The Grinnell Method

The Grinnell Method

The method has four components:

  1. A field notebook to directly record observations as they are happening.
  2. A field journal of fully written entries on observations and information, transcribed from the notes.
  3. A species account of the detailed observations on chosen species.
  4. A catalog is the record of where and when specimens were collected.

Grinnell’s attention to detail included the type of paper for writing. “The India ink and paper of permanent quality will mean that our notes will be accessible 200 years from now.”
(adapted from Wikipedia)

Joseph Grinnell’s creation of a system for recording observations of species in the field marks an important change in attitude towards the study of the natural world, a shift from the nineteenth-century approach of collecting specimens to construct typologies to a new concern with how animals behave in their natural habitats. The notebook replaces the gun, while taxonomy becomes subordinate to ethology. It is no longer about what animals are but about what they do.

The Grinnell Method is clearly an advance on the slaughter-and-stuff approach to natural history in that it shifts the emphasis from the dead to the living, from the museum to the field. Likewise, the emphasis on ‘method’ is important; such information-gathering endeavours are truly valuable only if observations are recorded using the same set of criteria each time. It is important to maintain a consistent approach, enabling reliable data to be accumulated.

Or, as Barbara Kenney puts it, in Molly Gloss’s ‘The Grinnell Method’: ‘write down what you wonder about, but try to be very sparing of sentiment and opinion’. Kenney, an ornithologist, is explaining Grinnell’s approach to Alice, a young girl she has met whose interest in the natural world is clearly as all-consuming as her own. Barbara’s brother, Tom, taught her to observe the world according to Grinnell’s system, and so Barbara now pays her debt forward by in turn explaining the method to Alice. But there is something more. ‘You’re a girl,’ Tom had said to Barbara, ‘so you’ll have to prove you’re better than the boys.’. In turn, Barbara says to Alice, ‘The best scientists are impartial, not swayed by their own beliefs.’ She goes on: ‘If a woman is to have birds or other creatures named for her, she must be the very best in her field.’ Alice has already asked if birds were named for women, and Barbara has been forced to concede that those that are, are named for queens, goddess, or wives and daughters, never for female scientists, because there are very few.

A ‘system’ suggests order, security, certainty, the final word, and yet Kenney herself pinpoints the weakness of the Method when she asks Alice to note down everything she remembers about a storm but ‘only what you know or have seen. These things might be important, later, to understanding what occurred.’ Alice’s role, like Kenney’s, is to observe and to record: analysis will happen later. On the one hand, this seems reasonable. Analysis needs data in order to happen. However, there seems to be no place in Grinnell’s method for analysis, just the ongoing accumulation of information. ‘I have so many books now, they fill two long shelves’, says Barbara to Alice, but she gives no indication that anything has been done with those two shelves of volumes. In their way they are as much trophies as the bags of specimens collected by earlier naturalists, a mute testimony to fieldwork carried out.

What there is no room for in Grinnell’s system is speculation, analysis or theorising. Kenney seems vague as to what form this understanding might take. She spends her winters working for other scientists or else teaching in schools and the implication is that the opportunity comes only after many years in the field, a reward of sorts for the endless slog in wet, muddy conditions. Data, then, is something to be gathered and laid down for later, to be considered at leisure, possibly topped up by the observations of others. However, it seems to be more valuable in its historical accumulation rather than in its immediacy. In which case, we might ask if those who collect data are so very different from those who bagged physical specimens, just because they wield a pencil instead of a gun.

It perhaps suits Kenney to believe that they are but Kenney has more than one reason for needing to adhere to the system rather than to question it. On the one hand, how else is she to succeed other than by working within the system, both Grinnell’s and the scientific system in general, and doing it better than her colleagues? As she knows all too well, universities don’t mind teaching science to women but they do not like employing women to do science. The only way around this is by being so much better than everyone else that one’s contribution simply cannot be denied. On the other, the system provides Kenney with an excuse to avoid addressing her own life, a life that has been blighted by the loss of Tom, her beloved older brother, by drowning during a field expedition. It is a classic trope to avoid emotional engagement by immersing oneself in one’s work and in this, as in everything else, Kenney must do it better than anyone else. Consequently, her life is lived as a memorial to her brother, a convenient way of avoiding acknowledging the sacrifices that a woman has to make in order to compete in a male-dominated profession, and also her own lack of interest in any other kind of life. ‘Her life as a scientist would be her own; but also, she felt, a tribute to Tom’, yet Kenney seems to miss the irony of her choice: it can only be validated if there is a man, even if it is her brother, in the equation. Likewise, her decision to bury herself on an obscure peninsula in the Pacific Northwest is sanctioned as much by her brother’s absence as by her own presence but Kenney uses grief to justify the choice she would doubtless have made anyway, because she needs that sense of structure in order to function at all.

Another weakness of Grinnell’s method is revealed when, shortly after Kenney’s return to the peninsula for another summer of fieldwork, focusing on the breeding colony of plovers, there is a storm: ‘For hours, a strange green lightning flared almost continuously, and thunder followed in tremendous explosions’. However, despite the fact that it does not seem to be a ‘normal’ storm, Kenney initially does not document it in any detail. What she does document is its immediate aftermath, the hundreds of dead and dying birds she discovers on the beach the next morning, many of them rarely-seen ocean birds blown to land. Because she is an ornithologist, Kenney focuses on the birds; because she follows Grinnell’s method, she can only focus on what she directly witnesses. Thus, when Alice tells her about the hundreds of stranded whales, she does not record what she has not witnessed, although later the narrative notes the smell of decomposing whales carried in on the wind. On the other hand, because Alice shows her the dead and dying oystercatchers, she can record these.

Meanwhile, the narrative records events that Kenney’s adherence to Grinnell’s method cannot: the strange void that appears in the sky over the peninsula after the storm, the constant rain of unidentifiable blue flakes that have even found their way into the lungs of the dead birds on which Kenney carries out post-mortems. Only once they are in the birds’ lungs do the flakes become worthy of note for the Grinnell method. The event itself, whatever it is, cannot be recorded because it cannot be accounted for. When Alice refers to a ‘hole in the sky’, Barbara tells her she cannot say that in her journal – to call it a ‘hole’ is to speculate. And yet as Kenney lists the birds she sees disappearing into the rift, as she watches children sending kites up into it and encounters a man who is planning to fire a rocket into it, it is clear that to all intents and purposes the rift is a hole. However, this is something that cannot be acknowledged

Were she an anthropologist, perhaps Kenney would record these events, rather as she once recorded all the sightings she made of Tom, after his death. Perhaps, were she not so wedded to Grinnell’s method, Kenney would record them anyway. Or perhaps, if she were not so acutely aware of the perceived role of women in science, she would throw caution to the winds and speculate anyway about the nature of the void. But Grinnell’s method only allows her to record effects, not causes; there is no way of accommodating the enormity of this experience, indeed no way of accommodating experience at all. Grinnell’s method is passive, requiring detachment and concealment rather than involvement. And perhaps it suits her to follow the method because it prevents her acknowledging things, like the effect of Tom’s death on her.

Surely this event, whatever it is, demands engagement. Alice, when asked if she is interested in science, says: ‘I wonder about things, if that is science’. Does Kenney wonder about things? It is not entirely clear. When the storm arrives and the ‘strange green lightning’ keeps up for hours, Kenney imagines that this ‘must be the sound of a battlefield under a barrage’ but she does not, so far as we are told, consider what might be causing the lightning although it is clearly outside her immediate experience. In other words, she does not wonder. She recounts the details of Tom’s death, as reported, but again she can’t wonder about them.

In the days following the appearance of ‘a black flaw stretching out of sight to the north and south, a long shifting vein of darkness, glossy and depthless’ what Kenney records is absence and loss, the death of creatures, the disappearance of birds. There seems, oddly, to be no protocol here for arrival or presence, or perhaps it shows how Kenney’s own past experience has affected her application of the method. Either way the limits of Grinnell’s method lie exposed to view. His is not an experimental approach. The children who release their kites into the ‘flaw’ are more adventurous, more immediate in their dealings with the event, however raw and crude their approach. And the man with the black car parked on the beach suggests on the one hand a lack of familiarity with life in the field but on the other hints at someone emerging from a lab to actually experiment. A very different future beckons.

I came to this story because Jonathan Strahan asked on Twitter several weeks ago what people made of it. In our brief discussion there Jonathan wondered whether it was actually science fiction. At the time I wasn’t sure whether or not it was, although we agreed that it was a remarkably atmospheric story.

Since then, Paul Kincaid’s reviewarticle, have opened up the discussion about the nature of science fiction once again. Or rather, they call into question everything that goes into the business of identifying sf.

Perhaps the biggest issue lies in determining the point at which the labelling begins, followed by considering the purpose of that labelling. At its crudest and most basic, fiction breaks down into two categories: stories we enjoy reading and stories we don’t enjoy reading. If we relied exclusively on someone putting reading material in front of us without consulting us, the situation would remain this straightforward: I like this, I don’t like that. The problems begin when we start to express preferences – I like this kind of story, I don’t like that kind of story – and to ask for more of this kind of story as opposed to that kind. We go out into the world, asking for this kind of story and various people attempt to oblige us by providing it. Except, of course, that they don’t necessarily understand our tastes in the same way that we do. Hence the use of labels; except, of course, that labelling is also an imperfect business.

How do we determine whether or not something is science fiction? Is it actually possible to do so any more? Indeed, is it even desirable? We can take a story like ‘The Grinnell Method’ and look at it in a number of different ways. It might be sf because its author has determined that it is and has submitted it to editors under that rubric. Equally, it might be sf because a venue that publishes sf has chosen to publish it as such (this is not quite the same thing as the author submitting it as sf). It might be sf because the reader chooses to tag it as such. Or it is sf because enough people decide that it is and some sort of ad hoc consensus is reached. Equally, it might be read as being something other than sf, and by extension, out of place in the particular venue in which it was published. But if that is so, what is it and how do we decide? And critically, does it even matter?

Of course, it always seems to matter. That’s part of what lies behind the ongoing and now frankly tedious exchanges between genre and literature, as though the two were always utterly mutually exclusive. And yes, it could be that I sigh, dismiss it all as turf wars and go back to reading, but the issue no more goes away if I ignore it than if I engage with it. I’ve felt for a long time that we’re looking for the problem, insofar as it is a problem, in the wrong places. The supposition is that we need to be skirmishing in the borders, the marches, the debateable lands, looking for the precise line of the border between this form and that, making sure we know where the edges are. Or else, as McCalmont notes, rubbing out those lines altogether – what he calls taxonomic anarchy – and collapsing everything into itself. I’m still fairly agnostic about Clute’s perception of fantastika, reuniting the disparate genres that once were lost in the world storm, but at the same time it seems to me that if we are being urged on to either triumphant reunification or else evaporation of spurious divisions, this has all got to have come from somewhere, and I look towards the so-called heartlands of genre.<

When we talk about heartlands, we talk about
‘a central region, especially one that is politically, economically, or militarily vital to a nation, region, or culture’, so in literary or genre terms we might be talking about the point at which genre, whichever genre, is to be found in its purest form. Except – and you can probably see where I’m going with this – who is determining that? We’re back to taxonomy again, and I can’t deny that I tend to see these mysterious heartlands as little citadels or walled towns to which beleaguered taxonomists have retreated, determined to preserve pure forms at whatever cost, occasionally sending out sorties to attempt to re-impose their will on a literary landscape that mostly doesn’t really care that much.

A question that continues to nag at me is why do they keep on doing it? Why this persistent need to exert control over something that has long since escaped their sphere of influence? ‘The Grinnell Method’, with its teasing ‘is it, isn’t it’ atmosphere reignites the discussion yet again but I find myself wondering now if there isn’t some sort of Grinnell method lurking behind the entire troubled enterprise of trying to describe genre. It’s not so much the gathering of data angle I’m thinking about because that’s not about opinion, and this is clearly is. I’m thinking more of what finally happens to the data gathered by Grinnell and his cohorts, the information laid down to mature like fine wine, and then, years later, examined and formed into a coherent structure, all the variables and exceptions carefully recorded and labelled and incorporated into the one structure as outliers but nonetheless accountable. One obvious problem with this method is that it is, inevitably, historic. One cannot use it to look forward. It can’t respond swiftly and energetically what’s happening now. It is always out of date. Even seeking to collapse those distinctions means to acknowledge that they were there in the first place, and to lean upon that massive accumulation of data in order to attempt to deny its existence.

Which perhaps is a good point at which to return to the story itself. Instinctively, I say it is science fiction, in part because of that rift, unaccounted for as it is, in part because of the way that Kenney attempts to account for it, even though her method for doing so is inherently flawed and simply cannot succeed. A man firing rockets into the void, a child flying a kite into it, has more chance of succeeding simply because they engage rather than standing back and observing. Which is perhaps a roundabout way of suggesting that employing taxonomy or even making a conscious denial of taxonomy is not at present the most effective way forward.

The question remains, of course, as to what is.