Catalog and Book Browsing

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, US


I admit it: I'm hopelessly addicted. I was in my early teens when it all started and I didn't even inhale. Now 50 years later, after consulting many authorities, I have resigned myself to the fact that there is no cure. It all began innocently enough with a middle school science teacher showing me a copy of the Turtox Biological Supply House catalog. This was the beginning of a journey down a long road of obsession, economic extravagance, and a relentless pursuit of further such subversive materials. I even ordered my very own copy of the Turtox catalog and, at least once a week, I would take it out of my book shelves and lose myself in the wonderful world of plant and animal specimens and scientific apparatus and implements. I learned a great deal; prior to the acquisition of the catalog, I had not known that there was a sipunculid with the genus name of Golfinga. Sipunculids are strange marine "worms" which are not true worms as they are not segmented—one of those small oddball groups of organisms which are something of a taxonomic puzzle and end up in their own phylum. The mind of youth is astoundingly impressionable and since that time, I have had a special interest in minor phyla, both recent and fossil. I am intrigued by those organisms that tend to resist our efforts to fit them into nice, neat schematic systems. It was many years later, however, before I discovered the origin of the genus name of my worm-like non-worms. The story is that two zoologists were playing golf in Scotland and one of them hit a ball over the edge of a low cliff, down onto the seashore. The two walked down to try to find the ball (in what may have been the largest sand trap in the world) and being unable to find it readily, they began turning over rocks. One of them found a strange wormlike creature, but neither of them had ever seen anything quite like it before. Convinced that this was an organism of a new group, they decided to give it the genus name of Golfinga to commemorate their golf game which had lead to this discovery. Is this story true? Of course it is; it's too good not to be true!

From that catalog, I learned about caprellid shrimp, sea anemones (flower-animals of the sea), lacy mats of bryozoa, horseshoe crabs (they don't have shoes, they aren't related to horses, and they aren't crabs—but these living fossils are truly wondrous), and tunicates—the glorious, weird, mysterious, bizarre tunicates which still fascinate me to this day. It is hard to imagine a mind that could dream up such a strange collection of creatures that we place into this one phylum—jet-propelled creatures that are only an inch or two long and almost invisible because of their glassy transparency. Others are only 1/2 an inch long, are also transparent, and look like tiny barrels with a coiled spring running through their bodies. Attached forms the size of my fist, which look like warty chunks of brain. Others that look like brown, elongated flattened pods of okra on stalks. Some that are brightly colored orange or red and have the popular name of sea-peaches. Tiny swimming forms that secrete a gelatinous house with filters and when the filters clog, they jettison the house and unfold a new one which is already in place for just such situations. There are colonial forms with thousands of individuals that form a mass which looks like a giant yellowish or purplish or reddish lump of aspic. And that's just the beginning, but enough about tunicates for now. The point is that this catalog functioned as a catalyst for my curiosity. I called the company the next year to get a new, revised, expanded catalog and they didn't even ask how old I was or if I was "associated with an institution" or if I was a teacher. They simply took my name and address and sent me a catalog—and I ordered from them; me, a mere irresponsible teenager. I got a wonderful set of vital stains for protozoa (long ago used up), a collection of 10 vials of hydroids, a collection of 5 vials of sponges, and a magnificent collection of 10 vials of cleaned and concentrated diatom shells. I still have all of these and I especially prize the diatoms. Today 10 vials of diatoms, washed and cleaned, ready to mount, would cost a small fortune. Of course, my beloved old Turtox catalog only had black and white photographs. Today, everything must be in radiant color, on slick paper, with all kinds of special pre-planned project kits for underpaid, undertrained teachers whose lives are made miserable by unmotivated, undisciplined students and imperious, incompetent administrators. Project kits are like food; the more packaging there is, the less substance and the greater the cost. These new, big, glossy catalogs are, of course, very expensive to produce, so the companies don't want some ignorant teenager, such as I was, trying to get his or her hands on one of their precious tomes. To get these wondrous volumes, one must have CREDENTIALS and "an institutional affiliation." When I recently called one of these Big Companies to get a new, updated catalog, I was asked that very question: "What is your institutional affiliation?" I was very tempted to reply: "The Wyoming Institute for the Criminally Insane (also known as the University of Wyoming). I'm an inmate." I wonder if I would have gotten the catalog.

Don't get me wrong; for all the glitz, slick paper, and marketing strategies, these catalogs are still great browsing and learning material. Now, a question nags at me: Why aren't these companies sponsoring,supporting, helping to create amateur microscopical groups. There's a large potential market out there and I say: Think of the good you might do—no, I was being naive again—just think of all the money you might make.

I also get catalogs of surplus items, catalogs of small hand tools, catalogs from small scientific supply firms that often offer excellent items for considerably less than the major firms. My wife, bless her, knows the risks of my having access to these catalogs, but in 40 years of marriage she has never thrown one out. These small firms are also more personable; the people are friendly and often go out of their way to help. You don't get some snotty, nasal, barely post-teenage high school dropout asking you: "What is your institutional affiliation?" I like lots of different sorts of people, but I don't like people, companies, or institutions that try to make me feel like an unperson. What ever happened to manners? O.K., O.K., end of tantrum.

I soon discovered an even more exciting and even more addictive kind of browsing. I obtained a copy of Kudo's Protozoology, 5th edition, over 1,100 pages with hundreds and hundreds of drawings. Of course, that was back in the days when you didn't have to float a loan to buy a technical, scientific book. I belong to an Internet service which routinely informs me about new books in areas of interest which I designate. Recently, I got a notice regarding a book which was of great interest to me. As I scrolled down the table of contents, I got more and more interested. Then, I got to the price and my interest evaporated instantly—$895.00—yes, dollars, American dollars, not Italian lira! Needless to say, that book is not in my library nor am I going to send it to my friends as a Christmas present. Fortunately, one can still pick up a good used copy of Kudo for $30-$50 and while that's by no means inexpensive, it is a classic reference and anyone seriously interested in protozoa should have a copy. Parts of it are dated now, but it is still an invaluable resource.

When I first got my copy, I spent many hours leafing through various sections, reading bits and pieces, jumping to another section and mostly marvelling at the extraordinary diversity of these organisms. Sometimes I would see a drawing of a particularly strange creature and tell myself that I needed to keep an eye out for it when I examined the next set of samples I collected. Surprisingly, in many instances, I did find these special beasties, but, of course, there are others that have eluded me for years. They are, however, still on the special list that I carry around with me in my head and I am always on the lookout for them. My desultory browsing in Kudo not only brought me pleasure and stimulated my curiosity, but provided an opportunity for that sort of learning that is the result of repeated immersion—and, no, I'm not talking about baptism, although at my age now, I must be very holy indeed, for I have certainly been baptized in ponds enough times.

Anyone who shares my vice of browsing has his or her own list of special books, but let me mention a few more of mine. Anyone interested in freshwater biology should have the book by that name by Ward and Whipple—another big, thick, classic and available used from time to time for about $50. Again, not inexpensive, but think of it as a lifetime investment. Ward and Whipple is wonderful because, not only is there a nice section on protozoa, but sections on algae, fungi, bacteria, flatworms, copepods, ostracods, insect larvae, and on and on. A browser's delight! The small drawings are not always as helpful as one might like, but, nonetheless, the volume remains a great reference.

Another of my favorites is Pennak's Freshwater Invertebrates of the United States. Now, if you're from the United Kingdom or Asia, or Africa or South America or Australia rather than the U.S., don't be put off—we have some nice invertebrates over here and a very large number of freshwater critters are cosmopolitan, so no matter where you live, unless it's on the Ross ice shelf or the Gobi desert, you will likely find this book useful. It is geared somewhat more toward the advanced amateur; the information is recent and it is full of very good drawings. The second edition is available used for $40-$50 or you can get the third edition, brand new, for considerably more. I have both editions; I had the second for many years and several years ago a friend gave me a copy of the third. I still tend to rely most on the second edition. There are so many other great volumes—Garnett's Freshwater Microscopy, Corrington's Working with the Microscope, Nachtigall's Exploring with the Microscope, Guyer's Animal Micrology, and on and on. I won't even mention the rarer ones. As you investigate, you will discover your own special areas of interest and the special books for browsing that are associated with those areas.

I also have a fair number of coffee table books on animals and plants, but mostly on marine invertebrates. These are large format books with splendid color photographs which are indeed beautiful to look at. With considerable embarrassment, I admit that I don't very often look at them. Occasionally, I'll pull one off a shelf and spend a wonderful hour or so marvelling over the color and variety and this is a truly pleasurable experience. However, for me there isn't enough information in such books and so, idiosyncratically, I prefer browsing in Kudo or Ward and Whipple or Pennak. With these volumes, I feel that I am learning something and expanding my access to the microscopic world.

Comments to the author Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('rhowey','')">Richard Howey welcomed.

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Published in the July 2000 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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