Your post and picture of Gattinger reminded me that in most Western cultures we don’t honor and respect our elders enough. We don’t value their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. I was educated to this fact in summer 1968. I worked for VT Fish & Game Dept. doing an inventory of VT wetlands. We had to identify riparian and wetland plants. This was a challenge for a college freshman who never had seen or heard of taxonomic keys, especially early in the summer when there were no reproductive structures on the plants. Our ace in the hole was Frank Conkling Seymour, curator of the Pringle Herbarium at the University of Vermont. He had to be in his 70’s, having completed and retired from a previous nonbiological career. I brought him 3 full plant presses. He rattled off genus, species, variety and authority faster than I could write them down. I was duly impressed, but what he did later that summer left me awestruck. We collected a pink water lily (Nymphaea sp) that we couldn’t identify to species. He took one look at it and pronounced it not native to VT. He pulled out a book and keyed it out. Pondering for only a moment he said the author was wrong. I was dumbfounded; at my level of knowledge and education, if it was in a book it must be true. I never met anyone who had the knowledge an self assuredness to proclaim a book wrong. He pulled out a second book. He said “this is interesting, this author disagrees with the first author; they’re both wrong”. Double WOW! He pulled out a third book and said “this author got it right”. The next summer he published “The Flora of Vermont” and “The Flora of New England”. If that wasn’t enough, he was writing keys for plants of Nicaragua from his annual collecting trips. A few years later he published a checklist to Nicaraguan plants. These quiet, unobtrusive men who contributed so much to biology deserve our profound respect.
Among the many benefits of the internet is wealth of information available from the comfort of your home, or even mobile device. One of the really cool things that organizations like Biodiversity Heritage Library, Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg offer is a treasure trove of out of print books, journals, and information. The Internet Archive has a copy of the book “The Flora of Tennessee and a Philosphy of Botany” written by Augustin Gattinger and published in 1901. It is always exciting to have information on historic plant distribution, taxonomy, and botanic community composition. I look forward to utilizing the flora as I explore my new home.
Even more exciting is the Philosophy of Botany portion of this book. To read the portion of the book where Augustin is arguing passionately for the creation of the Appalachian National Park (Great Smoky Mountain NP) is inspiring and has much to offer anyone interested in conservation and conservation history. The section that begins on page 263: “Modern thoughts on Origin, Evolution and Significance of Life” is a century-old call for reason, enlightenment, and a scientific theosophy – in which a higher criticism is brought to religion. This is all the more impressive when you consider the publisher of this fine book is The Gospel Advocate Publishing Company of Nashville, TN. I hope that my travels in Tennessee bring me more insight into Augustin and I find more of his writing and works. For now, I am grateful that somebody thought digitizing an old flora was a good idea.
As we approach another new year, it is time to look back and reflect. As someone interested in
science I often wonder about the changes in scientific method over time and how older scientists would view today’s methods. Looking at the past helps you to understand how we arrived at the current state. Whether you are reading Clement’s papers on plant succession, MacArthur’s papers on niche partitioning, or Riley’s amazing economic entomology papers going back and reading these original documents is both inspirational and informative.
Back in the olden days of the 1990’s you had to go to a good library and ask a research librarian to obtain these original works in the secret room where books go to die. It was magical when the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (SORA) showed up and suddenly old (pre-1900) issues of ornithological journals were available on any computer. The Biodiversity Heritage Library and Google Books are treasure troves of information that also show up on your computer or mobile device. Of course on-line research databases (e.g. EBSCO) and open access journals (e.g. Jouranl of Botany and Journal of Insect Science) mean you can research almost any topic from almost anywhere. Best of all, it is so much easier to file and store the .pdf files than photocopies or the older, pre-photocopy, monk-transcribed versions.
Imagine studying moths before electricity was common place: no UV light traps, no flashlights, no digital cameras, no Moth Photographers Group, and yet moths were studied and appreciated under these extremely primitive conditions. Holland’s The Moth Book is a classic that will inspire you to be a little more moth friendly (don’t forget to submit your your photo records to BAMONA) and it is available free just by clicking through on The Moth Book link to Google Books where you can download your own copy! Holland’s descriptions will take you to another time, being able to fast forward into current moth efforts like National Moth Week, will give you a new found appreciation for both the past and present – and have you eagerly anticipating 2013!
For all of you out there needing some information on New Mexico’s flora… Wooten and Standley’s 1915 Flora of New Mexico is yours by clicking the link. Sure, some names have changed, plant ranges have changed, and many plants have been added to flora; but old books have advantages. Older biological books often use really interesting phrasing that may or may not aid your understanding of the subject matter. Older biological books reflect older values and ideas, this helps us understand bias and can help us avoid it in our own work. Older works can be a window into the past. For instance, this 1915 Flora of New Mexico contains no mention of Bromus tectorum or cheatgrass, an introduced weed. Currently Bromus tectorum is well established in New Mexico. For many of us modern Westerners it is difficult to imagine desert areas without Bromus tectorum, but in the New Mexico of Wooten and Standley that was reality.