What a Field Guide Is For

Thinking about my maybe-project of writing A Field Guide to Basic Values, it occurs to me I should be ready to say something about the very idea of a field guide.

When I first took up birding, at the age of 12, I leaned very heavily on the battered old field guide I had available to me, at least until I could save up enough allowance to get my first Peterson guide.

Every new discovery would send me shuffling through the book, nearly at random.

I figured out almost immediately that water birds were at the front of the book and songbirds at the back, with hawks and owls in between, but for finer distinctions I was stumbling around blindly.

Gradually, my searches through the guide became more focused, as I learned to see the distinction between a sparrow and a warbler, or a thrush and a blackbird. I also became more and more familiar with local bird life and could identify many species on sight or by ear.

I would go to the field guide only for the new discovery, or when I was visiting a new region or a new habitat, but I would often start my searches within a few pages of my quarry.

And that may be the the point of having a field guide: to get to the point that you have less need of a field guide because you see more clearly.

A field guide is only an aid in acquiring skill, attaining some understanding of the relations between things and, perhaps most important, focusing attention.

The arrangement of birds in the guide served for me as a first education in taxonomy and in evolutionary biology, with more ancient groups of birds at the front and more recently emerged groups at the back.

Range maps and notes on habitat served for me as a first introduction to biogeography and ecology, informing my expectations for different landscapes in different regions.

For a more experienced birder, for whom birding may be giving way to amateur ornithology, a field guide remains one resource for making finer distinctions, especially with unfamiliar birds in unfamiliar circumstances, or unexpected birds, or birds difficult to distinguish.

The Peterson series includes a book devoted entirely to warblers in their fall plumage.

The danger of a field guide in the hands of the novice is that it can foster a shallow preoccupation with checking off the boxes on a life list rather than with the cultivation of attention to the birds themselves in their vitality and particularity.

I fell into this habit early on: see something new, shuffle through the guide, check the box, and move on.

Another trophy on the shelf.

I did not persist in birding long enough to shake off that habit entirely, though I was more often able to rein in my desire to fix a name to a bird long enough to sit – or stand, or crouch – and simply watch it going about its various projects, another small life making its way in the world.

My birding expeditions became less and less frequent through my undergraduate years and have, since then, been only sporadic. I most often reach for binoculars and field guide when visiting someplace new.

Even so, the time I spent in the field during my teen years did shape my perception and my understanding of life in the world; I suspect it is the main reason I was drawn to environmental ethics.

My hope, then, for A Field Guide to Basic Values is that it might serve the same functions for those who are new to ethical inquiry.

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