Natural History Books for the 2009 Year-End Holidays


(This 976th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 6, 2009.)


Despite widespread moaning about our nation turning away from reading, publishers failing and bookstore stocks tanking, 2009 has again produced a wealth of nature and science books. Here are some that I have enjoyed.


First for children: a local 4th grade teacher writing under the pseudonym Harriet Stuart has written Hitches and Ditches on the Erie Canal (Stuart Productions, 1435 Dodge Road, Getzville), a book about a teenager working on the canal and coming of age in the process.  I found it interesting, even occasionally exciting; youngsters should like it.


I cannot imagine a finer history of the subject than Jim Endersby's A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (Harvard). Don't be put off by that title: the book's chapters center on research subjects: Darwin's passionflowers, Mendel's hawkweeds (the plants he studied after sweet peas), and the horses, fruit flies, corn, zebrafish, mice and, yes, guinea pigs studied by lesser known scientists. This is simply the best science book accessible to the non-scientist that I have read since Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything.


Buffalo's own Herbert Hauptman has written a lovely collection of essays titled On the Beauty of Science (Prometheus) that includes his Nobel laureate acceptance speech as well as the original technical paper that won him the prize. Most interesting to me is his chapter and associated appendices on religion and science.


Two books should attract readers who enjoyed the recent television series about our national parks. The first is directly associated with the programs: The National Parks: America's Best Idea (Knopf) by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. It is a beautiful coffee table book that more than illustrates the series. The other is Donald Worster's A Passion for Nature (Oxford) about John Muir, arguably this country's most important conservationist, who played a major role in gaining protection for those parks.


The other coffee table book I recommend this year is Lake Champlain by Christopher Shaw and others (Adirondack Life), which celebrates the lake's quadricentennial begun when Champlain first visited in 1609. Not just a picture book, this is a collection of well-crafted essays that deserves hours of attention. That same year brought Henry Hudson up the river named in his honor to within 80 miles and one month of Champlain. The new Hudson biography, Half Moon by Douglas Hunter (Bloomsbury), provides an account of the explorer's life based on the little known about him.


Two books speak directly to those concerned about the status of science. The first is Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (Basic Books). This important book makes clear that the turn back toward science from the strong opposition of the Bush administration, a reversal highlighted by Obama's appointment of Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, falls far short of solving our nation's problems. The other book is Cornelia Dean's Am I Making Myself Clear? (Harvard) which urges scientists to communicate their subject through media representatives and offers helpful suggestions. (It is interesting that a Dean interview plays a role in Hauptman's book as well.)


A good response to the inquiry, "Where should I go to find birds?" is to be found in Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, edited by Gerald Smith. The western New York section, written by outstanding regional birder Willie D'Anna, describes twenty local birding areas.


Each year seems to bring us a new field guide. This year it is Birds of Eastern North America: A Photographic Guide by Paul Sterry and Brian Small (Princeton). For travelers there is a companion western guide as well.


Sleeping through the night is a rare treat for me. For that reason I keep essay compilations at bedside. Reading an essay relaxes me and prepares me to sleep once again. This year has brought several excellent collections, some with odd titles. Diane Tennant's wide-ranging collection is The Barking Tree Frog and Other Curious Tales (Virginia) and Janet Lembke's is Because the Cat Purrs (Skyhorse), which addresses our relations with other species. John and Gloria Tveten's Nature at Your Doorstep (Texas A&M) is a welcome southern entry.


Finally, reading John Adam's A Mathematical Nature Walk (Princeton), while not easy going, has convinced me to return to teaching. I consider that praise.-- Gerry Rising