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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Spotlight: Reading Nature

Books for the Curious Paddler

By Tamia Nelson

June 25, 2002

When the English poet John Dryden wrote that Shakespeare "needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature," he was describing a genius—a man who, in Dryden's words, was "always great." Unfortunately, not many of us can measure up to that standard. To be sure, a lot of paddlers take an interest in the natural world, but most of us need the help of books to make sense of what we see. A lively curiosity is the hallmark of the paddling naturalist, after all, and every trip ends with unanswered questions. That's when a good book comes in handy.

But which good book? This is the question, isn't it? Like Thomas Jefferson—whose curiosity embraced every aspect of the natural world and much more besides—I can never resist the temptation to add one more book to my library. Not surprisingly, natural history books are among my favorites. Still, with more than fifteen feet of shelf space devoted to this subject alone, only a few volumes see regular use. Here are some of them. (CAUTION: Several are long out-of-print. Others will be out-of-print tomorrow. You'll have to search for them. It's worth the effort, though.)

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Henry Hill Collins' Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, East, Central and North (Harper & Brothers, New York; 1959) heads my list. I've mentioned this invaluable volume before, but it won't hurt to repeat myself. "What's that?" is probably the most-asked question on any waterway, and you need look no further for the answer. The author's sub-title is as accurate as it is ambitious: "Covering all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, food and game fishes, seashells, and principal marine invertebrates occurring annually in North America, east of the Rockies and north of the 37th Parallel."

So, if a creature clings, burrows, swims, crawls, plods, runs, or flies anywhere in eastern North American, chances are excellent that you'll find it described in this compact book. The illustrations range from mediocre to muddy and the nomenclature is sometimes dated, but the text is marvellous: witty, informed, and entertaining. No other one-volume guidebook can equal this one. I like the book so much that I often read it simply for pleasure.

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Water was one of the four elements known to the ancients, and it remains the paddler's chosen element today. For a comprehensive overview of the geology, biology, and chemistry of natural waters, from tiny pools to the great expanses of the open sea, you can't do better than pick up a copy of the The Water Naturalist, by Heather Angel and Pat Wolseley (Facts on File, New York; 1982). Though written by (and for) Britons and originally published in the United Kingdom, this book speaks to readers on both sides of the Pond. No translation is required.

Clearly illustrated with photos and flawlessly-executed line drawings, The Water Naturalist is a practical manual, too. There's even a chapter on photographing water, along with a "where to go" guide to sites of special scientific interest in both Europe and North America. Glossary? Bibliography? Index? They're all there. Nothing important has been left out of this fascinating and useful book.

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Nature doesn't end at the horizon-line, and notwithstanding CNN and PBS, the night sky's still the greatest show on earth. There are a lot of stars out there, however, and I don't always know what I'm looking at as I turn my eyes heavenwards. That's when I reach for Leslie Peltier's Guide to the Stars (AstroMedia, Milwaukee; 1986). Written by—surprise!—Leslie C. Peltier, this book has recently been republished under the title The Binocular Stargazer: a Beginner's Guide to Exploring the Sky.

By either name, it's well worth reading. As a passionate amateur astronomer with a number of first sightings to his credit—not to mention sixty-two years of variable star observations—Peltier's enthusiasm for his subject is irresistible. And he doesn't rely on gee-whiz, high-tech gear. His tool of choice for deep-space exploration was a pair of no-name wide-angle 7x35 binoculars, bought from a discount house and used for thirty years without, he says, having ever found any fault with them.

What Peltier did, you can do, too. Guide to the Stars lives up to its name, taking the reader in the northern hemisphere on a "starwalk" through all the seasons of the night sky, beginning with the Big and Little Dippers and Polaris (the "North Star"), voyaging outward through all the constellations, and finally returning by way of the moon. Quite a trip to take without leaving your backyard or getting a passport, eh? And Peltier makes it easy. His star-charts are rudimentary but adequate, and his text is superb. There's even a chapter on adapting an office chair for comfortable star-gazing!

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Back on earth, however, you may want to exchange your binoculars for a hand lens. If you do, you'll probably puzzle over pond life at some time or other. Even the smallest pool boasts scores of tiny plants and animals, and few of these can be found in the standard guidebooks—even in books as wide-ranging as Collins'. Help is at hand, however. Whatever it is that you see in (or on) a pond or small lake, you'll probably also find it in George K. Reid's Pond Life: A Guide to Common Plants and Animals of North American Ponds and Lakes (Golden Press, New York; 1967). One of the many Golden Guides for children, this little book is chock-a-block with color illustrations of plants and animals, from Spirogyra (a "common filamentous green alga") to sturgeon. Clear without being condescending, concise, and comprehensive—Pond Life is all of these things. There's even a short bibliography and an index. It's a handy pocket-sized volume, too. Who could ask for anything more?

* * *

It's a big step from pond to ocean, but many paddlers make the trip sooner or later. Sea kayakers and beachcombers alike will enjoy At the Sea's Edge: An Introduction to Coastal Oceanography for the Amateur Naturalist by William T. Fox (Prentice Hall, New York; 1983). >From weather, waves, and tides to the endless cycle of beach erosion and the intricate web of dune ecology, it's all here. Better still, the pen-and-ink drawings of illustrator and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie complement the text. A glossary, detailed index, and bibliography round out a book that no coastal paddler will want to be without.

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Someday you'll find a line of tracks in the sand on your favorite beach, and Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, Second Edition (Houghton Mifflin, Boston; 1974) will help you identify their author. More than an identification handbook, Animal Tracks is an extended essay on the natural world, written by a widely-traveled biologist who lived for months at a time among the animals he studied. It's my favorite volume in the Peterson Field Guide series. And for good reason. You have to be in the right place at the right time to see wildlife on the move, but the signs left by their passage are everywhere, waiting to be noticed by any observant padder. Each imprint in dune sand or riverside mud is a piece of an infinite and ever-changing picture puzzle. No one will ever complete the image, of course, but you can learn to recognize the pieces when you see them.

To do that, however, you'll need this book. Here, visual clues mean everything. Happily, Murie's line drawings are excellent. Not only are they technically accurate—though this is rare enough!—but they're evocative works of art as well. (See, for example, the sketch of a shorttail weasel emerging from deep snow, or the portrait of a house-proud white-footed mouse, sternly confronting an intruder from the doorway of his newly roofed-over bird-nest home.) There are many books on animal tracks, but Murie's stands alone. Accept no substitutes.

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A bird in the bush leaves no tracks, of course. But that only adds to the fun of bird-watching. If you're as fond of life on the wing as I am, you'll want to get your hands on a copy of John Gooders' The Practical Ornithologist (Fireside, New York; 1990). "Practical" is the watchword here. Once again, the book's sub-title says it all: "What to Look For, How and When to Look for It, and How to Record What You See." Morphology (body-plan), behavior, habitat—Gooders touches on each subject in turn. Of course, Henry Collins' Field Guide will usually answer the question, "What's that?" But Gooders goes further, and his Practical Ornithologist is a not-to-be missed book for would-be serious birders. A model primer. An enjoyable read. A feast for the eye. It's all these things and more, besides.

* * *

Unlike birds, plants don't fly away when you approach them. But that doesn't mean they're always a snap to identify. What The Practical Ornithologist does for birders, Rick Imes' The Practical Botanist (Fireside, New York; 1990) does for wildflower buffs and anyone else with an interest in the green world. Beginning with the basics, Imes moves on to detailed discussions of the principal North American habitats, from wetlands to deserts. Want to know where to go to find an example of a Douglas fir forest? An appendix tells you. There's also a helpful glossary and a good index.

* * *

If birds are too…well…flighty, and the profusion (not to mention confusion) of plants sometimes proves too much for you, why not get back to bedrock basics? And you can't get much closer to bedrock than the earth we all live on. Geology's everywhere, and the rocks don't (often) move. Want a guide? Dougal Dixon's The Practical Geologist (Fireside, New York; 1992) is yet another must-have volume by the same publisher who acted as midwife to the other two Practical Guides I've already mentioned. Whether your interest is rocks and minerals, fossils, or landscape interpretation, this book will get you started. Have you been meaning to learn more about geology? Now's the time. Don't put it off any longer—you've got 4.8 billion years of catching up to do!

* * *

That's it. From a one-volume guide that will help you identify anything that goes bump in the night to a Cook's tour of billions of years of earth history—this little list has at least one book for any curious paddler. After all, everyone (except for Shakespeare) needs "the spectacles of books to read Nature." Happy reading!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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