Citizen science enlarges my world. When I am in the mood, I classify galaxies at the online site Galaxy Zoo, looking at images from the Hubbell Space Telescope or Sloan Sky Digital Survey. In summer, once again I will be looking for tiger beetles along the banks of the Gila River as part of a personal research project under the mentorship of two entomologists, David Pearson and Barry Knisley, co-authors of The Field Guide to Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. My task is to fill in a small blank spot on the world map of tiger beetles: the larval biology of the Western red-bellied tiger beetle, a ferocious predator about a third of an inch long. Citizen science gives me this breadth of scale—from the vastness of galaxies hundreds of thousands of light years away to the micro-world of insects with their skittering movements in the sand and surreal, scary mouthparts and iridescent colors seen under the microscope.
This winter, for the New Mexico Site Steward program, I will check for damage to certain archeological sites in the Gila National Forest, picking up and feeling the texture of pot shards decorated with fine lines of black on white, feeling connected to women who lived here and made these pots a thousand years ago. On other weekends, I go hiking in the national forest to help New Mexico Wilderness Alliance inventory possible new wilderness areas. New wilderness! The hope of keeping this forest healthy and wild for generations to come… Citizen science gives me this depth of time, a relationship with the distant past and the far future.
Citizen science also introduces me to new communities. Sometimes I accompany the local tracking team for Sky Island Alliance’s Wildlife Linkages as they look for tracks in arroyos near my home: the tangible presence of bears and mountain lions, foxes and coatis, coyote and deer. A few years ago, when I worked with a group of five bird-banders for MAPS or Monitoring Avian Population Survey, I held in my hands the delicate beauty of a vermillion fly-catcher or yellow chat or Lucy’s warbler. These friends, human and nonhuman, remain part of my life. For the national Nature’s Notebook program, I monitor the growth of desert willow, four-wing saltbush, honey mesquite, and yucca in my back yard. I’ve come to know these plants well, becoming surprisingly enamored of saltbush: the way tiny bladders on these leaves store and release salt as an antifreeze that keeps the bush green through cold months, the abundance of fine pollen on the male catkins and the brown papery four-winged seeds that eventually cover the female plant, seeds once ground by Native Americans into flour and still eaten today by birds, mammals, and my neighbor’s goat.
Citizen science engages me with a world that offers me constant gifts: a monarch butterfly, its wings a brilliant orange and black like a stained-glass window; the print of a bobcat short-tailed, delicately-spotted, tufted-ear, and perhaps close by; the crunchy sweet beans on a thorny mesquite. Those gifts were always there, always offered up, but I didn’t always notice them.
Of course, citizen science also means that I can be a small part of protecting this world, tracking the diversity and abundance of native species, monitoring the spread of invasive plants and animals, and documenting the effects of climate change. That’s all to the collective good and fosters the optimism that comes with taking action—the faith we need to face the future.
But really, I know, I do citizen science because it makes me happy. I do it for these gifts, for this beauty, for this excuse to go out walking with my friends.
Science and nature writer Sharman Apt Russell celebrates citizen science in the pine forests and Chihuahuan desert of southwestern New Mexico where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, NM as well as Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her ten published books include Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World (Oregon State University Press, 2014), An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect (Perseus Books, 2003), and Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers (Perseus Books, 2001). Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and her awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and the Writers at Work Award. For more information, go to www.sharmanaptrussell.com.