I was flipping through a field guide this weekend, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the state of the thing. The cover is bent and coming loose in several places. Pages are stuck together, dogeared, ripped. Dirt splotches, bug guts, and sunscreen smears grace most of the pages. I have easily 20 different butterfly field guides, and at least 15 of those cover the area where I currently live, but I use this one almost exclusively. I’ve had it for about 10 years, and browsing through those pages tells a story of how I learned to ID butterflies, which species give me the most trouble, and which pages bring me the most joy.
Whenever I flip through any of my field guides I’m reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In Chapter 22 Samuel goes to Adam’s house to help him choose names for his sons, and suggests that they take inspiration from the bible.
“…This one has been scraped and gnawed at,” he said. “I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly. Here we are- this oldest story. If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves.”
I mentioned this to a friend who said she did the opposite- she quickly skipped over the parts of the bible that gave her trouble, because she didn’t like to think about those parts. But come to think of it, her herp field guide was really worn down in the tiny frog section…
I wish that 10 years ago I had bought 10 copies of this field guide, and used a different one each year. The first few years’ copies would certainly be worn down at the checkerspot section, as I learned to identify the species that formed the basis of my dissertation work. Three or four years in, the grass skippers’ pages would be ragged as I started a survey project in the Sutter Buttes, and couldn’t make heads or tails of the ‘sparrows of the butterfly world’. The years that we lived in Arizona would be worn down in lots of places- roadside skippers, metalmarks, the beautiful Lyside Sulfur, which I loved to just sit and gaze at- but this time the pages would hold less frustration, and more joy. By that time my identification skills had improved dramatically, and seeing a new species brought more pleasure than the vexation of those early years. I’m not sure what the wear pattern on this year’s field guide would look like- I suspect it would be much more even, like Liza’s Bible. This isn’t to say I have it all figured out now, but I’m familiar enough with most groups that my field guide perusals now mostly consist of a quick page-flip to double-check a host plant or confirm a range.
Someone I know very well wears down his field guide evenly by reading it cover to cover like a novel. Now that I’ve gotten better at the process, I find myself doing something similar on occasion, although in my case I’m more likely to open at random and read for several minutes. Or, now that I have a grasp of the things I’m likely to see, I have the luxury to look at and try to learn things that don’t typically live here, like the arctics and most of the wood-nymphs.
What about you? Do you wear down a field guide evenly, like Liza? Or does your field guide tell the story of your triumphs and confusion? Does it make a difference if the field guide is for your focal taxa vs. something you don’t study? I’d like to hear about it- leave a note in the comments. What does your field guide’s wear and tear say about you?
On second thought… the Coppers are getting worn down right now- I do wish some would turn up at my study sites…