Field Notes on Science and Nature

Cover of “Field Notes on Science and Nature” edited by Michael Canfield

I’ve been trying hard to finish reading this terrific book before leaving for Europe and now that I’m hours away from flying out I’m going to write up a quick, glowing recommendation for anyone interested in the importance of field observations to science.

In this book, Michael Canfield assembled a fascinating collection of field scientists from archeologists to zoologists all with a shared passion for carefully observing the world around them. While I was expecting a how-to on best practices for field notebooks, I quickly realized that the point of this book was really quite different. All of these authors were less interested in telling others about how to keep good notes and instead gave vivid descriptions of their sometimes rocky, often rewarding and always time-consuming relationships with these field diaries. Here are some of the key points I took away after reading about all of the different experiences:

– There’s no right way to take notes but there are a lot of wrong ways. Figure out your own style (in accord with your retentiveness) and stick to it.

– Be thorough because the written word is always more accurate than your memory, but don’t overburden yourself such that writing becomes a chore.

– No observation is too small to note. Sometimes it’s the anecdote that turns into the breakthrough.

– Think of your field notes as a letter to the future. It could be to yourself in a month or a decade or it could be your successors after you’ve retired (many of these folks were famous enough to reasonably assume that someone would care to pour through decades of their notebooks… I don’t anticipate that burden).

– Draw everything and anything you are observing. The careful attention to detail necessary to sketch something is quite different from the focus we give to simple recorded observations. Having to actually look at the lizard’s tail or toes might lead to details and insights that would have been missed just looking at the organism as a whole.

This summer my primary research tool is going to be my camera and my notebook, so I plan on doing a lot of sketching, map drawing and careful observations of the lizards I see. I’ll keep you posted on my progress and now I’m definitely going to have to practice my hand at field drawing.

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One thought on “Field Notes on Science and Nature

  1. Bravo, nice write up! One other observation that goes with style and content is a consistent writing tool especially for field drawings. When you find a pen or pencil that you enjoy using get a supply and keep one handy with your notebook.

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