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Field Notes

If you’re lucky this Christmas, you may find a Russian nesting doll in your stocking. Its title will be Field Notes.

Field Notes is a Little Book, 6” x 6”. I should tell you the phrase “Little Book,” as I speak it to you, appears with initial caps in my script, for it connotes a publishing initiative by the editor of North Dakota State University Press, Suzzanne Kelley. (Full disclosure: Dr. Kelley is my wife.) She conceived a series of publications called “Little Books about North Dakota” to fill a bird-like niche in the literature of the prairies. There’s one shell of the nesting doll.

Suzzanne recruited veteran newsman Mike Jacobs as series editor for the little books. Mike has another life as a bird man--observing, sketching, and writing about our region’s birdlife. Mike is another shell of the doll.

For the inaugural number of the series, Mike brought in the Connecticut poet, Margaret Rogal. Now you may be thinking, Connecticut, that’s getting outside the nest for a prairie work, but not so, for Rogal had a grandfather, Robert Silliman Judd, who came to Cando, North Dakota, in 1909, to visit his uncle. Now we have four shells to the doll, as I count them.

Open one more, and we learn that Robert Silliman Judd came to Cando to visit his uncle, Elmer Judd, a homesteader whom Mike describes as “the most esteemed birdman that North Dakota has ever known.”

Now, to summarize the provenance bringing Field Notes before us. Twenty-two-year-old Robert Silliman Judd spent April to November 1909 in North Dakota, partaking not only of farm work but also of his uncle’s collecting activities--ranging the prairies and sloughs, observing birdlife, recording observations and sketches in notebooks, and collecting specimens. “Collecting” meant shooting birds with fine birdshot and skinning them, resulting in dried specimens that went to the Peabody Museum of Yale University, along with eggs collected from nests.

Judd’s notebooks were kept by his mother, and on her passing, discovered by Rogal, who is a librarian as well as a poet, and so she took both an archival and a creative interest in them. The Little Book, Field Notes, presents entries from Robert Silliman Judd’s notebooks, poetic responses to them by Margaret Rogal, and context by Mike Jacobs--along with his sensitive sketches of several of the birds treated in the text. It is a lovely product.

Perhaps not as lovely as the female ruby-crowned kinglet Judd shot from a willow branch on 19 May 1909 and skinned. The predatory cast to scientific collecting disturbs the poet, who nevertheless writes of a sort of ambivalent redemption in the process.

I suppose that is why we know about her white eye ring,
because you shot her,
held her in your hand, examined, listed, classified, and skinned her,
her olive cape,
which you donated to Dr. Bishop, for proof.

If you are a lover of prairie birdlife, or of poetry, or of publishing curiosities, Field Notes is a little gift for you. Ever the historian, I read from it a larger line of pathos having to do with colonization and the land. It appears the poet Rogal has not, herself, visited the prairies and sloughs of which she learns through her uncle’s notebooks. The notebooks and specimens all departed the prairies, never to return to the place where they hold public interest.

Never say “never,” they say, and so I say, it would be a greater gift if those priceless notebooks were to return to a repository here on the prairies from which they sprang and of which they speak.

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