Mailbox Chronicles No. 4: Diary of a Citizen Scientist by Sharman Apt Russell

Last week a much-awaited publication arrived in my mailbox: Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World, by my friend and ex-colleague Sharman Apt Russell.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist

The first thing you notice is the cover … and what a cover! It tells a tale in itself: a fearless explorer with a net in her hand, not looking back – not caring about looking back – in hot pursuit of something worth trapping – it could be a butterfly or a buffalo for all the intent in that stride.

And yet it reminds me of something – or someone – else. Nabokov! The greatest prose stylist of them all, and a lifelong lepidopterist who spent his summers in the Alps with a net over his shoulder, classifying by night the butterflies he caught by day. One also thinks of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “pinned and wriggling on a wall” – the human condition as the metaphor of a trapped insect.

Nabokov
Nabokov

If we envision a pastime of gentility with Nabokov in his Swiss mountain eyrie, Russell soon reminds us that the insect world is utterly brutal. She approvingly quotes Annie Dillard’s line: “Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. And insects gotta do one horrible thing after another.”

Sure enough, we haven’t got past the first paragraph of her diary when she tells us, “Perhaps thirty of [the beetles] feed on the frog’s slightly bloated carcass, and I am reminded of lions at kill, although lions don’t look half so fierce.” A page later we see a second tiger beetle “known for grabbing its prey with sturdy forelegs and sucking out their vital juices.” No wonder Russell describes nature as a bloodbath.

Her description of the beetles’ mating ritual is hilarious: the male leaps on the female’s back and grips her neck. Then “the female tries to throw him off …the two struggle and stagger.” Once successful, the male “may stay attached for hours, like some nightmarish backpack.” There’s nothing like the romance of Nature.

index

The bulk of the book is made up of diary entries detailing Russell’s attempts to capture and study tiger beetles, with help from a couple of expert mentors. What if, like me, beetles aren’t your thing? Fortunately, Diary of a Citizen Scientist is full of wit and wisdom and forays into neuroscience and psychology. Even better, the book also offers a portrait of the phenomenon of Citizen Science.

Citizen scientists are devoted amateurs. They spend large chunks of their lives cataloguing galaxies, tracking tree frogs, or identifying fossils from long-dry seas. They range from enthusiastic retirees to schoolchildren to just about every type of person you can think of. Pygmies in the Congo use specially formatted smartphones (images instead of words) to record data about deforestation and illegal poaching. Every year, of the 19,000 species newly described, citizen scientists are responsible for 60% of the descriptions.

The information about Citizen Science gives the book heft, the sense of the author joining a movement larger than herself, that will be here and growing long after she’s trapped her last tiger beetle. Several times she quotes a line by a scientist who inspires her: “You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would know more than anyone else on the planet.” The line goes some way to explaining what drives her.

This is a wonderful book, but it’s not perfect. Russell quotes a fair amount of email correspondence about tiger beetles, but this is strictly for those who know the lingo, and I found myself wanting to get back to Russell’s own (far more welcoming) voice. Some of the procedures are a bit long, too. As Russell says, “counting 42 setae on the fifth caudal tergite sounds as much fun as reading Proust backwards.” Her copy editor went AWOL between pages 89 and 90, making three almost plausible errors (John (sic) Hopkins University; Microbomes (sic) Project; the Gulf Coat (sic)!) in addition to the entirely plausible “red-belled” beetle (should be “red-bellied”) on page 44.

But overall, this book is well in credit. The diary itself is enjoyable, and the wider comments on the Citizen Science movement and the desire that drives amateurs to explore the world so keenly are Russell at her best – heartfelt, probing, lyrical.

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