The back yard as fieldwork site

Heliconius charithonia (Zebra Heliconian). Boca Raton, FL, June 19, 2012.

I devote a lot of space on this blog to explaining the names of the animals I encounter in my backyard. I do this in part because I think the etymology helps tell us a little something of the character of the animal (or at least of the animal that named it), and in part because it’s how I was trained (my PhD is in literature, after all). But I never forget that there is more to the creature than its name, and that it’s its natural history, not its name, that makes the animal important.

Hal White, author of the Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies relates a story that helps illustrate his own vision for a type of writing about natural history that would draw the reader into the greater life of the organisms discussed, as opposed to the simple ID and taxonomy treatments found in traditional field guide writing:

Richard Feynman’s father warned him against just knowing the names of birds. He said, “you can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you will know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what really counts.” (xiv)

This is good advice, and very important to anyone who wants to actually understand the workings of the world around him. After all, how much does the name Zebra Heliconian (or its previous name, Zebra Longwing), or even the taxonomic name, Heliconius charithonia, actually tell anyone? But if I tell you that it’s one of the longest-lived butterflies in its adult stage, and that this is because it, unlike most adult butterflies, feeds on pollen; and that it’s the state butterfly of Florida; and that it has yellow stripes on a black ground; and that one of its favorite nectar plants is firebush (Hamelia patens) but that its larval host plant is passionvine (Passiflora incarnata and related species and hybrids), and that its caterpillars are white with lots of black spines (tubercles), well, you start to gain some appreciation for it. More than the simple name can convey.

Of course, there’s a different way of conveying information, and I use that a lot in this blog as well: pictures! And they are worth thousands of words; far more than a simple name:

However, one can go too far in the direction of “names aren’t useful” thinking. As paleontologist Richard Fortey notes, the lack of a name can stymie scientific research: as an example, there was a remarkable and well-publicized discovery of Ediacaran fossils in Newfoundland back in the late 1960s, but it’s taken until the first decade of the 2000s before scientists began to study the fossils in earnest, because they were unnamed and for the most part undescribed:

It is a strange fact about science that until an object or a phenomenon receives a name in some way it does not exist. Names really matter. They retrieve something from an endless chaos of anonymity into a world of lists, inventories and classification. The next stage is to understand their meaning. (52-53)

What I try to do is describe the animal in question, provide as much information as I can synthesize from my own observations and research, and present it all to the reader. Somewhere between the two extremes of “names don’t matter” and “to name it is to know it” is where the backyard natural historian lives.

After all, even though amateurs aren’t faced with the kind of disciplinary challenges that worry Elizabeth Higgins Gladfeldter (see below), we don’t have much opportunity to learn more about a species if we don’t know its name!

Gladfeldter, though, worries about more than just naming. She cautions the theory-and-modeling crowd of scientists (those who currently comprise the majority of people who “do science”) about the importance of fieldwork:

Emphasis is now placed, in both teaching and research, on theory and modeling as opposed to developing observational skills and experience. The latter are critical factors to ensure that one is capable of not only collecting good data from the field but also optimally analyzing that data by integrating it with past personal experience and the results of other scientists. The educational and research bureaucracies are thwarting rather than enhancing the ability of field scientists and their students to work in the field and to pass the art of field science to the next generation. Knowing where and how to collect valid data, learning how to judge the quality of the data collected by others, and learning how to formulate good scientific questions are special skills, which will be lost if not taught to and practiced by the current generation of students, from which will come our future scientists.

Even though we don’t do this for a living, this store of local, practical knowledge is where amateur naturalists (or, put another way, “nature-lovers”) can step in. They can inculcate question-asking and problem-solving abilities in themselves and their children, so that the future foreseen by Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) and others (Robert Michael Pyle’s “extinction of experience” [The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland]) will not come to pass.

Scientists like Scott Sampson (Whirlpool of Life) see incorporating this love of nature into a Big Story (Sampson’s term is “Immense Story”) that weaves ecology, evolution, and experience into narrative form:

The key is that all major innovations of the cosmic evolutionary epic—stars, planets, bacteria, plants, animals, and human culture—are still present in one form or another in every place. Each telling of the Immense Story, or parts of it, can be tailored not only to local nature, but to the age and knowledge base of the audience. Indeed anyone can construct their own version of the story, choosing local characters and themes most meaningful to them.

Shades of Carl Sagan’s “star stuff” (or Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”: “we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon”), anyone?

Back to Gladfeldter:

In contrast to a lecture or a textbook, in which a natural phenomenon is presented in a logical progression and as clear, often dry, fact, in the field, one is faced with the confusing complexity of nature in its entirety. The lecture or textbook version of a natural phenomenon had undergone a scientist’s interpretation and simplification.

The same thing is true of the habitat in our back yards: it has undergone the gardener’s interpretation and simplification. We remove the native and exotic species that we dislike, and favor those that please us. We make the systems simpler, sometimes to the point of sterility. As Grissell reminds us, the ecology of the garden is difficult to maintain, but if we want to save species, to minimize Pyle’s extinction of experience (“What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”), we should strive to provide as naturalistic a version of nature as our time, money, and ingenuity can devise.

And then we can get to work: after we build it, we get to see, watch, observe, photograph, document, and, hopefully, understand what comes.


Fortey, R. 2012. Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind. NY: Knopf.

Gladfeldter, E.H. 2002. Agassiz’s Legacy: Scientists’ Reflections on the Value of Field Experience. NY: Oxford UP.

White, H. 2010. Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies. U of Delaware P.