Nature rare and common
HOW IS THE INTREPID Adirondack explorer to make sense of all the flora, fauna, and fungi out there? In the past, the typical way was to carry field guides, which, in the grand tradition of nature books, tended to tackle one subject at a time. A generalist wanting greater knowledge of the life along the Van Hoevenberg Trail up Mount Marcy might stuff a pack with guides to birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, trees, shrubs, wildfl owers, ferns, and more. A single field guide might weigh two or three pounds. To carry half a dozen or more required a strong back. I know, having done it for years.
Lately naturalists, perhaps abhorring the vacuum of field guides with a broad focus, have begun to fill the void. In 2006 Nancy Slack and Allison Bell gave us the concise and superb Adirondack Alpine Summits: An Ecological Field Guide, and in 2008 the University of New Hampshire Press brought out James Ryan’s excellent Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide. Both books aim more for breadth than depth. Slack and Bell include animals along with the plants they know best, and Ryan, interpreting “wildlife” to mean “animal life” as most people do, begins with invertebrates such as insects and spiders and concludes with birds and mammals. Given the detail that must be left out to range so widely, these authors manage wonderfully well.
Now come two new guides, broadly focused and of interest to us in the Adirondacks: The Kaufman Field Guide to the Nature of New England and Eastern Alpine Guide: Natural History and Conservation of Mountain Tundra East of the Rockies.
Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, husband and wife, have produced the Kaufman guide, the sixth in a series that also includes field guides to birds, mammals, butterflies, insects, and advanced birding. This is the first pairing of these authors, and it’s a felicitous one. The book is smoothly, handsomely, and accurately put together. Kenn Kaufman is a renowned bird expert and author of Kingbird Highway, Lives of North American Birds, and other books. Kimberly Kaufman, an accomplished naturalist, serves as executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio.
In their New England guide, the authors take a soup-to-nuts approach. The text and photos, married on opposing pages, begin with a crash course on rocks, minerals, and geology, then look up to the stars and planets before coming back to earth. From that point on it’s wildflowers, trees, ferns, fungi, mammals, birds, butterflies, moths, and a scattershot sample of the rest. The advantages of the broad approach are plain: here’s one-stop shopping for the naturalist on the run who wants to know the most conspicuous living elements in northeastern landscapes. Most of the content is relevant here, except for marine life.
Disadvantages? They’re obvious, too. If you want to identify every flower you see, or every bird or amphibian, you’ll have to round up a library of books. No single volume, not even this fine one, can do it all. Yet the Kaufmans rise to the challenge, making judicious choices, such as including, for example, all the frogs an Adirondack or New England adventurer is likely to encounter. All in all, the Kaufmans provide a handy introduction to much of what New England and the Adirondacks have to offer.
A very different sort of enterprise is Eastern Alpine Guide: Natural History and Conservation of Mountain Tundra East of the Rockies edited by M.T. Jones and L.L. Willey. This book’s focus is as broad as the Kaufmans’. It looks at categories of life, or taxa, rangingfrom primitive plants such as mosses and liverworts to conifers, floweringplants, mollusks, leeches, insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and more. Yet in another sense, the Eastern Alpine Guide is highly specific. It zeroes in on a single habitat type: the tundra that occurs on North American mountains and summits east of the Rockies.
While the Kaufman guide speaks to readers in plain English and aspires to a wide audience, the alpine guide misses the boat on that score and communicates its fascinating subject matter largely in the jargon of scientists. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. If you’re keen on learning more about tundra in the Adirondacks and elsewhere and able and willing to swallow words like proliferous, solifluction, and vivipary, you will be delighted with this book. The information is sound, the treatment thorough, the photos gorgeous, and once you get beyond the language, much of it dry, the enthusiasm is contagious. Multiple authors produced the text, and their passion for the subject matter radiates from every page.
Nancy Slack and Allison Bell, in their Adirondack Alpine Summits, credit our mountains with possessing tundra covering eighty-five acres. The authors of the Eastern Alpine Guide up the number to 173, citing a different source. Even 173 acres constitutes a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the nearly six million acres that make up the Adirondack Park. Why should we care about a habitat so rare? The authors make a persuasive case. The organisms clinging to life in the harshest places in eastern North America, a great many of the species rare, are worthy of our admiration and conservation. The book concludes: we hope that all people who love eastern mountains will simply delight in the fact that these wild ranges exist, offering a vision of the alpine past—and the alpine future—of eastern North America.