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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Nature's an Open Book

From the Earth to the Heavens

By Tamia Nelson

November 27, 2007

Canoes and kayaks push back the horizons of our world. They also bring us closer to wildlife. (But it's important not to get TOO close. Don't court danger or disturb your wild neighbors unnecessarily. Instead, keep your distance and use your camera's zoom lens or your binoculars to bridge the gap.) Such close encounters (of the wild kind) may explain why many paddlers are also amateur naturalists. And one of the hallmarks of the naturalist is a well-thumbed library. Last month, I listed some of my favorite field guides to the living world. Now I'm ready to get physical, and I've got a few more books for your consideration — books that explore the classical elements of water, earth, and air, as well as the celestial fires. To start, though, let's do what we did last time and take a few steps back, in order to get …

The Big Picture

Not many books, or even sets of books, attempt to give broad-brush portraits of entire subject areas, let alone the totality of the known world, but there are some happy exceptions. Curiously, the three "universal" references that I use most often are all old. In fact, one was published almost a century ago. (Ours is an age of specialization and sound-bites. Maybe that's why I often find myself seeking answers in old books.) In any case, here are the books I turn to first when I have questions about the physical world.

  • The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition.  Published in 1911, these 29 volumes reflect the fruits of a century of modern scientific exploration — the century of Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt, of John Wesley Powell and John Rae and Matthew Fontaine Maury, a century in which most of the blank spots remaining on the map of the world were penciled in. Their discoveries were still comparatively fresh when the 11th edition of the Britannica went to press. That's why it's often my first stop when I want answers to a puzzle in geography or geology, or when I need to know more about some aspect of the history of exploration.

  • Science for the Citizen by Lancelot Hogben.  Subtitled "A Self-Educator Based on the Social Background of Scientific Discovery," this is a comprehensive and coherent guide to the foundations of chemistry and physics, including optics, electricity, and magnetism. It doesn't have anything to say about relativity and quantum mechanics, but since I'm most interested in the world I can see with no more help than I get from a pair of binoculars or a hand lens, this book answers many of my questions about the basic sciences. It's also a good read.

  • Mathematics for the Million by Lancelot Hogben.  Mathematics is the language of science, but it's a foreign tongue for most of us. That's where this ample volume comes in. It does for mathematics what Science for the Citizen did for science. Once again Hogben manages to make a difficult subject approachable, while entertaining the reader in the process. If your grasp of spherical trigonometry leaves something to be desired — but if you're still keen to understand the mathematics behind the use of the sextant in navigation, say — then this is your book. Just grab a pad and pencil and work through the chapter on "Mathematics for the Mariner." You'll never be lost again.


So much for the big picture. Now let's focus on a single element in the physical world, the element that's arguably the most important to paddlers:


It floats our boats and lifts our spirits, to be sure. But it does a lot more than that. Rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, and oceans are all vital way stations on the hydrologic cycle. Water is also the most powerful erosive agent on the planet, whether it trickles from mountain springs, rushes through channels, or hammers on our coasts. And whenever I have questions about the world of water, I turn to these books.

  • Water: A Natural History by Alice Outwater.  This volume belongs on every paddler's desk. Outwater melds cultural history, natural history, and engineering analysis in a book that's equal parts popular science and polemic. Want to know what beavers, prairie dogs, alligators, and freshwater mussels have in common, and why they're all important to the health of North America's waters? Then read this book!

  • At the Sea's Edge: An Introduction to Coastal Oceanography for the Amateur Naturalist by William T. Fox.  Clare Walker Leslie's meticulous line drawings enhance the text, which includes suggestions for field projects.

  • Waves and Beaches, revised and updated edition, by Willard Bascom.  Essential reading for sea kayakers, surfers, and sailors, this book will interest any paddler who is curious about the birth, life, and death of waves.

  • The River Basin: An Introduction to the Study of Hydrology by David Ingle Smith and Peter Stopp.  It sounds like a textbook, and it is. Don't let that put you off, however. River Basin is both accessible and informative. The discussion of river channels alone is worth the price of admission, and there's plenty more here for amateur naturalists and paddlers alike, including field projects that don't require expensive professional equipment.

  • Rivers: Form and Process by Marie Morisawa.  Another textbook, but this one's not for the faint of heart. Written by an authority in the field of fluvial geomorphology (how rivers shape their basins, and vice versa), Rivers can't be read in one sitting. Still, if you're on speaking terms with differential equations, this slim volume will repay whatever time you can give it.


Of course, paddlers don't spend all their waking hours afloat. We have to come ashore sooner or later, and that brings us into contact with another of the classical elements:


There's a lot going on wherever water meets earth. Rivers incise intricate patterns on the surface of the land, and seas constantly remodel the margins of continents. Whether your eye is drawn by the glint of mineral grains in the shallows of a sluggish stream, by ancient cobbles newly exposed to the air after the collapse of a cutbank, or by the sinuous shape of a meander seen from the window of a floatplane (or a mountain peak), you'll likely find answers to your questions in one of the following books.

  • North America and the Great Ice Age by Charles L. Matsch.  Much of the Canoe Country landscape has been shaped and reshaped by the advance and retreat of massive glaciers. Ice Age tells their story.

  • The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher.  Neither field guide nor textbook, this classic account of an amphibious journey through the remote recesses of the Grand Canyon somehow manages to incorporate elements of both, while always remaining a captivating read. Highly recommended.

  • Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.  In his "continental tetralogy" the author of Coming Into the Country and The Survival of the Bark Canoe takes the landscape of the United States as his subject. It's an ambitious goal, but in just four volumes (Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains, and Assembling California) McPhee somehow pulls it off, delivering a painless introduction to the science of geology along the way.

  • The Practical Geologist by Dougal Dixon.  Paddlers wanting a more systematic treatment of the subject than that provided by Fletcher or McPhee will find it in this book. Companion to the The Practical Ornithologist and The Practical Botanist, both of which I recommended in an earlier column, Practical Geologist covers the basic principles of geology, including the identification of minerals and rocks, the elements of geomorphology, an introduction to fieldwork and mapping, and the theory of plate tectonics. Be warned, though — many parks and reserves rightly prohibit any rock or mineral collecting, and even where it's still legal, common sense would suggest that it's usually best to refrain. Take pictures instead.

  • Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals by Annibale Mottana, Rodolfo Crespi, and Giuseppe Liborio.  This isn't exactly pocket-sized — unless your pockets are a lot bigger than mine — but it is a field guide to the world's rocks and minerals, and it's the best one I've seen. Excellent photographs complement crisp, accurate descriptions, and there's the added bonus of succinct introductions to mineralogy (the study of minerals) and petrology (the study of rocks).

  • The Adirondack Landscape: Its Geology and Landforms by Jerome Wykoff.  The author calls this "a short look at a long history." That's a pretty good description, and his book is of more than local interest. New York's Adirondacks are an island outpost of the Canadian Shield. So if you're captivated by the Shield's rocky, boggy landscape — and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't — you'll find this little volume a useful introduction to one of North America's oldest terrains, wherever you happen to find it.

These books will probably suffice to answer most paddlers' questions about geology, but they'll leave some folks wanting to know more. The earth's a big place, after all, and sometimes appetite grows with eating. What about you? Do you want to dig deeper into the study of the stuff you stand on? Then check out the Geological Society of London Handbooks, published by the Open University Press (UK). For advanced amateurs and working geologists these can't be beat. Each offers a thorough introduction to a single topic, in a size to fit your pocket. Here's a list of the ones I've found most useful:

  • Basic Geological Mapping, 2nd edition, by John W. Barnes
  • The Mapping of Geological Structures by K.R. McClay
  • The Field Description of Igneous Rocks by Richard Thorpe and Geoff Brown
  • The Field Description of Metamorphic Rocks by Norman Fry
  • The Field Description of Sedimentary Rocks by Maurice Tucker
  • Field Geophysics by John Milsom

More? OK. Almost every paddling holiday begins with a road trip, and road cuts — the places where engineers have routed a highway through a hill, rather than over it — offer a window into the hidden world beneath the earth's surface. And what better way to break the tedium of a long drive than to explore the landscape you're passing through? You'll need a guide, though, and that's where the Roadside Geology series of guidebooks comes in. Written by professional geologists for the lay reader, each volume is devoted to the geology of one or more states in the US. (The series now covers more than half of the fifty states.) The volumes I've seen are well illustrated, well organized, and well edited. I have the following titles on my bookshelf, all of them written by Bradford Van Diver:

  • Roadside Geology of New York
  • Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania
  • Roadside Geology of Vermont and New Hampshire


It's time to move on. Canoeists and kayakers may paddle through the water and walk on the earth, but we live in a third element:


The word "live" is important here. Vitally important. Deprived of air, none of us would last longer than she could hold her breath. Moreover, the ocean of air we inhabit is also a vital way station on the hydrologic cycle. At any given moment, one seventh as much water is suspended in the atmosphere as is found in all the world's lakes and rivers. A foggy morning gives some inkling of the amount of water vapor hidden in the air around us. And that's not the end of air's influence. Weather is the product of moving air. Vertical movements make rain, horizontal movement makes wind, and either one can ruin a paddler's day. So "hey, ho, the wind and the rain," let's see what airy titles I can find on my bookshelf, shall we?

  • Instant Weather Forecasting by Alan Watts.  There's a short-term forecast in the sky 24/7 for anyone who knows how to read the signs, and it's probably as accurate as anything you can get on the radio. This little book gives interested paddlers the keys they'll need to crack the sky's code.

  • Instant Wind Forecasting by Alan Watts.  A companion book to the preceding title, Instant Wind Forecasting is more tightly focused. It's intended for sailors, but paddlers who don't mind getting a helping hand from a following wind will find it mighty useful, as well.

  • The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air by M. Minnært.  The ocean of air is as variable and ever-changing as the sea. Minnært explains the physics behind northern lights, sundogs, mirages, and rainbows, not to mention halos around the moon, red clouds, blue snow, and black water. A must-read for any paddler with his eye on the sky.


Only one more element to go now:


Not the hot fire that warms our hands and cooks our food, but the cold fire of distant stars. If you've ever looked up in wonder after the sun goes down and the Milky Way sweeps high across the summer sky — and what paddler hasn't, after all? — you'll need a guide. Here are my favorites.

  • A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets by Donald H. Menzel.  An early edition of one of the justly famous Peterson Field Guides, this handy volume has monthly star charts to help you find your way around the heavens in all seasons. And the book offers much more than that, including a photographic atlas of the moon's topographic features. There's also a useful, if somewhat dated, chapter on selecting binoculars and telescopes.

  • Leslie Peltier's Guide to the Stars by Leslie Peltier.  The book's subtitle is "Exploring the Sky With Binoculars," and that pretty much gives the game away. Where Menzel's field guide is comprehensive and matter-of-fact, Peltier's is discursive and anecdotal. It's also the book I'd recommend to anyone who's just starting out. Beginning with a chapter on choosing binoculars — few paddlers will want to bother with a telescope, but every paddler can use a pair of binoculars — Peltier takes the reader on a personally escorted tour of the northern hemisphere's night sky through the seasons of year. It's a trip you won't want to miss.

  • MPj Astro.  This is shareware, not a field guide: a virtual planetarium that runs on older Macintosh computers. It was my mainstay for many years, but unless you own an antique Mac (I do), you'll need something else. Luckily, that "something else" is available, and it's called …

  • Stellarium.  Created by Fabien Chéreau, this virtual planetarium goes MPj Astro one better — it's freeware! Available for Linux and Unix systems, as well as WinTel machines running Windows 95 (or newer versions) and Macs running MacOS X, Stellarium is my choice among state-of-the-art astronomy software. It's the next best thing to going outside to look at the sky.


OK. That's my tour of field guides to the classical elements of water, earth, air, and fire. But one question remains unanswered …

Where Can I Buy Them?

Not at your local mall, that's for sure. A lot of these titles are out of print, and none is likely to make the best-seller list anytime soon. Instead, check out the shelves of nearby used-book dealers, search the Web, or sift through the bins at your library's next book sale. Just keep your eyes open. You'll be amply rewarded.

I began this series with a look at field guides to the living world. Now I've gotten physical, listing titles I've found useful in answering questions about the four classical elements: water, earth, air, and fire. But the books on my shelves are only a sample drawn from a much larger universe. So why not tell me about your favorites? I'm always on the lookout for new volumes for my library. As Thomas Jefferson — the man who sent Lewis and Clark out on one of the earliest scientific exploring expeditions — understood very well, you can never read too many books!

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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