Books for the Holidays


(This 1028th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 5, 2010.)



Both the number and quality of natural history related books continue to increase. Here are some to consider for holiday giving.


I have always been intrigued by those films that show a map of the Earth passing through geologic periods with continents moving across oceans and colliding with each other like carnival bumper cars. Edinburgh geologist Dorrik Stow explains the causes and effects of those tectonic movements in his book, Vanishing Ocean (Oxford). Clues to the history of the superocean Tethys, the water partner of the supercontinent Pangeia, as it grew from its formation 256 million years ago until it finally disappeared 2 1/2 million years ago, Stow found in unexpected places like the tops of the highest Himalayan Mountains.


In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher traveled across this continent to record 100 days of birding adventures. They told their story in Wild America. Twenty years later 19-year-old Ken Kaufman hitchhiked his way to a (then) record 671 bird species in North America, a year he recorded in Kingbird Highway. Both books remain required reading for bird watchers. Now butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle has recorded what he calls "the first butterfly big year" in his book Mariposa Road (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Like the earlier books, Pyle's is much more than a simple species listing: it is an interesting travelogue by a John Burroughs Medal winner.


Anyone who, like me, loved Walter Edmonds' Drums along the Mohawk or James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans will appreciate Richard Berleth's history of that period, Bloody Mohawk: The French and Indian War & American Revolution on New York's Frontier (Black Dome). This is an exciting retelling of this period which began with a 1690 raid that killed over 100 Schenectady residents and only ended a century later with the close of the Revolutionary War. Drive today along Route 5 from Utica to Scotia and you will overlook a lovely, peaceful valley, but a valley that was once devastated by war.


I can imagine no biography of Galileo that will tell us more than J. L. Heilbron's Galileo (Oxford) about this remarkably modern scientist who lived 400 years ago. This is not an easy read. I have had to work out some of the mathematical arguments with paper and pencil. The insights into the work of this intellectual giant are, however, well worth the effort. Most of us today know little more about Galileo than of his clash with the Catholic Church over the Copernican system, but it was he who gave us, among many other things, most of those ideas that support the kinematics of school and college science: the mechanical advantage of the pulley, for example.


We know the eagle as our nation's symbol, that great white-headed bird with the big yellow hooked bill, but our bald eagle is just one of many eagle species. In The Eagle Watchers: Observing and Conserving Raptors around the World (Cornell), Ruth Tingay and Todd Katzner have collected essays about 21 eagles from observers who study these magnificent birds around the world, included are our bald and golden eagles.


Best political book of the year: Paul Collier's The Plundered Planet (Oxford) summarizes our current threatened status and plots a reasonable course for the future.


This has been another year filled to the brim with field guides, all excellent books about identification of birds, wildflowers and mammals. Those who lived before such books were available know how important they are. I mention just one: Peter del Tredici's Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (Cornell), a perfect book for the city dweller who wants to know what those plants growing between the cracks in the sidewalk are.


I make room, however, for one rather strange entry to this category. It is the Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs by Gregory Paul. I have mixed feelings about this superb book: not about its unquestioned quality, but about its role for those children who are attracted to these extinct saurians. This should be the last book for these kids and definitely not the first. Only once their interest has been heightened will this book serve as the perfect, more formal, capstone.-- Gerry Rising