Chance Particulars: The joys of looking up and down

 Experience here the rhapsodies of William Beebe, an oceanographer born in 1877, who found a prime source of happiness in observing the world:

‘The supreme joy of learning, of discovering, of adding tiny facts to the foundation of the everlasting why of the universe; all this makes life one never-ending delight.”

 “Boredom is immoral…All man has to do is see. All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up. To some men the jungle is a tangled place of heat and danger. But, to the man who can see, its vines and plants form a beautiful and carefully ordered tapestry.”

-From the marvelous compendium of field notebooks, Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

Chance Particulars: My early history with field notebook-keeping

When I was about seven my father gave me a little pink diary with its own golden key. Each night from my pillow, I penciled a line about my day in Mrs. Rudy’s class at elementary school. As a teenager in Japan I kept a journal of poems that came to me as I wandered tiny streets of soba and tea shops–as well as intense conversations about war and romance with friends. All through college and grad school, too, when puzzled or troubled or ecstatic, I’d take to the page when I needed to sort something out or cathartically get something down. Then, when I was 23 a life-changing opportunity chanced my way and I found myself a field biologist perched on a Patagonian cliff recording the behavior of whales. Amazed and wishing to render in words the natural marvels I was beholding, I turned to the chronicles of Charles Darwin, Margaret Mead, and Bruce Chatwin, the writers and thinkers I admired. And soon, as I strove to imitate and master their methods, I was off and running. I was hooked. I’d discovered the deep and abiding satisfactions of the keeping of a field notebook.

After years of field notebook-keeping as a field biologist, social worker, ethnographer, traveler, and literary journalist, I gathered all my thoughts on field notebook-keeping into the slim volume of Chance Particulars. The book is my offering to you: of the tools necessary for the creation of a lively and vivid field notebook all your own.

Chance Particulars: Advice on notebook-keeping from the early explorers

Hark to these 1580’s instructions to those embarking on sea voyages:

‘Take with you paper and ynke and keepe a continual journal or remembrance day by day, of all things as shall fall out worth the knowledge, not forgetting or omitting to write it, and note it, that it may be shewed and read at your returne.”

 A quotation from the marvelous compendium of field notebooks, Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

Chance Particulars: An invitation to the field notebook

The brilliant lapis lazuli flash of a Blue Morpho butterfly glimpsed in the Amazon. The eager, black eyes of an Inuit girl on the tundra who said she hated trees. A conversation with an early boyfriend about the responsibilities of love. Musings on friendship sparked by a podcaster’s remark. All the stuff of life, on travels in Tibet, while sipping a latte in a cafe, or riding the metro to work: how to capture its surprises and ordinariness, its vexations and glories on paper or screen? How to bring those moments and thoughts and observations to life in words– just for yourself or for the world?

The answer is proven, age-old, joyful, and simple–a solution embraced by Orwell, Woolf, and the blogger next door: the field notebook!

I have written Chance Particulars to offer one and all–from traveler to student to journalist or retiree–the tools to create lively records of life, to indulge in the pleasures of the field notebook.

In the following posts I will offer tips on how to keep a rich field notebook, thoughts on field notebook keeping, and inspiring quotations from field notebook-keepers of the past. I hope they will spur you to fetch your little black book, heave out your lap-top, or tear off a bit of newspaper on which to record your passing observations, encounters, and thoughts—whether it be for a travel journal, memoir, blog, instagram entry, or a diary just for yourself.


How to keep a Field Notebook: Cherish the Oddities

Here is a lovely passage from Enid Bagnold on the value of catching chance particulars on the page:

 To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.

Bagnold, a nurse and driver in France during World War I, wrote a diary of her youthful experiences entitled A Diary Without Dates.  She is also the author of National Velvet, The Chalk Garden, and many other autobiographical, fictional, and theatrical works.