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Naturalists in the Field

Collecting, Recording and Preserving the Natural World from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century

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Edited by Arthur MacGregor

Interposed between the natural world in all its diversity and the edited form in which we encounter it in literature, imagery and the museum, lie the multiple practices of the naturalists in selecting, recording and preserving the specimens from which our world view is to be reconstituted. The factors that weigh at every stage are here dissected, analysed and set within a historical narrative that spans more than five centuries. During that era, every aspect evolved and changed, as engagement with nature moved from a speculative pursuit heavily influenced by classical scholarship to a systematic science, drawing on advanced theory and technology. Far from being neutrally objective, the process of representing nature is shown as fraught with constraint and compromise.

With a Foreword by Sir David Attenborough

Contributors are: Marie Addyman, Peter Barnard, Paul D. Brinkman, Ian Convery, Peter Davis, Felix Driver, Florike Egmond, Annemarie Jordan Gschwend, Geoff Hancock, Stephen Harris, Hanna Hodacs, Stuart Houston, Dominik Huenniger, Rob Huxley, Charlie Jarvis, Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Shepard Krech III, Mark Lawley, Arthur Lucas, Marco Masseti, Geoff Moore, Pat Morris, Charles Nelson, Robert Peck, Helen Scales, Han F. Vermeulen, and Glyn Williams.

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Arthur MacGregor

Abstract

In the course of the six centuries and more considered here, the concept of the naturalist and of the work that he or she undertakes in the field gradually took form and continues to develop. The status of the practitioners involved is so widely disparate as to defy easy categorization. In these introductory remarks some of the principal communities – arbitrarily defined – contributing to this movement are reviewed: a number of the most significant figures emerged from within the academic milieu, conducting their work initially in the tradition of the classical authors whose tracts held sway until the late Renaissance, yet they were increasingly reliant on the ocular evidence on which the New Science was built; others came from outside this tradition but contributed invaluable personal experience, insight and knowledge, practically acquired. Both are celebrated here, and their mutually enriching relationships are explored. Other essays here adopt a more specific focus in order to chart the ways in which the field practice that lies at the heart of this volume was guided and influenced by those who commissioned collecting expeditions – initially the founders of collectors’ cabinets, later the owners of systematic collections and ultimately the curators of veritable natural history museums. All of these operated in the role of sponsors for the field naturalists and all were anxious that material should reach them not only in optimum condition but with appropriate contextual data. Their demands were communicated variously in the course of correspondence, in printed pamphlets and ultimately in book-length instructions published for the benefit of those in the field: some of these texts are reproduced verbatim as appendices at the end of the volume.


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Glyn Williams

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The last forty years of the eighteenth century saw a surge of geographical discovery in the Pacific. Expeditions from several European countries mapped a myriad of islands in the vast ocean, while naturalists on the discovery vessels collected an overwhelming bounty of flora and fauna. Their lot was not an easy one, for both on board ship and ashore danger alternated with boredom and discomfort; quarrels with the ships’ officers, who had very different priorities, were frequent. Nor did these difficulties end upon the naturalists’ returning home, where their specimens were often neglected and recognition for years of work proved elusive.


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Shepard Krech III

Abstract

Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands was one of the most expensive publications of the eighteenth century: lauded by many, and celebrated for its 220 hand-coloured etchings, it brought instant renown to its author. The 150-plus copies found homes in the libraries and cabinets of subscribers, and the original watercolours were eventually acquired by George III (today in the Royal Library at Windsor). The etchings illustrate flora and fauna in a broad sense, but Catesby’s birds – which occupy fully one-half of the illustrations – have always held centre stage, and Catesby has been called the “founder of American ornithology”. Here we concentrate on the birds and seek to understand why Catesby focused on certain species and not others; why he “collected” certain birds for “illumination”, which he regarded as the prerequisite to “perfect understanding”; why he pictured certain birds with certain plants; what sense he made of birds in a text whose structure can be traced in part to John Ray’s Ornithology of Francis Willughby, and whose content reflects the Baconian principle of “ocular testimony”; and how text and image together reflect considerations variously linked to geography, habitat, diet, ecology, the commodification of flora, and patrons or subscribers – all of which influenced what he thought about and selected in order to illustrate and discuss natural history. 


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C. Stuart Houston

Abstract

Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur traders can claim an honourable place in the history of natural history. They supplied bird specimens that were painted by George Edwards in England in the 1740s, which were then given Latin names by Linnaeus – second only to Catesby’s Carolina collections. In the 1820s the HBC supplied Franklin’s two Arctic land expeditions, especially the first. John Richardson’s collections “provided a more complete pre-Caucasian inventory of natural history than … anywhere else in North America.” In the 1860s HBC factor Roderick Ross MacFarlane extended studies to the sub-arctic to record almost everything now known about the (apparently now extinct) Eskimo Curlew. 


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Arthur MacGregor

Abstract

The role of the first naturalists appointed by the East India Company in the later 1700s has been presented as essentially a subsidiary one – that of agents at the periphery with a primary duty to supply specimens to the scientific community of the metropolis (and especially its dominant figure, Sir Joseph Banks) rather than involving themselves in interpretation: the role is one that Banks himself made explicit, insisting on it on more than one occasion. Independently of this axis, an invaluable local relationship developed between the Company men (notably Patrick Russell and William Roxburgh) and naturalists from the German mission at the Danish colony of Tranquebar (especially Johann Gerhard König, Christoph Samuel John, and Johann Peter Rottler). The strong bonds of friendship that developed between these pioneer collectors – all of them physicians by training – on the Coromandel coast produced a mutually beneficial milieu in which continental and British practice mingled and flowered, ushering in the heyday of field collecting in British India.


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Han F. Vermeulen

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In the course of the eighteenth century many state-sponsored research expeditions were dispatched to Siberia and other regions of the expanding Russian Empire. Starting in the 1710s, the participants and sometimes the sole executors of such expeditions were employed either by the Apothecary Chancellery or the Academy of Sciences. Their mission was to describe, catalogue, and collect everything of interest in the regions visited, primarily in the field of natural history but also in that of history, geography, antiquities, linguistics, and the emerging field of ethnography. Almost all naturalists conducting research in Siberia and environs produced ethnographic descriptions, which was unusal internationally but characteristic for the situation in Russia.


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Felix Driver

Abstract

This chapter considers the culture and practices of nineteenth-century expeditionary science, focusing on the collections of the Schlagintweit expedition to India and High Asia, sponsored by the Royal Society and the King of Prussia, in 1854-1857. Perhaps best known for their work in physical geography, the Schlagintweit brothers conceived their work in Humboldtian terms as a mapping of both natural and cultural landscapes.  As well as compiling vast inventories of geographical, topographic and meteorological data, they collected almost every kind of thing they encountered, dispatching large quantities of material to London and Berlin, including soil and water samples, wood specimens, rocks, seeds, plants, reptiles, paper, textiles, sacred texts and farming tools. The chapter focuses especially on the Schlagintweits’ technical and ethnographic collections, organized in some respects as if they were natural history specimens. Looking specifically at a set of 275 “ethnographical heads” produced from plaster moulds made in the course of the expedition, it emphasizes the role of local labour and key intermediaries in the production of expeditionary science and raises questions about the potential uses of such collections today.


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Robert Huxley

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The exploration of the South Pacific provides a canvas on which to illustrate the practicalities of early collecting, preserving and storing specimens in a region effectively as remote as the moon is today. Distant politics, espionage and war could delay and destroy years of work and the naturalists themselves often fell victim to disease and violence. The ingenuity employed to overcome these challenges are viewed mainly through examples from the explosion in scientific expeditions of the 1700s but also later voyages demonstrating the increasing professionalism of scientists and sailors and rapid changes in technology. Ethical aspects of these naturalists’ work are explored, as is the fate of the collections and their contribution to science.


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Malgosia Nowak-Kemp

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The English naturalist William Burchell explored the interior of southern Africa from 1811 to 1815, travelling in an ox cart of his own unique design. He devised or adapted numerous techniques for the preservation in the field of different categories of natural history specimens, and collected over 63,000 specimens. He also made many detailed geographical, ecological and ethnographical notes of the regions through which he passed. The expedition exemplified the shift taking place in the scientific world from armchair to field-based investigation of the natural world, in which human populations, animals and plants were to be observed in their native landscapes.