Monday, April 10, 2017

A field guide to my first field guide – how Chandler S. Robbins (1918-2017) nearly caused the end of my scientific career

Chandler Robbins died last month.  He would have been 100 years old this July 17th. Never as famous as Roger Tory Peterson, nor as David Sibley, Chandler Robbins made some of the most important contributions to bird research and conversation in the 20th century.  He conducted some of the earliest research on DDT, contributing to Rachel Carson’s crusade; he pioneered the US Breeding Bird Survey, a system of point counts designed to capture data on bird population changes across the continent; and he banded what is believed to be the world’s oldest, still-living bird, an individual Laysan Albatross on Midway Island in 1956.  These are just a few stepping stones across the arc of Robbins’ amazing career.

Robbins was also the author of the Golden Guide to North American Birds.  First published in 1966, just a few years on the heels of Peterson’s Western Guide, the Robbins Guide corrected a few of the Peterson mistakes.  Robbins put bird pictures, descriptions, and maps all on one open double-page.  No flipping to the back to see what the range was.  And for many passerines, there were sonograms right there as well. And everything in color.

I got my Robbins Guide not long after, a xmas present from a grandparent I think, as instructed by my parents with a shrug. “He likes birds."  It was 1968.  I was seven years old. The political world was swirling in change but I didn’t know anything about that.  I liked birds.

Fifty years later, I pull Robbins from my book case and put it next to my laptop.  It falls open flat into three separate pieces.  This is in spite of at least two patch jobs I did back in the 1970s.  One I did with black electrical tape from dad’s electrical fix-it box.  The other was with clear contact paper from mom’s craft drawer.  Fortunately today, the heavy vinyl-ish soft-cover is still mostly intact and so holds the sections a bit like an ancient manila folder. 
On the cover, with its three species of male buntings, faint in the upper left corner is my name in a rolling cursive pen typical of a fifth grader.  It's likely the first book I wrote my name in.  In a moment of pre-teen, comic brilliance, after learning the basics of reading music (learned many times, never took) I made a talking balloon from the Lazuli Bunting’s open beak and put a quarter note in it.  Tweet.  Little did I know, twenty years on, I would lie back on a grassy hill in the Marin Headlands and listen to two male Lazulis hurl songs at one another. Tweet indeed.

On the inside back cover, I wrote a curt instruction “Return to:” with my childhood address next to it – “575 Sequoia Ave./Redwood City, Calif./94061.”  This insurance policy was never required; I lost many wallets, keys, etc., over the years, but never my Robbins.  On the outside back cover, left unmarked by the publisher, I later penned my college contact info “1311 L Street/Davis, CA/916-756-9601” which means that as late as 1980 I was still using Robbins as my go-to field guide. Also on the back was the faintest attempt at writing the names of several avian families (weird logic: if I write them on my field guide, I will memorize them). Hilariously, the only legible family name today was Ploceidae, one of the few non-native families I had to learn (European House Sparrow).  I made this effort when I took my first Ornithology course at UC Davis as a sophomore in 1982.  Professor Robert L. Rudd, also a pal of Rachel Carson, forced us to memorize all the orders and families of California’s birds.  A quarter century later, I imposed this so-satisfying torture on my undergrads when I taught Raptor Biology at UCD.  Obscurity begets obscurity.

I don't shrink from writing in books today, considering it my responsibility to improve on them and to remember favorite parts, and Robbins was no exception when I was still pretty young.  I discovered one day while poring through its paintings that the index did double-duty as a check-list of bird species.  All the proper names had little boxes adjacent so that one could check the birds one had seen.  What a great idea -- keeping a score card of all the birds you've seen!  I got started right away. 

There were some easy ones, SF Bay neighborhood birds like House Finch, Mourning Dove, Scrub Jay, Plain Titmouse, Red-tailed Hawk, Great Blue Heron, California Towhee – check, check, check, check, checkity, check.  But for some species, I realized that I wasn’t sure if I had seen them.  But hey, I was nine years old; I had seen a lot of birds.  I just hadn’t kept track.  So, I made a kind of on-the-spot, logical deduction: if the species name was preceded with the word “common” then I no doubt had seen it in my near-decade on the planet, and I could safely check that species off.  Good call, Allen. Off I went.

Common Eider? Check. Common Merganser? Check. Common Loon? Check. This was so easy.  I cruised through the index. Common Tern?  No doubt.  Common Bushtit?  Yep.  Common Egret?  Hundreds. Common Raven, Common Gallinule (what even was a gallinule?), Common Murre, and -- how could I even imagine? -- Common Teal.  I wasn’t even on the correct continent.

But I lived in this blissful state of hyper-confident bird-listing for at least a few years.  I am not sure what happened next, but I imagine I had some kind of epiphany.  I would have been around twelve or thirteen.  Perhaps I glanced at my dad’s San Francisco Chronicle, and saw a headline. “Liar Lying-pants Boy-birdwatcher Sentenced to 40 Years Hard Labor After Misrepresenting Life-List.”  Perhaps it was after learning that the President himself had lied, and now he was resigning. For sure, I would be punished for this. Anyway, something clicked, and shame set in, big-time.

I realized I had only one course of action. I found my Robbins and I ripped out each of the index pages, one by one.  Pages 327 to 340 - gone.  All those boxes colored in, checked off - gone.  Fortunately I got to my book before any member of the public saw it.  It would have been my word against theirs.  But now my scam was over, my secret was safe.

I never did keep a life-list after that.  Like an addicted smoker, I couldn’t risk lighting a match without feeling the urge to inhale.  Robbins and I didn’t spend much time together after college.  National Geographic published the first of its North American guides in 1983, which added many species and corrected many worn-out names from the Golden Guide, while retaining its strengths.  David Sibley eclipsed everyone in 2000 with a heftier but more comprehensive North American bird guide.  Indeed, there were strengths to each of the new guides, and I acquired them all, but it was Robbins who was there for the launch of my bird-watching career.  Robbins was the book I paged through for hours, remembering Latin names, the arrangements of taxonomic families, and forging a fake life-list of bird names, species seen and unseen.

Sometime in the mid 1980’s, I found a copy of Rich Stallcup’s Birds for Real, a thin but powerful booklet that catalogued the mistakes he found in Robbins.  Some were mistakes to be sure.  Others were simply western corrections based on Rich’s years of West Coast birding.  I readily wrote Rich's corrections into my copy.  Then not long after, I took the single best birding class ever offered, Joe Morlan’s “Birds of California” at City College of San Francisco.  Joe did a page-by-page walk-through of Robbins, giving suggestions, tweaks, compliments – all of which I wrote directly into my increasingly scrappy guide.  Of course it was my destiny, some years later, to marry a librarian who reserved a place in hell for people who wrote in books right next to spider-squishers and wildflower-pickers.  I have done my best to keep Robbins (and my many other margin-inked bird guides) out of her way.
Thank you, Chandler Robbins.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Flowers of Guatemala

Plumeria rubra, from Flowers of Guatemala, © Carol Rogers Chickering
Fifty years ago, when I was three, my grandmother was treated for emphysema.  Doctors opened her throat, and attached a breathing tube into the hole.  She was mostly confined to her bed and to a breathing apparatus, a machine that I think compressed air into her weakened lungs.  As a little tyke, I had no idea what Gran was being treated for, but I don’t remember her except being attached to that machine.  I did know that Gran looked at me as I ran up to her bedside as if I were an all-purpose salve or a lovely aroma, and she struggled to get the clamp on her tracheal tube that allowed her to speak to me and my brother.

Gran lived in the hilly oak woodlands of the central California coast.  She loved Prince Charles.  She kept a tidy photo of him in an 8 x 10 frame near her bed.  I don't know why Price Charles, but she was well ahead of the royalty-celebrity trend.  Her bed was one of those hospital tip-up beds, common now but pretty exciting then to a young boy in 1965, all knobs, levers, and buttons.  

Funny to think now that, except for the hole in her throat, the whole thing seemed kind of exciting to me, living in one’s bedroom. Big windows. Painting at one's desk.  We often brought her flower samples from our trips to the Sierra Nevada.  She had a great garden outside, a natural landscape with a dwarf birch holding a bird feeder.  And she had binoculars and a camera close at hand.  She would have some helper prop the empty Skippy’s Peanut Butter jar outside on the lichen fence.  Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Scrub-Jays were her main quarry. 

One Sunday visit she showed me a photo of a Gray Fox with its head in the jar, licking about. Hilarious. I had never seen a Gray Fox, or any fox before, and this miniature wolf on this familiar fence left a big impression on me.  Gran stayed mostly in bed in that sun-lit room in Woodside from 1965 to 1972, her beautiful thick hair, long and gray.  She died in September 1972.  I was ten.  Mom got the call; she burst into her tears.  I hadn’t known of anyone who had died yet.          
Gran was a painter, a botanical illustrator really.  She illustrated a book on Lake Tahoe wildflowers that was printed before she died.  It was written by Kenneth Legg, a California state parks ranger from Donner Lake State Park.  I never knew much about Mr. Legg, never got to meet him, but I was given another book of his – on Lake Tahoe mammals - when I was still young.  I remember being particularly impressed by his bio.  Kenneth Legg was a naturalist.  That sounded like me, like what I wanted to be; I would be a naturalist too.  I held onto that for years as my career goal, as that thing you say when you are asked my well-meaning but nosey adults: “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

 “I’m going to be a naturalist.”

Gran painted and authored her own book entirely, her magna opus, but never saw it as it was printed after she died: Flowers of Guatemala.  It was a coffee-table book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press and covered in a strangely garish green.  Gran painted in water-colors and her flowers, stems, sepals, petals, had a touchable quality, as though the tiny velvet hairs of certain plants could be felt on the smooth page of the book.  I touched my book’s pages often, just to check.  I got to know the plants of Guatemala as I looked them over again and again.

As much as the paintings and the plants interested me, so did the mere fact of her books, the fact of their existence.  What I mean is this: somewhere lies my grandmother, ashes cold or twelve feet underground somewhere, and I cannot talk to her anymore.  But she left these books.  Especially the Guatemala book; this was her book in her voice.  If it was important to her – I figure – that’s why she wrote it here.  She left a message for me.  For all the people she loved.  For all of you, here is what I know about the world.  Here is my book.  I loved the authority of that.  The declaration of pages, pages packed in cardboard, cardboard covered in cloth, printed in multiple copies with a garish green cover.  I am dead but you still have to read this.  That is the message of her posthumous publication, for me.  My grandmother was brilliant.

When I was about thirty, I was walking up to Hawk Hill to the hawk-counting site for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.  This is the place I know best in the world.  This is the nexus of the fall migration of birds of prey at the Golden Gate near San Francisco.  It was a non-descript weekend day.  GGRO volunteers were counting birds on the hilltop – I was unhurried, unscheduled, relaxed.  On the steeper part of the short hill-climb, I noticed a woman in her 80s, stopped, and smiling with some concern at a man still in front of me.  His back was to me, but I could see that he was old, and, I guessed, the woman’s husband.  I could see that his steps were unsteady, and that he checked his balance with a cane in his right hand.
As I passed the man, I turned to look at him as if I might recognize him.  I didn’t.  But around his neck were the most beautiful pair of old binoculars I had seen in years.  They were some variation of Leitz, but most exciting to me were the bright shining spots on the fronts, big brassy circles buffed out of the black paint.  They were the points of contact between his fingers on his binocular barrels, over a long stretch of time.

I couldn’t help myself as I stopped next to the man: “Judging from those brass spots, you’ve been lifting those optics for an awfully long time.” 

He looked up at me, smiled, and tapped his binoculars with his left hand.  “Got ‘em before the war,” he confirmed. 

“They’re beautiful,” I added, and our exchange became full-fledged conversation as we reached his wife and I introduced myself.  “I’m Allen Fish – this is kind of like my office; I’m director of the Raptor Observatory. You must be here for the hawks?”

“Yessir, we’ve always meant to come out and see this,” said the man, “I’m Kenn Legg.”

“Kenneth Legg, the naturalist?”

“That’s right.”

For a few seconds I couldn’t speak.  How could this be?  How could Kenn Legg still be alive?  Gran died two decades ago.  My head got a little loopy and I had to remind myself to inhale. 

“Mr. Legg, I’m Allen Fish, Carol Rogers Chickering’s grandson.”  

Kenn Legg eyed me closely and smiled slowly, "No kidding."

Oncidium splendidum, from Flowers of Guatemala, © Carol Rogers Chickering
I managed to tell him the facts of our deep relationship (which he didn’t know about) and his celebrity status in my life (which he didn’t know about) as we walked up Hawk Hill slowly together.  But I also sat with him for an hour and asked about his friendship with my grandmother, how their collaboration had begun, and other stories that he know about my family. I told him that his books had a great impact on me; I thanked him for writing them.

I was aware of the amazing circle of this meeting but was unaware of how to speak about it right then.  As much as anything I wanted to shout two things to all the bird-watchers on Hawk Hill, “This is Kenn Legg, naturalist!  And he wrote a book with my grandmother!”  But I didn’t yell.  I kept it together.  We watched hawks together, we watched kestrels hover and accipiters flap.  His bird identifications were all spot on.  A few hours rolled by in what seemed like twelve minutes, and then I walked the Leggs back down the hill to their car.

Later on, maybe that night, maybe days later, I got the third thing.  That elusive third piece, the one about yourself, maybe not the kind of thing you yell on a hilltop however much you might want to: “I’m going to be a naturalist someday like him.  And here he is right now!”  I am thinking now, twenty years later, who gets that chance?  I made a circle!  I got to say thank you!  It was magnificent!

Friday, December 27, 2013

The goshawk in my chest.

About 25 years ago, I was -- now looking back -- between lives.  I was trying to figure out why I had destroyed my old life, and I was quite unsure just what the next life would be.  The continuity in my life, since I had been about seven, was birds.   Today, I'm a bird biologist, running the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory near San Francisco but I'm deeply interested in all aspects of the natural world, or "the nature" as friend of mine used to say.  Then she would laugh.  Why would she laugh?  Because "the nature" is all of us; it is everything.  Anything we might be tempted to call "not nature" was somehow constructed from nature by us, say for instance, a V8 engine, or bubble wrap, or Tang Orange Breakfast Drink Mix.

Mid-elevation Sierra Nevada western slope.  Close to the goshawk spot.
But back to 25 years ago.  I'm sitting on a hillside in the Sierra Nevada, and a pretty cool raptor, a Northern Goshawk -- rarely seen and when seen, rarely seen for long -- has grabbed a morning thermal of rising air off the east side of the hill, and is soaring wide circles below me.  To not scare it, I pretend I'm a rock.  The goshawk flaps and soars upward within a few dozen feet of me, and then ascends quickly to hundreds of feet higher.  Without shifting much, I turn my head, squinting against the morning sun rays, to watch her.  As she rises past me I can see the occasional flutter of her back feathers.  I can see her eyes, and the tilt and retilt of her tail as she adjusts to stay in the circle of the thermal.

And then something happens.  My chest rises. (OK, just WHAT does that mean?)  Some swirl of lightness (I'll get back to that later) rises up through my body on an inhale, straightens my posture and swells into my chest and head, and I am grinning like an idiot on the exhale.  And the hawk is well above me now, and I am so damn happy, as if this bird has just pulled me out of my woe-is-me, self-pitying, gloom-pit, and carried me into a state of clarity and even mild ecstasy.

What just happened?

I am an aethiest.  To be specific, I have never come across anything in my own life experience or that of my immediate circle of family and friends, that wasn't completely explainable in non-supernatural, "scientific" terms.  And that the sciencey explanation was far more interesting and even inspiring, in its chain of cause and effects, than a supernatural explanation could have been.

So, yes, I can see how many people would take my rising-chest feeling and say conclusively, "obviously, Allen, your spirit was rising" or "god is a goshawk" or even just "the goshawk is your totem."  And all of these things might be true for them, but they are not intresting to me.  Rather, I want to know this: what is the biochemistry of my response to the hawk?  And why should I, a large primate in 1990, have such a powerful biochemical response to a mere hawk rising on a thermal?  What is the evolutionary advantage to me?  How might I survive better or reproduce more as a result of watching this hawk, this hawk who has just made me so happy?  (Back to that later….)

So that was my "Aha!" moment, my minor epiphany that -- what happens in OUTER nature can be reflected in INNER nature, that our bodies (brains and bodies) can be in a kind of dialogue with our environment, or with elements of our immediate environment.  And doesn't this make total sense?  Think of how many millions of mornings that our hominid ancestors have shrugged off sleep, stretched, stood up and peered out of the [bush, cave, tree, porthole, window] to watch the colors and patterns of the sunrise, and -- from that -- assess the weather for the next few days.  Hominids who correctly assessed the weather, and reacted to it, presumably lived longer and they, and their family, survived.

What I'm trying to get across is this: being in touch with the rhythms of OUTER nature was (is) a pretty good idea in the survival department.  But perhaps also our body biochemistry, our centers of hormone production, and our connected emotional response, have a response to our OUTER nature.

So is it weird to even stop and think that our happiness, or emotional well-being, has something directly to do with what's going on in the environment around us?  It sounds so obvious.  But here's something to think about: how many of us have gone to psycho-therapists to lighten up some dark place in our lives?  (Come on, raise your hands. No one's looking.)  Has any traditional therapist ever said, how much time have you been spending outside lately?  Or even, what's your favorite tree?  Pretty rare events, these.  It is NOT part of the language of professional medically-ordained therapy to discuss the (kind of huge) effect of OUTER nature on our INNER natures.

So, I've been thinking about INNER NATURE and OUTER NATURE for a few decades, and I'm glad to say that, there are a lot really good writers in this department.  Enough in fact, that I have spent at least ten years wondering what I could add to the discussion.  [I would love to see the American Psychiatric Association add "lack of contact with OUTER NATURE" to their official list of causes of depression.]  What more impresses me is that for the many people I know who intetntionally use TIME OUTSIDE as a form of personal therapy, we just don't talk about it with others.  We are shy.  We don't tell the county supervisors that the county park that's about to be bull-dozed is a critical place for my mental health walks.

So, I'm tired of being shy on this issue. The world is a far more interesting place when we see ourselves as mammals who evolved to live and survive in fantastic and complex wild landscapes, a theme
my brother Randy loosely calls "primates driving cars."  I hope you'll join me occasionally for some of this exploration.