Spotlight: Reading Nature
Books for the Curious Paddler
By Tamia Nelson
June 25, 2002
When the English poet John Dryden wrote
that Shakespeare "needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature," he
was describing a geniusa man who, in Dryden's words, was "always
great." Unfortunately, not many of us can measure up to that standard. To
be sure, a lot of paddlers take an interest in the natural world, but
most of us need the help of books to make sense of what we see. A lively
curiosity is the hallmark of the paddling naturalist, after all, and
every trip ends with unanswered questions. That's when a good book comes
But which good book? This is the question, isn't it? Like
Thomas Jeffersonwhose curiosity embraced every aspect of the
natural world and much more besidesI can never resist the
temptation to add one more book to my library. Not surprisingly, natural
history books are among my favorites. Still, with more than fifteen feet
of shelf space devoted to this subject alone, only a few volumes see
regular use. Here are some of them. (CAUTION: Several are long
out-of-print. Others will be out-of-print tomorrow. You'll have to search
for them. It's worth the effort, though.)
* * *
Henry Hill Collins' Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife,
East, Central and North (Harper & Brothers, New York; 1959) heads
my list. I've mentioned this invaluable volume before, but it won't hurt
to repeat myself. "What's that?" is probably the most-asked
question on any waterway, and you need look no further for the answer.
The author's sub-title is as accurate as it is ambitious: "Covering all
species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, food and game fishes,
seashells, and principal marine invertebrates occurring annually in North
America, east of the Rockies and north of the 37th Parallel."
So, if a creature clings, burrows, swims, crawls, plods, runs, or
flies anywhere in eastern North American, chances are excellent that
you'll find it described in this compact book. The illustrations range
from mediocre to muddy and the nomenclature is sometimes dated, but the
text is marvellous: witty, informed, and entertaining. No other
one-volume guidebook can equal this one. I like the book so much that I
often read it simply for pleasure.
* * *
Water was one of the four elements known to the ancients, and it
remains the paddler's chosen element today. For a comprehensive overview
of the geology, biology, and chemistry of natural waters, from tiny pools
to the great expanses of the open sea, you can't do better than pick up a
copy of the The Water Naturalist, by Heather Angel and Pat
Wolseley (Facts on File, New York; 1982). Though written by (and for)
Britons and originally published in the United Kingdom, this book speaks
to readers on both sides of the Pond. No translation is required.
Clearly illustrated with photos and flawlessly-executed line drawings,
The Water Naturalist is a practical manual, too. There's even a
chapter on photographing water, along with a "where to go" guide to sites
of special scientific interest in both Europe and North America.
Glossary? Bibliography? Index? They're all there. Nothing important has
been left out of this fascinating and useful book.
* * *
Nature doesn't end at the horizon-line, and notwithstanding CNN and
PBS, the night sky's still the greatest show on earth. There are a lot of
stars out there, however, and I don't always know what I'm looking at as
I turn my eyes heavenwards. That's when I reach for Leslie
Peltier's Guide to the Stars (AstroMedia, Milwaukee; 1986).
Written bysurprise!Leslie C. Peltier, this book has recently
been republished under the title The Binocular Stargazer: a
Beginner's Guide to Exploring the Sky.
By either name, it's well worth reading. As a passionate amateur
astronomer with a number of first sightings to his creditnot to
mention sixty-two years of variable star observationsPeltier's
enthusiasm for his subject is irresistible. And he doesn't rely on
gee-whiz, high-tech gear. His tool of choice for deep-space exploration
was a pair of no-name wide-angle 7x35
binoculars, bought from a discount house and used for thirty years
without, he says, having ever found any fault with them.
What Peltier did, you can do, too. Guide to the Stars lives up
to its name, taking the reader in the northern hemisphere on a "starwalk"
through all the seasons of the night sky, beginning with the Big and
Little Dippers and Polaris (the "North Star"), voyaging outward through
all the constellations, and finally returning by way of the moon. Quite a
trip to take without leaving your backyard or getting a passport, eh? And
Peltier makes it easy. His star-charts are rudimentary but adequate, and
his text is superb. There's even a chapter on adapting an office chair
for comfortable star-gazing!
* * *
Back on earth, however, you may want to exchange your binoculars for a
lens. If you do, you'll probably puzzle over pond life at some time
or other. Even the smallest pool boasts scores of tiny plants and
animals, and few of these can be found in the standard
guidebookseven in books as wide-ranging as Collins'. Help is at
hand, however. Whatever it is that you see in (or on) a pond or small
lake, you'll probably also find it in George K. Reid's Pond Life: A
Guide to Common Plants and Animals of North American Ponds and
Lakes (Golden Press, New York; 1967). One of the many Golden
Guides for children, this little book is chock-a-block with color
illustrations of plants and animals, from Spirogyra (a "common
filamentous green alga") to sturgeon. Clear without being condescending,
concise, and comprehensivePond Life is all of these things.
There's even a short bibliography and an index. It's a handy pocket-sized
volume, too. Who could ask for anything more?
* * *
It's a big step from pond to ocean, but many paddlers make the trip
sooner or later. Sea kayakers and beachcombers alike will enjoy At
the Sea's Edge: An Introduction to Coastal Oceanography for the Amateur
Naturalist by William T. Fox (Prentice Hall, New York; 1983).
>From weather, waves, and tides to the endless cycle of beach erosion and
the intricate web of dune ecology, it's all here. Better still, the
pen-and-ink drawings of illustrator and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie
complement the text. A glossary, detailed index, and bibliography round
out a book that no coastal paddler will want to be without.
* * *
Someday you'll find a line of tracks in the sand on your favorite
beach, and Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks,
Second Edition (Houghton Mifflin, Boston; 1974) will help you identify
their author. More than an identification handbook, Animal Tracks
is an extended essay on the natural world, written by a widely-traveled
biologist who lived for months at a time among the animals he studied.
It's my favorite volume in the Peterson Field Guide series. And for good
reason. You have to be in the right place at the right time to see
wildlife on the move, but the signs left by their passage are everywhere,
waiting to be noticed by any observant padder. Each imprint in dune sand
or riverside mud is a piece of an infinite and ever-changing picture
puzzle. No one will ever complete the image, of course, but you
can learn to recognize the pieces when you see them.
To do that, however, you'll need this book. Here, visual clues mean
everything. Happily, Murie's line drawings are excellent. Not only are
they technically accuratethough this is rare enough!but
they're evocative works of art as well. (See, for example, the sketch of
a shorttail weasel emerging from deep snow, or the portrait of a
house-proud white-footed mouse, sternly confronting an intruder from the
doorway of his newly roofed-over bird-nest home.) There are many books on
animal tracks, but Murie's stands alone. Accept no substitutes.
* * *
A bird in the bush leaves no tracks, of course. But that only adds to
the fun of bird-watching. If you're as fond of life on the wing as I am,
you'll want to get your hands on a copy of John Gooders' The
Practical Ornithologist (Fireside, New York; 1990). "Practical"
is the watchword here. Once again, the book's sub-title says it all:
"What to Look For, How and When to Look for It, and How to Record What
You See." Morphology (body-plan), behavior, habitatGooders touches
on each subject in turn. Of course, Henry Collins' Field Guide
will usually answer the question, "What's that?" But Gooders goes
further, and his Practical Ornithologist is a not-to-be missed
book for would-be serious birders. A model primer. An enjoyable read. A
feast for the eye. It's all these things and more, besides.
* * *
Unlike birds, plants don't fly away when you approach them. But that
doesn't mean they're always a snap to identify. What The Practical
Ornithologist does for birders, Rick Imes' The Practical
Botanist (Fireside, New York; 1990) does for wildflower buffs and
anyone else with an interest in the green world. Beginning with the
basics, Imes moves on to detailed discussions of the principal North
American habitats, from wetlands to deserts. Want to know where to go to
find an example of a Douglas fir forest? An appendix tells you. There's
also a helpful glossary and a good index.
* * *
If birds are too
flighty, and the profusion (not to
mention confusion) of plants sometimes proves too much for you, why not
get back to bedrock basics? And you can't get much closer to bedrock than
the earth we all live on. Geology's everywhere, and the rocks don't
(often) move. Want a guide? Dougal Dixon's The Practical
Geologist (Fireside, New York; 1992) is yet another must-have
volume by the same publisher who acted as midwife to the other two
Practical Guides I've already mentioned. Whether your interest is rocks
and minerals, fossils, or landscape interpretation, this book will get
you started. Have you been meaning to learn more about geology? Now's the
time. Don't put it off any longeryou've got 4.8 billion years of
catching up to do!
* * *
That's it. From a one-volume guide that will help you identify
anything that goes bump in the night to a Cook's tour of billions of
years of earth historythis little list has at least one book for
any curious paddler. After all, everyone (except for Shakespeare) needs
"the spectacles of books to read Nature." Happy reading!
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights