Natural History Books for Summer 2012


(This 1110th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 1, 2012.)


First of a series


There is a rich variety of new natural history books available for summer reading. Here are my recommendations.


My favorite this year is Donald Benson's The Ballet of the Planets (Oxford), a serious math-based book which clarified a great deal of astronomy for me. It traces the history of the study of our solar system from Plato to Newton and should be in every high school library where it can challenge our brightest students.


The wonderful Bernd Heinrich is back with Life Everlasting (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Subtitled The Animal Way of Death, his first hand experiences in the Maine woods with birds, mammals, insects, plants and fish bring life to this universal topic.


We know from the work of Karl von Frisch how honeybees waggle dance to communicate directions to hive mates. Now, based on a lifetime of field studies, Thomas Seeley of Cornell tells us in Honeybee Democracy (Princeton) how bees swarm and locate new hive locations. This book is also a perfect window into how a biologist approaches scientific questions.


The season is past, but I still strongly recommend Carol Gracie's Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (Princeton). This is not a field guide; rather, it is a collection of beautifully illustrated essays about thirty wildflower species. Jack-in-the-Pulpit alone merits ten pages and 26 photographs.


Two important new field guides have, however, been published this year. They could hardly be more different. The first is a new entrant in the Peterson series: Field Guide to Moths by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I wish this book had been available when I was trying to identify the moth collection Dick Rosche had donated to the Buffalo Museum of Science. This book represents a great improvement on the earlier Peterson guide.


The other field guide I wish I had when I was hiking longer distances. It is Andrew Skurka's The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide (National Geographic). Several years ago I met Andy on his hike across the continent. I was impressed with him then and he has since completed dozens of such treks and in the process become the expert on lightweight equipment. And, as all hikers know, every ounce counts against you.


Especially timely is Tom Wilber's Under the Surface (Cornell) about fracking the Marcellus shale deposits. Wilber includes the views of all constituencies, not an easy task.


John Grant's Denying Science (Prometheus) is a well-documented tour through the contemporary war against reality with the opponents of science employing every dirty trick in the book.


One for children if you dare: Jordan Brown's Crazy Concoctions: A Mad Scientist's Guide to Messy Mixtures gives how-to instructions to primary grade youngsters under parental supervision. A wild ride but science is along as well.


Today technological miniaturization allows scientists to place recording instruments even on songbirds, but this is only one of the ways animal migration is being studied today. James and Carol Gould survey this field in Nature's Compass (Princeton). They address the problems, some solved, many still outstanding, for both vertebrates and invertebrates.


You have taken up bird watching and have begun to identify those around you. What next? Derek Lovitch provides suggestions in How to be a Better Birder (Princeton). Every birder I know can gain from this book.


The hair-raising story of the post-World War I flu epidemic is detailed in Nancy Bristow's American Pandemic (Oxford). To place this plague in perspective, there were 35 million casualties (20 million killed, 15 million wounded) during World War I; this epidemic killed 50 million. If you even think of not getting flu shots, this book should be assigned reading.


This summer I have a book as well. Since I began writing these columns I have maintained a website on which all of them - now over 1100 - are collected. Unfortunately that website is having problems. Partly in response to that and also in response to those who have suggested that I do so, I have begun collecting columns in a series of eBooks. The Nature Watch Collection Book One is now available from I have been very fortunate to have Canadian wildlife photographer Harold Stiver provide photographs in support of this project. Fine local photographers have also contributed.