environments—not in a trap, but in black ink on the page. No technology other than writing could impress on later readers the nuances of an animal’s environment. Even photography could not do the job. Grinnell’s discipline of daily note-taking was also a discipline of consciously polished composition that evoked analogies to contemporary nature writing.

As a full-fledged scientist, Grinnell wrote field journals that testified to creative subjectivity. At the same time, he taught his co-workers a “Grinnellian method.” But the “Grinnellian method,” we came to understand, was only partially reflected in Grinnell’s own notes. He allowed himself greater license than he permitted his associates, and his notebooks are all the more scientifically interesting for it. So there was certainly a value in his increasingly systematic approach, conveying to later scientists exactly what species he saw where and when. But the seemingly less methodical features also made his journals valuable. They marked him out as a conscious observer of nature, not a recording machine.

Melissa and I would not have understood this without going to the texts together, reading them through the double lens of her competence and mine. My collaborators on the MVZ history project have found themselves stretched by her observations, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds as we all do. For we all face the question: What does it mean to work scientifically with nature? The humanities help give an answer, and not just by showing the flip side of the coin.


Cathryn Carson is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Office for History of Science and Technology. Her partners in the MVZ history project are Elihu Gerson, Jim Griesemer, Karen Klitz, and Craig Moritz.

This article can be found in the February 2007 newsletter.