This post is part of a series on the collection of ornithologist William Brewster (1851-1919) at the Ernst Mayr Library, written by Elizabeth Meyer, library project assistant.
In 1890, Wiliam Brewster (age 39) wrote a letter of encouragement to a younger ornithologist, Frank Michler Chapman. Both ornithologists suffered from chronic pain, and Brewster suspected that Chapman was afraid of losing enthusiasm for his work. Brewster’s gesture opened up a closer personal friendship with Chapman, who was then 26 and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
These letters share musings on the importance of learning from the natural world, but also a frank exchange about ruts in the life of a scientist. What happens if work begins to obscure wonder? How can scientists stay in touch with experiences that first inspired them?
Dear Mr Chapman: -
I am exceedingly sorry to hear of your physical break down but glad to know that you are able to start at once for the “land of peace” [Florida] where you are sure to find speedy relief. It is a pity that you should have to do any Museum work now for at your time of life you ought to be almost constantly in the field. That is where one gets the bone & sinew of ornithology and youth is so very fleeting.
When one arrives at middle age it is not easy to absorb new ideas and one tends to draw from the past. I speak from my own experience, largely, and I am thankful that I spent so much time in the field between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five. I enjoy field work now as much as ever but in a calmer way and my senses are less keen and alert. In fact the intense enthusiasm and receptiveness of youth are dulled. Something in your letter led me to infer that you fear such a change in yourself. It will surely come and the time is not far off, probably. The more of active, vivid experiences you can crowd into your life now the more you will have to draw on later.
Pray forgive the personal character and application of the above gratuitous advice. It is prompted solely by the deep, friendly interest that I take in you and your work. I fear it may sound patronizing - but I do not mean it so in the least - ... I have been strongly impressed with your acumen and your ability as an ornithologist and that I have great faith in your future…
William Brewster [January 14th, 1890. Cambridge, Mass.]
In reply, Chapman shared a long letter. The following is an excerpt (with line breaks added).
Dear Mr. Brewster: -
Thank you earnestly for your kind letter; you have touched on a subject very near my heart, and I know no one whose advice I should value more highly, and to know you give it to me from a purely friendly motive is doubly a pleasure.
I certainly had not intend[ed] in my letter… to let escape the secret which I guard almost from myself. However, since you have guessed it, perhaps you will let me make a full confession, for the subject has more than a personal bearing, indeed it might be called, The Development of the Ornithologist…
I take it for granted that every ornithologist has born within him a true love of nature; in the first place for nature alone, the woods, the fields, the air, the sense of freedom they all inspire. This alone and for itself, and lasting even were the earth birdless. But birds are so intimately a part of nature and our first impressions are so intimately connected with them, it is to me difficult to disassociate the two. A single hawk floating overhead always adds doubly to my enjoyment of a scene however beautiful. Indeed I cannot conceive of a true lover of nature who is not also, in measure at least, a lover of birds...
Given then the born lover of nature who becomes an ornithologist simply from force of circumstances and because birds as a part of nature appeal to him more readily than butterflies or flowers, and passing through the first stages when he studies birds incidentally... let us take him when he begins to consider them as objects worthy of closer attention and has decided to study them scientifically, according to his right.
Collecting commences, eggs probably first, then some attempts at taxidermy, when, if he is fortunate enough to fall in with some member of the A.O.U. [American Ornithologists' Union], he may be set aright and fully started in his ornithological career. There can be no doubt that the pleasures of the succeeding year will never be repeated. But this is a question of first experiences, not of years. There is a first time for everything and it naturally comes but once.
The road now branches and lead[s] a hundred different ways… but let us go the full length and place one student in a museum where ornithology becomes his life-work and where for the first time he is taught to study birds for themselves and not for their songs or habits or because they are locally rare. He now for the first time realizes what the study of ornithology is, how important are the questions involved, and how great the knowledge required to study birds as a part only of created beings whose lives are closely connected with him.
Now comes the question: He has reared a house on a firm foundation, but having once ascended to the upper story with its unconfined view will he ever again be content to occupy the lower and more restricted portion when he knows what is above him. To my mind the answer is a second question: how long did he occupy each succeeding floor, was the structure raised gradually and did he become familiar with each succeeding step ere another was raised, or rapidly rush up above without much knowledge of what was below, except perhaps the cellar.
My simile is probably a poor one; I will descend to facts and more particularly my own case… there can be no doubt that the enthusiasm of youth wanes, but can it not ever be revived by fresh fields[?] Could you not, for instance, visit the northwest coast and enjoy it as you did a morning on a Florida river? Can one become ornithologically old when comparatively young; will the drying up processes of Museum work dull the enjoyment of fairly good collecting; will the science entirely supplant the sentiment, the new love replace the old.
For myself I have to confess I cannot enter the fields at home with one half the pleasure I did two years ago; it is a great sorrow to me and a great loss. My study, with its books and papers, is the stronger attraction & I pass there [much of] the time available for field work. If I enter the woods it is without a gun and I care little to walk after the song season closes. That will ever have a fresh charm for me; I love music, and there is more to me in the song a bird than in the most perfect performance by human hands or throat.
But can I enter new fields as I did the old[?] I think I can. And there is a world of comfort to me in these woods. With them I seem to keep my hold on youth. Last winter I think taught me this, nor was the field new, only two or three birds new to me.
Frank M. Chapman [Jan 28th, 1890. Gainesville, Fl.]
In March of that year, despite concerns about his own health, Brewster joined Chapman’s field adventure in Florida. The trip cemented their friendship and left them with many fond memories that they would remember in letters to each other. They met regularly and wrote to each other prolifically until Brewster’s death in 1919. Their exchange of ideas encouraged them both to become active in wildlife protection and to shift the study of ornithology to focus more on observations on bird behavior in the field - work that was evidentally more satisfying for both of them than focusing solely on collecting specimens. Chapman would go on to develop field guides and conceive the Christmas Bird Count citizen science project that has been running since 1900.