(This column was first published in the December 10, 2001 Buffalo News.)
Here are a few of the quite remarkable number of excellent natural history books published recently to consider for holiday gifts.
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute's Natural History Atlas to the Chautauqua-Allegheny Region by Mark Baldwin and others.* This book -- just out this week -- sets a high standard for regional guides. The coverage is encyclopedic and I cannot imagine a better introduction to these two counties. I only wish I had this book on my visits to southwestern New York last summer. Although we have several good guides describing places to visit in Erie and Niagara Counties, none approach the thoroughness of this volume. I hope that it will encourage a local team to undertake a comparable project.
Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life by Peter Raby (Princeton University Press) is, I believe, the finest biography of this co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of natural selection, the driving force of evolution. Wallace has always been a personal favorite: like so many Victorian scientists who made major contributions to our thinking, today he would be considered an amateur -- and therefore second-rate -- by many academics. Self-trained he was, but he brought to his collecting expeditions to South America and the East Indies a first class mind, always concerned with the larger forces at work. Raby honors this intellectual giant by making his important work completely accessible to us.
If you own a dog or are considering bringing one into your home, you should read Dogs by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. This book completely lives up to its sub-title: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. You may not always agree with the authors, but you owe it to your pet to read and consider carefully what they have to say.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology compiles bird feeding reports nationally. Drawing on them, Margaret Barker and Jack Griggs have written The FeederWatcher's Guide to Bird Feeding (HarperResource).** Jammed with information about identification, food, feeders, landscaping, raiders (AKA squirrels) and predators, this book will serve as well inside as your feeder does outside.
One book for the serious scientist: Charles Michener's The Bees of the World (Johns Hopkins University Press). Only specialists may be interested in the 16,325 bee species, but a number of the 30 brief introductory essays are of far broader appeal and the author's two page Preface autobiography should be read by any youngster interested in nature.
Scott Ensminger's guide this year is Finger Lakes Falls.*** Falls hunting may seem to many a strange hobby, but having joined Scott and Ross Markello on several of their expeditions, I can appreciate their excitement. By following Scott's instructions, you can share those experiences.
For any of those who, like me, are both frightened and hypnotized by snakes, I strongly recommend Jeremy Seal's The Snakebite Survivors' Club (Harcourt). Seal has collected stories from around the world but none are as genuinely scary as that of Darlene Summerford of Scottsboro, Alabama. Well worth retelling around a midnight campfire.
For this list's finest prose I recommend Hannah Holmes, The Secret Life of Dust (Wiley). In this book dust rises from "dry as" to remarkably interesting -- and important as our recent brushes with anthrax have demonstrated.
Finally and far too briefly noted: Carl Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (HarperCollins) which supplements the TV series perfectly. The Granite Landscape: A Natural History of America's Mountain Domes, from Acadia to Yosemite by Tom Wessels will provide Adirondack climbers much information about the rocks on which they tread. And Errol Fuller's Extinct Birds (Comstock), beautiful portraits and brief essays about our missing avifauna.-- Gerry Rising
Here is some information about where to obtain the harder-to-find books:
* From Jim Berry at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute: "We do not have a Buffalo outlet for the book a the present time. We need one. Orders can be made by calling (800)758-6841 or by e-mail."
** From Allison Wells at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: "They can purchase it from our online store or from the Wild Birds Unlimited store here in Sapsucker Woods at (877) 266-4928." This suggests the possibility of obtaining the book from the local Wild Birds Unlimited store at 3835 McKinley Avenue in Blasdell (823-7889).
*** From Scott Ensminger: People can order the book directly from me. The prices are: $17.55 (non-New York residents) or $18.95 (New York residents). Prices include tax and postage. Make your check or money order payable to and order from: Falzguy Publishing, c/o Scott A. Ensminger, 784 Meadow Drive, North Tonawanda, NY 14120.