Natural History Books for the Holidays: 1999

(This column was first published in the December 6, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    My annual recommendation of nature books for holiday giving is becoming more difficult to prepare as the number of fine publications increases exponentially. Consider the following then as only a sampling of the wonderful collection to be found in the "Nature" and "Science" sections of local bookstores.

    "...I began watching birds in Buffalo, New York," says David S. Wilcove early in THE CONDOR'S SHADOW (W. H. Freeman). Indeed, one of our own has not only made it to become Senior Ecologist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington but he has now written what I judge to be the finest conservation book of the decade.

    Two things are remarkable about this volume. First is its even-handedness. The subtitle, The Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America, reminds us that the picture is not all bad. Yes, we have lost hundreds of species of plants and animals through often misguided human intervention, but we seem slowly to be learning our lessons. For example, the black-footed ferret, once thought to be extinct, appears to have been saved and condors, after a 10,000 year absence, once again soar over the Grand Canyon.

    Second, this book is so well written that, once I began reading, my attention never flagged and complex issues were made crystal clear. Patrick McManus has it right when he says, "Absolutely fascinating! Reads like a murder mystery, which in a way it is."

    Jack Sanders' INTERNET GUIDE TO BIRDS AND BIRDING (Ragged Mountain Press) is a perfect guide for birders who use computers to tap web resources. The author of my favorite book about wildflower lore, HEDGEMAIDS AND FAIRY CANDLES (also Ragged Mountain Press), Sanders leads us in his new book not only to web sites devoted to such topics as bird art, song, conservation, feeding, migration, and identification, but he also gives us computer tips, several of which I have already found useful. Pick a bird -- red crossbill, for example -- and here are its web addresses.

    Won't this book be outdated soon as the web continues to expand? Of course, but Sanders is responding with updates on his own web page. Meanwhile, this book will save readers like me hundreds of hours searching for information.

    If you are interested in our earth's history and in particular how we got here, I strongly recommend polymath Steven Drury's STEPPING STONES (Oxford University Press). This is not an easy read: the story is so complex that I could only absorb two or three pages at a sitting. But I found the experience well worth my effort. I believe that no one could have drawn together the 4.65 billion year physical, chemical, biological and geological history of our planet and the considerably shorter histories of life on earth and eventually us better than this fine teacher.

    I recommend not one but two delightful popular books on mushrooms, Elio Schaechter's IN THE COMPANY OF MUSHROOMS (Harvard University Press) and George Hudler's MAGICAL MUSHROOMS, MISCHIEVOUS MOLDS (Princeton University Press). It turns out that there is a great deal to be said about these not quite plants, not quite animals and, remarkably, there is little overlap between these books. The first focuses on the mushrooms themselves, the second on their historical role as both villain -- the Irish potato famine -- and hero -- penicillin.

    Finally a stocking stuffer. The little Penguin paperback, SEEING AND BELIEVING by Richard Panek, is a charming collection of essays that trace the history of the telescope. Stories about historical figures -- the physicist Galileo, the mathematician Kepler, the musician-turned-astronomer Hershel-- entertain us at the same time that they inform us about the universe.-- Gerry Rising