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.


Lisbon Book Launch

It seemed both needlessly grand, and yet somehow fitting, for Lisbon to be the place I should launch my new book, set my newest baby in its paper boat out to sea.  As it happened, this was how things came to pass, and it was my great luck and privilege that they did.

I was invited, in November, to give a couple of workshops and a reading from my new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a cold War Spy’s Daughter, at the Portugal meeting of the European Council for International Schools.  This is a yearly event at which teachers from around the world gather, in a rich and festive atmosphere, to share tricks of the instructional trade as well as the emissions of their bright, curious and adventurous minds.  Yes.  Bright, curious, adventurous: this was my impression of school teachers, of whose company, it turns out, I have been too long deprived.  Teachers of the young, it seems, are an exceptionally interesting, hospitable, polymathic and world-gobbling breed. As they graciously greeted my suggestions for drawing writing from their students, and warmly welcomed into their midst my young book—as I imagine they greet the young beings who fetch up in their classrooms—I spent my time soaking in their zest for the world.  I am immensely appreciative of this rare treat.

As for my impressions of Lisbon, the site in which all this eager exchange was taking place:  This former empire, a place of once-gleaming tiled abodes and grand palaces, seemed down at heel—and somehow, spectral.  (Aren’t we all, perhaps, from our imperial babyhoods onward, and in the end, former empires?  And on the broader canvas, and in the end, and especially now, aren’t all countries headed that way?)  At the same time, it seemed a place where the best things are available: meals of fish, potatoes and olives, rides in tiny, old wooden trolleys, and warm people, with nothing to prove. Simple, delicious.


I would like to share with you, in photographic form, my two strongest impressions of the place. This first image shows the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive, stone, peopled prow which honors Henry the Navigator, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and others who opened up sea routes through the world during Portugal’s Age of Conquest.

This second image shows just a few of the winged cherubs that seem to pop out—laughing and cavorting and generally creating mischief—from alley niches, cathedral alcoves, and, indeed, atop serving tureens, turning Lisbon to a celebration and festoon of romping babies.

It occurs to me that this is how we should all take up life: with the grand vision of a Portuguese explorer and the unself-conscious chortle of a baby.

My Eyewitness Lisbon guide reads, “Although the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who received him wearing diamond and ruby rings, was not impressed by his humble offerings of cloth and wash basins, da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices.”  In Lisbon, I launched—with trepidation, gulping for bravery–my little prow, my book, my humble offering of personal perspectives.  Perspectives on: what it is to grow up the daughter of a spy; what it means to live with secrets; how it is to traipse across the world, discovering other cultures but in a pitched battle for identity; how it is to watch a father and a spy engage in secret activities and grow increasingly dismayed; and what it means to be an American in this world.  I returned from that still-grand city with a cargo of spices.

In this periodic blog, it is my plan to offer my cloth and wash basins: my thoughts on writing, global nomad adventures, spies, and other clandestine and miscellaneous affairs.   I will try to make the missives shorter than this one.  Perhaps you will share your spices with me.

Originally posted Thursday, December 29th, 2011