In which I capture the present, but forget why

Ancient history (1997): does anyone map plasmids anymore?

I have always been a compulsive chronicler, ever since I was a small child starting off my first journal. I still write an entry nearly every day, taking a few months to fill in all the pages with my increasingly illegible scrawl, then adding the bound notebook carefully to the stack of hundreds of others fading in cupboards in my study – decades of events, sucked irrevocably into the past and largely forgotten.

This habit suited me well over the three decades that I worked at the lab bench, writing down every last experimental detail alongside taped photographs, x-ray films, plasmid maps, nucleotide sequence outputs. I captured not just the process, but analyses, conclusions, next steps – even a few unscientific expressions of joy or misery. These entries contain smudges of chemicals, coffee stains, and even what I suspect were tears. For all I know, some of the pages might even be faintly radioactive.

In more recent years, I have felt a strong compulsion to chronicle my home life beyond just what I write in my journals. It was actually Richard’s idea to start a family almanac when we moved to our ‘forever home’ back in 2015. Near the end of our fifth volume now, we both record weather observations, gardening activities, adventures in home-brewing and produce preservation, and any other domestic event that might be worth remembering: pandemic lowlights, comets and meteor showers, hen memorabilia (acquisition, laying habits and deaths), significant illnesses. After a few years we started to see patterns, certain events happening very close to the same time each year: the flight of ant queens, the first appearance of particular butterflies, the flowering of the first snowdrops, crocuses, ornamental cherries, daffodils, tulips, the onset of powdery mildew infection in our courgette patch.

Around the same time, we started a cookbook too – just an A4 notebook where we scribbled down our favourite food experiments or taped in printouts from online recipes or cuttings from magazines. These two volumes are encrusted in batters, grease, fruit stains and God knows what else. I like to think that a thousand years from now, scientists might be able to bring back some extinct forms of life with it.

In the past year, I’ve developed an urge to re-discover some of the more creative areas of my life that I haven’t fed in many years. I’ve started playing the piano again regularly, which I haven’t done since I all but abandoned the instrument at about Grade 8 proficiency when I went off to university. And following a bout of severe laryngitis that largely obliterated my singing voice in 2018, I recently decided to start taking weekly lessons to see if I could rehabilitate my vocal cords. A few months in and I am not only nearly back to where I used to be, but I am learning techniques that should make me sing even better, with a larger range.

Colored pencil sketches of flowers

Last weekend’s entry (Clockwise from top left: Magnolia, hyacinth, crocus, evening primrose, wild garlic)

But the most exciting development has been resuming regular sketching. I’ve always loved to draw, especially botanical subjects, but do it only rarely. Inspired in part by Emma Mitchell’s flower sketches on Twitter, and Katherine May’s excellent book “Wintering”, I decided to start a botanical journal, capturing emerging flowers and plants in our garden every Sunday, not only practicing my technique but also documenting the changing of the seasons. After I spent quite a bit of money on a 72-piece set of Lyra coloured pencils and a hardbound book of fine vellum from Strathmore, I was worried that I might abandon it after the first entry. But the project has taken on a life of its own, and it’s satisfying to watch the pages fill up week after week, blossoming like a garden in springtime.

Last weekend, however, I did have a little wobble, wondering why I am so compelled to get all of this stuff down on paper. In the past, when my life stretched out forever, I assumed that the chronicles would come in handy, a reference to consult whoever I wanted to remember a forgotten aspect of my journey on this planet. But now I’m not so sure. Why go to all the trouble? Who is it for? I can’t imagine anyone being interested, even my own family tree once I am gone; unlike a laboratory notebook, it’s not even useful: nobody will need to see how I did it, or reproduce the result. All these hours, days, years of active chronicling, sometimes at a considerable cost (for it takes time and energy that I sometimes feel I cannot spare): what is the point? The experience of doing it, living through it more intensely by recording it? But no – if it was only for the process, I wouldn’t save anything: I’d discharge my heart and soul onto the pages and then throw them away. It seems the saving is part of it, but I no longer know why.

It’s a sobering feeling: in the past, there was only the evangelical certainty that I must gather and accumulate this diverse evidence. Now the stacks of dusty journals seem to look at me and say, “Well?”

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Academia, Art, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Music, Nostalgia, The ageing process, Work/life balance, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In which I capture the present, but forget why

  1. Grant Jacobs says:

    For what little it’s worth, my mother wrote journals. My sister is reading them. I’m not sure I could. (She died just before Xmas in 2021.)

  2. dom says:

    I think a book of drawings is a great thing to leave, & am sure that it will be looked at long after the chemistry notebooks are forgotten. As Grant says though, it can be too close when it is a parent, whereas a grandparent has a bit more distance so seems less personal.

  3. Erika Cule says:

    I can’t imagine anyone being interested, even my own family tree once I am gone; unlike a laboratory notebook, it’s not even useful: nobody will need to see how I did it, or reproduce the result.

    ^^ I don’t think this is true. I don’t think you can possibly know.

    If you – or someone like you – encountered an archive like yours but from fifty years ago, a hundred, two hundred – what would you do? It’s probably rare to have a collection quite so complete and varied. Make sure you lay down some tracks musically, and store those, too.

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