Saturday, December 30, 2023

Relationship of John Muir and John Burroughs: "I love you, though at times I want to punch you or thrash the ground with you."

In early 1909, two of the country’s most prominent naturalists had gathered at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

(This photograph is in the public domain and downloaded from National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)

John Burroughs (1837-1921), seated on the left in the photograph, had journeyed from his home territory in the Catskills of New York, to be guided by John Muir (1838-1914), standing on the right, on a trek to the Petrified Forests, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, part of Muir’s stomping ground.  

Muir, born in Scotland, was known for his exploration of the American West and his environmental activism and efforts to preserve the American wilderness, as well as for his writings on Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, among other places.  Environmentalist Bill McKibben captured the power of Muir’s writing and his broader importance:  “Beyond its pragmatic force, Muir’s prose introduced an ecstatic new grammar and vocabulary of wilderness into the American imagination:  in some sense, every national park on the planet owes its existence to the spell he cast.”  (McKibben, 2008, p. 84.  Full citations to this and other sources are given at the end of this post.)

Burroughs, in contrast to the peripatetic Muir, had a narrower home range, focused primarily on the Catskill region in New York.  This area was the inspiration for much of his writing that included genial essays, many about the flora and fauna of his Catskill home.  McKibben observed that Burroughs “reintroduced reading America to the natural world at the turn of the century.  For several decades he may have been the most popular writer of any kind in the country. . . . His gift for close observation and large meaning launched the nature essay as we know it.”  (McKibben, 2008, p. 145.)

Burroughs and Muir were an odd couple, to be sure.  Their temperaments could hardly have been more different, and their views of nature could clash.  It was a friction-filled bond, mostly maintained at a distance with several brief meetings and a couple of extensive trips together (the one in 1909 that found them at the Grand Canyon and an expedition to Alaska in 1899).  The relationship was complex, replete with stinging comments and sharp disagreements, though, through it all, I feel there was deep affection.

This post is the result of a serendipitous find made when I was gathering material on New England stone walls (perhaps a topic for a future post).  A stupidly phrased search (using just the word “walls”) of the Middlebury College archive on the Internet Archive turned up a letter written by Muir on June 1, 1910, to Francis Fisher Browne (1843-1913), editor of the literary review The Dial, ostensibly to congratulate him on the 30th anniversary of the magazine.  (Muir, 1910.)  Browne had been part of the group, including Burroughs, that Muir led in 1909 to the Grand Canyon and elsewhere.  Part of the two-page letter was devoted to describing the various writing projects Muir had underway, but, by far, the most interesting part to me was what Muir wrote about his fellow naturalist John Burroughs.  This letter was my introduction to the wonderfully intricate bond between the two men.  (Middlebury College is my alma mater and I assumed that a school in Vermont might have some material related to stone walls in its archives.)

According to Muir biographer Donald Worster, when the two men met for the first time in 1893, “the two Johns were instantly mated for life.”  (Worster, 2008, p. 334.)  This bond, however strong, would be filled with sharp elbows as each man poked at the other.  This post explores some of the backstory to their relationship and shares some examples I particularly enjoy of the personal give and take between the two.  On the way, I will quote from Muir’s June, 1910, letter and provide the source for the sentence quoted in the title.  Bottomline:  this post has no hook, no twist, and no fossils.

One source of tension was that they did not always see eye to eye on nature and science.  For example, for much of his life, Muir expressed a pantheistic view of nature, and saw an underlying divinity and goodness in it.  Later in life, a theism crept into his writing:

His earlier pantheistic tendencies, which celebrated every nodding flower, every zephyr, as divine in itself, became more muted.  “All beauty, all is God,” he had once maintained.  Now he was more careful to reassure his more conventional readers that beauty is made by God.  (Worster, p. 374-375.)

It was a viewpoint not shared by Burroughs.  In a review of Muir’s book The Yosemite, Burroughs took him forcefully to task:

Mr. Muir is a nature-lover of a fine type, one of the best the country has produced. But it may be the reader gets a little tired at times of the frequent recurrence in his pages of a certain note – a note which doubtless dates from his inherited Scottish Presbyterianism. Whatever else wild nature is, she certainly is not pious, and has never been trained in the Sunday-school. But, as reflected in Mr. Muir’s pages, she very often seems on her way to or from the kirk. All his streams and waterfalls and avalanches and storm-buffeted trees sing songs, or hymns, or psalms, or rejoice in some other proper Presbyterian manner.  (Burroughs, 1912, p. 1165.)

To my mind, the more important source of sparks between the men was the dramatically different personalities of the two.  Muir was a talker.  Worster posited that Muir “liked to gab only a little less than he liked to hike.”  (Worster, 2008, p. 3.)  As a raconteur, Muir sought center stage with his stories and anecdotes.  He was also argumentative, often provoking his listeners and engaging in verbal sparring.  Burroughs considered him a tease.  (Barrus, 1914.)  In comparison, Burroughs was taciturn.  When relating to other people, he looked for conversation and an amicable exchange of ideas, not confrontation.

Muir was impatient with people, Burroughs decidedly more gentle and genteel.  When both Burroughs and Muir joined an expedition to Alaska in 1899 that was mounted to survey the area’s natural resources, things did not go well for Burroughs.  "Muir . . . got on other people's nerves, particularly those of his friend and fellow literary naturalist Burroughs."  (Worster, 2008, p. 361.)  Burroughs, distressed and dismayed by the Alaska wilderness, longed for home.  Muir was not sympathetic.  Worster wrote, “The two men remained bonded in name – 'the twa [two] Johnnies' they were called – and in cause, but Muir was openly disparaging toward Burroughs and his insufficient ardor for the wild."  (Worster, 2008, p. 362.) 

The June 1, 1910, letter that Muir typed to Browne offers delightful evidence of their sometimes fraught connection.  Muir noted that he’d recently written Burroughs suggesting that the naturalist move to the West Coast, urging that he:

write more bird and bee books instead of his new-fangled Catskill Silurean [sic] and Devonian geology on which he at present seems to have gane gite, clean gite, having apparently forgotten that there is a single bird or bee in the sky.  I also proposed that in his ripe mellow autumnal age he go with me to the basin of the Amazon for new ideas, and also to South Africa and Madagascar, where he might see something that would bring his early bird and bee days to mind.  (Muir, 1910.)

Gane gite, clean gite.  This is how Muir dismissed Burroughs’ relatively recent interest in geology, a field that he, Muir, had long embraced and expounded upon, particularly with regard to the impact of glaciers in Alaska and Yosemite.  He joked to Browne that, with regard to geology, Burroughs had “gane gite, clean gite.”  Lovely Scottish expression.  Using the Dictionaries of the Scots Language website, I translate it as:  “gone mad, clean mad.”

This is just one of a multitude of examples of how Muir’s Scottish roots were never far below the surface.  Worster observed:  “Muir, regardless of where he traveled, would remain a Lowland Scot all his days.  Only secondarily would he become a product or patriot of his adopted United States or a citizen of the world.”  (Worster, 2008, p. 14.)

Muir’s observation about Burroughs and geology was, I think, actually serious business.  Muir, critical of Burroughs’ embrace of geology, suggested he ought to go back to his “bird and bee books.”  Was there a note of territoriality over the science and some condescension here?  At least as far as the science is concerned, I think there was.  I find quite telling an anecdote that Clara Barrus (1864-1931) recounted from that 1909 tour of the Petrified Forests, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.  Barrus, a physician, was Burrough’s intimate companion and had accompanied him on this tour led by Muir.  As the two Johns explored the Petrified Forests, Burroughs kept posing questions about the geological processes involved and Muir, despite his well known expertise, derided the questions, at one point telling Burroughs, “Oh, get a primer of geology, Johnnie.”  (Barrus, 1914.)

Later in his June, 1910, missive, Muir reminded Browne of an incident that occurred during the 1909 trip.

I often think of the misery of Mr. Burroughs and his physician caused by our revels in Burns’ poems, reciting verse about in the resonant board chamber whose walls transmitted every on the blessed words to the sleeping and unwilling ears of John, much to the distress of Miss Barus [sic].  Fun to us, but death and broken slumbers to [typewritten word inked out] Oom John.  (Muir, 1910.)

Again, the Scots side of Muir shines forth as does the apparent penchant for winding people up.  Recitation of Robert Burns' verse at the top of the lungs was likely intended to interrupt Burroughs' sleep and upset Barrus.

Not surprisingly, Burroughs was irritated by some of Muir's behavior on the trip.  For instance, Barrus, in awe of being in the august company of the two naturalists, recounted the following exchange she had with Burroughs:

One day at the Cañon, feeling acutely aware of our incalculable privilege, I [Barrus] said, “To think of having the Grand Cañon, and John Burroughs and John Muir thrown in!”

“I wish Muir was thrown in, sometimes,” retorted Mr. Burroughs, with a twinkle in his eye, “when he gets between me and the Cañon.”  (Barrus, 1914.)

What I really see is an honesty in their relationship born of deep friendship, despite the many flashes of pique.  That is, I think, clearly revealed in an exchange of letters from November and December, 1909.  Geology is at the center of it again.  Burroughs had sent Muir a manuscript he’d written about Yosemite, drawing on the trip he’d taken with Muir earlier in the year.  In it, he’d delved into the geological origins of the valley.  Muir, responding with a typed note on November 26, 1909, didn’t mince words in his criticism.

I have read your Yosemite Ms. and can make nothing of it.  You saw so little of the Valley I think you had better say little or nothing on its origin.  Leave it all out is my advice.  It can do no good to yourself or others to try to tell what you have no chance to know.  Compare this haphazard brazen ignorance with the careful loving life-long bird studies that made you famous.  You must be growing daft.  You say, “come study the geology of the Catskills – those Devonian rocks”.  Could I do it in a day as you did Yosemite, I would come flying.  (Muir, 1909a.)

You must be growing daft.  After delivering those blows, Muir signed off with “Ever faithfully your friend and admirer.”

I assume Burroughs responded to this note with some vitriol and, presumably, argued quite stubbornly against Muir’s take on the geology.  Though I have not located a copy of such a letter, it's evident that Burroughs did pen one because, on December 14, Muir wrote again, seemingly in response to the missing letter.  He opened somewhat defensively:

Now, dear Burroughs, don’t waste your good nature.  I only did as you requested with the Yosemite geology, but you give me no thanks – only the other stuff.  (Muir, 1909b.)

Only the other stuff.  Whoa!  I do wonder what Burroughs wrote.

In the letter, Muir went back on the offensive (perhaps throwing some of Burroughs' words back at him).

If obstinacy, unyielding as Yosemite dome, strangely mixed with lover of flowery hills and dales, bees and trees, bird song and brook song, is a Scotch characteristic, then you, my dear John, are as Scottish as I am or ever likely to be.  (Muir, 1909b.)

Basically, he told Burroughs that without sustained study on site, he would never come to understand the geological origins of Yosemite.  And then he extended an olive branch:

[N]ow that you have got Yosemite on the brain, why not come again.  I’d be delighted to have you, in spite of your rank Scotch Catskill stubbornness, and you might perhaps learn to endure or ignore my glacial behavior and airs.  (Muir, 1909b.)

Burroughs, clearly moved, responded on December 28th.  

You are a dear anyway, Scotch obstinacy and all, and I love you, though at times I want to punch you or thrash the ground with you.  But I have my laugh at your expense — when you are not around.  The other day I said to a friend, “Muir will not agree with you about anything.  If you were to say, ‘Now, Muir, two and two make four anyway,’ Muir would reply, ‘Well, three and two make five, but what of that, Johnny.’  My friend replied, ‘That is the Scotch of it.’ "  Well, it is all right — I love the Scotchman too, and I will forgive him all his quips and jibes and fun at my expense if he will come here next year and help me study the geology of my native Catskills and of the Shawangunk grits at Mohonk.  (Burroughs, 1909.)

(The Shawangunk Grit is a type of bedrock, also known as Shawangunk Conglomerate that can be found at the Mohonk Preserve in New York.)

I love you, though at times I want to punch you or thrash the ground with you.  I sense that that's the relationship from both men's perspective in a single sentence.

Their loving, though contentious, ties would be permanently broken in 1914 with Muir’s death.  Of that passing, Burroughs’ journal entry of December 25, 1914 is quite poignant:

News comes of John Muir’s death – an event I have been expecting and dreading for more than a year.  A unique character – greater as a talker than writer; loved personal combat, and shone in it.  He hated writing, and composed with difficulty, though his books have charm of style; but his talk came easily and showed him at his best.  I shall greatly miss him though I saw him so rarely.  (Burroughs, 1928, p. 283.)


Clara Barrus, Camping with Burroughs and Muir, excerpted from Our Friend John Burroughs, 1914, as presented on the Sierra Club website.

John Burroughs, letter to John Muir, December 28, [1909?], Scholarly Commons, Item 5209,  John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library.  Though Burroughs failed to note the year on the letter, I believe, given what he wrote, that he was responding to Muir’s December 14, 1909, note.  Indeed, the transcription to the letter on the University of the Pacific Library website cites the date as “[1909?].”  I believe the title given to the letter and the heading to the PDF of the letter citing the date as “[1910?]” are incorrect.

John Burroughs, John Muir’s “Yosemite,” Literary Digest,  June 1, 1912, p. 1165, 1168.

John Burroughs, The Heart of Burroughs’s Journals, edited by Clara Barrus, 1928.

Bill McKibben, editor, American Earth:  Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, 2008.

John Muir, letter to Francis Fisher Browne, June 1, 1910, scanned version of original document contained in the Abernethy Manuscripts Collection at Middlebury College, available at the Internet Archive.

John Muir, letter to John Burroughs, November 26, 1909a, Scholarly Commons, Item 5933, John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library.

John Muir, letter to John Burroughs, December 14, 1909b, Scholarly Commons, Item 5946,  John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Fossil Preparation: View From The Cheap Seats

Fossil preparators play a critical role in shaping the fossil specimens we see on display in natural history museums.  I spent several years as a volunteer in the FossiLab at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History surrounded by people doing this kind of work.  (I don’t think I’ve ever confessed on this blog that I was a FossiLab volunteer, though it was probably quite obvious.  Also, I don’t consider the microscope work I did with microfossils brought in from the field to be fossil preparation.)  This post is my attempt, sitting in the cheap seats, to cheer on the preparators, and to consider some of the complicated issues that greater transparency in delineating their roles appears to raise.

The newest incarnation of the glass-walled FossiLab is located at one end of the Fossil Hall and provides visitors with a look at volunteers working with fossils.  Its opening was celebrated in a piece in Smithsonian Magazine.  (Bedford, 2019.  Full citations to all references are at the end of this post.)  Many of the volunteers around me in the previous versions of the lab in which I worked were, in my estimation, fossil preparators expertly removing matrix from bones and teeth; using air scribes to reveal fragile plant fossils or uncover teeth in a jaw bone; fashioning archival housing to store and cradle heavy or fragile fossils; making realistic, detailed molds and casting fossil bones; carefully gluing fossil fragments back into coherent wholes; and so on.  At each step, they made decisions, alone or in consultation with professional preparators or scientists, which, whether big or small, influenced the content and contours of the fossils upon which they worked – adding or, on occasion, subtracting value.  What these people in the lab were (and are) doing in the “fish bowl” of the FossiLab may well offer onlooking museum visitors access to the most important paleontological insight they could gain from a visit to the museum:  fossils, despite their biological and paleontological origins in deep time, are also the products of human hands.

In a recent, provocative article titled Fossils Are Shaped by People.  Does That Matter?, Asher Elbein describes two realities:  (1) fossils on display in museums and elsewhere are human-mediated reconstructions of ancient life, and (2) the mediators are fossil preparators who largely and unfairly do not receive the credit due them.   (Elbein, 2023.)  The dynamic of these two realities is delineated in fine grain by Caitlin Donahue Wylie in the case studies that formed the foundation for her book analyzing fossil preparation in university and museum labs.  (Wylie, 2021a.)  Though the activities on display in a glass-walled lab in a museum might lead some to think fossils are being created, Wylie writes, “Preparators do not ‘make’ fossils from scratch; rather, they make fossils into specimens.”  (Wylie, 2021a, p. 3)  This is a crucial distinction and part of the process of “preparing knowledge.”

The label "preparator" seems inconsistently applied in the literature, leaving me confused as to when the term is used to describe only employed staff preparators, or used more broadly to encompass volunteers as well.  (Of course, my lack understanding is not an uncommon state of affairs as any reader of this blog will confirm).   Wylie writes,

Preparators don’t have PhDs or authorship on publications. They receive no formal training or methodological protocols. To distinguish themselves from low-skill, instruction-following technicians, preparators portray their practices as creative and artistic. Moreover, the majority of people who prepare fossils are volunteers, not staff. (Wylie, 2021a, p. 11.)

What am I to conclude from a passage like this?  Does she embrace volunteers as preparators or draw some sort of distinction?  Are "preparators" different (paid and on staff?) from volunteers "who prepare fossils?"  In an article, she describes a person working in a fossil lab as a "volunteer fossil preparator."  (Wylie, 2012b, p. 14.)  But others who have read her treatise find that she makes precise and hard distinctions as to fossil lab roles.  A recent reviewer of her book asserts the following (presumably reflecting their reading of what Wylie is describing):

Outnumbering both paleontologists and preparators, are the volunteers.  Volunteers differ from fossil preparators sometimes via skill, but always in terms of professionalization and responsibility.  Volunteers prepare fossils, but do not make decisions about how. . . .

So, the preparation of fossils relies on a network of paleontologists, who don't know how to prepare but do know how to interpret, preparators, who do not interpret, but prepare and decide how to prepare, and volunteers, who simply prepare, turning to preparators for guidance.  (Currie, 2023, p. 4.  "Simply prepare" is a singularly inappropriate and misleading phrase for any kind of fossil preparation work.)

Is Adrian Currie providing an accurate reading of Wylie?  I think such a hard and fast separation of preparators from volunteers misses an important aspect of the dynamic at play in fossil labs.  There is a sharing of skills and roles in the preparator universe.  So, in this post, rightly or wrongly, I use the label expansively to describe both professionals and volunteers.  In my view, preparators are often volunteers, young and old, elsewhere employed or retired.  Staff preparators may oversee and train volunteer preparators, but they do not make up the lion’s share of people who do this work.  And volunteer preparators have a significant influence on fossils' transition to specimens.

Unlike paleontologists who follow a path of rigorous and lengthy academic preparation to reach their professional status, preparators in general have no structured, widely accepted course of study.  Wylie has observed:

There is no specific training or certification required to work as a preparator; preparators teach novices on the job through informal supervision and advice.  They draw on skills from their diverse backgrounds to free fossils from rock and piece them together. (Wylie, 2021b, p. 14.)

There is a movement to professionalize the fossil preparation field, delineating what it should take to be hired as a preparator.  For instance, with support from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a group of professional preparators has identified the competencies that should underlie fossil preparation.  (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2011.)  Further, there are models of programs to train volunteers in preparation skills and attitudes.  The Smithsonian's FossiLab was the setting for one such program which trained and screened volunteers who then staffed the lab going forward.  (Jabo, et al., 2010; Brown, et al., 2010.)

Context setting is important here.  Much of the concern about transparency in the realm of fossil preparation focuses on vertebrate paleontology, the field that produces the fossil skeletons that are the megastars of natural history museums and the objects of out-of-control bidding in fossil auctions worldwide.  Wylie posits that there is a strict division of labor in vertebrate paleontology when it comes to fossil preparation.  She states that vertebrate paleontologists for the most part don't know how to do the preparation work that enables them to study their specimens.  In contrast, invertebrate paleontologists do.  (Wylie, 2021a, p. 12.)  Nevertheless, it seems to me that, though the concerns and stakes may be less for invertebrate fossils, many of the same issues surrounding fossil preparation remain.  (It's not always clear in the literature on fossil preparation whether or when this vertebrate/invertebrate distinction is being applied.) 

Preparators as described by Elbein and Wylie are, to the outside world, largely invisible participants in the process of translating fossils into specimens.  Wylie argues that the absence of due credit (e.g., in publications) to preparators, and their relatively low status in institutional hierarchies mean that “scientists effectively reify the more visible products and people of science:  facts and scientists.”  (Wylie, 2021a, p. 9)  This ends up obscuring the actual process through which fossils are recovered from deep time, a process that introduces a subjectivity to the “facts,” and that is a blend of artistry and science.  In essence, a call for crediting the work of fossil preparators is a call to make that blend known, highlighting who did the preparation and what they did.

Though from what I observed in my years of volunteering in the lab, all of this rings true, but I am having a hard time seeing the form that the desired and deserved credit for fossil preparators should take.  Let me start by highlighting two fossils from my collection representing extremes of the credit issue.

The fish fossils are from the genus Knightia.  These are fresh water herrings from the Green River Formation in Wyoming and date back to the Eocene (roughly 50 million years ago).  That is all the background I have on these fish.  I don’t know precisely where they were found.  More to the point, I don’t know if what I have at hand is the slab of limestone matrix exactly as it was exposed in the field or whether some preparator worked on the slab to expose more of the fish before sending it into the commercial market where I bought it.  No record of what happened to the fossils on this slab means no way to give any credit.

This fossil is a trilobite, Kainops raymondi, found in the Haragan Formation in Oklahoma and dating back to the Lower Devonian (400 or more million years ago).  This specimen was prepared by Marc Behrendt, a preparator who serves the commercial market.  I purchased this fossil from him and received detailed photographs delineating many of the steps in the process of removing matrix from the trilobite.  Giving credit for this one is a slam dunk.

There is a broad middle ground between these two extremes, but complications seem to arise at every turn.  For instance, as I witnessed it, the fossil preparation process can be a communal project in which multiple people have a hand.  How is credit granted in that case?  Those who did the most work?  The most important?  Only the professional staff preparators?  How should any of this be measured?  At a minimum, some sort of paper trail of the preparation process seems in order.

On the other hand, if a single preparator works largely alone to turn a fossil into a specimen, there’s not much challenge in identifying to whom the credit should be given.  Even in that case, the process of rendering credit should depend upon record keeping delineating not only who worked on the fossil but what they did.

The issue of documenting the preparation process poses a challenge.  As Wylie has written, “crucially, preparators leave few written records.”  (Wylie, 2021a, p. 59.)  This has some disquieting consequences.  Researchers may be at some removed from the preparation process, remaining largely ignorant of what was done to the fossil.  Wylie observes, “This lack of record keeping and supervision grants preparators de facto power over their techniques.”  (Wylie, 2021a, p. 59.)  Perhaps it's not surprising, as Elbein writes, “Many experts argue that preparators deserve both recognition and scrutiny.”  (Elbein, 2022.)  Transparency is a two-edged sword that may reshape the contours of the role of the fossil preparator.

A different set of issues arises when one considers how to give credit to preparators.  I wrote a post  nearly a decade ago about a small mammal skeleton from the Late Cretaceous that was then on display at the National Museum of Natural History.

It’s a lovely skeleton, but what was on display was not an actual set of bones, but a cast of a specimen for which only some 30 percent of the actual bones were recovered (that’s still a very high percentage).  Here’s a picture of the label attached to the skeleton.

The collector is listed as Mike Triebold.  With minimal effort, the curious could follow that clue to the preparation of the skeleton by Triebold Paleontology, Inc. which Triebold headed and to the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center which he founded.  This label doesn’t go as far as it could to make the preparation transparent to a museum researcher or visitor.  That said, how much detailed information should be given?  Just who had a hand in the preparation?  Some gauge of how much and what kind of preparation was involved?

Attribution of some aspects of the role that fossil preparators have played with individual specimens should made explicit.  Research papers might more consistently acknowledge and, within reason, describe the work done to prepare specimens.  Laboratory records could record who did what (though preparators would still remain largely invisible to the public).  This attribution need not be as significant as was the case with Opisthiamimus gregori, a newly identified Jurassic reptile.  The authors of the research article in which the new species was named wrote:

The species epithet ‘gregori’ recognizes Joseph Gregor, a dedicated Smithsonian volunteer who skillfully prepared the holotype and referred specimens. (DeMar, 2022, p. 6.)

These are challenging issues with no simple answers given the myriad variables at play in the process of preparing fossils.  I think it can only be helpful to make more explicit the role that preparators, whether professional or volunteer, play and, in doing so, give the general public a nuanced and more accurate understanding of what is on display.  Fossil preparation is important work that, whether we recognize it or not, directly influences how we view and understand fossils.


Bailey Bedford, Smithsonian Puts Backstage Fossil Preparation Center Stage in its New Fossil Hall, Smithsonian Magazine, October 16, 2019.

Matthew Brown, et al., The Smithsonian Institution’s Exhibit Fossil Preparation Lab Volunteer Training Programme, Part II:  Training and Evaluating Student Preparators, Geological Curator, Volume 9, Number 3, September, 2010.

Adrian Currie, Cleaning, sculpting or preparing? Scientific knowledge in Caitlin Wylie’s Preparing Dinosaurs, Biology & Philosophy, Volume 38, Number 10, 2023. 

David G. DeMar, Jr., et al., A nearly complete skeleton of a new eusphenodontian from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation, Wyoming, USA, provides insight into the evolution and diversity of Rhynchocephalia (Reptilia: Lepidosauria), Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, Volume 22, Issue 1, 2022.

Asher Elbein, Fossils Are Shaped by People.  Does That Matter?, Undark Magazine, November 11, 2023.

Steven J. Jabo, The Smithsonian Institution’s Exhibit Fossil Preparation Lab Volunteer Training Programme, Part I:  Design and Recruitment, Geological Curator, Volume 9, Number 3, 2010.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Defining the Professional Vertebrate Fossil Preparator:  Essential Competencies, 2011.

Caitlin Donahue Wylie, Preparing Dinosaurs:  The Work Behind the Scenes, 2021a.

Caitlin Donahue Wylie, What Fossils Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science, Issues in Science and Technology, Fall, 2021b.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Eastern Gray Squirrels - Coloring Outside of the Lines

 Earlier this year, I had a question about the coloring of eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).  In this post, I lay out some of what I’ve learned and ask some of the additional questions I have yet to answer. 

In May, I hired a tree service to prune trees around my cottage on the North Fork of Long Island (Suffolk County, New York).  During the work, a couple of black squirrels eluded members of the work crew by racing up the trunk of one tree and leaping onto the branches of another.  I had long ago accepted the presence of those black versions (morphs) of the gray squirrel population living near my cottage, but the tree workers were astounded,  swearing they’d never seen such squirrels before.  (I should get something out the way at the outset, the black squirrels are members of the same species as their gray brethren.)

Is it possible that this tree crew working in and around trees every day on the North Fork of Long Island had never before encountered black squirrels?  Turns out that it is.  The testimony of these workers is one bit of evidence supporting the uniqueness of the population around my cottage.  Unfortunately, I failed to take the time this summer to go and personally search for black squirrels on the North Fork, so I have turned to the citizen-science app iNaturalist.  Observations posted on the app are accompanied by one or more photographs of the specimen in question.  I reviewed over 360 gray squirrel observations from Suffolk County (which includes the North Fork where my cottage is located) that have been posted on iNaturalist.  For all of Suffolk County there are very few black morphs and none that I could find from the North Fork.  (My use of iNaturalist was prompted by a recent study of gray squirrel morphs in the Great Lakes region:  Lehtinen, et al., 2020.  More on that study below.  Full citations to this and other references cited in this post are included in the list of sources at the end of this post.)  I was also pleased to find that there is an iNaturalist project devoted to the black squirrel.  (A project groups observations based on specified criteria.)  Of the project's over 3,000 sightings worldwide, those from Long Island confirm a paucity of such squirrels on the eastern end of the island.  These data show a very health concentration of black morphs on the western end of the island, in and around New York City.  A bit more on this New York City cluster later in this post.

Up until the tree trimming crew reacted as it did, I hadn’t thought twice about the presence of black morphs living near my cottage because I'm used to them, given that they are not uncommon around my home in the Washington, D.C. area.

Pictured below are a few of the black and the gray squirrels that I’ve encountered in the D.C. area.

The eastern gray squirrel matures to breeding age at 10 months and has an average life span of one year.  (Lehtinen, et al., 2020.)  That one year average life span is greatly influenced by a high mortality rate in the initial year; adult females reportedly can live up to more than 12 years in the wild while adult males can live up to 9 years.  (Koprowski, et al., 2016.)   Melanism (presence of dark coloring) is actually quite rare across the entirety of the eastern gray squirrel’s range which encompasses nearly all of the eastern half of the county and parts of Canada (in that range, overall fewer than 1% of these squirrels are black).  At the same time, melanism is common in the northern portion of the squirrel’s range (some 75% of the eastern gray squirrels are black in that stretch of the range).  (McRobie, 2019.)  Of note, the latitudes covered by the northern tier of that range includes Long Island, but not the Washington, D.C. area.  There’s an additional piece of potentially relevant information:  the demes of gray squirrels are small.  (Gustafson and VanDruff, 1990.)  Biologists define demes as local populations of individuals that interbreed, sharing the same gene pool.  This means that these squirrels are likely to interact with only a small group of their squirrel companions.

It's useful, I think, to consider the genetic basis for melanism in S. carolinensis.  Research out of Britain helps ground this story.  Perhaps that origin of this research isn’t all that surprising because the gray squirrel came onto the scene there only relatively recently.  Helen McRobie and her co-authors (2009, p. 709) described the British experience with gray and black squirrels as follows:

Introduced to Britain in captivity in the late 19th century, the gray squirrel has repeatedly escaped into the wild and has subsequently become a successful invader all but outcompeting the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).  Melanic variants of the gray squirrel are common in North America, but the first sighting reported in Britain was in the early 20th century.

(Later in this post, I describe how I think this description by McRobie, et al., is misleading or, at least, subject to misinterpretation.)

McRobie and her colleagues determined the genetic origins of gray squirrel melanism, finding that there are three color variants among the gray squirrels:  “wild-type gray” (so called to distinguish this typical gray squirrel from the variants), “jet-black,” and “brown-black.”  These color types are related to two specific two alleles (alternate forms) of a gene.  The researchers found that the wild-type grays were homozygous for one of those alleles (that is, in this case, a wild-type gray will have inherited identical versions of this gray allele from each parent and will breed true, producing only gray offspring); the jet-blacks were homozygous for the other allele; and the brown-blacks were heterozygous for these two alleles.  Given the color distributions among these three variants, McRobie et al. concluded that the jet-black allele was “incompletely dominant” to the wild-type gray allele.  (It's a sad commentary on my observation skills that I have lumped the jet-black and brown-blacks together and considered all of them to be black squirrels.)

McRobie (with a different set of co-authors) has concluded that it is most likely that the allele at the core of melanism in gray squirrels did not evolve on its own, but came into this species through interbreeding with fox squirrels (S. niger).  (McRobie, et al., 2019.)

Considering the overall distribution of black morphs in the broader gray squirrel population described earlier (few overall, high percentage in northern latitudes), and the dramatic difference between the population living around my North Fork cottage and those spread across my home territory of Washington, D.C., the question arises:  What accounts for these frequency and distribution patterns?

Research posits that coloring among animals can serve various functions, among them camouflage, signaling, and temperature control.  (McRobie, et al., 2019.)  Various hypotheses about what in the environment might influence the representation of melanism in S. carolinensis populations have been put forward.  The factors suggested and their effects are several and varied.  For instance, some researchers have posited that, in urban environments, black squirrels may be present in high numbers because they are less likely than their gray compatriots to be hit by cars given how conspicuous they are.  (For example, Gibbs, et al., 2019).  Some explain the apparent concentration of melanic squirrels in northern latitudes by arguing it’s a matter of thermoregulation:  dark coloring enables the squirrels to better absorb heat from the sun and, so, survive colder climates.  (For example, McRobie, et al., 2019.  See, also, Thorington and Ferrell, 2006.  Though these latter researchers like the thermoregulation hypothesis, they described the presently available data as mixed in its implications.)  These are quite interesting hypotheses but I don’t see that they explain the differences between my North Fork cottage squirrels and those in the broader Washington, D.C. area.

What if the relative frequency and distribution of melanism in the S. carolinensis population is not a product primarily of any of the various factors suggested to date?  A recent study suggests exactly that.  Biologist Richard M. Lehtinen turned observations he made over several years of eastern gray squirrels on his daily walks in the residential areas around the campus of the College of Wooster (Ohio) into part of the foundation of an analysis of the frequency and distribution of the squirrel’s color morphs in the Great Lakes region.  (Lehtinen, et al., 2020.)  He and his colleagues coupled his observations with data mined from observations posted on iNaturalist for the Great Lakes region, the Ohio Natural History Database (data provided by squirrel hunters), and separate surveys conducted in 59 localities mostly in the northern portions of Ohio.

Melanism was observed across the Great Lakes region, but (and it’s a very important “but”) the distributional and frequency patterns are mosaic in nature.  That is, melanism is highly localized and can vary dramatically from location to nearby location, even though the locations surveyed “appeared highly similar from one town to the next and likely had a similar suite of potential predators and risks associated with human-dominated environments."  (Lehtinen, et al., 2020, p. 1534.)  This means that many of the various factors previously suggested as affecting the distribution and frequency of black squirrels do not explain the mosaic patterns found in this study.  Further, the long-term study of squirrels in Wooster show “inconsistent patterns or idiosyncratic fluctuations over time and space” in morph distribution and frequency.  (Lehtinen et al., 2020, p. 1535.)

How then to account for the mosaic distribution patterns they found?  Lehtinen, et al. suggested that “genetic drift may be an important evolutionary mechanism operating in this system.”  (Lehtinen et al., 2020, p. 1535.)  Genetic drift involves changes in the alleles of the gene that are due to random genetic variation, i.e., chance.  Lehtinen is quoted in an article about his research on the Wooster College website as follows:

These patterns are suggestive of genetic drift as an important mechanism of evolutionary change. . . .  Our initial expectation was that squirrel fur color would matter a lot and that we would see consistent patterns from year to year and place to place.  But because the frequency of black versus gray varies so much from place to place, we ended up concluding that genetic drift – a random mechanism of change – had to be involved.  (College of Wooster, 2020.)

An interesting additional finding was that the frequency of melanism in the squirrel populations studied was highest in mid-latitudes of the Great Lakes region, not in low- or high-latitudes.  So the precise nature of the association between colder climates and melanism remains in question.

As useful as this study is, it has left me with a large clutch of questions, none more pressing than this:  Does the research by Lehtinen, et al. support the idea that melanism can arise quite randomly?  I think it does, suggesting that a local squirrel population of only gray morphs might, over time, come to have black morphs through genetic drift.  But I’m not certain.

The issue of when the black version of S. carolinensis first appears in a population has been muddied by human trading in such squirrels.  I have noted that I think McRobie’s description (quoted in its entirety earlier) of the first appearance of black morphs in Britain is misleading.  She and her colleagues seemed to depict a natural (and random?) advent of melanism in the British gray squirrel population.  That may not be true, given an alternative explanation that points to the escape of North American black squirrels brought over to Britain.  (See, for example, Barkham, 2019.)  Further, is the thinking that all of the black squirrels in Britain have come solely from those North American invaders?  No evolutionary forces at work generating melanism?  I really don’t know, though I’m inclined to doubt it.

Earlier I described data from the iNaturalist black squirrel project which showed a concentration of such squirrels in and around New York City.  I would add that the pattern is decidedly mosaic with some areas in the city sporting many sightings and others not.  Here, too, there's possibly some human meddling.  Michelle Young, in a nice piece on New York City's black squirrels for her website Untapped New York, cited a 1935 New York Times article about a black squirrel being spotted in the New York Botanical Gardens.  In the piece, Raymond L. Ditmas of the New York Zoological Society attributed that black morph to some that had been released several years earlier by the Botanical Garden.  (Young, 2021.)

Perhaps the most well known example of human-moderated movement of black morphs is that of the squirrels in the Washington, D.C. area.  It is widely asserted that black morphs in this area stem specifically from two gifts from Canada of a small number of these squirrels in the early 1900s to the recently established National Zoo.  Released on zoo grounds (of course, they were), these black squirrels soon made their way throughout the Washington, D.C. area.  (Thorington and Ferrell, 2006.)  As a consequence, it seems to be commonly asserted that every black squirrel encountered in this region traces its roots to the National Zoo population.  Indeed, I came across a paper written by a college undergraduate which makes an even broader application of this explanation, suggesting that all of the mid-West’s black squirrels come originally from that population.  (Koleczek, 2014.)  Attributing all black squirrels in the D.C. area to those few individuals shipped from Canada in the early 1900s seems a stretch.  Applying it to all mid-West black morphs seems an impossible stretch.

So, at this stage of this exercise, I’ve concluded that my cottage’s population of black morphs is rare for the North Fork, which explains the tree trimming crew’s astonishment.  How the black squirrels came to be there remains an outstanding question.  And is there some way to implicate the National Zoo black squirrels?


Patrick Barkham, Black Squirrel ‘Super’ Species?  No, Just a Darker Shade of Grey, The Guardian, August 13, 2019.

The College of Wooster, Rick Lehtinen Examines the Frequency of One of Wooster’s Trademarks – the Black Squirrel – in Recent Study, February, 2020.

James P. Gibbs, et al., The Biological System – Urban Wildlife, Adaptation, and Evolution:  Urbanization as a Driver of Contemporary Evolution in Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), in Understanding Urban Ecology, 2019.

Eric J. Gustafson and Larry W. VanDruff, Behavior of Black and Gray Morphs of Sciurus carolinensis in an Urban Environment, The American Midland Naturalist, Volume 123, Number 1, January 1990.

Molly Koleczek, A Survey of the Ratio of Melanistic to Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) on 5 Midwestern College Campuses, Honors Scholarship Project, Olivet Nazarene College, April, 2014.

John Koprowski, Karen E. Munroe, and Andrew J. Edelman, Gray Not Grey:  The Ecology of Sciurus carolinensis in Their Native Range in North America, chapter in The Grey Squirrel:  Ecology & Management of an Invasive Species in Europe, 2016.

Richard M Lehtinen, Brian M. Carlson, Alyssa R. Hamm, Alexis G. Riley, Maria M. Mullin, and Weston J. Gray, Dispatches From the Neighborhood Watch:  Using Citizen Science and Field Survey Data to Document Color Morph Frequency in Space and Time, Ecology and Evolution, Volume 10, 2020.

Helen R. McRobie, Alison Thomas, Jo Kelly, The Genetic Basis of Melanism in the Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Journal of Heredity, Volume 100, Number 6, 2009.

Helen R. McRobie, Nancy D. Moncrief, and Nicholas I Mundy, Multiple Origins of Melanism in Two Species of North American Tree Squirrel (Sciurus), BMC  Evolutionary Biology, volume 19, 2019.

Richard W. Thorington, Jr., and Katie Ferrell, Squirrels:  The Animal Answer Guide, 2006.

Michelle Young, The Mysterious Black Squirrels of NYC, Untapped New York, October 14, 2021.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Challenge of Dinosaurs in Virginia

Most of my fossil hunting has been in Maryland with an occasional foray into other states, including neighboring Virginia, Delaware, and West Virginia.  So I thought I had some familiarity with the ground covered by geologist Robert E. Weems' new book:  The Age of Dinosaurs in Virginia and Nearby States (2022).  Actually, it turns out I didn't have a real clue as to the central challenge Weems faced in writing this book.

Weems tackles a sweeping and complex topic in this well-written, accessible volume.  (The Background Note below provides additional information about the author and describes a connection I have with him.)  The book is organized chronologically, describing the flora and fauna of the region across most of the Mesozoic Era that encompassed the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods running from 252 to 66 million years ago (mya).  The many tables, graphs, maps, and illustrations that grace the book are clear and informative.  Sadly, though, the volume is missing an index which makes revisiting topics difficult.

Among the most important and welcome aspects of the book is Weems’ account of the deep impact that geological forces over time have had on the area’s geography and climate, factors shaping its flora and fauna.  This includes the influence of the ever northward movement of Virginia (that is, the geographic region we now call “Virginia”) from near the equator in the early Mesozoic, to the “low latitude desert belt” in the late Triassic, and to the “subtropical belt” in the Cretaceous.  (p. 14)  I think it is important to always keep in mind these broad, powerful forces shaping the environment within evolution is at work.

The highlight for me of this focus on the geological influence on the composition of the flora and fauna is his discussion of the late Cretaceous.  He delineates the effect of the separation of the Appalachia continent (of which the Virginia region was a part) from the Laramidia continent during the Cretaceous as shown in the map below of North America during late Campanian Stage of the Cretaceous (about 75 mya).  (This map is taken from Scott D. Sampson, et al., New Horned Dinosaurs from Utah Provide Evidence for Intracontinental Dinosaur Endemism, PLOS One, September 22, 2010.  It was modified from one prepared by Ron Blakey.  It is available on Wikimedia Commons and used here under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

According to Weems, this isolation of Appalachia in the late Cretaceous had important consequences for its terrestrial species, particularly its dinosaurs.  He posits that during the Campanian, the dinosaurs of Appalachia “diverged markedly” from those of Laramidia whose extensive dinosaur fauna, I would note, included the iconic Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops.  (p. 89)  As Weems writes

Because Appalachia was a small continent and isolated from the rest of the Campanian world, its dinosaurs were less diverse and on average smaller than the dinosaurs found elsewhere.  In most other parts of the Campanian world, dinosaurs continued to diversify and on average grow ever larger.  (p. 98)

Evolutionary changes marking the dinosaurs of Laramidia, such as the rise of the ceratopsians, could not be represented in Appalachia during much of the late Cretaceous when there was no terrestrial link.

The key challenge Weems set for himself in writing this book is significant:  focusing this story on Virginia.  An initial reflection of the impact of choosing this topic comes with the discussion early in the book of the phrase “Age of Dinosaurs.”  Clearly, it falls within the Mesozoic because that’s when dinosaurs lived and the most logical ending point for Weems and the majority of the rest of us is with the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago.  (Admittedly, the present day existence of birds – avian dinosaurs – muddies the water of the ending just a bit.)  An important question is:  when did it begin?  With the appearance of the first animal considered a dinosaur or when dinosaurs came to dominate the landscape?  My own take on it squares with that of paleontologist Steve Brusatte who argues that the “Age of Dinosaurs” started in the Jurassic when dinosaurs were no longer bit players, but clearly in line to be faunal stars.  (The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs:  A New History of Their Lost World, 2018, p. 99)  Yes, there were dinosaurs before that, during the Triassic, but they didn’t seem destined to larger roles until the mass extinction at the end of Triassic opened up vast niches into which dinosaurs stepped.  In contrast, Weems posits that the "Age" has its origins about 243 mya in the Triassic when the first dinosaurs came on stage, even though he acknowledges that those first representatives were “relatively small and unimposing animals” (p. 4)  So, why look that far back?  His answer is simple.  It’s because “a large part of that early record is represented in the rock record of Virginia.”  (p. 4)

This is an acceptable and understandable decision because those early years helped shape what came later.  It is also true that, without the Triassic fossil record, the Virginia-based evidence of the kinds of flora and fauna that lived here during the "Age of Dinosaurs" is dramatically limited.  Even with reaching back into the Triassic, Weems had no choice in telling this story but to look beyond Virginia to "nearby states."  Why?  Because the exposed geological formations of the Mesozoic in Virginia are much too limited.  The map of Virginia (Figure 3, p. 10-11) he includes showing where Mesozoic strata are exposed makes the situation abundantly clear.  There are 15 relatively small Mesozoic exposures in the state:  nearly all (12) from the Upper Triassic (it's no wonder Weems starts the story there), a single one from the Lower Jurassic, none from the Middle and Upper Jurassic, 2 from the Lower Cretaceous, and none from the Upper Cretaceous.  This map reflects the lengthy “unconformities” in the stratigraphic record of the state, that is, gaps where exposed geological strata are missing and, so, the fossil record in Virginia is absent there as well.  A figure depicting graphically the stratigraphic record of the Mesozoic in Virginia (Figure 2, p. 6) makes this starkly evident:  most of it is blank.

Weems is up front about this situation and his strategy for dealing with it:  use information where available about the flora and fauna of neighboring states to fill in the picture, arguing that what was going on there likely was true for Virginia as well.  That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, though one that he has to turn to repeatedly throughout the volume.  That does raise the question of why he choose Virginia as the ostensible focus in the first place, and not, say, a broadly defined Mid-Atlantic region as a whole.  In fact, his book is an excellent account of the "Age of Dinosaurs" as it played out in that broader region, albeit in the slightly uncomfortable guise of a story about Virginia.

Background Note

Robert Weems is a highly respected, much published geologist who had a long career with the U.S. Geological Survey.  His publications cover a wide variety of geological and paleontological topics.  Many can be downloaded in PDF format from the website of the Maryland Geological Society (MGS).  In the interest of full disclosure, I would note that Weems and I have both been members of the MGS, a club composed of amateur and professional geologists and paleontologists.  The club helped Weems defray part of the cost of publishing The Age of Dinosaurs.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Jonathan Franzen, I Beg To Differ

Novelist (and birder) Jonathan Franzen has weighed in on what he believes is the mission for those of us who engage in nature writing and how best to fulfill (or, at least, serve) that mission.  (The Problem of Nature Writing, August 12, 2023.)  The mission, he claims, is “to interest nonbelievers in nature.”  By nonbelievers, Franzen means “readers who are wholly wrapped up in their humanness, unawakened to the natural world.”  Too much of nature writing, he concludes, simply exposes readers to an evangelical fervor about nature in the expectation that that alone will generate converts.  Nature writing, he argues, must take a different approach to be effective.

He suggests that there are three effective avenues available to a nature writer seeking converts.

(1) Center the piece around a strong argument presented provocatively or counterintuitively, opening with a compelling flourish.  Franzen posits, “Speaking for myself, I’m a lot more likely to read an essay that begins ‘I hate nature’ than one that begins ‘I love nature.’”  Once the reader is drawn in, the author can present their “argument for nature,” and the striking opening will, Franzen, believes guarantee that the text will move forcefully to an ending not obvious in the opening.

I am not fond of this approach and liken it to “bait and switch.”

(2) Focus on the science that turns common perceptions on their head.  As a primary example of this kind of nature writing, Franzen cites Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata (“an essay collection that’s dear to me”).

He writes that the book “begins by serving up a set of facts about tropical rain forests.  The facts are seemingly neutral, but they add up to a proposition:  the rain forest is more varied, less fertile, less consistently rainy, more insidiously hostile, than the drenched and teeming ‘jungle’ of popular imagination.”  “Wedded to an argument, the scientific facts speak far more compellingly to the glory of tropical nature than lyrical impressionism . . . .”

I endorse this approach most fully.  I am reading Tropical Nature (1987) and consider it a superlative example of what I believe natural history writing should be.

(3) Tell a story about a person and offer the reader “the intensity of a personal relationship.”  “For the nature writer who isn’t a polemicist or a scientist, a third avenue to intensity is to tell a story in which the focus on on nature but the dramatic stakes are emphatically human.”  Franzen offers Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway:  The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand (1997) as a prime example of this approach.  The book describes Kaufman’s effort over the course of 1973 to break the record for the most birds seen (or whose calls were heard) by an individual in a year in North America.  I mentioned the book in a post, describing it as “an engrossing and wild book.”  For Franzen, the beauty of the book is that it is a “classic road adventure” of a person in hot pursuit of a goal, the personal drama is a scaffolding for natural history (in this case, birds).  By erecting that personal framework, the writer has a story that will take the reader from a point of origin to a climax.  He argues that only a story focused on a human being (rather than some “wild animal”) can offer the narrative flow and pull that will engage the “unawakened” reader.

Though he identifies fine examples of nature writing that follow the first two paths described above in the quest for conversion, it’s that last that Franzen seems to hold near and dear to his heart, the one that will produce the quintessentially excellent piece of text and awaken us to nature.  He concludes his essay:

We can’t make a reader care about nature.  All we can do is tell strong stories of people who do care, and hope that the caring contagious.

I have inveighed in this blog several times against the approach that Franzen most fully endorses.  In my opinion, the story telling path as he would have it is likely to result in the author cast as the hero of the piece and the relegation of the natural world to mere (forgettable?) backdrop.  The right balance between the personal world and natural world often eludes such a writer.  For instance, do readers of Kaufman’s book come away with some new appreciation of nature or just the thrill of a good story?  It might be the latter.

There is another risk.  The central character might be someone to whom the reader can relate or is attracted to, but, if not, then all bets are off in the conversion sweepstakes.  (I wonder if Franzen is actually endorsing a different genre:  biography.  That is worth pondering, although a biography of someone immersed in the natural world may still suffer from an unattractive lead actor and subordinate nature in the story telling.  Franzen may well believe any exposure to nature is better than none.)

Let me elaborate a bit on the risks I see in the personal story approach.  In preparing to write on ospreys (the previous post), I read David Gessner’s Return of the Osprey:  A Season of Flight and Wonder (2001).  It’s an account of a spring and summer on Cape Cod that Gessner spent observing, researching, and trying to become one with ospreys.  I make no reference to the book in that prior post because, although Gessner is a keen observer of this majestic raptor and writes well, his account is marred by his story telling.  Among his transgressions are these:  he indulges in far too many internal monologues wrestling with personal issues of little interest to this reader, he believes (erroneously) the reader will appreciate his efforts to mimic the osprey’s dive into the water to snare a fish, he recounts swimming naked (why?) on various occasions (once was more than enough) in marshy streams, and he drags the readers through his many and embarrassing impositions on the ornithologist and osprey expert Alan Poole (see prior post).  In the end, Gessner as he depicts himself in this book is not an appealing character.

I don’t deny that having a good personal story to tell can be quite helpful - I do like a good story - but it’s not required.  And some appearance of the author in the flow of the text isn’t anathema to me.  It’s the subordination of the natural world to an account of the author’s adventures in exploring the subject that I object to.  In fact, I consider some works in which the author clearly figures as among the best contemporary nature writing out there.  I have in mind such books with an evident authorial presence as The Trees in My Forest (1997) by Bernd Heinrich, the exquisite Ecology of a Summer House (1984) by Vincent Dethier, and Basin and Range (1981) by John McPhee.  The authors aren’t hidden in these works, rather they are sharing (but not dominating) the stage with nature.  Significantly, it certainly helps that I find each of these writers an amiable companion in the exploration of whatever topic, there’s no grasping for the spotlight.

One final, very personal observation.  I am quite dismayed at how dismissive Franzen is of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), describing it (with a sneer?) as an example of “ornithological lyricism,” seemingly lumping it in with nature writing that depends solely on the writer’s evangelical fervor and is without a narrative hook.  Franzen characterizes parts as unreadable and derides Baker’s effort to enter the mindset of this raptor.

I, on the other hand, love the book, partly for the human element in it.

Baker’s mastery of words is coupled with his very engaging presence in the effort to understand the peregrine.  I wrote about the book in a post in 2018, describing how Baker distilled a decade of observation into what purports to be the diary of single year of stalking the peregrine which, at the time, was in serious decline.  The poetry of Baker’s writing and his insights into the bird are a powerful combination, with personal narrative and nature sharing the stage.  (I am puzzled that Franzen didn’t appreciate the personal narrative that the diary format presents.)  And, yes, I do enjoy Baker as a person (at least as revealed in the text).

Ultimately, though I do disagree with aspects of Jonathan Franzen’s critique of nature writing, it's really a matter of  degree and emphasis.  The field with its diverse audience is much too broad and eclectic to be shaped by his preferences (or mine).

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Ospreys On My Mind

This has been a summer of ospreys.  I am surrounded  by these glorious raptors.  Less than a tenth of a mile from my Long Island summer cottage, a massive osprey nest sits atop a utility pole (a structure replete with electrical lines).

It holds a brood of two, perhaps three young ospreys.  Their mother spends much of her time with them in the nest, guarding, watching, calling for food, and, at times, distributing pieces of the fish caught by their father.  He, in turn, when not out in search of fish, roosts nearby.

Joining the usual sounds of summer at the cottage are crystalline, high pitched, ringing chirrups (well, that’s what they sound like to my ear – descriptions in the literature vary quite widely), often starting slowly and well spaced, then rising in frequency and intensity.  These are primarily the begging calls of the female osprey, pleading with her mate to bring the food needed by their voracious offspring.  Ornithologist Alan F. Poole, in his recent, essential book, Ospreys:  The Revival of a Global Raptor, posits that there are three kinds of osprey calls with many variations:  alarm calls responding to a threatening interloper, guard calls signaling to other ospreys that a strange osprey is approaching, and begging calls voiced by mothers and young.  (Poole, p. 24-25; full citations are provided in the Sources section at the end of this post.)  The begging calls I’ve been hearing are apparently necessary to prompt the adult male to fulfill his biological role of providing for his family.  As with all such relationships, some males are more responsive than others.

Though I know it’s really not, my cottage feels for all the world as if it is at the epicenter of the osprey revival:  within roughly three to four miles of it are three other nests occupied by ospreys.  What an amazing turnaround from a half century ago, when the outlook for these and other beautiful avian raptors was bleak, their numbers devastated by the damage done by DDT and its breakdown products.

A nascent environmental movement in the mid 20th century, sparked by publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, targeted the uncontrolled, widespread use of this and other insecticides.  The story of how the damage from DDT was stopped and reversed centers, in part, on Charles F. Wurster, an organic chemist, who was instrumental in the successful campaign against DDT which involved the filing of a series of lawsuits and much public testimony that galvanized public opinion against the insecticide.  A great deal of credit for the osprey revival that surrounds me must be given to Wurster who, it is sad to note, passed away in early July this year at age 92.  (Diamond, 2023)  He was among those marshalling and presenting evidence in the 1960s and 1970s that the insecticide was spreading uncontrollably worldwide, well beyond the areas in which it was directly applied.  They documented how its breakdown components seriously harmed wildlife, including avian raptors such as osprey who, at the top of the food chain, built up high levels of the insecticide in their bodies by consuming contaminated animals lower in the food chain, a process known as “biological concentration.”  These high levels of the insecticide led the birds to lay eggs with thin, fragile shells which broke under the pressure of the brooding mate.  (See, for example, Ackerman, 1996/2019, p. 46.)  The threat to the survival of these iconic birds (including the bald eagle) was great.  In 1967, Wurster was one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund which was instrumental in securing a nationwide ban on the use of the insecticide in 1972.

Poole notes that, although in North America the application of DDT decimated osprey populations (some specific populations declining by as much as 90 percent), once the ban took hold, osprey populations began a striking rebound.  Indeed, in some areas, the successful recovery has led to slowing population growth as available nesting sites are occupied, leading to movement of some birds into new, neighboring areas.  He reports that in Southern New England and Long Island (where my cottage is), there are at present approximately 1,500 breeding pairs of ospreys, primarily near saltwater.  (Poole, p. 43-44)

Ospreys’ scientific name is Pandion haliaetus.  The birds breeding in North America are P. haliaetus carolinensis, one of several subspecies.  They have a wingspan of about 63” and an overall body length of 23”.  Surprisingly, given how commanding they appear, they weigh only some 3.5 pounds.  (Sibley, 2003)  Ospreys’ diet consists nearly completely of fish.  As a result, they are often referred to as fish hawks, though they are not truly hawks.  P. haliaetus is the only member of the family Pandionidae which, in turn, is a member of the Accipitriformes order, a taxon that does include hawks, eagles, vultures, kites.  Ospreys share a number of attributes with hawks and eagles, such as acute eyesight, robust talons, hooked beaks, and reversed sexual dimorphism (females are larger than males).  But their piscatory diet has led to the evolution of a constellation of characteristics distinguishing them from all other birds of prey.  They are singularly constructed to hunt and capture fish.  Their fish-hunting armory includes long, nearly featherless legs well structured to reach into the water for their prey, particularly sharp, deeply curved talons (one of which on each foot can rotate so the bird can hold a struggling fish with two talons on each side), and longer and narrower wings bent at the wrist facilitating hovering and rising from the water after a dive.  (Poole, p. 11-12)  Pictured below is an osprey watching over a marsh near my cottage (this bird is not likely one associated with my nest).

The “M” silhouette of the wings of an osprey in flight and its high speed dive into the water in pursuit of a fish are among the most prominent and visible hallmarks of the bird, along, of course, with their piercing calls and massive nests.  Seen below are two ospreys in flight, quite possibly the pair nesting near me.  Their distinctive wing profile is clear.  Given the tattered wings, the bird in the lower right is a female because only they molt during the nesting season.  Males require a full complement of feathers for their constant hunting.

Nearly all of the osprey populations breeding in the northern hemisphere migrate in the fall to over-wintering areas in the southern hemisphere.  Adults reverse the journey in the spring, many returning to the same mates and same nesting area of the prior spring and summer.  Indeed, they may return to the same nests where they raised broods previously.   Their migrations are staggering feats of physical endurance and navigation, covering thousands of miles, many of those miles over open ocean waters or deserts.  Ospreys migrating from the Northern Hemisphere travel some 2,500 to 3,500 miles on average over the course of 4 to 5 weeks.  Poole offers a detailed look at the migration patterns of these birds.  (Poole, p. 106 et seq.)

When the young in the nest near me fledge they will undertake the same migration as their parents in the fall, but will remain in over-wintering areas for an additional year.  When they migrate back to the north, they will often return to the areas in which they fledged 18 months earlier.  Their early lives are full of perils, particularly those associated with these migrations.  Fewer than half of the birds that fledge will survive to breed.  (Carpenteri, p. 75)  

Ospreys are singularly adaptable, cosmopolitan birds, found worldwide (on all continents, save Antarctica).  They are clearly very tolerant of humans and human activity.  The various descriptions of where ospreys build their nest testifies to that.  In her lyrical description of nature along the Delaware side of the Delaware Bay (Birds by the Shore), science writer Jennifer Ackerman devotes a chapter to ospreys and recounts:

I have the good fortune to live within a three-mile radius of five active osprey nests.  One sits atop a platform on the double cross-arms of an old utility pole in the marsh at the center of town, hard by a railroad and King’s Highway.  The highway carries the crush of traffic disgorged from the Cape May-Lewes ferry, a steady stream of tourists hell-bent for a seaward peep.  (Ackerman, p. 39)

The nest down the road from me on Long Island also abuts clamorous human activity.  Pictured below is the nest in its full context, situated right next to a railroad bridge over a road, and near a street level railroad crossing (not shown).  All of this means the nest’s occupants endure the dinging railroad crossing bell, the screeching train wheels, and piercing whistle blows as a Long Island Rail Road commuter train makes eight daily trips east and west.

The conditioning of these young birds to this environment certainly expands the range of nesting places they will accept when they are adults.  With the ongoing destruction of the environment near the water along much of the east coast of North America, and with it the reduction in available natural osprey nesting sites, the adaptability of ospreys has stood them in good stead.  They take readily to artificial nesting sites, to wit, the crossbar at the top of a utility pole.  A broadscale effort to construct safe, artificial nesting sites is underway in many areas, and Poole reports that perhaps as many as 60% of osprey now nest on artificial sites.  (Poole, p. 43)

With their dramatic hunting dives, their calls, their open and exposed nests, ospreys cannot be ignored.  They predate the appearance of our species.  The extant osprey species has been around for perhaps fewer than two million years, while two paleontologically accepted, now extinct species of Pandion were present much earlier:  P. homalopteron from the mid-Miocene (some 16 to 13 millions ago) and P. lovensis from the late-Miocene (about 9 million years ago).  (Warter; Becker; Florida Museum of Natural History)

I think it significant that two accomplished nature writers have been moved to suggest that there is an ancestral memory connecting us to ospreys.  Jennifer Ackerman muses that, from the first appearance of humans on water’s edge, ospreys were there, and so we may inherently associate the bird with the seashore.

Perhaps the osprey exists on a mental map of an earlier world passed down from our ancestors, and the birds in its landscape enters us like the parental.  Perhaps it is also the other way around:  Perhaps it contains us as part of its element, having seen us through the ages, through our infancy and whole tumult of civilized man.  (Ackerman, 51-52)

In a strikingly similar vein, Alan Poole has pondered the “parallel lives of humans and Ospreys over the course of our evolution.”  (Poole, p. 15)  At each stage of our movement across the world, as we explored seashores and pursued fish, ospreys were probably part of our lives.  He concludes,

And it’s a good bet that in these early human societies Ospreys were part of nighttime conversations around campfires, woven into myth and culture, much as Ospreys enter the lives and conversations of people who live around them today.  (p. 15)

Yes, when we encounter these raptors, there may well be a natural psychological affinity.  Walt Whitman experienced this, I think, when, one day in June, 1878, he sat on a river bank, watching a bird roosting on dead tree on the opposite shore.  It was, he wrote,

a haughty, white-bodied dark-wing’d hawk – I suppose a hawk from his bill and general look – only he had a clear, loud, quite musical, sort of bell-like call, which he repeated again and again at intervals.

Clearly, this was an osprey, perhaps marking Whitman’s presence with his calls.  The bird then flew repeatedly over the water and left Whitman with an indelible memory: 

Once he came quite close over my head; I saw plainly his hook’d bill and hard restless eyes.  (Whitman, p. 111-112)


Jennifer Ackerman, Birds by the Shore:  Observing the Natural Life of the Atlantic Coast (previously published as Notes from the Shore), 1995 and 2019.

Jonathan J. Becker, Pandion Lovensis, A New Species of Osprey from the Late Miocene of Florida, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Volume 98, 1985.

Stephen D. Carpenteri, The Fish Hawk Osprey, 1997.

Dan Diamond, Charles Wurster, Scientist Who Battled to Ban Pesticide DDT, Dies at 92, The Washington Post, July 25, 2023.

Florida Museum of Natural History, Pandion lovensis, Zachary Seth Randall, original author.

Alan F. Poole, Ospreys:  The Revival of a Global Predator, 2019.

David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, 2003

Stuart L. Warter, A New Osprey from the Miocene of California (Falconiformes:  Pandionidae), Collected Papers in Avian Paleontology Honoring the 90th Birthday of Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, Number 27, 1976.

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, Dover Edition published in 1995 reproducing the 1883 publication.

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