On Having a Field Day–and Taking Notes

There’s something about being “in the field” that’s exhilarating beyond any other experience. It’s why many scientists do what they do. For certain types of science, it’s where the data collection happens, and what makes all those countless hours spent churning out grant proposals worthwhile.

It also has an analog in journalism: being “on assignment.” This is different than being “on deadline,” which merely means someone is waiting for you to turn in copy. Being on assignment is about leaving your desk and discovering the world. It’s what produces the best stories, what makes all the other hassles of the job melt away, what’s most in danger of succumbing to shrinking budgets. Like going to the field, being on assignment carries an aura of mystique and possibility; trust me, nothing makes a journalist feel cooler than starting a sentence, “Once, when I was on assignment in Mozambique.…”

What is it about this amorphous non-place that scientists and journalists go? What is “the field,” exactly? “The field has no geographical or physical bounds, but is defined by those who go there to investigate, study, or commune with nature,” writes Michael R. Canfield, a lecturer in Harvard’s department of organismic and evolutionary biology, in the introduction to his upcoming book, Field Notes on Science and Nature. Canfield convinced an assortment of eminent field scientists to open their notebooks and reveal how they keep notes in the field—about birds, bugs, mammals, fossils–and why.

To a young naturalist, the field may come to life with unbounded imagination in an undeveloped lot. Others may find the field after long hours in a dugout canoe, dangerous river crossings, or battles with tropical diseases. Given the diversity of people and concepts of the field, there is no rigid formula for documenting the discoveries and adventures that happen there. However, a genre of record keeping—field notes—exists as a critical component of the study and experience of the field.

When Canfield spoke at our Knight Fellows seminar at MIT earlier this week, I was struck by this common preoccupation of both scientists and journalists, to record what we observe. Canfield wants to understand what encourages good observation. Does drawing a plant or animal while you’re watching it etch it in your mind better than photographing it? He argues that it does. It’s not necessarily a question of high- versus low-tech. It’s more about the amount and type of attention you pay. To sketch a lizard you have to really look at it, notice its shape and texture and shading. Good photography requires its own type of attention and is obviously important for all kinds of other reasons. But for a scientist in the field, snapping a photo of a flower or beetle just isn’t the same as rendering it in pencil on paper.

Reporting from the field requires the same sort of presence in the moment. You want to record with all your senses: What does this place, at this particular point in time, look like, feel like, smell like? Even if we’re on assignment in someone’s bland corporate office, we’re observing it like E.O. Wilson watching ants in a forest. What’s on this person’s desk? What is she wearing? What’s the view from the window that doesn’t open? You, the interview subject, might be chattering away, not noticing that you’ve digressed far from the matter at hand because I’m still furiously taking notes; and I might be indulging you because it gives me a chance to describe the contents of your bookcase.

So I’m left wondering: How different are the types of things that scientists and journalists write down? What would we find if we compared their field notes from the same expedition? How do Wildlife Conservation Society biologist and National Geographic Explorer Mike Fay’s notes from his Africa “mega-transect” (a 2,000-km walk across the Congo Basin) differ from those of David Quammen, the writer who accompanied him? (Fay, it turns out, published his field notes from the journey; Amazon has them for sale, used versions only, for $48.35. I haven’t seen Quammen’s available anywhere.) Anyone want to volunteer their notebooks so we can find out?

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2 Responses to On Having a Field Day–and Taking Notes

  1. Tim De Chant says:

    Having been on both sides of the fence, I’m guessing most scientists’ notes are less colorful. That said, both would likely have enough information to tell more than a few stories.

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