Anyone who thinks the world’s going to hell in a hand basket can take heart. Nancy G. Slack and Allison W. Bell’s Adirondack Alpine Summits: An Ecological Field Guide, recently published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, demonstrates that some things are getting better, and even excellence can be improved upon.
This handy and remarkably thorough introduction to the lichens, plants and animals of fragile Adirondack summit environments breathes new life and vivid color into its distinguished 1993 forebear, 85 Acres: A Field Guide to the Adirondack Alpine Summits, by the same authors.
One admirable thing about this book, in addition to its high quality, is its small size. Without skimping on meat, Slack, a plant ecologist and college professor, and Bell, a designer and photographer, have pared down their work to a 4.5-by-7-inch paperback that will slip easily into back pockets, rain shells and daypacks. This is a significant achievement in an era where field guides have grown so fat that a naturalist has to consider pushing a wheelbarrow to accommodate them.
Allison Bell not only laid out the stunning covers and gorgeous pages but also served as principal photographer. The images are luminous, informative and appealing. Bell also rounded up additional images from the Adirondack Museum and from such distinguished nature photographers as Steve Faccio, Warren Greene and Jeff Nadler.
The book’s format is sensibly straightforward. A general introduction to the Adirondack High Peaks blends history and geology with brevity and brio. Then comes a richly illustrated chapter on the Northern hardwood forests out of which the tall summits poke like islands. Characteristic trees such as American beech, sugar maple, red maple, yellow birch and Eastern hemlock are pictured and described and so are trademark shrubs and shrubby trees such as striped maple, mountain maple and hobblebush. Wild sarsaparilla, a low, creepy woody plant that doesn’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole, is also featured, as are six species of herbaceous wildflowers, one fern, one club moss and one lichen. Because this is mostly a book about plants, each section contains photos of just a few representative species of wildlife. For the Northern hardwood forest, those species are white admiral butterfly, Eastern newt (in its red-eft stage), American toad and black bear.
Next the book moves on to consider the spruce-fir forest that typifies much of the Adirondack high country. These photos are among the best in the book. Here you’ll find the balsam fir, the red spruce and the white (or paper) birch and also meet glamorous things that grow at their feet, such as American mountain ash, bunchberry, snowberry, bluebead lily (shown both with pretty flowers and handsome but toxic blue fruits), twin-flower, starflower, painted trillium, oak fern, a liverwort called three-lobed bazzania, and more. Wildlife depicted are the red squirrel, porcupine, moose and “pine marten.”
Errors in this book are so few and so minor that I hesitate to mention them. In the spruce-fir section, the reader is informed about the possibility of encountering black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, “both with yellow caps.” In fact, only the males wear yellow, and “caps” isn’t quite right. Typically, yellow brightens only the bird’s forehead, not the top of its head. “Pine marten” isn’t precisely right, either. While the term remains in common usage, it dates to a time when the pine marten of Europe, Martes martes, was thought to inhabit the Adirondacks. In fact, our animal, while similar in appearance, has been known for years to be a distinct species. The American marten, Martes americana, tends to be about half the size of its European cousin.
After an interlude of three instructive paragraphs about natural disturbances, the text moves on to that penultimate of Adirondack mountain habitat types, the dwarf forest, or krummholz (German for “crooked wood”). The harsh wind, cold and snow stunts the growth of these trees (some are shorter than you), yet some of them may be more than a hundred years old. The most enjoyable way I can think of to learn about krummholz is to read about it here. The most vivid is to crawl through it. My own most memorable experience in the miserable stuff occurred during a climb up Cascade. My Forty-Sixer friend Jim Alsina, weary of climbing peaks the usual way, had suggested we conquer the summit by starting at the Cascade Lakes between Keene and Lake Placid and, following the leap-frogging cascades that give the mountain its name, claw our way straight to the top. It made for a good story afterward, but it wasn’t fun, especially when we reached the krummholz. There was no walking through all those stunted firs and balsams. We got down on our bellies and wriggled like inchworms. When at last we burst into the open, Jim and I oozed blood from dozens of scratches.We learned we’d frightened a woman and her daughter who heard us coming and thought we were bears.
Around the halfway point, Adirondack Alpine Summits reaches the Olympian heights that it’s been aiming to describe and celebrate. The reader is introduced to the 16 Adirondack peaks (including Marcy, Algonquin, Haystack, Basin and Gothics) on which rare Arctic plants flourish in some of the harshest conditions of soil and climate on the continent. The biotic communities on and around these summits fall into several categories. In pioneer communities, soil is virtually absent and just beginning to form. Where the wind blasts most fiercely, the beautiful alpine plant known as diapensia springs up, along with hardy associates. There are sedge meadows, dwarf heathlands, and alpine bogs with small cranberry, leatherleaf, Labrador tea and sundews. In gullies sheltered from the worst of the elements you’ll find a dwarf forest, a miniaturized version of the already scaled-down krummholz. Slack describes all these plant communities with grace and economy.
One quibble here is the handling of lichens. They’re described as partnerships between a fungus and an alga. Some lichens, however, incorporate no algae at all. Instead, the fungus pairs with a cyanobacterium, which handles the photosynthetic side of the business. But such blemishes are easily overlooked as you sprawl out on the billion-year-old bedrock of a summit, peering across the book’s open pages while scrutinizing alpine flowers.
No treatment of Adirondack alpine communities would be complete without crediting Ed Ketchledge, the retired professor from the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry. At a critical time when hiking traffic was increasing rapidly and threatening rare plants, “Ketch” organized efforts to save what was left and restore what had been lost. He wrote the foreword for this book and figures in the “Conservation” section near the end.
Ketch once gave my entomologist friend Wayne Gall and me a private tour of Whiteface’s summit. The day was one I’ll never forget. The old man of the mountain was dressed from head to toe in green like some sort of ancient tree spirit. He showed us alpine goldenrod at the height of its bloom and pointed out the seeds of a rare and rather homely alpine plant called Boott’s rattlesnakeroot. Ketch made them seem the most precious treasures in the world. Slack and Bell prove his worthy successors.