Natural History Books for the 2004 Holiday Season


(This 714th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 5, 2004.)


With the holidays fast approaching, I offer my annual natural history and science book recommendations.


You don't have to be an Adirondack 46er to appreciate Jerry Jenkins' THE ADIRONDACK ATLAS: A GEOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT OF THE ADIRONDACK PARK (Syracuse University Press). In fact, even if you never plan to visit the park, you will find this atlas a perfect addition to your home library for it has much to offer about New York State outside the Adirondack Blue Line boundary.


Of course, the atlas's main focus is on this largest park in the lower 48 states. (The Adirondack Park is, in fact, comparable in size with the big Alaskan preserves.) In this book you will find detailed information on park history and the wildlife that occurs there with special focus on the changing populations of birds and animals, as well as a comprehensive analysis of the people who live and work in the region.


But you will also find, for example, the billion year archeological history of the northeastern United States as well as wonderful accounts of the early wars that beset this part of our nation.


Six years of research sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society went into preparation of this handsome book whose thoughtful text is perfectly supplemented by Andy Keal's 450 maps and 300 graphs. It is interesting to note that these informative illustrations could not have been prepared as recently as twenty years ago. Only with the development of computerized Graphic Information Systems has this kind of spectacular compilation become possible.


Retired University of Illinois entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer continues to demonstrate that we should not consider insects simply as creepy-crawlies. In WHAT GOOD ARE BUGS? INSECTS IN THE WEB OF LIFE (Harvard University Press) he informs us about the important roles insects play, for example, in supporting plants through pollination and seed dispersal, in helping other animals by providing them food, in controlling plant and animal population explosions and even in recycling wastes.


Waldbauer is a teacher in the best sense of that word: he is deeply and widely informed and enjoys a good sense of humor. This book, like his earlier BIRDER'S BUG BOOK and MILLIONS OF MONARCHS, BUNCHES OF BEETLES, not only helps us address our love-hate relationship with insects but also gives us deeper insights into the history and philosophy of science.


Nicola Smith's HARVEST: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN ORGANIC FARM (Lyons Press) follows a young couple and their infant son through 2003 on their Vermont farm. One brief excerpt from this fine book fully characterizes Smith's keen eye: "Sentimentality is for people who don't farm, and who aren't confronted, as farmers are daily, with the inescapable, inconvenient, messy realities of life and death. There seems to be a general rule of thumb that the farther removed you are from nature and from the necessity of having to earn a living from it, the more sentimental and romantic you are likely to be about it -- as if farms should operate on the same principles as a children's petting zoo or a show farm, where the animals are always docile and always smell sweet and never grow to maturity, always stay playful and fleecy and downy and snuggly, and are never slaughtered for meat or because they are injured or sick or worn out of just too damn mean."


Although I can only recommend NEWTON'S PRINCIPIA FOR THE COMMON READER by S. Chandrasekhar (Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press), despite its title, to readers with the strongest possible mathematical background, I give the editor high marks for his helpful commentary. I admit, however, that even with that assistance my personal average has been about an hour per page in following the arguments of this towering 17th century genius.


Finally, if like me, you give IOUs in those hearth-side stockings, you may wish to offer two books I have reviewed in page proof that will be published in early 2005. The first is Allen Benton's BIRDING THROUGH LIFE: THE WORLDWIDE WANDERINGS OF A BORN BIRDER (Nymphaea Productions, P.O. Box 173, Fredonia 14063). One of the region's finest field biologists, Dr. Benton's communication skills have been honed though years writing weekly natural history columns for the Dunkirk Evening Observer. The other is a second and equally good Waldbauer offering, INSIGHTS FROM INSECTS: WHAT BAD BUGS CAN TEACH US (Prometheus).-- Gerry Rising