When it really comes right down to it, there are two basic types of natural history guidebooks: those that help you to identify things you saw and those that teach you about the existence of things you’ll likely never see. Most fall into the first category; field guides to birds, butterflies, flowering plants, and so forth; however a smaller but no less significant number make up the latter. And it is these “guides to things unseen” that are often the most interesting.
When I was a boy growing up in a small coastal town along the north Oregon coast, both my father and mother worked in the commercial fishing industry. Thus it wasn’t particularly surprising that my favorite book all through elementary school (and indeed still to this day) was an old battered copy of the Golden Guide Fishes; A Guide to Familiar American Species by Herbert S. Zim, Hurst H. Shoemaker, and (most importantly, illustrated by) James Gordon Irving. In this book, which I had all but continuously checked out from the school library and carried ready-at-hand in my pocket throughout each year of my attendance at Captain Robert Gray Elementary, I discovered a vast array of fascinating creatures living beneath the waves – some right below the surface of the lower Columbia River on which my dad sailed our family’s fishing boat. Yet was it not for this book, I would have never known that most of them existed. Keep reading…
Recent Book Reviews
It was with no small amount of wholly unintentional irony that I began reading Mark Essig’s Lesser Beasts; A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig while eating a ham sandwich. Such is the ubiquity of pigs. Yet for all the many ways the lives of modern humans have and to this day continue to intersect with the domesticated version of Sus scrofa, the European Wild Boar, most of us – even those who count ourselves naturalists – give little, if indeed any, thought to the natural history of the pig. Just as we do with most of the other creatures both wild and domestic that have long lived in close proximity to us, we too often fail to perceive just how much or for how long pigs have played important roles in the collective life of our own species. Perhaps that is why I found Essig’s book so utterly engrossing; it not only brought to my attention a wealth of information previously unknown to me, it helped me to understand just what amazing creatures pigs are. Keep reading…
Merriam Webster defines taxonomy as
1: the study of the general principles of scientific classification: systematics
2: classification; especially: orderly classification of plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships
Many people, including a sizable portion of naturalists, might add a third definition:
3: the seemingly random attachment of names to plants and animals in a language no one speaks anymore; see also impenetrable, confusing Keep reading…
Newly Noted Books
To say that Pope Francis’ “Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality; On Care for Our Common Home” was shocking to many would be as remarkable an understatement as his words were a breath of fresh air to many who had never expected such a dramatic message of environmental conservation to come from such a place of global power as the pontificate of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet that is precisely what happened.
This December, a new field guide to over eight hundred of the plants, birds, butterflies, fish, and mammals which inhabit the arctic regions around the globe will be published by Princeton University Press: Sharon Chester’s “The Arctic Guide; Wildlife of the Far North.”
The first Robin (Erithacus rubecula) I ever saw was in the garden of the Natural History Museum. Even though it was a juvenile, I was thrilled to have finally seen one after reading about them for so many years. I finally saw one in adult plumage in Warnemunde, Germany some time later. It was truly a delight.
Birds do it. Bees do it. As for educated fleas… well, I’m not so sure. But I do know that bats do it and that Pterodactyls did. Fly, of course. An advance reading copy of David E. Alexander’s forthcoming book On the Wing: Insects, Pterosaurus, Birds, Bats and the Evolution of Animal Flight arrived from Oxford […]
2015 is shaping up to be the year when I am given the privilege to revisit a number of old literary friends. From Albert Camus’ Meursault in Kamel Daoud’s new “The Meursault Investigation” to Harper Lee’s Scout Finch in “Go Set a Watchman” and now, so I recently discovered, Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate in “The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.”
Field guides to specific urban neighborhoods? When Leslie Day’s new book Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, then yes, there will be – one.
Now that – as my grandpa was fond of saying – the kitty is out of the burlap, I thought I should take a few paragraphs to explain my new forthcoming adventure. As some of you may have already learned, as of the first of March I will take up the position of product manager for sports optics with Celestron. Needless to say, I am absolutely delighted, as well as deeply honored, to have been offered this opportunity. However as it is a full-time position that will require a substantial amount of travel, the question has already been asked of me “what will become of The Well-read Naturalist.”
The Well-equipped Naturalist
I carry a bag when I’m in the field. I carry a bag when I’m running errands around town. I carry a bag more or less whenever I leave the house for anything more than to walk the dog or take my evening stroll. Ideally, so that I need not worry about being without some item of my essential kit as a result of switching between different bags for different activities, I very much prefer the bag I carry for all these diverse purposes to be the same bag.
Most every hunter or angler I ever met had every bit as deep an interest in one area of natural history of another as any other naturalist of my acquaintance. Indeed, were it not for such famous hunters and anglers of years past, we would not have some of the important collections in natural history museums that we do today.
While each episode of Palaeocast is a delightful sojourn in itself into the world of paleontology, I was particularly happy to discover that Episode 18: Trilobites devotes the better part of an hour to an interview with none other than Professor Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum.