About the series

Using the retrospect of history, this series of short (two- to ten-minute) documentary programs explores human interactions with the environment as host Tom Trinley, joined by historians, naturalists and scientists, reports from locations throughout the United States. The Emmy Award-nominated series airs on public television stations nationally and creates a diverse, multi-disciplinary dialogue, sorting out complicated environmental issues and the profound effect nature has on humans … and humans have on nature.

The purpose of Notes from the Field is to provide an historical perspective needed to fully understand complicated environmental issues and to break down the thick, time-layered walls of misconception. In order to understand the text of the present, we must flip back the pages of the past. The project has relevance in that no other television series fills the void in nature programming by employing this innovative approach: “…documentaries that possess a strong historical and visual interpretation — with a twist,” according to Maria Lettier, past public historian for the Chicago History Museum. While it is wonderful to watch a program featuring a primeval redwood forest, it can be beneficial for the viewer to be informed that the debate over the preservation of ancient forests began over150 years ago between naturalist John Muir and the U.S. Forest Service: a decade and a half filibuster which has left fewer than 3% of old-growth forests standing today. This historical perspective is applicable to almost every environmental issue today.

Project Background

1998 marked the first season for the series, which consisted of six, two-minute interstitials funded by the Illinois Humanities Council and Sears Roebuck & Co. In 1999 six additional programs, with running times of seven to ten minutes, were underwritten exclusively by Sears and distributed to some seventy-five PBS member stations representing over 50% of television viewer households. Despite limited underwriting and a small production staff, the 1999 season was nominated for two Midwest Region Emmy awards and won a U.S. International Film and Video award for creative excellence. In 2013 those twelve episodes were converted to high definition and redistributed to public television stations by National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA). The programs are also available online. Finally, after a fourteen-year hiatus, in 2015 six programs were produced for season three.


Program topics and information are gathered from a diverse group of local and national environmental and historical organizations with the intention of creating a blended point of view – or voice – using traditional and new media as its mouthpiece.

Paintings, prose, artifacts, and archival photographs are used as implements to tell the varied and diverse environmental/cultural stories of our country, for example: the importance of women as specimen collectors during the dawn of the natural history museum age, the demise of the Native American culture with the eradication of the American Bison, and the literary/life experiment of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Research and Content Review

Research is lead by series creator/producer/writer Tom Trinley in association with the Office of Undergraduate Research at Northwestern University, and a three-person advisory team conducts script content review.

Gerald W. Adelmann is president and CEO of Openlands, a nonprofit organization that protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region. Under his leadership, a special program led to the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, the first federal land designation of its kind. He led the creation of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. These and many other conservation and preservation accomplishments have earned him numerous honors and conservation awards. Jerry is an emeritus member of the National Board of Advisors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He also chairs the City of Chicago’s Nature and Wildlife Committee, where he played an integral role in the initiation and completion of the Chicago Nature and Wildlife Plan, and is a member of several other boards and commissions. Jerry has been involved in conservation and historic preservation projects in China since the early 1990s. He lectures extensively throughout the United States and abroad.

Dr. Kathleen A. Brosnan is the Paul and Doris Eaton Travis Chair and Associate Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. She is vice president of the American Association of Environmental History. Dr. Brosnan has written and edited numerous articles and books. She was the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History, a four-volume set published in 2010 and 2011 winner of the Booklist/RBB Editors’ Choice Reference Sources award. She regularly speaks at conferences and events throughout the United States and Abroad.

A third topic-specific advisor is typically engaged for each program, dependent upon the complexity of the topic.