Oct 132010

I wrote here previously about the introduction of characters, a topic that figures prominently in my own writing.  I meet a lot of people.  I’m (gradually) working on a book that involves significant scientific research, travel around the Midwest talking to farmers and land managers, and – just last night – hours in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society poring through 150-year-old land survey notes.  When I sent my first chapter to dg way back in packet #2 (are we almost to #4 already??), he raised the question of sources.

One of my sources (at left): Patrick Ceas of St. Olaf College

To quote briefly from dg’s packet letter:  “This brings up a larger issue nudging away at me as I read through this chapter.  How do you properly credit and integrate primary research and sources? I wonder about this reading Barry Lopez on wolves and John McPhee on shad and Mathiessen on snow leopards. How does one ensure that the descriptions one writes from the research become one’s own words and not just summaries or synopses of other people’s work?”

Hmmm.  Good question.  And I suppose you all know what’s coming next. “This might bear contemplating as a critical essay,” wrote dg.

Thus, what follows is an analysis of how two books (both cnf, both about nature/science subjects) deal specifically with end-of-the-book references.  I must admit here that I had planned to also look at a chapter of McPhee’s book on shad (for which I did the aforementioned character introduction analysis), which is devoid of end notes but packs numerous citation methods right into the main text.  I decided, however, that McPhee is taming a completely different animal than the other two and that he (to quote an underrated Canadian writer) “might bear contemplating” in a different critical essay.

The two books are Cold, a 2009 Bill Streever “micro-history” with a self-explanatory title, and Four Fish, Paul Greenberg’s 2010 examination of the natural and cultural lives of cod, salmon, sea bass, and tuna (if you like to eat tuna, don’t read this book!).  Both include end-of-the-book sections that are not footnoted in the main text.  They are markedly different, however.  Streever’s Cold features what I’ve taken to calling “narrative end notes,” while Greenberg’s Four Fish includes “academic end notes.”

Streever’s end-of-book section is entitled “Notes: With a Few References, Definitions, Clarifications, and Suggested Readings.” That title implies that the section is neither a comprehensive documentation of sources nor a bibliography.  Though they are organized by chapter, Streever includes no page numbers nor references to specific quotes, lines, or subjects in the main text, which makes it possible to read these notes alone as a small work of creative nonfiction.

Several are simple citations of primary source material, like:

Robert Falcon Scott’s journals were reprinted in 1966 as Scott’s Last Expedition: The Journals (Carroll and Graf, New York).


Various versions of The Story of Comock the Eskimo remain available, including one published by Simon and Schuster (New York) in 1968.  The authors are Comock, R.J. Flaherty, and E.S. Carpenter.


Most of Streever’s notes, however, offer supplementary information.  It is worthwhile in these cases to correlate the sections in the main text that correspond to the notes.  A few examples follow, with some general observations.

Main narrative text:

There is more than one way to measure temperature.  Daniel Fahrenheit, a German working in Amsterdam as a glassblower in the early 1700s, developed the mercury thermometer and the temperature scale still familiar to Americans.  He built on work dating back to just after the time of Christ and modified by the likes of Galileo, who used wine instead of mercury, and Robert Hooke, appointed curator of the Royal Society in 1661, who developed a standard scale that was used for almost a century.

The text then continues through another page of history.

The notes text:

Tom Shachtman’s Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold (1999, Mariner Books, New York) gives an engaging account of the history of thermometers.  Daniel Fahrenheit, whose surname has been immortalized by his temperature scale, contributed one step in the long and still ongoing journey of temperature measurement.  His scale is not especially useful outside the ranges typically encountered by humans.

This note begins with a straightforward citation, but then veers into additional, increasingly opinionated information about the subject.  The narrative note here allows Streever to further sum up his reading of the primary source – and keep the name of that source out of the main narrative, where it might be distracting.

Another example, staying on the theme of temperature, follows shortly after the first.  The main text:

One of the physicists who first achieved a temperature low enough for the formation of a super atom, which did not occur until 1995, had this to say: “This state could never have existed naturally anywhere in the universe, unless it is in a lab in some other solar system.”

And the notes text:

The complete quotation about achieving a temperature low enough to result in the formation of a super atom, from Eric Cornell, as reported in a joint press release by the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on July 13, 1995, was “This state could never have existed naturally anywhere in the universe.  So the sample in our lab is the only chunk of this stuff in the universe, unless it is in a lab in some other solar system.”  The experiment, credited jointly to Cornell and Carl Wieman, had taken six years and involved eight graduate students and three undergraduate students.  While talking to a reporter about the Nobel prize that came from this work, Wieman explained that he had to rush off to teach a physics class for nonscientists.  Despite his success, he retained the dedication and modesty needed to teach undergraduate physics to a broad range of students.

This pairing is fascinating for several reasons.  Firstly, Streever doesn’t name Cornell in the main text – anywhere.  This Nobel Prize winner is referred to as “one of the physicists.”  The note, then, allows Streever to give him and his collaborators proper credit.  Secondly, the quote in the main text is abbreviated, assuredly for effect.  The quote is not much altered, as evidenced by the note.  Abbreviating in the main text and clarifying in the note allows Streever to avoid the awkward repetition of the words “lab” and “universe.”  Lastly, there is the ambiguous reference to Wieman.  This section raises more questions: is the “reporter” Streever?  Why take the time to essentially fawn over a character that never appears in the main narrative?

This pair of main narrative and note illustrates another technique Streever uses throughout the book: the complete lack of any names, aside from historical personages.  Lord Kelvin, Daniel Fahrenheit, and various arctic explorers are referred to by name, but all the people Streever meets on his journey into the cold are referred to as “my companion,” “a biologist who has been working here since May,” “an Inupiat elder,” and various other descriptors.  At one point in the book (the chapter called December), a companion reappears, and is called “a companion, the same woman who joined me on Ben Nevis in September, the woman with Raynaud’s disease.”  Authors of sources and studies are never named in the text, but are occasionally divulged in the notes (like the physicist Eric Cornell).

Frankly, this is a puzzling and slightly off-putting choice, but it is completely consistent.  The notes, then, allow Streever to cite the primary sources associated with research and science while allowing his travel companions and the people he meets to remain anonymous.

Like Streever’s book, Greenberg’s Four Fish includes a section at the back called “Notes.”  Greenberg’s notes differ, however, in that they are not narrative, but rather citations of both literature and primary sources.  Four Fish also features page numbers and highlights from the main narrative in its notes, for easy correlation.  The notes here are fewer in number than in Cold, because Greenberg does most of his citation in the body of the text, especially in long sections where he relies heavily on a single source and therefore makes that source a character in the story.

Examples of this technique include Alaskan fisherman Jac Gadwill, on whom Greenberg relies for the processor’s and native people’s perspective on salmon fishing; Israeli endocrinologist Yonathan Zohar, to whom Greenberg goes for the basics of fish domestication and hybridization; and author Mark Kurlanski, whose well-known book Cod significantly informs Greenberg’s chapter of the same name.  This last example is particularly interesting because Greenberg interacts with this source in a variety of ways.  He cites the book directly, he uses the book as a jumping off point to discuss how cod-fishing has changed in the decade since Cod was published, and he even invites Kurlansky to dinner to taste the difference between wild, conventionally farmed, and organically farmed cod.  Rather than simply using the information from the earlier book, Greenberg invites the author into his own book.  Of course there are numerous other characters, and much of Greenberg’s source material comes from direct interaction with them, unlike Streever’s, which relies more on historical accounts and other books.  Hence, then, the briefer notes in Four Fish.

Let’s explore two examples of Greenberg’s notes.

Main narrative text (page 16):

Every year perhaps as many as 100 million Connecticut River salmon larvae (no one knows exactly how many there were) would hatch out of large, bright-orange, nutrient rich eggs.

And the accompanying note:

16            as many as 100 million Connecticut River salmon larvae: Data on Connecticut River salmon estimates come from Steve Gephard, director of the State of Connecticut DEP Inland Fisheries Division’s Diadromous Fish Program.  Salmon restoration on the Connecticut River has at times elicited critical comments, and some have asserted that salmon were never particularly abundant in the Connecticut River…. “We have generated population estimates based on the amount of habitat available to the species (pre-European Contact),” Gephard wrote me in 2009, “and then used production and return rates from the scientific literature to develop estimates….”

The notes section is the only place in the book where Steve Gephard appears.  The note is even longer than the excerpt shown here, which illustrates Greenberg’s reason for including this information here and not in the main narrative.  He is not writing a book on the former abundance of salmon, so he sets the general number and moves on.  In the main narrative he uses the words “perhaps as many as” and the parenthetical “no one knows exactly how many there were” to suggest that the science is still evolving – or in dispute.  The note explains further why he’s being vague: a complex scientific concept that would be cumbersome in the main narrative.

Also interesting here is his citation of the primary source: “Gephard wrote me in 2009.”  This says that Gephard was, essentially, an interlocutor between Greenberg and the scientific process.  It is entirely possible that discovering the actual number of salmon larvae in the Connecticut River was not an avenue of research Greenberg wanted to pursue, so he found an expert, got the run-down, and then credited that expert with the single sentence that appears in the main narrative.

The second example begins on page 20 in the main narrative:

The aquaculture companies operating in the frigid fjords of southern Chile now produce almost as much salmon per year as all the world’s wild salmon rivers combined.

And the accompanying note:

20            companies operating in the frigid fjords of southern Chile: Salmon farming and wild salmon catch data, specifically tonnage and market share, are derived primarily from the World Wildlife Fund, The Great Salmon Run: Competition Between Wild and Farmed Salmon, ed. Gunnar Knapp, Cathy A. Roheim, and James L. Anderson, http://www.uri.edu/cels/enre/ ENRE_Salmon_Report.html, 2007.

This is a more straightforward citation, even if it does include a web address.  Greenberg intends the text in the main narrative to be a bit of a shock to the reader, so he gives no cumbersome figures, instead using a stark comparison to relate the shift of salmon production to Chile.  However, some readers might not buy his argument, so he cites the source.  Of course, still other readers may discredit the WWF’s report, but at least Greenberg is being honest that the data is not his own – that there is some researched justification to his bold statement.

Unlike Streever’s notes, Greenberg’s are MORE academic, more detailed, than the narrative text.  While Streever’s notes do include literature citations, they seem designed to expand the narrative, and even at times include opinions, additional anecdotes, and augmented life histories of some of his characters.  Some of this information could once have been in the main narrative, but instead of being edited away entirely, it was edited to the notes.  Streever’s notes are for the same reader that enjoyed the main narrative, while Greenberg’s are for the reader interested in learning more, or interested in checking the author’s facts.

The best way to illustrate this is to put portions of a note from each author side-by-side.  Here is Greenberg’s citation for a statement on page 26, this example being part of a quote by Steve Gephard:

Once you have a list of all habitat, you could apply a theoretical production rate (e.g. 4 smolts per one production unit of habitat) and then a theoretical marine return rate (e.g., 0.01) and come up with a very rough estimate….” One such meta-analysis is in Frank Jensen, “Synopsis on the abundance of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) since the last ice age,” Millennium Report of the Museum of Natural History (Aarhus, Denmark: Museum of Natural History, March 20, 1991).

And Streever, from notes for the chapter, “August”:

Mechem’s article called “Frostbite,” available at www.emedecine.com/emerg/topic209.htm, is intended as a quick reference for medical professionals, but it includes information sure to interest anyone who travels in cold regions.  It also includes interesting photographs of badly frostbitten hands, ears, and feet.

The former, with its references to “smolts per production unit of habitat” and “theoretical marine return rate,” would be quite the head-full in the main text (potentially turning off even nature nerds like me).  But portions of the latter would be right at home – who wouldn’t want to visualize a few of those “interesting photographs”?

—By Adam Arvidson

  6 Responses to “Picking Brains and Giving Proper Credit: Craft Essay — Adam Arvidson”

  1. This is really, really fascinating Adam, and instructive. I’m currently reading quite a bit about crabs and crabbing while writing an essay of my own about crabbing, and I find the delineation and structuring of notes in non-fiction texts to be a continuous tightrope act between academic rigor and readability for the audience (this of course isn’t just in crab-related texts, but just where I’ve noticed it most recently). I would almost argue, as you might be implying here, that the way a writer notes and credits sources is just as much of a stylistic choice as verb use or sentence structure.

    I’d love to talk about this more via email or at the next residency, and also I believe there was a recent lecture about telling/advancing a story through the endnotes – you might want to get a recording of that one (Actually, I might want to get a recording of that one too).

    • John, You’re right to be excited about this piece. It’s a whole area of cnf technique that I don’t recall being talked about much. And, yes, the method of handling sources is a style choice and a dance. Well, worth more discussion, here or maybe on the forum. Or maybe more essays analyzing various writers and their strategies.

    • Yes, I agree with John, fascinating. The comparison of the two different styles is excellent.
      And btw the lecture John mentions is “Notes on Notes in Fiction” (Jan 2010)…it was given by a brilliant student of a VCFA luminary…. 🙂

  2. Oh, and the title totally made me think, “Kicking Ass and Taking Numbers,” which was a bonus.

    • Thanks, all. I do feel like I’ve just scratched the surface here. The McPhee stuff is epic, though, so maybe (when I find a little time), I will take a look at the chapter I mention and post some thoughts here.

  3. Adam, I have been struggling with this issue and your essay has answered a number of questions that have been bothering me. Suddenly I feel free to find my own way to do this dance of ‘how’ to give credit. But I am still struggling with the ‘when.’ In writing my CNF science essays I feel that little (or nothing) I have to say is original. I feel like a translator, yet I am translating knowledge that, in some cases, has been accruing for decades. Tracking sources would be of cumbersome and of little value, so there is another place for a dance – the ‘when.’

    I am looking forward to your comments on the McPhee chapter.

    DG, thanks for setting up the anthology section of NC. It is a terrific way to find things and I plan to make good use of the Craft anthology.

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