The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Scienceby Akiko Busch, Debby Cotter Kaspari
A search for a radio-tagged Indiana bat roosting in the woods behind her house in New York’s Hudson Valley led Akiko Busch to assorted other encounters with the natural world—local ecological monitoring projects, community-organized cleanup efforts, and data-driven citizen science research. Whether it is pulling up water chestnuts in the Hudson River,… See more details below
A search for a radio-tagged Indiana bat roosting in the woods behind her house in New York’s Hudson Valley led Akiko Busch to assorted other encounters with the natural world—local ecological monitoring projects, community-organized cleanup efforts, and data-driven citizen science research. Whether it is pulling up water chestnuts in the Hudson River, measuring beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, or searching out vernal pools, all are efforts that illuminate the role of ordinary citizens as stewards of place. In this elegantly written book, Busch highlights factors that distinguish twenty-first-century citizen scientists from traditional amateur naturalists: a greater sense of urgency, helpful new technologies, and the expanded possibilities of crowdsourcing.
The observations here look both to precisely recorded data sheets and to the impressionistic marginalia, scribbled asides, and side roads that often attend such unpredictable outings. While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, the book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism and the opportunities it offers for regaining a deep sense of connection to place.
"Akiko Busch reflects deeply on what it means to be an observant, concerned citizen-scientist, confronted with all the challenges of recording meaningful data on organisms from eels to eagles. Scientists and volunteers studying the natural world will benefit greatly from reading this eloquent and beautifully illustrated book."—Elizabeth Farnsworth, Senior Research Ecologist, New England Wild Flower Society
"In these graceful and inviting essays, Akiko Busch unveils the remarkable ways ordinary citizens advance our understanding of a rapidly changing natural world, an understanding more critical now than ever."—Deborah Cramer, Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage and Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World
“Every once in a while a place finds someone to speak for it. The hero of The Incidental Steward is the Hudson River and its valley---its woods and rocks, its schedules, changes, species, and mysteries. This book, gracious and intelligent, made me want to go look closely at the river, which I felt I had never seen properly before.”—Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon
"Every subject Akiko Busch touches, she fills with grace. In The Incidental Steward, she has combined her spiritual appreciation of the Hudson Valley with her own gift for elegant prose to chronicle the quiet work of dedicated citizen scientists whose observations and data are helping us all to understand the landscape and prepare for its future. Busch invests the commonplace of the valley--its weeds and vernal pools, herring and eels, bats and bald eagles, and countless other flora and fauna--with fresh revelation, and the wisdom of one who knows the land."—Tom Lewis, Skidmore College, author of The Hudson: A History
"Through her evocative prose Akiko Busch reminds us of the beauty of being in and connecting with nature—and that nature is not necessarily something to be solved, but to be explored and in our explorations it helps to revive our sense of wonder. Busch enters the lives of amateurs and professionals who share her love of nature and readers will greatly enjoy her immersion with fascinating people and places, intimately recorded, as well as her musings about how our relationship to nature has changed in the 21st century. Part of her eloquent plea is that nature is the source of our awe and inspiration, so we'd better work hard to keep from losing it, or we will be lost. I loved it!"—James Prosek, author of Tight Lines and Eels
Received an honorable mention in the National History Literature category for the 2013 National Outdoor Book Awards given by the Association of Outdoor Recreation/Education.
"In her sensuously lush and thought-provoking chronicles, Busch recounts her adventures counting herrings, glass eels, eagles, and a species of “dislocated” bats driven north in search of cooler temperatures and helping assess damage wrought by the invasive mile-a-minute vine. She has an extraordinary gift for combining glimmering personal reflections and sharp insights as she celebrates passionate watchfulness and committed stewardship, endeavors made urgent by the consequences of global warming. Elegantly illustrated by Debby Cotter Kaspari, this is a beautiful and incisive affirmation of how “full engagement with the natural world enriches the human experience.”"—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
“The Incidental Steward is a journey into the space where science, community, policy, and stewardship overlap. Busch’s integrity as a writer and poetic language make it a journey well taken.”—Cheryl Daigle, Orion magazine
- Yale University Press
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- New Edition
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THE INCIDENTAL STEWARD
Reflections on Citizen Science
By AKIKO BUSCH, DEBBY COTTER KASPARI
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Akiko Busch
All rights reserved.
We do not understand ourselves yet and descend farther from heaven's air if we forget how much the natural world means to us. —Edward O. Wilson
Mohonk Mountain is only thirty miles from where I live in the Hudson Valley, but the ascent always makes it seem farther. On the November day I take the drive, mist hugs the ridge and drifts over the valley. The trees have long since shed their foliage, but for those few leaves lingering on some oaks, and those will hang on for most of the winter. Lichen and moss appear to soften the stone ledges they blanket, and a few pitch pines grab onto the rock. The mountain laurel keeps its green into the winter months, but the real tenacity is in the stone itself. Shawangunk conglomerate is an enduring quartz composite that sparkles when you look at it up close but from a distance is a pearly white. The serrated cliffs of white rock look to have been edged out of the earth's crust in a great, sweeping uplift, which is why Mohonk is often called a "sky island."
Mohonk Mountain House, along with the preserve around it, was founded in 1869 when Albert Smiley purchased several hundred acres ninety miles north of New York City. Believing that a knowledge of and engagement with the natural world enriched one's life—spiritually, intellectually, physically—Albert, along with his twin brother, Alfred, continued to buy adjacent land on the ridge, committed to preserving the land both as a resort and as a nature sanctuary at a time in our country's history when these purposes were not mutually exclusive. In pursuit of that goal, the Smiley brothers established a weather station in 1896. Temperature and rainfall have been recorded every day since then, providing scientists with one of the longest-running weather records in the nation's history.
Daniel Smiley, nephew of Albert and Alfred, transformed this basic system of documentation into a broader and more comprehensive catalog of information. Recognized now as one of the country's most renowned naturalists, he continued to take temperature readings twice daily from the late 1930s until his death in 1989.
But along with data about temperature and rainfall, Daniel Smiley's observations extended to whatever occurrences of animal and plant life he might happen to encounter on the nearly nine thousand acres of the preserve and mountain house property, whether sunspot cycles, spring bird arrivals, the first bloom of plants, the breeding habits of salamanders, the nesting preferences of peregrine falcons, the fungus on the dogwood trees, the appearance of gypsy moths, or the disappearance of blueberries. He recorded all these observations on small, three-by-five-inch note cards, and today that archive of cards makes for a comprehensive record of phenology, the study of seasonal phenomena. In an age of specialization, when scientific research tends toward particularized, narrow fields of study, Smiley's generalist approach may seem an anachronism, but in fact, that very inclusiveness is what gives the data their value.
Daniel Smiley confessed to two attributes in the family's genes: the perpetual need to record what was observed and the conviction that nothing could ever be thrown away—document and keep, a simple but sound basis for research. Today all of these records, more than a century's worth of natural history data, are cataloged in the Daniel Smiley Research Center, which was founded in 1980. After Smiley's death, his longtime assistant Paul Huth continued his work. Today a young environmental geologist, John Thompson, is bringing the research center into the electronic age. Although the same equipment is used now as then—official Weather Service thermometers, a brass gauge issued by the US Weather Bureau to measure rainfall, and an iron bar bolted to the conglomerate in 1899 to measure the level of water in the glacial Mohonk Lake—Thompson is charged with creating a digital map for records going back to 1925. With a continuity that is consistent with the way the study of nature is practiced here, he is the same age as Huth was when he began as a young botanist to work with Dan Smiley in plant identification. The composition of the quartz is not the only thing that endures up here.
Late November 2011 seems like a good time to take the drive up to the research center. Earlier, record summer rains from Hurricane Irene and tropical storm Lee had saturated the Hudson Valley, and months later, the river was still running high and brown from an overload of runoff silt from tributaries. At the end of October, back-to-back freak snowstorms had left us with more than seventeen inches of snow, trees halved by the weight of snow on their leaves, and a five-day power outage. Now, in late November, it has been unseasonably warm for a week; the forsythia on the side of the road is in flower, and the goldfish in my neighbors' pond are spawning. The long-term climate records will possibly decipher these seasonal aberrations, and indeed, an hour or so later, as we are sitting around a table in the research center, Thompson tells me that the 8.21 inches of rain recorded in one day during Hurricane Irene was the most ever logged in a single day; that the wettest August on record was followed by the wettest September on record; that these were followed by the October with the greatest amount of recorded snow; that the average temperature has risen more than two degrees in the last 116 years; and that warmer temperatures have added ten days to the region's growing season.
Of greater value to me than the actual data is the template of attentiveness that the research center offers. One hundred sixteen years of continuous weather data and about a hundred thousand records on note cards represent a means of understanding the minutiae of the natural world. Meteorologists, climatologists, botanists, and geologists have long considered the Mohonk archives a model of dependability and constancy. Though not a scientist, I have come with the hope of learning about this mode of precise observation. It has a place, I am certain, in the way we all can be witness to a landscape in transition. Deliberate and detailed, it also recognizes ambiguity. In a profile of Daniel Smiley published after his death, he is described as "one who seeks objective answers and models, but never quite accept[s] evidence as a final truth."
At Mohonk's Smiley Research Center, paying attention is a twofold enterprise. Smiley was methodical, precise, regular in his observations about everything from rainfall measurements to bird arrival dates to the management of gypsy moths. At the same time, he put a high value on the incidental. Although the serendipitous find was never a replacement for calculated research, unexpected sightings were always recorded. A note card about the sighting of a porcupine reads in full:
11 Sept '30. A. K. Smiley, Jr. saw one on Woodland Drive at Lake Shore Path. Mohonk Lake, NY. He was followed and headed almost straight across country till he left the Forest Drive at the sharp turn below the spring. He was not apparently foraging but headed somewhere. This was about dusk. He passed within about two feet of Ki [Keith Smiley] paying no attention to him. As far as I know this is the first record here. I have heard that they are found in the Clove.
This note card was filed away in the card catalog with dozens of others having to do with porcupines. Its significance would come later.
This is a way of taking in the world that begs the question: When does a fact acquire meaning? When it is observed? Later, when it converges with other facts? Or later still, when all of those facts collaborate into some simple truth, if they ever manage to do that? When do data become knowledge? It occurs to me there is no simple answer to this question. Maybe the most you can say is that a sense of place is likely to be derived through some sense of accumulation, through some vast collection of sightings, observations, impressions, records.
Smiley's impulse to take notes is something many of us seem to share, whether it's the legion of gardeners who make it a habit to jot down what's blooming when or lake communities whose newspapers report when winter ice begins breaking up. But the long-term data sets especially valued by scientists studying global climate change can come from the notes of venerated naturalists. The young Franklin Roosevelt kept a field notebook of birds he observed, notebooks put to use a century later by a twenty-year-old researcher to extend her studies correlating the earlier arrival of certain migratory birds with climate records. Likewise, scientists from Boston University studying how the flowering times of certain species of plants in Concord, Massachusetts, respond to a warming climate turned to records made by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century. Such information is of value to scientists analyzing transitions in the natural world, whether bird migrations, amphibian habitats, the arrival of nonnative species, or changing weather patterns. Long after science has become professionalized and the province of PhDs, American naturalists are in a position to gather and provide reliable data for research. And if what they practice is called "citizen science," it is because their processes, equipment, and motives are a product of contemporary times.
Dan Smiley's manner of observation looks to both convergence and divergence. This is not simply a way of watching the natural world but a way of thinking about it. The first, convergence, is the knowledge about the interdependence of natural events; when it comes to matters of climate, plants, and animal species, one thing often leads naturally to another. To observe the natural world is to observe a complex web of relationships. The second, divergence, has more to do with unexpected happenings, the unpredictable occurrences and serendipity that nature continually tosses our way. It is impossible to take in the events of the natural world without being alert to both kinds of events.
Maybe another way of saying this is that there are two ways of paying attention: when you know what you are looking for, and when you don't.
My own efforts to pay attention had begun on a May afternoon in 2007 when a research assistant from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation pulled his truck up in front of our house to ask our permission to search out a radio-tagged bat that had signaled it was roosting in the woods behind our house. I followed him on his trek up the mountain. In the months and years that followed, this outing led to others—to afternoons on the Hudson River or along its tributaries, to streambeds and vernal pools, to visits with scientists and educators who let me tag along on their fieldwork. Some of these endeavors followed strict protocols with data sheets and precise checklists. But others looked to a more casual agenda. Sometimes attentiveness was a solitary endeavor, sometimes it included another human being, and sometimes it was a collective effort. Occasionally it required dividing up the landscape into quadrants and imposing a grid over it. Periodically it was about seeing, counting, measuring what was there, making calculations, determining what had been gained and what had been lost. Sometimes it was about observing failure. Other times it was simply about bearing witness to the unexpected.
All of which is to say, it was a matter of following those elusive procedures that are a part of caring for anything else in life that matters. And if these outings followed different rhythms and protocols, such variations are reflected in these pages; the chapters here do not offer a primer on the protocols of citizen science. They are not drawn from a traditional field notebook full of facts and figures or from the precise entries noted on data sheets. Instead, they are looser dispatches and include the marginalia, scribbled asides, side roads, and digressions that one so often follows on such unpredictable excursions.
Beyond the shared inclination that drives people to record events of the natural world or to enter into volunteer collaborations with scientists, I was motivated as well to make some sense out of a changing landscape. I had grown up in the Hudson Valley during the 1960s, when it was a farming region. There were few coyotes and bald eagles then. I have no memory of robins wintering here. Mile-a-minute vine had not advanced along the creek beds of Dutchess County, nor did banks of purple loosestrife proliferate along the wetlands in August. And although zebra mussels had not yet found their way to the Hudson River, it was then a toxic stew. DDT in the pesticides streaming into the river was inevitably consumed by the river's bass, herring, and perch, and when eagles ingested the contaminated fish, their eggshells thinned, diminishing the chances for full incubation. When I look back to those early years, I also remember the grandeur of towering elms lining an avenue near our house before the advance of Dutch elm disease.
In 1987, when I was in my early thirties, I moved back to the Hudson Valley with my husband. After twelve years of living in cities, I had come to know it was the etch of branches against a winter sky, the smoky hue of the woodlands in November, or the way the color leaches back into the earth in March that all spelled home to me. In returning, I had found a place in a state of change. The white-tailed deer and the occasional black bear we find in the yard are there because there are too many of us and we are disturbing their native habitat. A maternal colony of Indiana bats has taken up residence in a black locust tree up the mountain; there is speculation that they have been relocating here from southern states because they require a cool climate. And along with the zebra mussels, invasive water chestnuts and black boss have helped to reconfigure the ecology of the Hudson River just to the west. Yet at the same time, the bald eagle population has been restored, and it is not uncommon to see a dozen eagles soaring over the ice floes. The coyotes in the woods behind our house are another recent arrival, and forest recovery and wildlife management programs have allowed as well for the restored populations of wild turkeys, beavers, fishers. And last March, a neighbor came upon a moose in the middle of the road that winds up the mountain behind our house.
More unusual species have started to turn up as well, and those sightings have taken on a different, less logical rhythm. Some have an almost hallucinatory quality, as on the morning I rounded a corner of the road leading into our valley and was surprised to see the town supervisor, standing at the side of the road with a lasso in his hand and a confused expression on his face. Twenty feet away was a large, ungainly bird, at least five feet tall with pale blue feathers, an emu, I later learned, that had escaped from a local breeder. Or the summer day when I arrived home to find four peacocks sitting on the roof of our house, as though exiles from some forgotten bit of folklore. Escapees from one of the farms in my neighborhood that have taken to cultivating exotic breeds, they spent the morning fanning their palace of feathers and chortling on the peak of the roof. That afternoon, they settled into high branches of the blue spruces in front of the house. All day we listened to their cackle and cry. The next morning they were gone. And not long ago, a friend told me about driving home on a June evening after a dinner out and finding a small, green African parrot in the road, its shimmering iridescence bringing an unexpected tropical shine to the summer dusk. He picked it up and took it home, fed it, gave it water, and a day later managed to locate its owner.
If there is something surreal in these exotic animals, nonnative plants have a more established presence here. Many of these—the Norway maple, garlic mustard, thickets of common reed that proliferate on the river's tidal marshes, sprays of multiflora bushes that seem to fringe every meadow—have long been naturalized to the point that many of us assume they are native species. Others, though, have not been absorbed so easily. Mile-a-minute vine can race along a creek bank at the rate of six inches a day, while the giant hogweed, with its baroque, fifteen-foot-high stems and four-foot leaves, reflects new and extravagant standards of intrusion. The persistent speed of the first and the lavish scale of the second speak to the extremes with which nonnative plants are taking up residence in the local landscape, the rate of their arrival undiminished.
Excerpted from THE INCIDENTAL STEWARD by AKIKO BUSCH. Copyright © 2013 by Akiko Busch. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Akiko Busch is well known for her writings on design, culture, and the natural world. Debby Cotter Kaspari is an artist, illustrator, and designer whose work has been featured in national exhibitions, shows, and books.
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