A Labor of Love

The Natural History Collections at Evergreen are full of life and learning.

Steve Herman headshotOn a busy Wednesday afternoon, undergraduate fellows fill a large black work table with tray after tray of bird specimens for an upcoming class. A veritable flock passes by: the iridescent green head and yellow beak of a male mallard; a pileated woodpecker with its red pompadour; an orange-breasted robin. Though lacking the animated poses of popular taxidermy, each bird “skin” is preserved to look as natural as possible—even when lying flat on a tray. “I like to think of them as in the yoga plank position,” student curator Brendon Boudinot quips.

Evergreen’s Natural History Collections include a “dry” zoology section with 9,000 insects, hundreds of mammals, and 2,000 birds, as well as countless skeletons, shells and more; a “wet” collection with marine invertebrates, arthropods, fish, amphibians and reptiles; and an herbarium with over 4,000 specimens of plants, lichens, fungi and algae. The focus is on specimens from Washington and Oregon.

In the beginning…
In 1972, faculty member and ornithologist Steve Herman worked with Sherburne “Jerry” Cook, Jr. (then Science Program Coordinator), to establish a space with the storage and displays needed to begin what would eventually become the Evergreen Natural History Collections. Evergreen student Peter Lawson prepared the first bird specimen, a Virgina rail, in October.

On a sunny March day in 2012, Herman checked an inventory list, removed the cover from a gray steel cabinet, located that bird and held it up for inspection. “This is it,” he said.

For Herman, every drawer, every bird, is a story about a student, a place, a time and an experience in teaching and learning about nature. For him, the past and the present are linked, not just by the specimens in the collection, but also by the friendships he maintains with many of his students. “See this yellow-headed blackbird?” he asks. “Jerry Scoville did this one when he was a student in 1980, and I’m going camping with him tonight.”

Specimen jars at the natural history museum

Collections, Field Study & Science
“Al Wiedemann and I taught The Nature of Natural History in winter then Field Natural History in spring,” Herman explains. “We’d spend 24 days traveling from the Oregon dunes to the Redwoods, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and hit the John Day Fossil Beds on the way home.” Today, in addition to exploring the Pacific Coast, Evergreen natural history field studies include trips to the tropics, the Gulf Coast and southwestern deserts.

“The collections are critical to Evergreen’s ongoing commitment to teaching natural history and supporting field studies,” says botanist, faculty member and curator of the herbarium Frederica Bowcutt. “Students need to learn how to use collections to support field identification and to document their findings.”

Students have played a critical role both in building the collections and in documenting biodiversity, in partnership with faculty, other institutions, agencies and conservation groups, Bowcutt explains. One of their current collaborative projects is a Field Guide to the Plants of the South Puget Sound Prairies with more than 150 botanical illustrations by students.

Students observing a bird species

Current space expands visibility and use 
Today, Bowcutt says, more faculty members teach natural history than ever. And thanks to persistent faculty and staff advocacy for a centralized, non-toxic collections facility, the college opened a suite of climate-controlled work, storage and display spaces on the ground floor of Lab I, with neighboring microscopy labs, in 2007.

 “I’m thrilled with the condition of the collection,” Herman exclaimed to student curator Theresa Skiba on a recent visit. “You’re doing a wonderful job!”

The students share that enthusiasm. “We’ve revolutionized the entomology collection and it’s now databased and maintained at international museum caliber,” Boudinot says with pride.

Today, the collections are in almost constant use, serving programs ranging from science to art, faculty members,
students, researchers and the community. “It is hard work building collections,” observed evolutionary biologist and faculty member Heather Heying. “Steve, Al and others did it out of love of nature and teaching and students with whom they were in the field for years and years. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”

For more information on the collections, visit The Natural History Collections.