Once I had the pleasure of meeting Al Breisch, then New York State DEC’s de facto Herpetologist-in-Chief, at a lecture he gave for the Wild Center before it had even been built. Breisch impressed me. He was precise and as armed with accurate information about “herps” (a catch-all nickname for reptiles and amphibians) as a porcupine is charged with quills. Yet Breisch, then director of DEC’s Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project, did not strike me that day as someone inclined to write a warm, accessible, popular book about anything. It was plain he was a man of science, speaking the language of specialists.
I’m delighted to report that I had Breisch all wrong. He has produced a book about reptiles and amphibians that not only abounds in solid science, but it does so with contagious passion and prose so accessible and engaging that even children will settle into chairs with it and not be able to put it down. Granted, Breisch has help. The Snake and the Salamander: Reptiles and Amphibians from Maine to Virginia includes more than just riveting subject matter and well-chosen words. It includes sumptuous paintings by Matt Patterson that will make you gasp in admiration nearly every time you turn a page.
If you’re diffident about herps or inclined to dislike them entirely, this book might change your mind. The descriptions that fill the glossy pages between the covers are often affectingly tender. Consider this paragraph on the redbacked salamander, the most abundant vertebrate in our woods:
The adults feed on numerous invertebrates in the leaf litter. … Several studies have shown that in the absence of Redbacked Salamanders, the decomposers, such as earthworms, consume much of the leaf litter. Without the protective leaf litter, soil erosion and drying occur, potentially changing the character of the forest. So the next time you take a hike on a woodland trail, thank a Redbacked salamander.
This is nature writing at its best. Breisch gives the technical details and then, without getting cloyingly sentimental or lapsing into cute anthropomorphism, he shows how our lives and the lives of wild things intersect and why those intersections are important.
As I learned recently while researching an Explorer piece on ratsnakes, fierce controversy rages among scientists regarding how to carve up these reptiles into various species and how to define their ranges. Breisch wades into the morass thoughtfully and without taking sides. “The genetic studies that placed the Eastern Ratsnake in the genus Pantherophis also divided what was considered the Black Rat Snake into three species. … More work is needed to map precisely where the transition from one species to the other actually occurs.” Ratsnakes—whether they’re Easterns or Grays remains unclear— inhabit the woods of the southern Adirondacks, where they spend a good deal of time climbing trees and feeding on rodents and birds.
While author Breisch works his way through our herpetofauna, one species, and one life story at a time, illustrator Patterson brings the book’s subjects to vivid life in acrylic and gouache. If you love reptiles and amphibians, you will be enthralled. Patterson’s subjects seem ready to hop, slither, or crawl off every page on which they appear. His rendition of the northern dusky salamander, for example, appears not only fully alive but dripping wet—as every dusky salamander should. This is a creature, a virtual troglodyte, rarely seen but widespread in our mountains. The last one I admired was sprawled beside the trail on the way to Copperas Pond. The fact that it was bucketing down rain had everything to do with the presence of this usually secretive lover of nighttime and damp nooks being out in broad (albeit cloud-dimmed) daylight. It looked just like Patterson’s illustration and provided the family I was guiding generous compensation for a day of drenching weather.
Every book has its shortcomings. Happily, The Snake and the Salamander has fewer than most. The text, a sort of fireside chat, rambles on like a storyteller, darting after an interesting anecdote here and a telling fact there. The information presented is not comprehensive, and the organization of species by habitat can sometimes make comparing one animal to a similar one a chore. But it’s hard to complain. These weaknesses, if they are weaknesses, are also the book’s greatest strengths. The volume is highly personal and personable, and it gives a feel for what you might encounter in a given place. The illustrations convey the same deep familiarity and intimacy.
Anyone seeking more complete natural history information on our herps need seek no further than The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State: Identification, Natural History, and Conservation (Oxford, 2007), penned by Breisch with a distinguished slate of co-authors that includes SUNY Potsdam’s Glenn Johnson (best known for his spruce-grouse work but also a herpetologist extraordinaire) and my late friend, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s John Behler.
The more thorough treatment Breisch created with a team of colleagues makes the ideal volume for those keen on reptiles and amphibians and eager to know more. The Snake and the Salamander, on the other hand, is the first choice for beginners. This is not to give it faint praise. To the contrary, it may be the highest accolade. Converting the unconverted is the supreme challenge, especially where herps are concerned. I can’t think of a writer and an illustrator who have done a better job than Breisch and Patterson have in giving us frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, turtles, and lizards in all their diversity and fascination. The already converted will savor the volume, too.