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Learning to Become a Historical Ecology Detective

Jul 21 2017

A visit to the archives requires a steady hand. Photo: Emily Clark/SFEI

A visit to the archives requires a steady hand. Photo: Emily Clark/SFEI
 

By Miranda Vogt
B.S. Candidate in Biology 2019
Intern with the Resilient Landscapes program of the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

When I was younger, my mother would read Sherlock Holmes stories to me and I would wish I were a detective like him. And now, in the last place I would have expected, the San Francisco Estuary Institute has given me the chance to finally be one.

Well, in a sense. I’m one month into an internship with the Resilient Landscapes (RL) group of SFEI, a group so brilliant, and fast-paced, and diverse in actions that it is hard to keep up with how much everyone is doing. Truly, seeing the passion and incredible amount of work the people in RL put into their projects has been one of the most inspiring experiences. One such project that RL is working on is a historical ecology study of a section of the Bay Area. Historical ecology is an incredible new field of research that uses historical documents and accounts to understand the history of the landscape itself. When this project is complete, SFEI will have a map in GIS of what the landscape looked like 150 years ago, and this they can use to understand what functions of resilience we have lost with the changing landscape and how they can be restored. At this stage, those of us working on the project are searching online archives and databases as well as making in person archive trips to gingerly flip through old ranch records or unroll hand-drawn maps from the 1800s, snapping a picture or transcribing anything relevant to the study area--and here’s where the detective work comes in.

Historical ecology is an incredible new field of research that uses historical documents and accounts to understand the history of the landscape itself. When this project is complete, SFEI will have a map in GIS of what the landscape looked like 150 years ago, and this they can use to understand what functions of resilience we have lost with the changing landscape and how they can be restored.

Before going to an archive, we have to make educated guesses based on keyword searches in online databases about what sources to request. Then when we get to the archive we hunker down and pore over maps – that can be older than anyone alive today – and journals of people who died a hundred years ago. On my first and, until next week, only archive trip, I had a folder of documents from a woman who was traveling through our study area. She wrote letters to her two brothers back home. I skimmed her letters, looking for anything relating to the landscape, vegetation, flood patterns, flora/fauna, etc., and reading her cramped script did make me feel like a detective, on the lookout for any small clue that could enlighten a piece of our mystery landscape. Long after we left the archive, my fingers still felt tingly; I couldn’t stop thinking about how much history I had leafed through.

This historical ecology study isn’t the only project that I’m working on at SFEI, and the others are no less exciting. Figuring out how to get millions of records of birdwatching data from eBird into GIS to do analysis with them didn’t require any archive visits but took just as much detective skill. I’m learning so much this summer, and I feel like I have only just begun. I can’t wait to see what the rest of my time at SFEI holds; I may not be solving crime, but I don’t think my younger self would be disappointed in the slightest.

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