Natural History Books for Summer Reading: 2010

 

(This 1004th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 20, 2010.)

 

Too many books; too little time. Here are some of this year's excellent crop of natural history books for summer reading:

 

I begin with a children's book that has lessons for us all. It is Elin Kelsey's Not your Typical Book about the Environment (Owlkids). Silly and frantic indeed, yet this 64-page book contains a mine of information presented in novel fashion. I recommend it for everyone.

 

Paul Collier's The Plundered Planet (Oxford) should not only be read by every one of us but also force-fed to every politician. His central point: "Environmentalists and economists have been cat and dog. Environmentalists see economists as the mercenaries of a culture of greed, the cheerleaders of an affluence that is unsustainable. Economists see environmentalists as romantic reactionaries, wanting us to apply the brakes to an economic engine that is at last reducing global poverty. The argument of this book is that environmentalists and economists need each other, because they are on the same side in a war that is being lost."

 

Valerie Chansigaud's All about Birds (Princeton) is, as its subtitle indicates, a short illustrated history of ornithology. Although Audubon, Fuertes and Peterson make it, the book is highly Eurocentric. Amadon, Mayr, Whetmore, Sibley, Ahlquist and Monroe together rate a single paragraph and even there, Mayr is listed as a German-born American. Despite this shortcoming, this is a useful book that earns a place in birders' libraries.

 

The best adventure stories appear in The Eagle Watchers edited by Ruth Tingay and Todd Katzner (Cornell). Climbing to the nests of these large raptors around the world is only part of these narratives. Equally exciting are the researchers' encounters with grizzly bears, secret police and even the Khmer Rouge.

 

I have always been intrigued by those extreme time-lapse films of the Earth's geological history, with continents forming from a single Pangea and later the island India crashing into Asia to force up the world's highest peaks in the Himalayas. For that reason I am enjoying reading Dorrik Stow's Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World (Oxford) that explains the dynamics of that rearrangement of continents. It is hard to believe that Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was still being rejected during my lifetime. Geological thinking has come a long ways in a brief time.

 

Another serious book that I am finding well worth the effort is Vlatko Vedral's Decoding Reality (Oxford) about information theory. Yes, these are serious ideas but no one could present them in a more entertaining fashion. I agree with the New Scientist's evaluation of this book as "a ripping good read."

 

For complete relaxation, however, and a pocket-sized book you can take to the beach, consider Pete Dunne's Bayshore Summer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). You can share Dunne's appreciation for the New Jersey tidelands.

 

And now to a remarkable series of field guides:

 

Best of a fine lot is the encyclopedic Tracks & Signs of Insects and other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (Stackpole). Every time I pick up this book I find myself lost in its contents. Here you find everything from egg cases and cocoons to burrows and mounds, from leaf mines and galls to "footprints" in sand, from wasp nests to termite tubes, from evidence of mangled leaves to insect poop. This book belongs in every natural history library.

 

Equally useful for the a narrower range of plants is Peter del Tredici's Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (Cornell Comstock), a guide to the plants we know - but don't necessarily love - as weeds.

 

Every year field birding gets more technical. Most of us know birds, and especially the males, in the bright colors they sport as they head north each spring. That there is much more to the story is evident in Steve Howell's Molt in North American Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

 

The Peterson series continues with a newly edited Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I recommend this book as the best guide for beginners and intermediate birders and advanced birders are well served by it as well. Despite this, I find this book's hundred pages of duplicate maps a serious irritant. Field guides are supposed to be compact.