Enjoy reading nature writing in three styles: essays, trail guide and guide to field guides
By Barb Gorges
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has three very different new nature books out this spring: a compilation of nature essays; a cross between trail, travel, nature and history guides; and a guide to using field guides.
A Naturalist at Large, The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich, 2018, $26, 285 pages.
I am a fan of this man who finds so many questions to ask and then looks for the answers, even if it means climbing a tree and waiting hours to see where the ravens come back from, or spending hours watching a dung beetle make its ball.
You’ll recognize Bernd Heinrich’s topics of interest if you’ve read his other books including “Mind of the Raven,” “Racing the Antelope” and “Life Everlasting.”
The essays in this new collection were published in various magazines, mostly in recent issues of Natural History Magazine. So, the book title also means the older Heinrich gets, the better his writing. I agree. If his subjects appeal to you, soil, plants, trees, insects, bees, birds, mammals and how living things cope with the universe, you’ll enjoy this book.
I especially liked his investigation of the mechanics of how yellow iris instantly pop from bud to bloom.
The Guide to Walden Pond, An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places, Robert M. Thorson, 2018, $17, 250 pages, full color.
This book won’t mean much if you aren’t familiar with Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. Or his two-year experiment begun in 1845 living in a tiny, bedroom-sized house he built himself at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. You may want to first find a copy of his book, “Walden.”
Thoreau’s fame helped the state set aside 335 acres as the Walden Pond State Reservation (see https://www.walden.org). And he has inspired many conservationists with words such as, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Robert Thorson sets up his book as a trail guide and while taking a Thoreau-styled amble around the pond the reader gets a mix of history, natural history, biography and lots of beautiful photography.
Peterson Guide to Bird Identification—in 12 Steps, Steve N.G. Howell and Brian Sullivan, 2018, $18 152 pages, full-color.
This is a small book full of well-illustrated information that should be at the beginning of every bird field guide.
The intended audience is everyone, the authors say, “We include some things that may be challenging for beginning birders, and others that may seem too basic for those more advanced, but this is intentional.” And that’s why you’ll want your own copy to study over and over.
Step 1 – Make sure you are looking at a bird. What kind? Duck, hawk, songbird?
Steps 2, 3, 4 – Where are you geographically, habitat-wise and seasonally? Despite some birds getting spectacularly lost (and becoming the rarities birders dream of), you can assume a species of bird will show up when and where field guides say it will.
Step 5 and 6 – Is the lighting good enough and the bird close enough to identify?
Step 7 and 8 – Is the bird behaving as its presumed species does? What does it sound like? Getting a handle on birdsong will make you a terrific birder.
Step 9 – Structure–size and shape–makes an easy identifier for birds you already know. Think about those plump robins in your yard. But I would argue it is difficult to use on birds you aren’t familiar with.
Step 10 – Finally, plumage! What color feathers?
Step 11 – Be aware of plumage variations.
Step 12 – Take notes—and photos.
Howell and Sullivan’s book makes a good introduction or review as we fly into spring migration. And you can fit in reading it between field trips.