Category Archives: Spring 2014

The Field Guide


I spent most of my twenties wandering around in the mountains of California hiking, climbing and identifying high altitude flora. Ever since, I have loved the language of field guides. The field guide is a text written to help a user see the world anew–to identify plants and animals and rocks and other features of the natural world. The language of the field guide is striking.

More recently, I read a book on style by Francis Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth that uses the following examples from John L. Bull and John Farrand’s Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region (National Audubon Society 1977):

“Tufted Titmouse, including Black-crested Titmouse” (Parus bicolor)

Titmice are social birds and, especially in winter, join with small mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, creepers, and the smaller woodpeckers. Although a frequent visitor at feeders, it is not as tame or confiding as the chickadees. It often clings to the bark of trees and turns upside down to pick spiders and insects from the underside of a twig or leaf. The “Black-crested Titmouse” of Texas was until recently considered a separate species.

Voice: Its commonest call, sung year-round and carrying a considerable distance, is a whistled series of four to eight notes sounding like Peter-Peter repeated over and over.

“Northern Shrike” (Lanius excubitor)

Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage. Like other northern birds that depend on rodent populations, the Northern Shrike’s movements are cyclical, becoming more abundant in the South when northern rodent populations are low. At times they hunt from an open perch, where they sit motionless until prey appears; at other times they hover in the air ready to pounce on anything that moves. –John Bull and John Farrand, Jr., The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region.

It is worth quoting at length Thomas and Turner’s description of how these two entries in the field guide exemplify what they call “classic style”:

A field guide, in its stand on truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought, and language, fits the classic stand on the elements of style perfectly. Its implied model is one person presenting observations to another, who is in a position to verify them by direct observation.

The reader is not in a library doing research, but in the field looking and listening. The guide, assuming this scene, cannot be written in a style that requires study or re-reading if it expects to be attended to. It strives to be brief and efficient. It seeks to present the birds it describes specifically and precisely enough for the reader to recognize them in the field.

The writing in a good field guide is certainly the product of deliberation and revision but sounds like ideal spontaneous speech, as if an accomplished companion in the field wanted to tell you something. There is a symmetry between writer and reader: although the writer knows more about the subject than the reader, the reader would know exactly what the writer knows had he seen what the writer has seen in the past. And the guide’s purpose is to put the reader in a position to achieve that parity.

The writer needs nothing from the reader. The writer’s purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task–solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine–but rather for the sake of the subject–in this case, the birds–and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject. The writer takes the pose of full knowledge, since nothing could be more irksome to someone in the field than a passage clotted with hedges about the writer’s impotence.

The entries in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, come as close to classic style in its pure form, with an actual scene fitting the classic model, as anything we have found. They are particularly remarkable for their unfailing refusal to draw attention to their prose. A phrase such as “not as tame or confiding” in the presentation of the tufted titmouse or a sentence like “Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage” in the presentation of the northern shrike is a masterpiece of expression, but refuses to acknowledge that it is anything other than the one inevitable way to present the subject. The prose suggests the same clarity and inevitability as the complex and wonderful but unambiguous and uncontrived presence of the species it describes. There is no more suggestion of deliberation or effort in writing about the tufted titmouse or the northern shrike than there is in seeing one.

The passages in the Audubon Field Guide assume without hesitation that of course the reader is interested in birds. All details are presented at an equal level of importance. The entire passage is in close focus. The entry for the hairy woodpecker notes that it destroys insects such as wood-boring beetles, “which it extracts from holes with its barbed tongue. Like other woodpeckers, it hammers on a dead limb as part of its courtship ceremony and to proclaim its territory.” The speaker shows not the slightest diffidence or embarrassment about reporting that the call note of the hairy woodpecker “is a sharp, distinctive peek,” or that the western meadowlark and the eastern meadowlark “are so similar that it was not until 1844 that Audubon noticed the difference and named the western bird neglecta because it had been overlooked for so long.” The writer takes the stand that he is simply presenting truth and is being neither cute nor partisan when he reports that “The song of the Western Meadowlark is often heard on Hollywood sound tracks even when the movie setting is far from the bird’s range.” There is nothing self-conscious in his matching of language to thought, so there is no hint of fear or shyness in the way he puts his vocabulary to work in descriptions, such as the following account of the western meadowlark’s call: “rich, flute-like jumble of gurgling notes, usually descending the scale; very different from the Eastern Meadowlark’s series of simple, plaintive whistles.” The speaker never overshoots or undershoots, but always hits his mark. The tone is as it must be. There is nothing for the writer to be defensive about. (115-17)

This is an extended and sophisticated description. It will be helpful as you pay closer attention to how language works and begin developing your own descriptive vocabularies. We will also be coming back to so-called “Classic Style” as Steven Pinker refers to Francis Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s book Clear and Simple as the Truth.

John Ashbery, “Pride of Place”

Pride of Place

Past the gaga experiments
to ginger high school thriller days
I wheel fragile issues: a fight on there,
bulbous antennae, a herald
carved alone in the archer position—sweet!

We had a few people over to
celebrate the monotony of the new place.
Meatless meat loaf. Roger. Over to

you. I took a piece of plain foolscap,
my American University in Baku stationery,
sole thing to be underestimated here,
and set down just words that wrote something,
probably as close as I want to keep to it,

all the water and stringiness.
It feels like Sunday today
but it’s Saturday. What does Saturday feel like
on Sunday? Not that it’s that
hard to remember. I’d always be grinning and opened.
No protocol; heck, no manners
on flood watch. She’s one of the famed Gowanus sisters.
It hasn’t affected the weather yet.

Do you get a sense of white table settings,
the so-called vacant stare that afflicts them
as adults on a sit-down strike?

Listen up, tenderfoot. Who says you need to be awake
to appreciate poetry? The landlady, that’s who.

Where are they now?

-John Ashbery, The New York Review of Books LXI.2 (February 6 2014): 11.