The Grinnell Method

By Molly Gloss

Part 1 of 2

In the long winter of her absence, hunters and soldiers had made use of the camp, had left behind a scattered detritus of tin cans, broken fishing line and shotgun shells, had turned the fire-pit into a midden of kitchen garbage, burnt and sodden bones and feathers, clam shells, and the unburned ends of green and greasy sticks. She sat down on the ground, took out a hand lens and examined the feathers and bones to reassure herself they were largely from pintail ducks and black brant.

The boy she had hired to transport her gear up the sand trail from Oysterville to Leadbetter Point had been warned of the woman's odd ways and refused to be amazed when she sat on the dirt like a Jap, peering nearsighted through her magnifier at feathers and shards of bone. He discharged his duty, which was to off-load her goods onto the dirt, and then he waited, drawing circles and figure eights on the ground with the toe of one gum boot, until she woke from her study and paid his wages in coin.

On the three mile tramp she had walked ahead of him, pausing only briefly to peer at something—a feather on the ground, a bird overhead—or to stand like a dog with her head cocked, and then pencil a note in the little book she carried in her hand, before immediately striding on. Hadn't offered a word of encouragement or a backward glance while he had struggled through the loose sand and mud pushing a wheelbarrow weighed down with her camp gear and strange paraphernalia. But she paid him a dollar more than the agreed upon price, which to his mind made up for many failings and eccentricities. He thanked her kindly and pushed his barrow off through the trees. There was something forlorn about the way the woman stood among her boxes and bags watching him go, and in consideration of that, he turned once and gave her a cheering wave of his hand.

In fact, she had lost heart a bit on first seeing the degraded camp, the men's stupid squalor, but when the boy had gone out of sight and left her alone she went directly to work burning the burnables in a smoky bonfire and burying the cans, the shells and bones, the garbage. She swept the disturbed ground with a branch and pitched her tent in exactly the same place as the year before, under the canopy of a massive cedar almost surely well-grown when Robert Gray first sailed the Columbia Rediviva into the Great River of the West. There was still a faint, weathered tracing of the ditch she had cut to carry rain away from the base of her tent, and she renewed this with a grub hoe; then, because she was holding the tool in her hands, she quickly dug a hole for her scat at a place chosen not for privacy but for proximity to a blown-down jack pine over which to hang her nether parts.

The day was already well-gone and she was anxious to get a first look at the dunes and the salt marsh, so these things were all done rather perfunctorily—getting her ducks in a row, as Tom used to joke to her in his letters from the field. She put on her beach shoes, dug through her equipment until she had laid hands on field glasses and the .25 caliber Colt pistol, put them in the pocket of her jacket with the notebook and pencil, and set off through the trees toward the estuary.

The peninsula was not more than two or three miles wide at its widest point, a twenty-five mile long finger of land trapped between the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay, built of sand washed north from the mouth of the Columbia River and then overgrown with conifer rain-forest which by now had become a patchwork of second and third-growth woodland interrupted by small farms and cranberry bogs and half a dozen villages. Oysterville sat at the end of a tarred plank road, the last human settlement. Beyond it a woodland of Western hemlock, jack pine, and spruce carried on for a little more than three miles before running out at the curved tip of the fingernail, which was Leadbetter Point. On the ocean side, the point was a world of shifting low dunes and tufted beach grass; on the bay side a rich estuarine marsh of pickleweed and arrowgrass, drowned and emptied twice each day by surging eight-foot tides. The whole of the point was a resting place for thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds during the spring and fall migrations, summer nesting grounds for plovers and snipes, and winter home to black brants and canvasbacks.

It had rained much of the day, but now the clouds had lifted somewhat and were massed offshore above a narrow understory of clear light. When she came out of the trees onto the bayshore, a great flock of wigeons and pintails flew up in unison against the dark sky, turning so the undersides of their wings caught the seam of sun at the horizon. The tide was out, and her shoes left a trail of shallow pug marks in the narrow strand of bayside beach. Crab molts were thick, and the mud was stitched with the lacy tracks of sanderlings and plovers as well as the spoor of deer, who liked to come down to graze the tidewater marshes at evening. She planned to make only a quick circuit to see what the winter tides had wrought and then get an early start in the morning, but still she lifted the field glasses every so often and wrote a few words in her notebook.

At the hook-shaped tip of the peninsula where the dunes and salt meadows gave way entirely to marsh she stood a moment peering across the mouth of the bay to Tokeland, four miles distant, its wooded hills through the gauze of weather seeming to her like a long line of battlements. Ships traveling from British Columbia to San Francisco regularly came into the bay to pick up lumber at the South Bend docks—the entrance was wide and straight, they came in without pilots—and a ship was laboring through the swells a mile from shore. She watched it for several minutes, the white curl rolling off the rust-colored prow, and then she turned and cut straight across toward the weather beach.

The earth barely rose above the sea along this coast, and the peninsula was everywhere pocked with little lakes and ponds and bogs. A maze of intersecting paths had been laid down through the woods and marsh by hunters and the hunted, which in her first year camping here she had tried to decipher and follow—countless lost hours scouting back and forth for the driest trail—but this was her third year in the field, and she had long ago learned to slog straight through the standing water. Had learned, too, that it was useless to wade the marsh in gum boots. They were hot and clumsy when dry, heavy and clumsy when full of water or caked with mud, impossible to pull out of a sticky mire, desperately slow to dry out, even with the help of wind and a stove. She had taken to wearing old canvas shoes tied on with a piece of cord.

A Wilson's snipe broke from cover almost under her feet, making off to the west in a sharp and zig-zagging panic flight. Grebes and pintails in small flocks rose in front of her and then settled again to the rear. Pelicans passed over her, keeping very high against the overcast. A peregrine falcon harassed a group of thirty or forty wigeons, trying to isolate a vulnerable bird from among the others. She stood still for several minutes watching him, and when he'd given up and flown eastward over the bay she held down the pages of her notebook against the gusty offshore wind and wrote a short note of his failure.

The weather beach had been dramatically rearranged since she had last seen it in September. The dunes were higher and steeper, the sand broader, stippled at low tide to form a field of shallow lakes. There were thousands of drift logs piled along the dunes—this was usual—and thousands of board feet of milled lumber, shattered and waterlogged or coated with oil. There were pieces of twisted iron and wire cable, broken crates and baskets, drifts of gill-netting tangled with sea wrack.

Over the years, hundreds of ships had sunk or gone aground on this stretch of coast. Long-time peninsula folk told salvage stories as if they were proud family histories: sacks of flour still good in the center, protected by the glued-hard outer layer; rafts of coal floating ashore in calm weather two years after the wreck of a coal ship. She was an habitual scavenger herself. When a spring storm and a high tide rolled in together she would be out scouring the wind-whipped beach for dead birds and feathers, while the dedicated locals were looking for cans of peas and wooden crab pot markers—or now, with the peninsula on a wartime footing, the shattered wreckage of warplanes floating in on the surf.

There were two lines of caved-in tracks going up and down the beach—the Coast Guard horse patrol, on the lookout for invasion by sea—but no footprints, none human at any rate, though a bear had come through the sand hills and laid down a trail that wandered northward along the high tide line. Looking for dead seals, fish or birds washed up on the sand—scavenging through storm wrack, exactly like every other peninsula native.

The sun was very low, the sky streaked with ragged orange clouds. She walked the wet sand south along the beach. There was little to make note of save the topography and the extravagantly painted sky, but when she turned inland and climbed over the foredune she disturbed several plovers who may have been feeding among the clumps of beach grass. When the migrating birds had passed through, it was the plovers, nesting and raising their young here, who would be the work of her summer, so she made a note about the birds ("maybe/probably semi-palmated") and on the left-hand page of her notebook drew a crude map of the location, with an oddly shaped drift log serving as a reference point. Then she crouched down and waited through a long darkening hour until finally the birds returned to the area and she could get an accurate count and decide that, yes, they were semi-palmated.

When she stood again, the plovers skittering away into the last of the light, it was already dark under the trees. She was half an hour scouting the way back to camp without a flashlight—she had not counted on the plovers keeping her out so late.

Her things were in somewhat of a jumble but she was able to find tea leaves and a pot, as well as potatoes and a block of good white San Francisco cheddar. She lit her camp stove and while she waited for the potatoes to boil she drank tea, nibbled shavings from the block of cheese and read through her scratchy field notes by the light of a Coleman lantern.

She followed Grinnell's famous method of note-taking: Her notebook, small enough to slip in her pocket, was an abridged record of bird sightings, cryptic behavior notes in a shorthand of her own invention, quickly-sketched drawings and maps, details of weather and vegetation, travel routes and mileage that would be difficult to remember with precision later in the day. It was scribbled in pencil, and none of it well organized—it all ran together.

The Journal, written in pen at the end of every day, would be considerably fuller and neater, her notes organized, sorted out, edited, expanded, with detailed observations of behavior recorded at the back, on separate pages for each individual species. For the Journal, and for Species Accounts, she created a narrative, free of sentiment or much personal reflection—a scientific document, not a diary, but with the skeleton of facts dressed in the clothes of complete sentences, so as to be readable by any stranger looking over her shoulder. All manner of facts might prove important to a student of the future, this was Grinnell's belief. Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant.

It had been a long tiring day of travel, hauling half a year's worth of camp gear by ferry and motor coach and shank's mare, but Grinnell had always stressed the importance of transcribing one's field notes at the end of every day. "No Journal, no sleep," was his rather famous rule when he took students into the field—she had heard this directly from Tom. She dug the heavy binder out of her luggage, laid it flat across her lap, dipped the metal tip of the pen in Higgins Eternal ink, and wrote directly below the last entry in a clear, fine hand, "10 April 1943, Leadbetter Point Base Camp." In her head she saw again the falcon gyring among the wigeons, his silhouette against the evening sky so terribly graceful and fluent.


It was her brother Tom, ten years older, who had started her in the business of collecting birds' nests, Tom who had taken her into the woods and fields, a small child, and told her the names of flowers, birds, trees, how to catch and mount butterflies and insects. They sat under the oaks behind their parents' Napa Valley house, and Tom taught her to voice the acorn woodpeckers—their strange squawks and purrs—while he balanced a sketch book in his lap and drew the woodpeckers in every careful detail.

Some of his professors were still listing the double barreled shotgun as an essential tool of identification; Grinnell himself had been inclined that way. But Tom's generation, coming into the field in the 1920s, had begun the shift from taxidermy toward studying the behavior of free-living birds. Sight identification in the field was challenging—there were few published guides, none very complete—and Tom intended his sketch book to help her with it. "You're a girl, so you'll have to prove you're better than the boys." This wasn't a joke; Tom had seen firsthand his professors' bias against women in the sciences. "Universities don't mind teaching girls," he told her, "they just don't like to hire them. By the time you finish your studies, you'll need to know more birds on sight than everybody else."

In the summer of 1933, when she was twenty, an undergraduate at Stanford, and Tom a field biologist for the Berkeley Museum, he joined a mapping and scientific expedition to the Arctic. The expedition had been plagued with bad luck. His letters, coming in bunches sent out with whalers and fishing boats encountered in the Bering Sea, reported a minor fire in the galley, the death of the ship's cat, expedition notes and specimens spoiled by an overturned lamp. Then came months of silence. Then a letter in an unfamiliar hand. So sorry to convey sad news, Tom a bright mind and a boon pal, yours in sympathy &cetera. The expedition had been plagued not by bad luck but by one of its members—perhaps mad with syphilis or anarchism—methodically practicing mischief. A fire set in the ship's radio room had spread to the boiler, and when the vessel sank to the bottom of the Spitzbergen Estuary, Tom had been among the seven drowned. The survivors were months in lifeboats and starvation camps in the archipelago, had been at the verge of death themselves when finally rescued by a Norwegian sealing vessel.

She left her university studies and went home to St. Helena to console her parents, and be consoled by them. She had been a late and unexpected addition to their lives, a "caboose" they doted on, but it was Tom who had represented all their best hopes. It was assumed that a woman who went to university would eventually marry, and thereafter carry her knowledge of the world like a secret pearl in her apron pocket, but Tom's keen scientific mind and great ambition had seemed to promise public accolades and prizes. Now his parents wondered if their expectations had somehow weighed him down and been the cause of his drowning.

When Tom sailed for the Arctic, he had left his field guide with her—by then a thick book, fifteen years of careful drawings he intended some day to see into print. But for a year, more than a year after his death, she hardly carried his guidebook into the fields at all. She played Patience, sometimes for hours at a time, turning over the cards quickly, reshuffling the entire deck whenever the play became difficult. She read cheap romance novels and mysteries and failed to answer letters. She might have married—there was a suitor, a boyhood chum of Tom's, evidently attracted by her melancholy air—but when he pressed his suit she became suddenly awake, and desperate for meaning in her life. She gave up card playing and wrote a plea for readmission to the university which was denied on the first letter but granted on the third. Tom had warned her that only the most extraordinary women were advanced or promoted in the scientific disciplines, and she meant to be one of them. Employment opportunities would disappear completely if she were to marry, and therefore she would never marry. Her life as a scientist would be her own; but also, she felt, a tribute to Tom.


The weather was unsettled and wet; she dressed every day in waterproofs whether or not the morning sky promised rain. When she hiked out to the point in the early morning, birds rose up singly and in flocks all around her, veering off across the pale sky. She settled into an island of arrowweed out in the salt marsh, or into a swale at the edge of the jack pines, and pulled onto her shoulders a cape made of netting and bits of yarn having a rough resemblance to marsh grasses. Then she found a relatively comfortable position and became motionless, and in a little while the birds returned and resumed their ordinary business.

These early weeks in spring the peninsula was crowded with tens of thousands of birds, a hundred species and sub-species jostling together as they passed through from their southern wintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds. She was well-acquainted with the peninsula birds—all the usual species of the summer breeding season—but the mixed flocks of the spring migration were another matter. She kept Tom's field guide open in her lap and referred to it frequently. If a bird was not already illustrated there, she opened to a blank page and sketched it quickly herself, drawings she would have to refine later—Tom had been the better artist—and then compare to specimens in the Stanford natural history collections in hope of discovering the name.

At high tide, or whenever rain flooded the hollow she was sitting in, she slogged across the point to the driftwood beach, made herself comfortable among jumbled drift logs, and took up scrutiny of the gulls and little plovers and sandpipers along the surf line. When the huge old howitzers at Fort Canby twenty miles to the south let fly their practice rounds, the dim booming echo sent the shorebirds into the sky in a great rippling cloud.


At the end of April, a heavy storm arriving in the night lifted and belled the walls of the tent, drove rain through the waxed canvas, brawled and thrashed in the heavy-limbed firs. For hours, a strange green lightning flared almost continuously, and thunder followed in tremendous explosions—she imagined this must be the sound of a battlefield under a barrage. She lay awake listening to the shriek and groan of falling trees, the crash of breaking limbs. In the last hour before daybreak the bombardment at last slackened, and although the wind was still howling, she dressed in waterproofs, put specimen sacks in the pocket of her coat, took a flashlight, and went out into the storm. She kept to the rain-flattened grass at the edge of the foredune, away from drift logs and the high, huge, booming surf. The wind was beating in from the northwest; it rattled and shook the rain clothes, drove cold and wet through seams and gaps to bare skin. In other weather, she had watched gulls walk the beach at night, breakers rushing in ranks of yellow-green flame, the wet sand alive with tiny stars. Now a leaden surf rolled out to a black sky, and she felt herself to be alone at the edge of the known world.

The beach was empty of birds—all but the dead. The sand was littered with hundreds of bodies of water-soaked gulls, short-billed dowitchers, pelicans, puffins. Among them were storm-petrels, albatrosses, shearwaters—pelagic birds who spent their lives at sea, and came to land so rarely that she had seen them only in taxidermy. She took several corpses into her specimen sacks.

She climbed over the dune and waded a mile of salt marsh to the bayshore. The curved point was completely flooded, the tide flats and sand shore drowned under feet of water. The headland, four miles north across the bay, was indistinguishable in the darkness—no lights shone from Tokeland—but the North Cove lighthouse swung a red beam and then a white one through the storm every half minute or so, the brief streak of light glimmering with tiny sparks, bits of haloed flotsam falling with the rain.

To keep from the flood, she broke a path a dozen yards inland through salt grass and scrub, her legs whipped by willow branches. At her feet, in the dim cone of the flashlight, drifts of bluish chaff floated on the puddles. She took some into a specimen sack—bits of sodden feather, maybe, from an elegant tern, or a mew gull.

She ate a cold breakfast back at the tent, and when the darkness thinned she autopsied a dead albatross and recorded her findings on a fresh page in Species Accounts: No bones broken; dark streaks of something viscous—not oil—in the anterior and posterior air sacs; death from obstruction of the airway? Or from causes unknown.

The small bits she had collected from the wind-roughened puddles were not feather, as she had thought, but something like flakes of ash or thin scales of paint, blue to her eye, even now in daylight, but colorless under the lens—motes as clear and insubstantial as breath. She wrote, I do not know what they are.

In late morning, she walked out to the ocean again. The sky was lurid—utterly black in the west, veined with great streaks of orchid purple and emerald green. The wind was squally and cold, the beach in flood tide awash with the bodies of dead birds. She stood and looked and then hiked across to the bay.

From the edge of the marsh, she could hear a dog howling, a terrible prolonged wailing of pain or fear, and when she came out on the mud flats a wet black dog was pacing back and forth, lifting its muzzle every little while in a long, loud, doleful cry of anguish. She called to it without coming very near—she knew nothing of dogs, and thought this one might be rabid. The dog went on pacing and crying, looking out across the bay where an oyster boat rolled and heaved on the swell. Several men on the deck of the boat appeared to be casting and retrieving a drag net without recovering anything. The water was too choppy to see what it was they cast for—a man overboard, she feared, and then realized he must already have drowned—that they were casting for a body—or their efforts would have had more urgency. This was not something she could think about for long.

While she stood watching they brought up something heavy and dark, something like a waterlogged stump. The oystermen had seen her watching from the bay shore, and when they had the thing aboard they hoisted it up and displayed it for her, lifting and spreading the arms wide, lifting up the heavy head until the mouth fell open to white teeth, a red tongue. The bear's thick, sodden pelt streamed with salt water. The dog pointed his nose at the sky and suddenly raised a new wail—it seemed to her a sound of terrible bereavement. One of the men on the boat shouted something, but she could not make it out against the chop of waves on the muddy shore.


Read Part 2


Molly Gloss is the author of four novels, including WILD LIFE (Tiptree Award) and THE DAZZLE OF DAY (PEN West Fiction Prize). Several of her short stories have been anthologized in THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION. For more about her work, see her website.

Comments

It is wonderful. I'm going to share it with my old friend Jan Thornhill, author of Drought (amazing short fiction) and many wonderful award winning science books for children. Also, of course, she is a birder. Visit her at: www.janthornhill.com

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