Summer Reading 2002


(This column was first published in the June 17, 2002 Buffalo News.)


I find myself amazed at both the number and quality of natural history books published nowadays. I am hard put to choose among the many fine volumes to recommend for summer reading, but here is my shortlist.


An excellent guide that I referred to in preparing an earlier column is F. Lynne Bachleda's Dangerous Wildlife in the Mid-Atlantic (Menasha Ridge Press). My only hesitation in recommending this fine book is my fear that I will prevent some from spending time in our woodlands and at our beaches. But Ms. Bachleda's goal is positive. "Because learning dispels anxiety and fear," she tells us, "our objective in this book is to educate you -- to help build a foundation of knowledge that will enable you to enjoy and appreciate the natural world. Grounded in fact and understanding, you'll shed your fear of other creatures, whether you meet them in your basement, your garden or in the wilderness." This is a good reference to carry on any vacation trip.


In preparing another column I was led through Philip Plait's Bad Astronomy website to his book, also entitled Bad Astronomy (John Wiley & Sons). Because Plait has a knack for simple explanations, apt metaphors and good humor, I have learned more about the skies from this book than from dozens of more academic tomes. His focus is on misconceptions: When flushed, toilets swirl in opposite directions north and south of the equator due to the Coriolis effect. There is, as the song suggests, a dark side of the moon. It is colder in winter because we're farther from the sun along our elliptical path around it. And tides are caused by water being pulled toward the moon by its gravity. In every case the errors are carefully addressed and corrected.


In his introduction to Alexandre Meinesz's Killer Algae: The True Tale of a Biological Invasion (Univesity of Chicago Press) David Quammen tells us, "This is not a little book about some noxious alga. This is a little book...about life on Earth." It is indeed an important case history about a noxious seaweed, foolishly released and allowed to prosper in the Mediterranean where it is wrecking ecological havoc, and about the author's battle against not only the weed but official arrogance and stupidity as well. This text should be required reading for those who believe that endless postponement and equivocation are acceptable ecological defenses.


 Rooted in Rock: New Adirondack Writing 1975-2000, edited by Jim Gould (Syracuse University Press) is a collection of essays and poems about the our major state park by Adirondack residents. A perfect anthology for those of us who love these mountains.


George Erickson's True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane (The Lyons Press) takes us farther afield to introduce the vast roadless taiga and tundra of western Canada. Not just the story of his solo flights, this narrative is an ideal evocation of the fascinating but sometimes threatening backcountry of our northern neighbor.


In The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment (University Press of Virginia) Teddy Roosevelt and John Burroughs battle Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London and others who anthropomorphize and otherwise sentimentalize animals.


Four webbed feet, a duck-like bill, a fur-covered body and poisonous spurs, these descriptions of this egg-laying mammal without nipples were for many years rejected as simply fraudulent. The interesting story of this odd but very real little creature is well told in Ann Moyal's Platypus (Smithsonian Institution Press).


I had planned to take Scott Carpenter's Lake Erie Journal: Guide to the Official Lake Erie Circle Tour (Big River Press) on another Great Lake circumnavigation this summer but my moped gave up on me. Hopefully I'll make it next year.


Following up on excellent tradition initiated by the Peterson series of First Guides (Houghton Mifflin Publishers), Donald and Lillian Stokes now have their own series of Beginner's Guides with Bats, Butterflies, Dragonflies and Shorebirds already published (Little, Brown and Company). At the opposite extreme is Edward A. Cope's revision of Muenscher's Keys to Woody Plants (Comstock Publishing Associates), a pair of extraordinarily complete binary keys to native, naturalized and cultivated shrubs.


Finally but as good or even better, two delightful natural histories for gardeners: Peter Bernhardt's erudite The Rose's Kiss (Chicago), and our Ithaca neighbor Diane Ackerman's often poetic Cultivating Delight (HarperCollins).-- Gerry Rising