Holiday Books: 1997

(This column first appeared in the December 8, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    This year has produced an unusual number of fine natural history books. Here are my recommendations in necessarily brief vignettes:

    I am glad that I had not read Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea" (Norton) when in 1946 my ship sailed into a violent North Atlantic storm. Now, years later, I have gained from this book a better understanding not only of how dangerous that storm was but how much worse it could have been. Although the villain of this heart-stopping tale, a hurricane-enhanced weather system, defeats the sailors in the central episode, other exciting events have happier conclusions. Here is another vivid reminder to those who believe we have out-engineered Mother Nature that she has some still nastier tricks up her voluminous sleeves.

    Our wild bees have been almost completely eradicated by two mite species which were new to the United States in the 1980s and commercial bee-keepers have lost most of their hives to these parasites and to several diseases as well. For that reason "The Forgotten Pollinators" by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan (Island) takes on special importance. The good news: nearly 200,000 other invertebrate and vertebrate species pollinate plants; the bad news: many of them are also threatened.

    And if bees are endangered, so are we. We need to be aware of new diseases and Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's page turner, "Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" (Common Courage) provides alarming information about not only this brain destroying illness but also consumer protections overpowered by the factory farm industry.

    On a happier note, "Forest Cats of North America" by Jerry Kobalenko (Firefly) is a beautifully illustrated introduction to our three native cats: cougar, bobcat and lynx. The references in this book (even including web sites) make it a good starting point for anyone curious about these elusive back-country felines.

    "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature" by Harry W. Greene (University of California) is my candidate for best-of-show. If you fear or despise snakes, look up this book; it may change your way of thinking about these often reviled but generally beneficial reptiles. The Fogden photographs are spectacular and the text by this distinguished Berkeley herpetologist is at once deeply informed and highly personal.

    Botany is well represented this year. I have been reading John King's "Reaching for the Sun: How Plants Work" (Cambridge University) and Karl J. Niklas' "The Evolutionary Biology of Plants" (University of Chicago) together. The first is less technical but I am learning much from both, some of it quite amazing, like the powerful suction created by plants to draw water and minerals to their leaves. Another botany book, just out, is Sara Stein's "Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology" (Houghton Mifflin). Especially those who read her earlier "My Weeds" and "Noah's Garden" will be delighted to share her further insights into natural gardening.

    At last campers have the reference they need in "The Campgrounds of New York" by Gary Hartman (North Country). Detailed maps and descriptive information will be especially useful when making the now required phone reservations.

    Finally I again call attention to two unusual books. Best volume of the decade, David Quammen's update on evolutionary,/a. problems in "The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" (Scribner) and William Agosta's descriptions of remarkable animal and plant chemical warfare and signals in "Bombardier Beetles and Fever Trees" (Addison Wesley).

    A sly suggestion: Shop early and you can read gift books before you wrap them.