Field notes

I’ve just finished reading “Field Notes on Science and Nature“, edited by Michael Canfield, and enjoyed it tremendously – it’s well-written, accessible and inspiring.

I’ve been keeping field notebooks since 1995 and have not thought much of them until now, to tell the truth. A friend recently told me all the data in it would be useful “one day” – I doubted this as I am no longer a professional zoologist (alas).

But I find that the blog is serving a similar purpose of preserving observations, with the advantage of digital photos.  I look at the old notebooks  when I’m stuck for a detail. Now that my old camera is broken (salt on the button you press to take the shot has corroded the metal, and so the button is stuck), I’ve gone back to the traditional method until my new camera arrives. I find I’m impressed with the amount of information in the old notebooks – I’d forgotten how much fun it was compiling the entries.

Canfield’s book shows how some fieldworkers (Schaller, the gorilla – and just about everything else – guy, is the one I’m most familiar with) take down their observations, and why they use particular methods. Serious researchers rely on their field books to write publishable papers, of course, so they need to be very detailed.

You don’t have to be a great artist, thank goodness – some of the contributors aren’t, whereas others have made wonderful paintings like the one on the front cover – as long as the drawings show what you want them to and as long as you in the future, or another person, can make sense of them.

I particularly like Jenny Keller’s chapter “Why sketch?” as it gives simple tips on drawing and the use of colour (watercolour or coloured pencil). Proper nature illustration is something I’d like to get into one day.

I like the hands-on action of thinking, writing and drawing, but I can see the attraction of databases in Naskrecki’s “Note-taking for pencilophobes”.

Here are some pages from my notebooks …

Easily recognisable cover, for access in a hurry

I first write or draw notes on the spot, then research the critters from my library, natural history or diving magazines (some great underwater pics in them), the local library (I photocopy a photo if I like it and paste it in) or the internet, and add relevant information.

A mixture of own sketches and cutting from books

Useful if not pretty

Photography is great, but having to draw something means you really have to look at it and get the details down. Having a real specimen helps …

The weedy seadragon's colours have faded over the years

I’ll be incorporating some ideas from Canfield’s book to make my notes more detailed. I particularly like Gilbert White’s standard-format journal, although it doesn’t leave room for extensive notes, but I can modify that. I’ll also be experimenting with more colourful drawings. And incorporating an index.

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