(This column was first published in the July 3, 2000 Buffalo News.)
Here are my suggestions for summer natural history reading.
Although I credit them as outstanding art, Audubon's paintings have never been my cup of tea. They are too stylized with his mammal as well as bird portraits forced into unnatural poses. But his narratives are something else again. They convey a great deal about the American backcountry of the early 1800s.
My favorite collection of Audubon's writing is in the Library of America John James Audubon: Writings & Drawings selected and edited by Christoph Irmscher (Penguin Putnam). Included are long excerpts from his journals, correspondence and commentaries on his paintings, many of which are included, and -- of at least equal interest -- from his descriptions of American scenery and manners.
This is a book to be dipped into almost at random. You will find here how the artist-naturalist proved by attaching wires to their legs -- the first bird banding! -- that phoebes return to the same territory each spring. You will laugh at his trials with a visiting botanist who smashes Audubon's violin attempting to rid his room of bats. And you will read sadly about his experiences with those birds forever lost to us: Carolina parrakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon.
A handsomely produced field guide to the least explored section of our state is Tug Hill: A Four Season Guide to the Natural Side, beautifully illustrated and edited by Robert McNamara with contributions from six other writers (North Country Books). The core Tug Hill forest is in Lewis County about 100 miles northeast of Oneida Lake. I will visit this region again soon, now armed with this excellent guide to the area's wildlife. I note, however, that this book's content is equally applicable to all of rural New York.
Well timed to address the increasing interest in these most attractive of all insects, Phil Schappert's A World for Butterflies: their Lives, Behavior and Future (Key Porter) has just been published. Although he has now moved to the University of Texas, the author's biology doctorate -- as well as the impetus for this book -- came from York University in Toronto. Despite its spectacular illustrations, this is not an identification guide; rather, it speaks to butterfly life history and the place of these species in our world.
I find Schappert at his best when he describes in straightforward and easily understood language important but complex biological concepts like the theory of island biogeography. I only wish that our federal legislators would read his simple presentation in order to respond this week to the illogical attacks on these concepts offered by extraction industry lobbyists.
Several years ago Pete Dunn spoke at a Federation of New York State Bird Clubs meeting and his was the most charming after-dinner talk I have ever heard. Now happily that talk is the title chapter in Dunn's 'Small-headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name.' and Other Stories (University of Texas Press). I promise you that upon reading this you will share my admiration. Consider only the opening lines:
"I'm not asking you to believe the story you are about to read, not willing to compromise the bond of trust that binds one birder to another. Frankly, I'm not sure I believe it myself.
"It's a story whose roots are buried in the origins of birding and whose branches rake the future. A story of discovery and wonder and achievement. A story of pride and selfishness and loss.
"It's a birding story, and it began -- as you will come to learn -- nearly two centuries ago...."
I wish you pleasant holidays and reading enjoyment.-- Gerry Rising