A Long Look at Nature: The North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences


What does a jar of preserved leopard frogs or the articulated skeleton of a beached sperm whale say about the way we understand nature in North Carolina? Margaret Martin explores this question in the story of the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, founded over 120 years ago to serve as a keeper of natural history collections, a vital resource for the scientific community, and a public interpreter of our natural world.

The book is organized around the museum's ...

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What does a jar of preserved leopard frogs or the articulated skeleton of a beached sperm whale say about the way we understand nature in North Carolina? Margaret Martin explores this question in the story of the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, founded over 120 years ago to serve as a keeper of natural history collections, a vital resource for the scientific community, and a public interpreter of our natural world.

The book is organized around the museum's collections: Rocks and Minerals, Fossils, Invertebrates, Fishes, Reptiles and Amphibians, Birds, and Mammals. Martin looks at how these collections have been interpreted over time, tracing the shift away from a nineteenth-century presentation of nature as something ripe for exploitation to a more contemporary view of natural communities as complex, interconnected, and deserving of conservation.

With 175 color and black-and-white photographs, A Long Look at Nature is both an engaging introduction to the museum and a striking visual tribute to its collections. The book celebrates North Carolina nature in all its diversity and highlights the museum's crucial role in interpreting North Carolina's natural heritage.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
This book can help us all maintain some essential contact with, and appreciation for, our natural world upon which we depend for survival. (C. Ritchie Bell, Professor of Botany Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
C. Ritchie Bell
This book can help us all maintain some essential contact with, and appreciation for, our natural world upon which we depend for survival.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

A native North Carolinian, Margaret Martin has worked in schools, museums, and communities across the state to heighten awareness of its rich cultural and natural heritage. She is director of communications at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences.

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Read an Excerpt

Collecting Nature

For more than a hundred years, curators, naturalists, and everyday citizens have deposited treasures from nature—rocks and sharks' teeth, albino squirrels and meteorites, palmetto wood and warbler eggs—in the collections of The North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences. Specimens come from well-documented field biology surveys and from people who study nature in their spare time—from explorers atop Mount Mitchell to fishermen off the continental shelf.

Ever since the first Englishmen surveyed the flora and fauna of Roanoke Island in 1584, natural history collections have helped people understand the complexity of nature in North Carolina. Over time, these collections reflect what we know and value about nature in each generation. Cultural attitudes and economic interests influence the growth of museum collections. In turn, collections provide the reference material scientists need to model the natural world in all its diversity.

Western science looks for order in this diversity. The array of specimens in a collection suggests patterns to the scientist, who searches for relationship among the parts of the whole. The quest for order is at root a cultural phenomenon; Europeans sought to understand the bewildering biological diversity and geology of the New World by collecting it. Naturalists were on the front lines of the European conquest of the Americas. Nature was a fount of potentially profitable resources, and naturalists were encouraged by their benefactors to bring home every specimen possible. Fame and fortune, along with delight in learning and sincere appreciation of nature, continue to influence the direction of research in the natural sciences, and affect our concepts of the natural world.

Scientific theory results from repeated, quantifiable observation that provides no-nonsense data. Constructed from these data, the collections-based model of nature provides the material for the sorts of comparisons that society holds dear. The model (as interpreted in contemporary exhibits at the State Museum) reveals that North Carolina has

  • the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River—Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet
  • the greatest density of salamander species in the world—58 species
  • the greatest diversity of carnivorous plants in the world (tied with Florida)—31 species in 4 families
  • the oldest stand of living trees in the East—1,700-year-old bald cypress trees on the Black River
  • the greatest diversity of fungi in the continental United States—more than 8,000 species.
European scientists of the sixteenth century also counted and sorted, verified observations, and shared their findings through the written word. Their method of research constructed a model of the New World, a model that was used to attract settlers. The birds of Roanoke Island were duly surveyed and documented by the Roanoke expedition's scientist, Thomas Hariot, in 1585. Unlike many European naturalists who were to follow, Hariot took the trouble to learn the Indian names of birds he observed. "Of all sorts of fowl, I have names in the country language, of fourscore and six . . . of several strange sorts of water fowl eight, and seventeen kinds more of land fowl . . . upon further discovery with their strange beasts, fish, trees, plants and herbs, they shall be published."

In contrast to Hariot and other naturalists, Native Americans possessed an intimate knowledge of the natural world passed from one generation to the next through oral tradition. Threads of this tradition remain among traditional Cherokee of the southern Appalachians, whose arts and religion are deeply connected to nature. Traditional Cherokee understood nature through a personal relationship with the natural world, in which knowledge was gained by revelation. In the 1990s a Cherokee elder, the Reverend Robert Bushyhead, recorded his relatives' teachings about plants and animals, forests and stars. His aunt taught him to find medicinal herbs by allowing the right plant to reveal itself. His father told him how the Cherokee learned the ways of animals: "A person was treated at a very early age by the medicine man to become a good hunter, [with] the ability to change himself into another figure spiritually. He could change himself into a form of a deer, spiritually . . . and he could go out there among the deer and tell which way they were traveling and how fast they were traveling."

Hariot was confident that Native Americans would adopt a European approach to nature. "Upon due consideration [they] shall finde our manner of knowledges . . . to exceede theirs in perfection." However, the English settlers at Roanoke soon failed in the new land, perhaps in part because they were oblivious to the ways of nature that native people had come to understand over centuries of successful habitation in the same area.

Vivid accounts of New World flora and fauna enticed wealthy European collectors to covet exotic specimens from the Americas. Over the course of centuries, intrepid naturalists shipped many boatloads of stuffed, pressed, pickled, and live plants and animals across the Atlantic to fill the "cabinets of curiosity" in noble homes and the collections of early museums. John Lawson, the eighteenth-century explorer, collected specimens in North Carolina for natural scientists and wealthy men in London, shipping everything from plants and flowers pressed between sheets of paper to snakes, lizards, and small birds bottled in a homebrew of "aloes, myrrh, allom & tobacco steept in rum."

In his 1709 account, A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson gave Europeans a tantalizing glimpse of the region's natural treasures. A keen observer, Lawson explored the uncharted Piedmont north to the Yadkin River valley and then trekked eastward to the English settlements on the "Pampticough River" near present-day Washington. North Carolina's great diversity of unspoiled habitats impressed the young naturalist, who found lands "here barren of Pine, but affording Pitch, Tar, and Masts; there vastly rich, especially on the Freshes of the Rivers, one part bearing great Timbers, others being Savanna's or natural Meads, where no Trees grow for several Miles, adorn'd by Nature with a pleasant Verdure, and beautiful Flowers, frequent in no other Places."

The number of species known to Western science skyrocketed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Europeans sought an all-encompassing classification system, or taxonomy, that would place the world's animals and plants in logical relation to each other. They devised schemes that ordered specimens by size or shape, or grouped them according to habitat or behavior.

Most classifications collapsed when the diversity of nature failed to fit into neat categories. In one early system, all limbless creatures were grouped together, including snakes, worms, and slugs. Lawson placed turtles and snakes, alligators and lizards "among the Insects, because they lay eggs, and I did not know well where to put them." Like others of his day, Lawson listed whales and dolphins among the fishes, and grouped as shellfish "crabs . . . craw-fish . . . tortois and terebin [turtles] . . . Finger-Fish [starfish] . . . and Oysters great and small."

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Table of Contents

1. Collecting Nature
2. Rocks and Minerals
3. Fossils
4. Invertebrates
5. Fishes
6. Reptiles and Amphibians
7. Birds
8. Mammals
9. A Model of Nature
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