Diary of a Citizen Scientist:
Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

by Sharman Apt Russell

Oregon State University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-870-71752-9.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 12/23/2014

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Science

What is a citizen scientist? An ordinary person with no background in astrophysics, biochemistry, biology, or climatology who volunteers as part of a scientific research project. Why should readers care? Because these passionate volunteers are re-shaping both science and how we know the world, writes Sharman Apt Russell in Diary of a Citizen Scientist:

This is renaissance, your dentist now an authority on butterflies... This is revolution, breaking down the barriers between expert and amateur, with new collaborations across class and education. Pygmy hunters and gatherers use smartphones to document deforestation in the Congo Basin. High school students identify fossils in soils from ancient seas in upstate New York. Do-it-yourself biologists make centrifuges at home. This is falling in love with the world, and this is science, and at the risk of sounding too much the idealist, I have come believe they are the same thing.

Russell has always been a thoughtful writer, able to examine issues as diverse as ranching (Kill the Cowboy) and hunger (Hunger: An Unnatural History) with balance and clarity. With Diary of a Citizen Scientist, her most personal book yet, Russell ranges from thoughtful examination to luminous revelation that reads like William Wordsworth or Annie Dillard, the soul shivering with ecstasy:

"...I feel a joy here. I feel that brightness in the veins, in the chest," Russell writes on her first collecting trip searching for tiger beetles, third-of-an-inch-long carnivores that feed as ferociously as lion packs. "I have a purpose here, surrounded by water, by light. I put down my pack with its bear spray and collecting boxes and sandwich, and I feel light and easy, and I swing my collector's net just a little, like a flag."

Diary of a Citizen Scientist is a journey narrative, a chronicle of a search that changes the author along the way. Russell is a 57-year-old writer and teacher of creative writing at the college level when she decides to combat her growing sense of helplessness about the state of the world today by doing something useful. She picks tiger beetles because they are found near her Gila River Valley home, and because while they are widespread across the earth, the basics of their lives remains unknown (like where the burrows their larvae live in are located, and how long it takes the earth-bound larvae to go from egg to winged adult).

Along the way, Russell learns the thrill and tedium of field science, the excitement when something happens; the long hours when the search yields a big fat zero; and the challenges of dissecting tiny beetles, which she realizes are no greater than those of translating her fascination with tiger beetles into the minds of the third-graders who Russell's daughter teaches. Russell learns to speak entomology jargon of setae (bristles) and metanotums (body parts), and comes to understand the point of the quotidian, the mundane work of counting and collecting, taking notes and tallying data.

Most importantly though, Russell learns the power of seeing and understanding the earth at a deeper level, participating in a search for answers that is the ultimate antidote to despair. Diary of a Citizen Scientist is both a journey that transforms Russell and her understanding of herself and the planet she loves, and a clarion call to join a movement:

You can transform yourself in a variety of ways... You can do public good—add to scientific knowledge, monitor changes in the environment, promote better policy—even as you roam your private paradise, whatever and wherever that is, collecting treasure and bringing it home: crumbling seed pods, feathers in your hair, clouds in your pocket.

Sign me up.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Sharman Apt Russell lives in the Gila River Valley of southwestern New Mexico and teaches writing at Western New Mexico University and Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her many books include Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist and Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into nine languages. Her work includes a Rockefeller Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of Diary of a Citizen Scientist, as well as an earlier interview.

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