Being a respected biologist these days usually requires a little more training than natural historians of the past would have encountered. We have to learn stories at the molecular and cellular levels, up through what we can touch and feel and see, and above to the population and ecosystem levels. There are statistics and politics and grant writing skills.
But I propose that Step 1 to being America’s Next Top Biologist is to keep a field journal. This is hardly an original idea. Most biologists in the past did so, and most do today. Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most famous biologists ever, published his field notes as a book titled The Voyage of the Beagle. It is full of maddeningly narrow-minded commentary, especially at first, but it is a fascinating read about an adventure and a world that today we can only approximate.
I have one quibble with Darwin’s journal, too, which is the lack of drawings included. I suppose he may have done them, and just not have included them in the final version. I can commiserate. I’m more than a little embarrassed about the quality of my field journal drawings.
But the point of field drawings for a biologist is not just the aesthetic quality of the finished image. It is the process of looking more closely at a plant or animal. It is the difference between noticing or missing that every flower on this plant has five petals, or that something has been chewing on the leaves.
All our fancy statistics and abstract theory come to very little use without the details of what is happening, and being done by whom and how and where in the natural world. To be a big picture thinker, you still have to remember to look at the details once in a while. And there is no better time than while watching bugs in your classroom, strolling around your neighborhood, or backpacking through remote and wild territories. It’s something everyone can do, whether or not you are a professional.
I’ve shared a few images of my journal here. I mostly included the pictures because they’re more interesting to look at than my hurried handwriting. In the trade-off between being more organized and being more accessible, I tend to the immediate and hence lack some recording detail and standard format. That’s something I might work on.