Summer 2009 Reading


(This 953rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 28, 2009.)




There are many excellent new natural history books I recommend for summer reading this year.


Donald Kroodsma's Birdsong by the Seasons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) with accompanying CDs is the book of this season. It serves any birder: expert or neophyte. I am following his progress through the birding year by reading the appropriate sections and playing the recordings. Sadly, my own hearing is declining and I cannot hear many of these same high notes in the field.


Tony Ingraham's A Walk through Watkins Glen: Water's Sculpture in Stone (Stone Owl Gorge) is a collection of photographs together with commentary by a man who knows the Glen very well, having hired and trained seasonal guides there for over two decades.


The one thing I missed in this book is the episode that produced front-page headlines for Watkins Glen in the summer of 1933. A seven-point buck and an accompanying doe had leaped for a narrow ledge above a 180-foot drop. The doe fell to her death, but the buck remained stranded there. National attention was riveted on that animal: 350,000 visited the Glen in a period of 11 days. Food and water were lowered to the deer and a bridge was erected across the gorge to the ledge, but the frightened deer refused to use it. Suspense mounted until finally on the twelfth day the buck found its own way down the cliff to safety.


Another of our parks is well illustrated by photographs in Letchworth State Park by Thomas Breslin and others (Arcadia). The photo captions capture the history of this region. Of most interest to me is the description of the Genesee Valley canal that was built through much of the gorge. In the late 1870s you could travel south from Mount Morris by canals and rivers to New Orleans and north and east to New York City.


Read these books and then visit these lovely parks.


Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History (Adirondack Life) is a handsome collection of photographs and maps together with essays on the physical and social history and the present day conditions of this historic lake. Timing is right for this coffee table book this year celebrates the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain's first visit in 1609.


We know this lake for Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, for the history-changing battles of Valcour Island, Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga and for British General Burgoyne's passage through it to his fateful confrontation with Generals Gage and Arnold at the battlegrounds around Saratoga. Here you find the details filled in for those episodes and much more about the geology and natural history of this important lake.


Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide by James Ryan (New England) contains brief descriptions and comments on the behavior of the birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and even invertebrates of northeastern New York. All but a few are found here as well and even those formerly restricted to the Adirondacks, like fisher, otter and marten, are expanding their ranges beyond that limitation.


Mac Nelson of Fredonia State College has written a delightful book, 20 West (SUNY) about his adventures along Route 20 from coast to coast. This book carries special meaning to me because of an episode in my own life. During World War II on my way home on leave from the Navy, I found myself stranded in Cody, Wyoming. (How I got there is the subject of still another story.) I made my way to the edge of town to hitchhike east. What would be easier, I thought, for here is U.S. Route 20, the same road that passes through East Aurora only a dozen miles from my home in Rochester.


I stood there for hours. Finally at midnight, a young woman in a cut-off Model T with a milk barrel in the back stopped to offer me a lift. "Where are you going?" she asked. When I told her, she said that I had better return, stay with her family overnight and head for Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, because after the house to which she was delivering milk it was 86 miles to the next one. I was happy to follow her advice and did finally make it home.


Other books also  deserve your attention: Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition by Peter Tate; A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster (Oxford); and Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt. And I cannot resist adding Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Harvard), an annotated reissue of this story equally attractive to adults about the adventures of Rat, Mole and Toad.-- Gerry Rising