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The Incidental Steward

Reflections on Citizen Science

By Akiko Busch

A search for a radio-tagged Indiana bat roosting in the woods behind her house in New York’s Hudson Valley led Akiko Busch to assorted other encounters with the natural world—local ecological monitoring projects, community-organized cleanup efforts, and data-driven citizen science research. Whether it is pulling up water chestnuts in the Hudson River, measuring beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, or searching out vernal pools, all are efforts that illuminate the role of ordinary citizens as stewards of place. In this elegantly written book, Busch highlights factors that distinguish twenty-first-century citizen scientists from traditional amateur naturalists: a greater sense of urgency, helpful new technologies, and the expanded possibilities of crowdsourcing.

The observations here look both to precisely recorded data sheets and to the impressionistic marginalia, scribbled asides, and side roads that often attend such unpredictable outings. While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, the book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism and the opportunities it offers for regaining a deep sense of connection to place.

Akiko Busch has written about design, culture, and nature for a variety of publications including The New York Times and Metropolis magazine, where she was a contributing editor for twenty years. She is on the faculty of the MA Design Research program at the School of Visual Arts and is a visiting teacher at Bennington College, where she teaches environmental writing. Her work has been recognized by grants from the Furthermore Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Civitella Ranieri. She lives in the Hudson River Valley.


“Sensuously lush and thought-provoking . . . a beautiful and incisive affirmation of how ‘full engagement with the natural world enriches the human experience.’ ” Booklist (starred review)

“Every once in a while a place finds someone to speak for it. The hero of The Incidental Steward is the Hudson River and its valley—its woods and rocks, its schedules, changes, species, and mysteries. This book, gracious and intelligent, made me want to go look closely at the river, which I felt I had never seen properly before.” —Alec Wilkinson

“Through her evocative prose Akiko Busch reminds us of the beauty of being in and connecting with nature—and that nature is not necessarily something to be solved, but to be explored and in our explorations it helps to revive our sense of wonder. Busch enters the lives of amateurs and professionals who share her love of nature and readers will greatly enjoy her immersion with fascinating people and places, intimately recorded, as well as her musings about how our relationship to nature has changed in the 21st century. Part of her eloquent plea is that nature is the source of our awe and inspiration, so we’d better work hard to keep from losing it, or we will be lost. I loved it!” —James Prosek, author of Tight Lines and Eels

“Every subject Akiko Busch touches, she fills with grace. In The Incidental Steward, she has combined her spiritual appreciation of the Hudson Valley with her own gift for elegant prose to chronicle the quiet work of dedicated citizen scientists whose observations and data are helping us all to understand the landscape and prepare for its future. Busch invests the commonplace of the valley–its weeds and vernal pools, herring and eels, bats and bald eagles, and countless other flora and fauna–with fresh revelation, and the wisdom of one who knows the land.” —Tom Lewis, author of The Hudson: A History

“In these graceful and inviting essays, Akiko Busch unveils the remarkable ways ordinary citizens advance our understanding of a rapidly changing natural world, an understanding more critical now than ever.” —Deborah Cramer, author of Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage and Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World

“Sure to inform and delight nature lovers.” Kirkus Reviews

“Akiko Busch reflects deeply on what it means to be an observant, concerned citizen-scientist, confronted with all the challenges of recording meaningful data on organisms from eels to eagles. Scientists and volunteers studying the natural world will benefit greatly from reading this eloquent and beautifully illustrated book.” —Elizabeth Farnsworth, Senior Research Ecologist, New England Wild Flower Society

“Both informative and inspirational.” Publishers Weekly

“Busch’s examples of citizen scientists, those who regularly observe, record, and act upon the wrongs visited on the natural world in their own back yards, seem to have a deeper sense of place than those of us who stopped paying attention. They also get their hands dirty, like Busch and her cohorts have done in the Hudson Valley, where she made these observations about nature, human nature, and the nature of deep connections to place.” —Susan Szenasy, Metropolis magazine

“The Incidental Steward is a journey into the space where science, community, policy, and stewardship overlap. Busch’s integrity as a writer and poetic language make it a journey well taken.” —Cheryl Daigle, Orion magazine

“Always engaging and often enlightening, . . . [Busch] has in abundance a scientist’s keen passion for close observation and—critically—an abiding respect for the people who feel compelled, for a variety of intriguing reasons, to take part in what are often thankless and inconclusive actions on behalf of conservation.” —David Harmon, Biological Conservation

“‘To observe the natural world is to observe a complex web of relationships,’ says science writer Akiko Busch, and in this series of thought-provoking chronicles she highlights the work of people who engage with their local wildlife and contribute to 21st-century citizen-science projects.” —Jo Price, BBC Wildlife Magazine

The Incidental Steward
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Yale University Press, 2013
Now in paperback

With illustrations by Debby Cotter Kaspari

Published with support from the Furthermore Foundation

Honorable mention in National History Literature category, National Outdoor Book Awards (Association of Outdoor Recreation/Education), 2013

Also available in Chinese (simplified characters)

(Taiwan: Rive Gauche Publishing House, 2018)

Please visit akikobusch.com

Read Akiko Busch’s New York Sunday Times opinion pieces on

how to be invisible (February 8, 2015)
fear (October 26, 2014)
eels (March 30, 2013)
“Measuring a Sycamore” tree (August 10, 2013)

Also by Akiko Busch

How to Disappear (2019)

Patience: Taking Time in an Age of Acceleration (2010)

Nine Ways to Cross a River (2007)

Geography of Home (1999)