As the book indicates, Jeremy Vetter’s Field Life: Science in the American West during the Railroad Era focuses on field science activities that took place on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains from the 1860s to the 1920s. And the subtitle suggests the importance of railroads for good reason. Development of a network of rail lines, especially completion of several transcontinental routes, facilitated a range of scientific endeavors. Curious individuals, whether amateurs or professionals, had earlier explored parts the vastness of the trans-Mississippi West, but they found themselves limited by the tyranny of distance. These intrepid souls, though, might have traveled in stagecoaches or on steamboats. While the former offered greater possibilities than the latter, most roads were little more than trails, either of animals or of American Indians. Usually, too, explorations involved extensive walking, or perhaps use of horses and mules. But the railway age, which included the expanding commercial telegraph and enhanced U.S. postal service, made possible a more productive field life; after all, much of the previous scientific work had been largely superficial. Vetter approaches his regional examination by exploring four distinct aspects of field life: “lay networks, surveys, quarries, and stations” (7). Generally, these topics or stages developed in a somewhat chronological fashion, and they also reflected the rise of scientific professionalism. In lay networks, scientists and naturalists, who usually hailed from the East, relied heavily on local residents, including farmers, ranchers, and miners, to assist them in locating and collecting specimens and facilitating observations (79–80). Then there were the surveys, largely contemporary with the “lay networks.” Improved transportation and communications made possible better mapping, collecting, and opportunities to observe. Enhanced knowledge gains, most notably for the interior West, resulted. Furthermore, specific places with rich scientific resources—so-called “quarries”—were identified, permitting some fieldwork to become highly concentrated. These were locations where scientists and naturalists exhumed artifacts, biological specimens, fossils, and minerals. More lasting than quarry sites were “stations,” which were frequently associated with agriculture and forestry research. The agricultural experiment station, in fact, became ubiquitous. States’ public organizations, business interests, colleges, and governments maintained these enduring study sites by administering them and providing land, buildings, personnel, and financing for them, commonly assisted with federal funding and guidance and personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (284–287, 298, 305, 320, 322).Stations, whether public or private, generated both scientific data and practical information for farmers, ranchers, foresters, and others. Vetter develops multiple themes in his encyclopedic work. One is his contention that scholars should consider regional approaches to the history of science and technology, and this Vetter does effectively for the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West. He also reveals tensions that developed between “true” scientists and amateurs or quasi-amateurs. Similar conflicts erupted between elite universities and institutions in the trans-Mississippi East and those found in the regions under study. The rise of professionalism, which affected so much of national life during the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, became a contributing factor to those conflicts. Vetter does not ignore the social history of fieldwork, providing a feel for what it was like to work in locations that were in many cases remote and hostile. Field Life is a pathbreaking book and should interest anyone who deals with environmental, scientific, technological, and regional or nearby history. Vetter writes clearly, and his overall approach is logically organized. The amount of research is amazing; his nearly seventy-five pages of notes attest to his diligence as a scholar. Moreover, Vetter has selected meaningful historical photographs, charts, and maps. The obvious negative aspect of this study is its excessive details. Often one or two good illustrations rather than multiple ones would suffice. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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