Repurposed Products

Porch Stoop / misspelled government-issue grave markers, marble
Chicken Hutch / iMac G3 by Apple, bondi blue
Bird Feeder / plastic kvass bottle

Subverting the Scala Naturae

Field guides are an indispensable trail companion, but nothing compares to a knowledgeable friend. I've learned a lot from nature walks with John Anders Gustafson during my tenure in Richmond, particularly when it comes to edible plants and mycology. (Or if not learned, at least listened with interest). So I was happy to see he'd made a field guide of his own. 

The ordering and classification of the booklet observes a personal set of rules, as well as an invented   numbering system. The way an author chooses to organize these things always interests me - because it creates a snapshot of the way they view the world. Should the subjects be listed by color, or shape, or heredity, or by the kind of sounds they make? Is it more important to separate humans and apes, or apes and bacteria?

It's intriguing how imaginary systems of classification are so much more effective than scientific ones at encapsulating the natural world. The imaginary hierarchical totem pole of scala naturae, for example, has dominated western thought on the matter for most of western history. (This system categorizes all of creation from rocks to humans to God according to discrete value measurements, most often based on perceived levels of "holiness"). Only in recent centuries has this concept started branching into the "tree of life" idea most of us are exposed to in elementary school. Far from helping solve the problem of classification and natural order, the more we learn about the evolutionary relationships between living things, the more complicated this challenge becomes.

This ongoing mystery makes the creation of field guides a unique and challenging endeavor. The author's task is to interpret a given slice of the natural world in a user-friendly manner. On the one hand, they need to make it easy for the user to locate and identify species. Organizing by color or range is acceptable, even if it ignores less obvious underlying relations between subjects. On the other hand, they are also expected to present a picture of that "slice" as it exists in scientific consensus's current view of the cosmos. Family relationships should be maintained in the text, even if they are not obvious from a practical standpoint, or even practically relevant. It's not acceptable to call a koala a "bear" simply because it is reminiscent of one.

The author of a field guide is an interpreter of nature. Does an interpreter owe their allegiance to science, or art?

John's guide is shirt-pocket-sized and printed in grayscale on old receipts. He produced the drawings in a single evening.

Birding Notes

When it comes to birding, I've found that keeping a pocket notebook is as valuable a tool as a pair of binoculars or a good field guide.  While out in search of birds, I often encounter species I don't recognize, especially during migration seasons.  Keeping a notebook handy to quickly sketch the markings or shape of the bird is helpful when consulting a field guide later, after the bird in question has flown away.

Last week I finished filling up one of my notebooks.  Here are some highlights:

When I'm back home after a bird walk, I'll usually pick one of the birds I saw and do a more detailed sketch in colored pencil.  This is mostly an aesthetic exercise, although it does help reinforce the appearance of a particular bird.

For a nice blend of form and function, I use Field Notes brand notebooks.  They fit perfectly in a shirt or pants pocket, and come in a variety of colorful special editions to choose from.  

This page shows my rendition of a Varied Thrush that was found in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.  Similar to the more familiar Robin (to which it is closely related), this bird was probably blown off course during its migration, and ended up on the East Coast instead of the West, where it is usually found.  


1) I endorse Field Notes products solely of my own volition.  
2) Varied Thrush originally reported on the Prospect Sightings Blog 

Porcupine - "Complaining whines"

On a map, a campsite is represented by a triangle. The mountains are black squiggles, and the rivers are blue squiggles. The most important part of reading a map is consistently keeping an eye on it. You can't get lost, look at a map, and magically know exactly where you are. The squiggles, like many helpful tools, depend on context.

Field guides are a sort of map - although they are ostensibly less broad, and by definition less figurative. When someone is trying to differentiate between the Indigo Bunting and the Lazuli Bunting, squiggles  aren't sufficiently useful. The level of detail needed in these images gives us bookshelves-worth of Peterson guides. 

 Ellsworth Jaeger's Wildwood Wisdom is a field guide in the broadest sense, falling somewhere between the two camps - a field guide drawn in squiggly lines.

These beautiful page spreads speak for themselves. It's the peculiar illustration details that really stand out. Never content simply to draw an edible plant, Jaeger (or his unnamed illustrator) fills each plate to bursting with tiny elf-like buckskin-clad figures and anthropomorphic animals. My favorite section is "Woods in Winter."

"The snows of the winter woods and fields often reveal the comedies and tragedies in the daily lives of the woodfolk. Their life histories from day to day are faithfully inscribed in this vast blank page of the wildwood diary" (470)
The writing is imaginative and vivid: "If you should see a trail that looks as if some tiny person has been walking on his hands, you will know that the dwarf was that queer animal, the opossum" (359).

Jaeger compiled the guide in 1945, "[w]ritten in the maelstrom of this war of wars, when fear, dishonor, horror, treachery and death convulse the earth from end to end, the serenity and peace of the wilderness solitudes were never more dear to the hearts of men" (5). The prose returns often to themes of silence and stillness. This makes sense in the context of Jaeger's main interests as an outdoorsman - tracking, woodcraft and Native American history. Working as a faculty member at the Buffalo Museum of Science, he spent many summers teaching woodcraft and wandering the trails of America. This text is lovingly dedicated to Zetta, his life partner and "Companion of the Trails."  

unofficial illustration by David Lee

Illustration here is by our uncle David Lee, original owner of our edition and an avid woodsman and talented woodworker in his own right. This image is his signature - perhaps a self-portrait. We'll post some information on his beautiful traditionally crafted bows and arrows soon - pending proper photo documentation. Many of our most engaging childhood rambles were during his visits - nature walks under the guise of bow hunting - I recall him placing a smoldering cigar in the entrance of a rabbit warren to "smoke them out." We never caught anything.



Ellsworth Jaeger, Wildwood Wisdom, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945).