Monday, March 12, 2012

Lessons from the Unknown

There are 15 or 20 sparrows in the backyard
and 2 which may be grackles.  I look it up:
yes – grackles, “black with metallic hues . . .”
but are they also “iridescent in the sunlight”?
          ~ from the poem With Sharp Voices by Roland Flint

I have a small cluster of items arrayed on my desk and on my computer screen that have kept me thinking about what it means when we label something as “unknown” or “unidentified.”  These are the unknowns of this posting.  Two are fossils, two are photographs of people.  I’ve drawn several lessons from my efforts to identify these.
Unknowns are idiosyncratic; often mine are just mine, not yours.
● We may not know what we think we know.
● At times, as in the first stanza (above) from With Sharp Voices, we’re actually dealing with uncertainty, not an unknown.
● Even if our information is wrong, where it takes us may be worth it.
● Serendipitous connections may make all the difference.
Here then are the things I’ve been wrestling with.

College, the Spring of 1942

One day in the spring of 1942, eleven women were photographed in front of a building on the campus of a small, liberal arts college in New England.  These were the student leaders of women’s sports.  A photograph was taken and is now a curated piece of college history, residing in the institution’s online digital archives.  And that’s where I found it.  (Respecting my mother-in-law’s privacy, I’ve chosen not to post the picture or a link to it.)

When searching for my mother-in-law’s name on the college’s website, a link to this photograph came up because her name is on the list of women captured in the photograph.  Seemed like a great find until, on closer inspection, I concluded that the young woman in question is not actually my mother-in-law; in fact, my mother-in-law isn’t in the picture at all.  In addition, two of the women are identified as unknown.

Determining who these women actually are shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle for this 70-year old photograph.  We know a great deal about it – general date, location, and possible names of most of the women who posed for it.  If any are still alive, they might be able to fill in the blanks.  Further, my mother-in-law, who is very much alive, might be able to shed some light on the issue, after she gets over the disappointment of not really being in the photo.  So I’ve sent it to her and will see what happens.

Apropos of unknowns, in this instance I didn’t start with total ignorance and, with some luck, the photograph may get into the right hands and some answers may be forthcoming.   Also, some of what was "known" wasn’t – there’s merit in challenging the known.

Incertae Sedis

This fossil (3 ½ inches from top to bottom as oriented in the photo below) shows the imprint of a plant stem and some alternating leaves; I believe their shape is lanceolate, though ends of the leaves are missing.  Disassociated leaves and perhaps another stem appear to be spread across the face of the rock.  On the back is a manually typed label which reads:
Podazuntes lanceolate
Cretaceous Period

This specimen is an orphan from a collection built by a now deceased husband and wife.  I posted previously on the collection’s dissolution.

Earlier this month, I began a simple quest to learn a little more about this fossil’s genus and species.  A search for this genus name came up completely dry, not a single hit for Podazuntes on Google or Bing.  For a moment I regretted that I’d even started this.  I then tried to a more scattershot approach by searching for discussions of Cretaceous plant fossils in Japan.  With that I stumbled on references to the plant genus Podozamites.  Seemed similar enough to the name on the label for this whole thing to be the kind of mistake I might make trying to read my own handwriting while typing up a label.  Seemed more certain I was on the right path when I found this genus frequently paired with the species name lanceolatus.

Cambridge University botany professor A.C. Seward’s Fossil Plants:  A Textbook for Students of Botany and Geology (1919, p. 448) contained the following wonderful drawing of a specimen of Podozamites lanceolatus from the British Museum.

The resemblance of this specimen to my mangled bit of a fossil was sufficient for me to cast it into the Podozamites lanceolatus camp.

Though I found some research pieces that discussed aspects of the Podozamites, the chapter that Seward wrote nearly a century ago was the best of the lot.  He wrestled with some key issues regarding the genus, foremost among them, what was its fundamental affinity?  Is it a cycad (a plant featuring some palm-like characteristics)?  A conifer?  He wrote:
Additional data are needed before we can settle the position of Podozamites, but such information as we have may be said to point to the conclusion that it is nearer to Conifers or the Ginkgoales than to any other group of Gymnosperms.  (p. 451)
Seward identifies Podozamites as a genera incertae sedis.  In taxonomy, the Latin term incertae sedis means “of uncertain taxonomic position.”  (Glossary of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th Edition.)  By applying the phrase genera incertae sedis to Podozamites, I read Seward as saying that the definition of this genus itself, or its relationship to others, was unclear, in an unsettled position.  It’s a great phrase – we know something but not enough.

So, from a work produced a hundred years ago, I’ve come up with an identification that was, at the time, surrounded by uncertainty.  And I think some uncertainty continues to be associated with this genus.  For example, in Paleobotany and the Evolution of Plants (1993), Wilson Nichols Stewart and Gar W. Rothwell suggest some key elements still are not conclusively known, such as the kind of leaves these actually are.  They use the term “coniferlike” which, in my mind, clearly leaves some wiggle room.  Nevertheless, this is better than what follows.

A Rock

A fossil came to me several weeks ago following the death of my wife’s aunt, a profoundly intelligent woman whose breadth of knowledge and interests were legend, as were her attention to detail and the precision of her use of language.  These attributes rose to the fore during her career as a professor of neuroanatomy and in her extensive work on the genealogy of her extended family.  No question about it, she could be counted on to get labels right.

The 3 inch long fossil is shown below.

It came to me with no label, no backstory.  Sans provenance, it’s just a rock.  At first I was surprised that it carried no clearly demarcated history.  That seemed so unlike her, but I realized that the message for me was that sometimes my unknowns may be just mine.  She may well have remembered fully where this fossil came from and, indeed, may have had some knowledge of its biological taxonomy.  Or she didn’t remember, perhaps never knew, and possibly didn’t care.  We have only so much energy and time.  At present, my efforts on its behalf have been minimal.  It remains a rock.

Reginald Bathurst Birch?

I have a small collection of cartes-de-visite (CDVs), the small cards (2 ½” x 4”) with paper photographs glued to them which were all the rage in the middle of the 19th century, particularly in the United States.  They reflected a key development in the history of photography – the creation of a reliable process to produce good paper copies of photographs from glass plate negatives.  Most of the images on CDVs are portraits of people.

Several weeks ago I purchased a CDV in an antique store, attracted by the composition of the photograph on the card.  It shows a young man, nattily dressed, staring directly into the camera and, so, directly at the viewer.  Who is the subject?  When was the photograph taken and by whom?  Great questions that I cannot answer.

Unfortunately, the card carries no photographer’s imprint, leaving me with no information about the photographer and depriving me of a key resource for dating the card.  Absence of an imprint doesn’t preclude determining something about the age of the card – one can examine the cardstock used in producing the CDV (e.g., in later decades the cardstock was typically thicker), the edging around the image, as well as the pose of the subject.  In the case of this card, my guess is that it is the product of the 1870s or 1880s.

As to the identity of the subject, the reverse of this CDV does offer a couple of intriguing clues for exploration.  Presumably the subject was 18 years old when the photograph was taken.  I cannot identify the symbol next to the age or the squiggle that follows.  The question written below that appears to have been printed using a ballpoint pen, meaning it was added to the back of the carte sometime after the initial decades of the 1900s.  I took the obvious next step and went in pursuit of Reginald Bathurst Birch, assuming that at best I might find a lead in some genealogical records.  Instead, I was transported to the children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For many decades, Birch (1856 -1943) was one of the premier book illustrators in the U.S.  (For a brief overview of his career, see Drawn to Enchant, by Timothy G. Young, 2007, p. 200.)  His drawings for the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849 – 1924), published in 1886, made his reputation.  His drawings offered the public the iconic images of Cedric Errol as Little Lord Fauntleroy, with his velvet suit, lace collar, frilly shirt fronts, and long, curly locks of hair.  The image below is from the 7th edition of the novel published in 1888 (this suggests something of the incredible success of the novel – only two years after publication, it was already into its 7th edition).

Birch never again achieved the same success as he did with Fauntleroy but he had a long, if bumpy, career.  He produced some fine drawings that graced many children’s books.  I am taken with his action scenes, particularly those involving sword play, as the one below from The Story of Roland, by James Baldwin (no, not that James Baldwin), copyrighted 1883 and 1888.  The edition I’ve taken this image from is dated 1892.

Though the question on the back of the CDV prompted a fascinating bit of exploration, I don’t have an answer to it.  Is the 18 year old captured by in this photograph, Birch?  If so, the photograph was taken in 1874.  That’s possible given the range of dates I’ve proposed for the CDV.  Here is Birch in what I guess is late middle age (image is in the public domain and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons).  Does the teen in my CDV look like him?

Actually, I think he does.  Finding out about Birch was interesting, but, ultimately, it remains only a very remote possibility that Birch’s image was captured in my carte.

Uncle Dave

Though it’s not an unknown that I experienced personally, I was moved to include a brief account of this fifth item because it illustrates so clearly the role of happenstance in resolving the unknown.  As I wrote in an previous posting, the Library of Congress has a large collection of photographs of Civil War soldiers and their relatives on display.  One shows a young Confederate cavalry man.  Though his military unit has been deduced from his uniform and weapons, the Library had no name for him.  He was unknown.

A recent Washington Post supplement on the Civil War ran an advertisement from the Library, featuring a selection of images from the collection, including the one of this unknown cavalryman.  Well, he was unknown until a reader of the supplement glanced at the array of images in the ad and immediately recognized “Uncle Dave,” one of her husband’s ancestors.  The family owns a “crayon enlargement” of the same photograph.  The young man was David M. Thatcher who enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 at age 17 and was killed in the Battle of Buckland Mills in 1863.  (Man in Civil War Photo, Long Unidentified, Finally Gets His Name Back, by Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, March 9, 2012.)  Such a great example of serendipity at work, as well as evidence that one person’s unknown isn’t another’s.

A Final Comment

The first stanza of the poem which began this rambling exposition left us hanging – were there grackles among the sparrows?  Were their feathers “iridescent in the sunlight” as the guide book described?  The next stanza reads:
Hard to tell, as there is little sun today,
yet the primary and secondary feathers are
certainly speckled, as might take a shine,
and the sun comes out, briefly, and they do.

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