Nature's an Open Book
The Living World
By Tamia Nelson
October 23, 2007
With the fall migrations well under way and
General Winter already drawing up plans for his next invasion of Canoe
Country, I've been spending a lot of time with my nose buried in books. No, I
haven't been reading best-sellers. I've been consulting field guides. This
year I added six new bird species to my "life list": four warblers, one vireo,
and a rail. Without a field guide to help me, these birds would have remained
nameless unknowns, and I'd still be clueless. Yet my curiosity about the
natural world goes far beyond bird identification. I use my library of field
guides and natural history books every day, whether I'm paddling, hiking, or
or just staring out the living-room window. If you're a keen
birder or amateur
naturalist, you'll know what I mean, and you'll probably have many
favorite guidebooks of your own. But if you're just starting out, a few
examples drawn from my library might not go amiss.
With that in mind, let's look at books that paint
The Big Picture
After all, it's hard to get acquainted with the trees until you can see the
forest. And these books all serve as good starting points when you're getting
to know who's who in the landscape.
- Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife by Henry Hill
Collins. If I could have only one field guide, this would be my
choice. I first recommended it years ago,
and I haven't changed my mind. It's a one-stop shop for anyone who needs to
identify almost anything that runs, crawls, swims, or flies in eastern or
central North America, provided that it doesn't have six (or eight) legs. And
it's also a good read. You can't say that about very many field guides!
- A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, 2nd edition, by Olaus J.
Murie. One of the many guides in the Peterson series, this little
book delivers far more than the title implies. In addition to Murie's
evocative pen-and-ink sketches, the text is enlivened with anecdotes drawn
from long years of field work in the Epoch BRC (Before Radio Collars), when
naturalists actually lived among their subjects of study for months at a time,
rather than commuting to a remote observation post in a SUV or snowmobile, or
monitoring a computer screen.
- A Guide to Nature in Winter by
Donald W. Stokes. A perfect companion for canoeists and
kayakers who are forced to trade their paddles for snowshoes
during the Season of Hard Water, this paperback's utility is further enhanced
by Deborah Prince's delightful pen-and-ink illustrations. Nature may sleep
during the winter months, but there's still a lot to see, and Stokes' guide
will open your eyes to the austere beauty of the frozen world.
- The Backyard Bestiary by Ton de Joode and Anthonie
Stolk. Nature begins
on your doorstep, yet there are very few guidebooks to the "near wild."
The American edition of Bestiary is a happy exception to this rule, and
thanks to Kees de Kiefte's wonderful paintings, it's also a work of art.
Your kids and grandkids will enjoy it, too.
- Wild Sounds of the Northwoods by Lang Elliott and Ted
Mack. Though it's a cassette tape (remember those?) and not a book,
I've nonetheless found this "audio field guide" very useful indeed. Many wild
creatures are masters of camouflage, but our ears often reveal what our eyes
cannot see. Wild Sounds is the key you need to unlock the door to the
invisible world of the not-so-silent shadows.
Now it's time to bring the focus closer. From the Big Picture we move on
The Watery World
Paddlers often wonder what's happening beneath their keels, and I'm no
exception. Here are some of the books that I turn to time and time again to
answer my own questions:
- Field Book of Ponds and Streams by Anne Haven
Morgan. Published almost 80 years ago, this little book is
still one of the most comprehensive guides to freshwater life I've seen, and
it's certainly one of the handiest. I snatched my copy from a college
dumpster, where it lay among many other victims of a periodic "weeding" of the
library shelves. The library's loss was my gain.
- Pond and Brook: A Guide to Nature Study in Freshwater
Environments by Michael J. Caduto. An overview of the
watery underworld, this paperback is part field guide and part textbook, with
good coverage of the hydrologic cycle, water chemistry, and the geology of
ponds and streams.
- Life In and Around the Salt Marshes by Michael J.
Ursin. Salt marshes
are fascinating places, teeming with life. This slim volume, subtitled "A
Handbook of Plant and Animal Life In and Around the Temperate Atlantic Coastal
Marshes," is a workmanlike guide to the world where the sea meets the shore.
- Pond Life: A Guide to Common Plants and Animals of North American
Ponds and Lakes by George K. Reid. Simple and
good, this well-illustrated Golden Guide is small enough to fit in your
pocket, yet detailed enough to be of real use in the field.
Curiosity is boundless, but general field guides and ecosystem-specific
handbooks can only take you so far. There are times when you'll need to dig
deeper, and if
The Subject is Birds
These volumes will be invaluable:
- A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North
America by Roger Tory Peterson. RTP is dead, but his work
lives on. To my mind, this book remains the gold standard among birding
guides. (There are also companion volumes for the birds west of the Rockies,
Texas and adjacent states, Mexico, and Great Britain and Europe.) My copy is
seldom out of reach. 'Nuff said?
- A Guide to Bird Behavior, Volumes I - III, by
Donald W. Stokes and
Lillian Q. Stokes. Peterson's field guides give short
shrift to bird behavior no surprise here; that's not their purpose
but these three volumes fill the gap admirably.
- The Practical Ornithologist by John
Gooders. Not so much a field guide as a guide to working in the
field, this large-format paperback is accurately subtitled "What to Look For,
How and When to Look for It, and How to Record What You See." Behavior,
migration, calls and songs, flight, life cycles, morphology, and anatomy
you'll find all these, to be sure, but the book's best chapters are the
practical ones, dealing with subjects ranging from selecting binoculars and
telescopes to the art of keeping a field journal.
Then, when you're ready to turn your attention
From Feathers to Fur
You'll find the following guides of interest:
- A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior by
Donald W. Stokes and
Lillian Q. Stokes. Once again, the family Stokes
delivers the goods. I'd get Murie's Field Guide to Animal Tracks first,
but this volume is a useful supplement.
- Lily Pond by Hope Ryden. The modern North American
landscape still bears the impress of a time when the
beaver was the only planetary engineer in residence. Hope Ryden's charming
chronicle of daily life in a family of beavers shows us how they did it.
- Chipmunks: Secrets of their Solitary Lives by Lawrence
Wishner. These indefatigable striped
foragers are familiar sights around backcountry
camps and weekend
picnic spots, but not many of us stop to wonder how chipmunks live when
they're not cadging food from our larders. Lawrence Wishner did, though, and
he brought a scientist's discipline to what was obviously a labor of love. The
result is a book that no amateur naturalist will want to miss. Little of
significance escaped Wishner's eye. More importantly, he teaches us how
to see, too.
And what about making the leap
From Warm Blood to Cold?
Birds and mammals may steal the scene and capture our hearts
but snakes, turtles, newts, frogs, and, yes, insects are no less important in
the larger scheme of things. Are you a swamp rat?
If so, you'll want to check out:
- A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles by Thomas
F. Tyning. One of the Stokes Nature Guides, this book is a
good introduction to the world of snakes, turtles, salamanders, and frogs.
- A Guide to Observing Insect Lives by Donald
Stokes. Another Stokes Guide, Insect Lives, too, lives up to
its title. Once you read it, you'll never look at a housefly in quite the same
- Aquatic Entomology by W. Patrick
McCafferty. Bigger than most phone books and heavier than some of
the tents I've owned, this is definitely not a field guide. What is it,
then? Well, the subtitle calls it a "Fishermen's and Ecologists' Illustrated
Guide to Insects and Their Relatives," and I can't find anything wrong with
that. In fact, it's the most comprehensive guide I've seen to the insects who live
their lives in and around the water. The line drawings and paintings by
Arwin V. Provonsha are superb, too, so the book is a feast for the
eye as well as the mind.
- The Year of the Turtle by
David M. Carroll. Another labor of love. What Wishner
did for chipmunks in Secrets of Their Solitary Lives, Carroll does for
turtles, bringing an artist's eye (and hand) to his subject. If you want to
know how turtles survive a drought, what they eat, or why they cross the road
and all too often end up under the wheels of a speeding car then
you'll want to read this book.
Of course, animals, whether cold-blooded or warm, make up only a small part
of the living world. Not for nothing is earth sometimes called
The Green Planet
Shrubs and trees, cattails and rushes, flowers and ferns where would
we be without plants? But how many of us know what we're looking at when we
see them? If you're not happy with this state of affairs, you might want to
add one or more of these titles to your library:
- A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers by Donald and Lillian
Stokes. In this volume, the Stokeses do for wildflowers what
they've done for birds, mammals, and amphibians and reptiles, not to mention
insects. And they do it well.
- The Practical Botanist by Rick Imes. Similar
in format and purpose to The Practical Ornithologist, this book bills
itself as a guide to "studying, classifying, and collecting plants." That's a
pretty good summary. And the emphasis is on the practical. There's even
a section on urban botany. (Warning! Many parks and reserves rightly
prohibit collecting plants, and even where it's still legal, common sense
would suggest that it's usually best to refrain.)
- Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region by
E. H. Ketchledge. This unassuming booklet delivers much
more than it promises. In just 100 pages and with only indifferently
reproduced black-and-white photos by way of illustration it gives the
aspiring naturalist a thorough introduction to the most common tree species
of the boreal and transition forests. And it fits in your pocket! Could you
ask more of any field guide?
OK. That's a start. But it's only a start. This list is just a tiny sample
of a much larger universe of books. And that brings up an important point.
Many of my favorite titles are out of print, as, indeed, are some of the books
I've just described. Or if they're not out of print now, they will be soon.
Where Can You Find Them?
And the answer? On the shelves of a used-book dealer. Through an online
auction site or classified page. In the library. Or maybe remember how
I got my copy of Anne Haven Morgan's Field Book of Ponds and Streams?
in a dumpster outside a college library. Stay alert. Expect the
unexpected. Seize the moment. This is good advice for naturalists and
Nature's an open book to anyone who cares to see, but we often need books
to open our eyes. I've described a few of my favorite natural history titles
here, and in future columns I'll pick up the thread again. In the meantime,
however, I've got a favor to ask: Why not tell me a little bit about the field
guides and other books that you've found most helpful in your attempts
to understand the natural world? I'm sure I've missed many useful and
interesting volumes. But it's not too late. Now is the time to set me
Copyright © 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights