Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Naturalist Guiding Light - Why we keep buying new field guides.

The golden age of large-mammal discovery has long since passed. Maybe that’s why the recent news that a police offer and car salesman from Georgia had found the body of Bigfoot was met with both predictable skepticism and a bit of discreet excitement. Nobody’s ever identified a Bigfoot before, so nobody knew exactly how to prove that what the men had was one, but the California-based Searching for Bigfoot, Inc., was willing to take a crack at the problem.

The determination, it turns out, ended up being relatively simple. After buying the frozen “corpse,” the group initially observed that the fur “melted into a ball uncharacteristic of hair.” Further thawing revealed that the head was “unusually hollow in one small section.” An hour later, in the final and most conclusive test, an examiner touched the foot and discovered that, alas, it was made of rubber, and that what they had on their hands wasn’t a Bigfoot specimen, but a gorilla costume.

The newest version of Peterson's classic guide.

Fortunately not all species identification is as fruitless. In fact, while Searching for Bigfoot laments its false discovery (as well as, one assumes, the money it paid the Georgia con men), the nature-loving world is celebrating a milestone in the world of animal identification. This month sees the centennial of the man credited with creating the modern field guide, Roger Troy Peterson. The moment is marked with the release of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, combining for the first time the famed birder’s guides to eastern and western birds.

Aids for attaching names to species, to be fair, existed long before Peterson was born. The bird illustrations of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon are well-known, but their tomes were multi-volume sets too bulky (and expensive) to be taken on outdoor journeys. At 800 pages, though, Thomas Nuttall’s Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada, published in 1832 and 1834, was small enough to carry into the field — its text and woodcut illustrations together make up what’s considered the first field guide.

In a cruelly ironic twist, the identification of birds through the 19th century meant killing the very things being appreciated. It wasn’t until the conservation movement of the late 1800s (fueled by the rapid decline in birds at the hands of both collectors and ladies’ hats makers) that birders began identifying not with shotguns but with binoculars; Florence Merriam Bailey’s Birds Through an Opera-Glass in 1889 was the first guide to help them do so.

Such books proliferated, but they relied heavily on text and few images. It was actually the 24 duck illustrations that writer Ernest Thompson Seton included in 1903’s fictional Two Little Savages that inspired Peterson 31 years later to create a guide that for the first time used text in service of images, and not the other way around.

Read it all here.

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