Holiday Books: 2008


(This 922nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 23, 2008.)


This year has brought another rich harvest of natural history books, two of the finest by local authors.



David Reade's new book

For more information see his website



David Reade has outdone himself with his newest book about the Niagara Frontier. Western New York Wild: Celebrating our Rich Natural Heritage is a perfect reminder of the bounties to be found in our regional environment.


We too often demean our wonderful region and this book responds directly to those who grouse about the rust belt and lake effect snowstorms. It also provides a perfect rejoinder to those who think that Niagara Falls is our only natural attraction. Our Chambers of Commerce and college recruiters would do well to give copies of this book to those they seek to attract to western New York.


Reade is not only a professional photographer but a fine writer: his essays nicely complement the over 130 pictures that make up this excellent and remarkably inexpensive book.


Christopher Norment, a biology professor at Brockport State College, has written one of the finest natural history books of this decade. Unfortunately his title, Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows (Iowa) will not draw to it the attention it richly deserves. This is a serious book about a scientist's interactions with nature. Norment tells of his summers in the wilds of western Canada studying Harris's sparrow, a black-faced species we see only rarely in western New York.


On one level Norment entertains us: telling about the hardships of carrying out his project. Dropped off by a ski plane on a frozen river in a remote corner of Canada's Northwest Territories, he and his assistant carry their equipment to the cabin they are to live in only to find its roof caved in, its interior devastated by bears, its floor covered with a waist-deep layer of snow and ice.


But Norment's chronicle delves deeper, sharing with us, for example, his thoughts about collecting (aka killing) some of the sparrows to carry out his scientific studies. And one passage about his observations of a dying musk ox can stand with the very best natural history writing.


Based on six years of fieldwork by over 1200 birders and five additional years of preparation, The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, (Cornell) edited by Kevin McGowan and Kimberley Corwin has finally been published. As just one of those birders, I alone spent over 150 hours surveying for this volume.


This 700-page volume contains a mine of information about individual species including breeding date ranges and also about land-use changes and state ornithological history. It belongs in the library of everyone interested in our state's birdlife.


We have special reason to be proud of our state accomplishment. We are the first region to provide data comparing this atlas with another taken twenty years earlier. (That one was led by Robert Andrle of Eden.)


In The Oxford Companion to Global Change, editors David Cuff and Andrew Goudie organize the hundreds of individual alphabetic entries in this encyclopedic volume under the general categories: Earth and Atmospheric Systems, Climate Change, Resources, Human Factors, Responses to Global Change, Regions and Case Studies, and Citizen Resources. This volume belongs in every public and private library where it should serve as an important resource, especially for those who argue whether global warming is occurring and, if it is, whether human activities are responsible.


In his new book, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, (Princeton) physicist Robert Park once again confronts not only the pseudo-sciences intelligent design, homeopathy and acupuncture, but also New Age nonsense: quantum-holography, Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" and intercessory prayer.


At noon, December 19, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (Viking), will speak at the Buffalo Central Library. His important book is not simply another argument against Intelligent Design, an issue he testified to at the conclusive 2007 Dover, Pennsylvania trial; rather, he places this issue within this country's historic tendency to rebel against accepted ideology.


Susan Freinkel's excellent American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (California) is still better for its mention of Herb Darling's contributions to saving this species.-- Gerry Rising