The Field Journals of Timothy Otis Fuller
“Linnaeus, letting fall his hand on a bunch of Moss at his side, exclaimed, ‘Underneath this palm is material for the study of a lifetime’; and if this is true of a handful of Moss, the treasures of a township must be inexhaustible. We need not seek for new worlds to conquer. Rather let us say with the poet, ‘I walk the hills my feet first knew,and year by year they grow dearer and dearer to me.’ ” (Timothy Otis Fuller, “A Sketch of the Flora of Needham”, 1886)
Timothy Otis Fuller (1845-1916) was a naturalist, and his field of study was Needham. Fuller’s roots in Needham reached very deep. He was born into a family that had settled this area in the 1600s, and in 1871 he married Abby Ella Mills, daughter of another of Needham’s founding families. He served for a while as the Town Auditor, and in 1902 was appointed to the Committee for a Town History. In 1915, Fuller and his wife were among the Incorporators of the Needham Historical Society.
Timothy Otis (as he was generally known) was a self-taught naturalist in the mold of Thoreau, whom he admired. His knowledge was based on patient and minute observation. Like Thoreau, he was also a prodigious walker, walking in the pursuit of his studies to Woonsocket on one occasion, and as far as Ipswich on another. He was especially fond of the White Mountains and was a climber of considerable skill, as was his wife, who often accompanied him. Most of Fuller’s rambles, however, took place within the confines of Needham, where he examined every brook, every woodland, even the waste places beside the roads.
Fuller maintained a dialogue with professional colleagues in the natural sciences. Letters from Fuller to Asa Gray and Charles Foster Batchelder are preserved in the Gray Herbarium Archives at Harvard University. Fern specimens collected by Fuller can be found in the Herbarium collections of the University of Connecticut. Although a writer of considerable skill, he did not publish his works. His extant writings take the form of pamphlets and manuscripts; one work, “A Sketch of the Flora of Needham” was serialized in the Needham Chronicle in 1886. His observations were kept in field journals, painstakingly compiled and revised over the years.
The Needham Historical Society owns four of Fuller’s ornithology field journals, dating from 1904 through 1912. In these books, Fuller recorded his observations on the local birds, producing detailed comparisons for differentiating the various species, notes on their habitats and behavior, and even their songs in musical notation! The journals were illustrated by Fuller with finely-detailed watercolor paintings. Surely these are among the most beautiful and important objects in the Historical Society’s collections