The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
Being an avid reader, every once in a while an item comes across my desk for digitization with such an intriguing story that I can’t help but get sucked into it. That’s what happened when I first saw one of James Eike’s field books. Now I know what you are thinking, “how does one get sucked into a field book?” Often times, field books are filled with lists of specimens or observations from the field, and those created by James Eike, an avid bird watcher and citizen scientist, are no exception. However, among the almost daily counts of birds observed by Eike are glimpses into his personal life, where, according to him, just about every day was glorious.
James Eike was born in Woodbridge, Virginia on September 29, 1911 to Carl and Sarah Eike. Shortly after starting at Georgetown University in 1928, he began recording his observations about the wildlife he saw around northern Virginia, especially birds and snakes. Unlike the lists of bird counts found in his later field books, Eike’s first few journals are more narrative in form. By 1930, he was keeping lists of the numbers and types of birds seen, as well as the date and location where he saw them. Eike graduated from Georgetown in 1932 and started working for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1934.
On April 6, 1940, James Eike married the love of his life, Claire. Their daughter, Susan, was born almost six years later on January 31, 1946. At that point, spotting and counting birds seemed to become somewhat of a family affair for the Eikes. Occasionally, James Eike would take his young daughter with him when he went to the nearby woods to count the birds, and on the weekends, sometimes the whole family would go together. Additionally, one page of Eike’s field book from “3-20-57 to 7-20-57” includes a list of birds that Claire saw while on a trip to Michigan in July while her husband stayed in Virginia. Claire and Susan also became members of the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO), a group which James Eike had actively participated in since 1933.
Sept. 8, 1951 – Sat: To woods with Susan 10:30-12:30. Wonderful weather…
Sept. 9, 1951 – Sun: Another wonderful day – brisk in morning. To woods with Claire and Susan, 11:00-12:30. Saw and/or heard Swifts, Hummingbird…
In addition to the lists of birds, Eike’s entries and field books started to include notes about his personal life. Starting in 1957, in the back of just about every field book that spanned Christmas, he would record the list of gifts he, Claire, and Susan received that year. He also included little notes about their birthdays and his anniversary at the top of his entries for those days. Eike would even make notations about trips the family was taking, and after Susan left for college, his entries about her return home and departure back to school usually include a happy and sad face, respectively.
4-6-67 Thurs: 3 real gold ones [goldfinches] greeted me first thing – on my 27th anniv. with you, dear.
On February 8, 1983, James Eike died of cancer. Starting on January 21, 1983, Susan and Claire took over recording the daily bird counts for James, and even after his death, Claire continued to record the counts in the field book that James had started. She even noted their 43rd wedding anniversary on April 6, 1983. In her last entry in the book, Claire writes “My dearly beloved – I’ll keep trying to get a good list. I am feeding our birds well. I miss you.”
In 1984, the VSO created the James Eike Service Award in honor of the time and dedication James put into the society. The first recipient of the award was Claire Eike, in honor of her late husband. Eike’s love of both birds and family make his field books a joy to explore. The personal stories and reflections add to the layers of valuable information captured in his notes, making me fall in love with field books and the insight they can bring about both science and life.
They contain the records of the first tree census of the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Forest Dynamics Project, carried out between 1980 and 1982. Its task: to tag, identify, measure, and map every plant possessing a stem larger than one centimeter in diameter within the bounds of a 50-hectare plot of Panamanian forest. In 1979, when biologists Stephen Hubbell and Robin Foster imagined the project as a way to study tropical tree diversity, no one had attempted a forest census at this scale. The use of quadrats - small, square plots - for sampling species goes back to the 1890s in ecology. Sampling tree diversity in Panama, however, poses problems. Unlike temperate forests dominated by one or two species, in the tropics, tree diversity reigns supreme. In other words, to understand tropical tree diversity, you’re going to need a bigger plot.
The result of a bigger plot was bigger data. Within each archival box, folder after folder contains a series of 1,250 gridded maps, each representing a 20 by 20 meter subplot of the forest. The maps contained in these boxes record 208,400 individual trees and amount to an astounding 299 species.
In the archives, far from Panama, I flipped through page after page of these grids. Each was laboriously filled out by hand, crowded with the outlines of tree trunks, rocks, fallen logs, and tangles of lianas – every individual tree labeled with a number. This paper forest seems an extravagant attempt to capture a forest’s complexity – and they represent just the first census.
Yet, this is not a matter of missing the forest for the trees. By re-censusing the plot every five years since 1980, scientists have been revealing a forest in a state of constant change. This is significant – throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, most people imagined tropical forests as primeval and unchanging. But a combination of fine-scale mapping and long-term censusing showed that the 50-hectare plot on BCI was anything but stable. As trees lived and died, the composition of species in the plot shifted – changes tied to El Niño cycles and drought. Gradually, the BCI plot became the model for a global network of plots, and ecologists are beginning to appreciate both the individuality of different forests and their shared responses to global change.
Today, we have become used to large-scale, highly technical projects to monitor global environments – from GPS-tagged elephant herds to the satellite imaging of arctic ice. We are accustomed to the eye in the sky. For this reason, these five boxes are important to scientists, historians, and the public. The maps within them document not only the plot itself, but the hard, on-the-ground work it took to change long-held ideas about tropical forests. The maps were pencilled in by hand by a small team of scientists and technicians. Although gridded and sharing a standardized set of data, the personality of the researchers comes through in handwriting, drawing styles, and eclectic mixtures of Spanish and English in notations. The tropical forest leaves a literal mark in water stains and dirt. And the work of science did not end in the field; notes and corrections show how each map passed through multiple hands, undergoing repeated checks to identify and correct errors, and improve methods for the next census. The messy, iterative process of science, visible in these field maps, is obscured by entry into databases and the reproduction of neat, electronically-rendered maps (although surely painstaking work, especially using 1980s computers). Going back to the original maps brings the scientific process back to life.
The practices that shape our understanding of our environment have roots in particular times and places. At BCI, they have a much deeper history than one might expect – one illuminated by records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It is no coincidence that the first 50-hectare Forest Dynamics Plot started on BCI. Although the plot was not founded until 1980, ecological research on the island itself stretches back to the 1920s. Decades of baseline data and protection from development made such an ambitious long-term project possible. In my ongoing book project, I examine the roots of tropical biology and ideas about biodiversity, particularly as shaped by long-term, place-based research such as this.
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories
- Accession 13-025 - Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Research Records, 1981-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives