My eldest daughter, back when she was very young, made families out of everything. Some of the families made sense. Barbie, Ken and Skipper were mom, dad and daughter, of course. The Dalmatian family was obvious, too, made from lots of Dalmatian stuffed and plastic toys related to her fascination with a certain Disney movie. Beanie Babies sometimes ended up in mixed-species families.
The family that amused me the most was the hairbrush family. Yes, she had gathered all the hairbrushes together and arranged them from largest to smallest. The largest was, of course, the father, the second largest was mother and the rest were all children. I found it interesting that there were no combs in this family, neither were there any scrub brushes or toothbrushes.
What a scientist she had already become - making distinctions based on form and function just like real scientists do. Consider trees.
Audubon volunteers brave the elements to help with the roadside cleanup.
What makes a tree a tree? Woody stems, for one. But it's more than that. To distinguish from shrubs, which also have woody stems, a tree must have one major woody stem, which is called a trunk. But this group is too large, so let's break it down further. Let's divide the trees into broad-leaved trees and needled trees. Wait, though. Some of the non-broad-leaved trees don't have needles exactly ... more like overlapping scales. Hmm ... so many distinctions to make to divide trees into "families."
As scientists try to make sense of the world and all the wondrous living things in it, they are fond of making distinctions and families. In fact, the classification system, originally conceived by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, is an interesting hierarchy where individuals are assigned to a kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. A dog, for example, is in the kingdom animalia (animals), the phylum chordata (vertebrates), the class mammalia (mammals), the order carnivora (carnivore), the family canidae (canine), the genus canis, and the species familiaris. The Fraser fir that currently sits in my dining room covered with holiday ornaments is Plantae Pinophyta Pinopsida Pinales Pinaceae Abies fraseri.
On a side note, when I took biology back in the mid-1970s, there were only two kingdoms as Linnaeus originally envisioned animalia and plantae animals and plants. Since then, scientists have decided that things like mushrooms aren't really plants and that there are lots of organisms that seem to require different kingdoms. Current textbooks describe a six-kingdom system: animals, plants, fungi, protists, eubacteria and archaebacteria. In addition, some textbooks add two additional ranks above kingdom domain and life. Yikes. It's all so confusing. And the more we learn, the more it changes.
During my 18 years working at the community college teaching math and computer science, I had the opportunity to write database systems for local businesses and government agencies. Like the classification of living things, creating a database is also an exercise in making distinctions. In order to make sense of and to organize data about people, objects and events, we have many conversations about what information to collect and how to store it. Like a taxonomic system for classifying living things, a database can become irrelevant, obsolete and need re-thinking. Such is the case with Audubon's databases, and thus we are undertaking the task of some serious re-thinking.
Individuals associated with Audubon might be volunteers, donors, consultants, casual visitors or class participants. They may be children or adults. They may be affiliated with one or more households, organizations, or businesses. They have a huge range of interests and talents. They have rich histories both inside and outside of Audubon. They have preferences for how they want to be contacted and for what purposes. They have birthdays which they may or may not wish to share with us.
We envision a single, comprehensive database that would help us make sense of all of that so that we could, for example, print a list of volunteers along with the number of hours they worked during a particular date range, or generate mailing labels for those who still like to receive our newsletter in paper form, or a list of email addresses for those who prefer the electronic version of the newsletter, or a list of people who are interested in working the kitchen at one of our festivals ... and the list goes on.
Wouldn't that be glorious? And yet, we recognize that even as we develop this new, comprehensive database, it will evolve and morph with our changing needs ... just like Linnaeus' classification system.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Jamestown Audubon.
The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. For more information about the programs and activities of Jamestown Audubon, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.