93F on a Red-Letter Day

“30 June 1970 – Tues. Springfield & Washington. A sort of red-letter day, when I got a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior […]”

Gale Monson’s journal for May 1970 through April 1971.

Each collection I encounter, at Special Collections or in the archive elsewhere, has its own kind of pattern or signature – a certain set of organizational characteristics or tropes that bring the materials together. In the case of the Gale Monson papers, my current focus at Special Collections, it’s the calendar.

Beginning in the 1920s during his pre-teen years, prior to the invention of the category of ‘pre-teen’ in fact, Gale Monson began making daily observations about animals, plants, and environmental conditions. His journals continued into the early 2000s before his death in 2012. He logged monthly average temperatures, the birth dates of pets, the first saguaro bloom of the year, and bird sighting tallies by species and location. The pages of his journal are punctuated with full-color photographs, postage stamps, cut-out illustrations, and ephemera.

 

 

While I enjoy his notes on plants, I think Gale Monson’s papers also offer insight into the psychology of record keeping. With journals spanning almost 80 years, his entries include reflections on styles of journaling, what is most important to record, and ideas on how to maintain a daily journal in spite of severe disruptions – including college and World War II. He even outlines the reason he journals: to create a place where can confirm his memories, and to preserve his experiences for “posterity.” (Gale Monson’s journal for 1 May 1947 – 20 October 1947) For Monson, seeing a bird or a wildflower was a moment of truth, but it was also an ephemeral moment which could only be later confirmed if it had been written down, photographed, or mapped out.

Monson accumulated his proof in many forms: journals, photographs, slides, correspondence, newsletters, popular press clipping. Each form is organized by its connection to a date on the calendar. With or without meaning to, he assembled sets of objects which help us imagine his experiences in a multi-sensory way. On 30 June 1970, when Monson received a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior, we know from his monthly weather log that it was a ‘very hot’ day in the Washington, D.C. area – high of 93F and low of 63F. The wind was light and moved southward. Although the sky was mostly clear, with a few cumulus clouds, the overall atmosphere was hazy.

Being from the East Coast, it’s easy for me to imagine this kind of summer weather: stagnant and heavy. Hot in Washington, D.C. is a sticky hot, and your clothes adhere to your body in a way that never seems flattering or tolerable. On 1 July, Monson snapped a few photos of day lilies in his yard. With the weather in mind, the flowers suggest that those of us with allergies would have felt stuffy, maybe with a headache or itchy eyes.

The calendar is a way that we collectively experience time. Most of us would agree that today is March 19th and that the 19th is different from the 18th or 20th, even though we might stay up late and blend the work of the 19th into the 20th and so on. Although Monson’s journals attend mostly to non-human neighbors, it’s not difficult to imagine how other humans felt moving through the city on his “red-letter day” and I suspect many of them felt less exuberant and celebratory.

Monson’s prosaic retelling of the day’s events is often so detailed that I have trouble identifying with him as the ‘main character.’ We don’t have much in common, Gale and I. But his concurrent meteorological notes, maps of Montreal and Washington, D.C., his photographs allow me to imagine bodily experience of living in the same ‘where’ and ‘when’ as Monson – even if we were oblivious to one another, even if his materials could never serve as evidence for my existence.

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