Holiday Books: 1998

(This column first appeared in the December 7, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    It is with great pleasure that I recommend up front in this, my seventh annual listing of natural history books for holiday gift giving, my colleague John Sillick's new book, Alps Road Journal (Hearts'ease Press). This collection of 50 of his columns is perfectly illustrated by the line drawings of Mary Lyon and well edited by the author's wife, Kathleen.

    Some would quibble with my including this review in a natural history column. This is a book about farm life, about meeting the many problems and the great satisfactions of country living; it isn't about nature per se. Readers will have to judge how near the mark is that concern: I am satisfied that, although his slice of nature takes a different bias from my own, he arrives at its heart. To say that this book is just about farming is like saying that Walden is only about a pond.

    My only problem with these essays, most of which appeared first in the Sunday Buffalo News, is one I also have when eating peanut brittle -- I couldn't stop. I finished reading them in one sitting. They would be better savored over time, but I will return to them often for that pleasure. John's regular readers will find familiar things here: farm animals and farm implements, the fields and woodlots and creek of this Lyndonville property, maple sugaring and barn raising, family members and, of course, Old Lem.

    This is only one of many delightful books newly published this year. Here are some others:

    A perfect gift for botanists is the new Wildflowers of New York in Color by William and Valerie Chapman, Alan and Arleen Bessette and Douglas Pens (Syracuse University Press). Photographs of over 350 wildflowers are accompanied by brief descriptions. This book argues against my long-standing preference for field guides with painted illustrations: the sharp photos show details that even the best artist could not capture. I will carry this book in the field together with my Newcomb and Peterson guides.

    The third edition of an encyclopedic resource, Mammals of the Eastern United States by John O. Whitaker, Jr. and William J. Hamilton, Jr., has just been published by Cornell University Press. An amazing 104 species are described, including several intentionally or accidentally introduced exotics including the rhesus monkey. A few of these monkeys, which carry a virus dangerous to humans, remain wild in isolated Florida areas despite attempts to remove them. Although this is a technical book, I have found myself spending hours browsing through its pages. Sadly, this edition also brings news of the death of my former Cornell University colleague, co-author Bill Hamilton.

    The hiker who first called my attention to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway) told me that I probably wouldn't like it and added that ""Bryson didn't even make it all the way.'' But recently I set out to read a few pages. Those few pages turned into every page: I couldn't put the book down. It is both wildly funny and deeply informed, an odd combination in any book. And Bryson may not have completed the trail but he has hiked twice as many AT miles as I have.

    Also recommended briefly:

    Happy reading and happy holidays.