Today's Reading

After Rufus's death, David's journals explode with color. Meticulously rendered sketches of wildflowers and ferns and ivies and brambles and any scraps of nature, it seemed, he could tear away from the world. The drawings are not artful; they are labored, covered in pencil smudges, ink stains, eraser marks, and little tears from overly vigorous coloring in. But in the crudeness you can see it—his obsession, his desperation, the near-muscular effort he was exerting to pin down the forms of the things unknown to him. Beneath each drawing there is, finally, a scientific name. The ink runs suddenly smoother, the letters looping with a bit of command. Campanula rotundifolia. Kalmia glauca. Astragalus canadensis. David describes the sensation of speaking the names out loud, those Latin declarations of victory, mastery. "Their appellations," he writes, "are as honey on my lips."

Psychologists have studied this, by the way, the sweet salve that collecting can offer in times of anguish. In Collecting: An Unruly Passion, psychologist Werner Muensterberger, who counseled compulsive collectors for decades, notes that the habit often kicks into high gear after some sort of "deprivation or loss or vulnerability," with each new acquisition flooding the collector with an intoxicating burst of "fantasized omnipotence." Francisca López-Torrecillas, who has been studying collectors for years at the University of Granada, noted a similar phenomenon, that people experiencing stress or anxiety would turn to collecting to soothe their pain. "When people have this feeling of personal inefficiency," she writes, "compulsive collecting helps them in feeling better." The only danger, Muensterberger warns, is that—as with any compulsion—there seems to be a line where the habit can switch from "exhilarating" to "ruinous."


As David grew older, as his shoulders filled out and his lips plumped, his hunger for new specimens only intensified. But he couldn't seem to find anyone who cared. No matter how hard he studied, no matter how many new species names he learned or taxonomy papers he was able to get published, he explains, "at school no attention was paid to this interest of mine." He got into Cornell University, earning a bachelor's and master's degree in science in just three years. But he had trouble finding work. Universities were looking for sociable men in smartly tied ties who could command a classroom with a pointer and charm. The quiet, skinned-knee, dirty-elbowed crawling around in nature that David so loved was looked down upon as child's play.

And so it could have gone for David. Him, desperately driven to collect flowers. The world, unconvinced of his calling's worthiness. Time passing, as he slowly dug himself deeper and deeper into a leafy loneliness.

Had he not stepped foot on Penikese Island.

A Prophet on an Island

Penikese Island sits fourteen miles off the coast of Massachusetts. At just under a mile long, with barely any tree cover to protect from the beating sun, it has been called the "runt" of its island chain, a "sad and lonely little rock," and an "outpost of hell."

Yet for some reason, its naked shores have always been a spot where people have tried to cultivate hope. In the early 1900s, it was a leper colony led by a doctor who wanted to find a way to cure his wards. In the 1950s it was converted into a bird sanctuary where naturalists tried to reverse the fates of a plummeting tern population. In the 1970s, the island became a reform school for delinquent or wayward or troubled boys (the name depended on the decade), where a marine and fisherman hoped a regimen of seclusion, manual labor, animal husbandry, boatbuilding, communal living, and schoolwork could "turn a lot of potential murderers into car thieves." By the time I learned of the island, it had become a heroin recovery center, where people addicted to the drug could try to get clean once and for all. But before all that, back in David Starr Jordan's day, the group seeking salvation on the lonely little rock? Naturalists.

By 1873, when David was a freshly minted Cornell grad, one of the most famous naturalists of the day, Louis Agassiz, had grown gravely concerned about the future of the trade. Agassiz was a Swiss geologist, a charismatic bear of a man with bushy mutton chops, who had earned his fame by being one of the earliest proponents of the ice age theory. Agassiz had only come to this vision of an earth coated in ice after making meticulous observations of fossils and scratch marks in the bedrock. As a result, he believed that the best way to teach science was to scrutinize nature. "Study nature, not books" was his motto, and he was known for locking his students in a closet with dead animals and not allowing them to emerge until they had discovered "all the truths which the objects contained."

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