Book of December: A Beginner’s Guide to RECOGNIZING TREES of the NORTHEAST

Fellow master naturalist Alan Seamans recently sent me an e-mail with this message: “I found a new book that might be of interest to you. It’s called A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast, by Mark Mikolas, published Oct. 3, 2017. Rather than leaves, buds or flowers, he focuses on bark, stature, habitat, and some other techniques to teach beginners how to recognize about 40 common tree species. It’s a compact softcover guide, very educational, lots of photos illustrating his points. Not text heavy. I like it, and learned many things.”

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Book of December

And so I did what I often do when I hear of a book that might interest me and marched into Bridgton Books in search of a copy. Alan was correct. It isn’t text heavy and indeed simplifies things in a way a dichotomous key cannot. Actually, this book includes so many of the nuances I like to share along the trail with folks who are looking at trees for the first or hundredth time and as I read it I felt like I was on a guided tour with new friend.

Mikolas begins this tree identification book by restricting the focus area to the Northeast–in a zone those of us who live in New England may find amusing for it ranges from our grand states south to West Virginia and west to Indiana and Michigan. As he explains, though, that’s the Northeast as defined by the World Geographical Scheme of Recording Plant Distributions.

The book is divided into two sections–deciduous or broad-leaf trees and coniferous–or cone-bearing trees. And within each section, it’s broken down into individual trees with plenty of photographs to explain each characteristic.

Mikolas keeps it simple and I wish I’d had this book when I first began my journey into familiarizing myself with different tree species. Similar to the approach taken by Donald W. Stokes in A Guide to Nature in Winter, who suggested learning six deciduous trees and the evergreens, Mikolas also encourages the reader to start with the most common, though he prefers the number twelve.

I wondered what I might learn or relearn as I began reading. And found plenty of information, some of it already stored in my brain, and more to be tucked away.

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The book begins with red maple, which always has something red to display, but Mikolas also mentions the target fungus that affects only this species, creating a round bull’s eye on the bark. I know from experience that once your eye focuses on the target, you’ll begin to see if on so many maple trees. And as he said, and a forester told me several years ago, here in western Maine, 90% of our maples are Acer rubrum. That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about, except for one instance that I could find, he doesn’t use the Latin names. For some folks, that may be a downfall, but this is a beginner’s guide.

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I was pleased that he included the twisting of a sugar maple. Other trees twist as well and I can remember first realizing this while tramping with a friend. We couldn’t understand what was going on. The reason for the spiral growth is on page 26–you’ll have to read it for yourself.

After describing these two trees, as he does periodically throughout the book, Mikolas gives clues on how to tell them apart. For these two, he describes their habitat, bark, twig and bud color.

m-beech sunshine

One of the clues he provides for beech trees is the fact that the leaves remain on the trees all winter. What I like about his comment is that he says this happens on young trees, for indeed, since I started paying attention, that’s what I’ve noted.

b-marcescent leaf

He also described the habit of oaks retaining their leaves, but what he didn’t mention was the term to describe this habit: marcescence or withering. Maybe I was disappointed because I just like to say marcescence.

b-ash bark

When it came to ash trees, I was pleased that he described the bark as being diamond-shaped, but he added an X to the pattern and that may help when I next look at an ash tree with others. Some have a difficult time finding the diamonds. They don’t exactly glitter in the sunshine.

b-aspen bark

I was thankful that when it came to the quaking and big-toothed aspen trees, Mikolas acknowledged that they are difficult to identify by bark alone. A few years ago, I spent some time practicing my tree ID with two different foresters and when I asked about these trees, they too, had a difficult time pinpointing the differences. Both were sure we were looking at quaking, but a quick scan of the ground below showed us big-tooth leaves.

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One thing I’d add to Mikolas’ description is that on the lower portion of older trees, the vertical lines are similar to that of a red oak. One of the really cool tricks I picked up from the book in reference to aspens is what he calls “birds on a wire.” Again, you’ll need to purchase a copy to find out what he means. Or join me for a tramp.

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Another description that brought a smile to my face was how he casted a mature and shaggy yellow birch as “the granddads or old wise men of the forest.”

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I had the good fortune to meet one such character just the other day.

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In reference to basswood,  Alan Seamans wrote in his e-mail message: “I didn’t know you could confirm i.d. of basswoood by the sound it makes when you hit it with a stick!” I didn’t either, but you can bet that’s on my list of things to do–frequently.

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Mikolas’ photo essay on the aging of paper birch bark from a teen to an old man is well worth a look. My only disagreement with him in this section is that what he sees as an inverted V over the branch, looks more like an inverted U to me, or as I’ve always described it–a fu manchu mustache of sorts.

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Likewise, Mikolas sees black triangles under the branches of gray birches. I could agree with him on that for when I say it’s a chevron, people don’t always get what I’m talking about. One friend, in keeping with the paper birch’s mustache, suggested the gray birch may have a beard–a gray beard. Mikolas also says that gray birches are chalkier than paper–experiment for yourself  by rubbing your fingers on the bark and come to your own conclusion on that one.

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Turning to striped maples, I was tickled to learn a new common name. He used goosefoot, which describes the leaf shape,  and moosewood because deer and moose like to leave their scent by rubbing their antlers on the bark, but a name I hadn’t heard before–whistle wood. Apparently, slip-bark whistles can be carved from striped maple or willow in the spring.

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I do wish I’d read this book before venturing to Central Park a few weeks ago. I was in awe of the American elms that grow there, and wondered about their health given that so many elms have succumbed to Dutch elm disease. What I didn’t realize is that what I saw before me was one of the largest and last stands of these majestic trees.

b-red pine plantation

Heading back into a woodland setting, and this one was actually in Vermont, occasionally we stumble upon red pine plantations. It was my understanding that these were planted by the CCC or Civilian Conservation Corps between 1938 and 1942 to provide farmers with a hill crop and others with employment. When walking in the woods and suddenly encountering a sterile environment where trees stand stalwart in lines and there is no undergrowth due to the thick needle cover below, and little diversity in wildlife, one may have entered such a plantation. At the time, it seemed like a good idea and provided work.

hemlock petioles (stems) and stomata lines

In the forest, I often discover hemlock and balsam fir saplings sharing a space. One word of caution when it comes to differentiating between the hemlock shown here and balsam fir needles that are shown on page 188–both have two white stripes of stomata on the underside. There are other clues to help tell them apart and I’ve actually written about such in the upcoming issue of Lake Living magazine so you’ll have to stay tuned.

spiky spruce

And then there are the spruces and I have to admit, I have a difficult time with red versus white, though forester friends have said they hybridize. I noticed that Mikolas mentions both, but doesn’t provide the fine details about scent and twig hair. Perhaps it’s enough to know it’s a spruce–especially if it’s spikey to the touch.

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The tree descriptions conclude with the one and only deciduous conifer of our woods–the tamarack–the cone-bearing tree that loses its leaves (needles) each winter.

And with that, I will conclude this rather lengthy review. I’m so glad Alan recommended it to me, for it really is a gem. I hope you’ll purchase a copy and together we can head out on the tree trail and get to know our local species even better.

Put A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING TREES OF THE NORTHEAST on your wish list and shop local.

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING TREES OF THE NORTHEAST, by Mark Mikolas, published 2017, The Countryman Press.

 

Book of October: The Secrets of Wildflowers

It hardly seems right to be choosing a book about wildflowers as the book of the month for October, but . . . I have. And for so many reasons. Therefore, the book of October is The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History  by Jack Sanders.

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First and foremost, there’s the cover! I know . . . I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But . . . I do. And this one appeals to my sense of color. My eyes are soothed by it, and therefore, so is my brain, and I find it a lovely addition to my summer kitchen office or the upstairs library (aka bathroom).

Then there’s the subtitle: “A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History.” And it is . . . a delightful feast, for its varied in format, offering prose and poetry, stories, descriptions, comparisons, suggestions, and a vast variety of tidbits during this time of harvest.

On the introductory page, Sanders writes, “The Secrets of Wildflowers covers natives and immigrants, friends and foes, because both kinds are here and both are interesting.” Oh my . . . isn’t that enough to make if perfect for right here and now. And I don’t mean just flowers.

The book is divided into three sections, based on approximate blooming seasons, (bringing me to another reason to choose such a book for October–it seems our growing season has extended and my day lilies have new leaves. That’s scary.), beginning with a section on spring, then summer, followed by late summer & fall. Within each section, several pages are devoted to a particular flower, including photographs and sketches–and oh, so much information. The only drawback that I can see, is the fact that I can’t see–the type is a wee bit small, perhaps because Sanders had so much to share and the book is already quite lengthy at 304 pages.

The book concludes with a two-page list of websites, a brief glossary and an extensive bibliography.

And so, as the October breezes send leaves dancing off the trees and the color begins to wane from the landscape, despite the small type, I find myself drawn to this treasure trove of information. I can pick it up and read a short section, while in the “library,” or spend an hour focusing on one plant while drinking a cup of tea in my office. I can skip around from season to season and not feel out of place. In the midst of it all, my hope it that I’ll retain some of what Sanders shares and I, too, can share when I lead future walks–adding to the story and helping others make connections.

With all of that in mind, I think The Secrets of Wildflowers is the perfect October book, for now that I own a copy, I have the rest of fall, on into winter, and next spring to devour this delightful feast. You might think the same and add it to your Christmas list. (Along with a magnifying glass–just in case).

Oh, and it was published in Guilford, Connecticut, next to my hometown–so that, of course, makes it special.

I found my copy on the shelves at Bridgton Books.

Book of October: The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History by Jack Sanders. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying on the Wild Wind of Western Maine

My intention was good. As I sat on the porch on July 1st, I began to download dragonfly and damselfly photographs. And then the sky darkened and I moved indoors. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, the wind came up. Torrential rain followed. And thunder and lightening. Wind circled around and first I was making sure all screens and doors were closed on one side of the wee house and then it was coming from a different direction and I had to check the other side. Trees creaked and cracked. Limbs broke. And the lightening hit close by. That’s when I quickly shut down my computer and checked my phone to see how much battery life it had. And saw two messages. One was an emergency weather alert. Tornado Watch. And the other was from my friend Marita, warning me that there was a tornado watch for our area. I stood between the kitchen door and the downstairs water closet, where a hatchway leads to the basement. But, there was stuff in the way and I really wanted to watch the storm. At the same time, I was frightened. Of course, in the midst of it all, the power went off.

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It didn’t last all that long, as storms go, but the damage was incredible, including telephone poles left standing at 45-degree angles. Soon, the neighbors and I assessed our properties. We somehow lucked out and only two branches plus a bunch of twigs fell. Others were not so fortunate. Trees uprooted along the shoreline or crashed onto houses, sheds, vehicles and boats. Our neighbors float shifted about thirty feet north from its usual anchored spot. And the National Weather service did indeed determine it was an EF-1 Tornado with winds of 90-100 miles per hour.

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At first traffic along the causeway moved extremely slowly because fallen trees had closed the south-side lane, but eventually the police shut the road down and the fire crew arrived to begin the clearing process. After the first storm, it rained on and off, but once my guy got back to camp (he dodged a detour–don’t tell), we still managed to grill a steak and sat on the porch in the dark, which is our evening habit anyway. Central Maine Power worked most of the night and they’ve been at it all day–resetting poles and lines while neighbors’ generators and the buzz of chainsaws filled the air.

And my focus returned to others who also fill the air–though in a much more welcome manner, to we humans that is. Damselflies and dragonflies. Other insects don’t necessarily agree with us–as they become quick food.

Therefore, it seems apropos that the Book of July is the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, with Donald & Lillian Stokes.

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It’s not a big book by any means, and doesn’t include all species of the insect order Odonata, but for me right now, it’s enough. And it fits easily into my pack. I can not only try to give a name to what I see, but more importantly to recognize the subtle differences in these favorite of insects.

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One of the features I really like is that it has a key on the inside cover, first divided between damselflies and dragonflies, and then further divided by families based on size, percher or flier, flight height, wings, body colors, eye position and other clues. As you can see, there are color tabs and I can quickly move to that section and search for the species before me. I’ve discovered that I’m now looking at eye position and colors as a quick key, with other features falling into place.

The book also discusses the life cycle and behavior of damselflies and dragonflies.

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Of course, it all begins when he grabs her–for damselflies such as these marsh bluets, he clasps her by the neck. Dragonflies do the same, only he clasps his female of choice behind the eyes.

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Eventually damsel love occurs as the mating couple forms a “copulation” wheel, thus allowing him to remove any sperm she may have already received from another, and replacing it with his own. Sneaky dudes. Soon after, hundreds to thousands of eggs are deposited, either in the water or on vegetation, depending on the species.

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Emerging from an egg, the larvae develop underwater. Damselflies such as this one, obtain oxygen through the three tail-like projections at the end of their abdomens. From 8-17 times, they molt, shedding their outer shells, or exoskeletons.

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In the spring, the big event happens. We all celebrate the emergence of the last stage in the larval skeleton, when the insects climb up vegetation or onto rocks, or even the ground, and make that final metamorphosis into the damsel or dragonfly form we are so familiar with, thus leaving their shed outer shell (exuviae) behind.

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On a warm, sunny spring day toward the end of May, there’s no better place to be than sitting in the presence of an emerging adult.

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I encourage you to look around any wetland, even as the summer goes on, for you never know when those moments of wonder might occur.

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In the guide, the authors include all kinds of observation tips. And then, the real nitty gritty. The first thirty-six pages of the Identification section are devoted to damselflies. And those are divided into Broad-winged damsels, Spreading, and Pond damsels. This is a river jewelwing, and for me it was a first a few weeks ago. I spotted this beauty beside the Saco River in Brownfield Bog–its iridescent green body showing through the dark-tipped wings.

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In the same category, the ebony jewelwing is equally stunning with brilliant green highlighted by black accents. This was a male; the female has a white dot or stigma toward the tip of her wings.

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Spreadwings are next and so named for their spread wings. This one happened to be a common spreadwing, though really, I don’t find them to be all that common.

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The pond damsels are the ones I do see often, including the female variable dancers. Check out her spotted eyes.

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And one of my favorites for its colors and name–the sedge sprite. If you noted the dancer’s eyes, do you see how the sprite’s differ?

From page 79-155, dragonflies are identified. I don’t have one from every type, but I’m working on it.

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Clubtails have clear wings, and their coloration is often green, yellow or brown. Check out those eyes–and how widely separated they are. Meet a lancet club tail, so named for the yellow “dagger” markings on its back.

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The emeralds are known by their eyes, which are often green. This American emerald has a black abdomen with a narrow yellow ring at the base near the wings.

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Also included with the emeralds is the common baskettail. Notice how stout this handsome guy is.

d-skimmer, chalk-fronted corporal male

Among the easiest dragonflies to actually get a good look at are the skimmers. And it seems that on many paths I follow, the chalk-fronted corporals are there before me. His thorax has two bluish-gray stripes with brown on the sides. And his wings–a small brownish-black patch.

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Then there’s the slaty skimmer, in a shade of blue I adore. His wings are clear, except for the black stigmas toward the tips.

d-skimmer, common whitetail

The common whitetail is also a skimmer. Not only is his abdomen different–with white markings on the side, but he has wings with black and chalky white bases and broad black bands in the middle.

d-skimmer, calico pennant, male

They’re all pretty, but I think that so far, my all time favorites are the calico pennants; the male with red highlights including stigmas on his wings and hearts on his back, plus a hint of red everywhere else.

d-skimmer, calico pennant female

For once the male isn’t to be outdone in the color department, and the female looks similar except that she’s yellow.

d-skimmer, yellow legged meadowhawk, wings

There’s so much to admire about damselflies and dragonflies. I mean, first there are those compound eyes. But look at the thorax–where both the three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings attach. I find that attachment to be an incredible work of nature. It’s awe inspiring at least.

d-ending, female calico pennant on screen

Then again, nature is awe-inspiring. When I awoke as the sun rose yesterday morning, I wondered about the damsels and dragons. Did they survive the storm? I stepped outside to once again check for damage and look who I spotted on the porch screen. Mrs. Calico stayed for about an hour or two, letting her wings dry off before heading out to perform today’s duties–flying on the wild wind of western Maine.

Damselflies and dragonflies are one more point of distraction for me these days. I won’t always get their ID correct, but I’m thankful for the Book of July, Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies, that I found at Bridgton Books.

Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, with Donald & Lillian Stokes. Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Book of June: Bogs and Fens

My wish was granted when I asked for a copy of Bogs and Fens: A Guide to the Peatland Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Ronald B. Davis for Christmas.

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The idea for this book came from many years spent by Davis as a biology and Quaternary studies professor at the University of Maine and Colby College, plus his services as a docent at the Orono Bog Boardwalk in Orono, Maine.

Since I spend a lot of time tramping through a few favorite bogs and fens as well as visiting others, this seemed like the perfect guide to help me better understand the world of these special communities. And then I realized that on our own property grows some of the vegetation associated with these wetlands. With them right under my nose, what better way to learn?

Davis begins by describing the occurrence and indicator species of peatlands and then he goes on to give a lesson on the ecology of wetlands, including a description of peat, fens and bogs. A bibliography is provided for further reading and terms are defined.

What really works for me though, is the species descriptions, which he’s taken the time to divide into their various layers–trees, tall shrubs, short and dwarf shrubs, prostrate shrubs, herbaceous plants and ferns. Within each section, a specific plant is described, including its Latin name, common names, family, characteristics such as how tall it grows, number of petals, fruit, if any, etc., and its occurrence–whether in a fen, bog, dry hummock or other. All in all, he features 98 species, but also mentions 34 comparative species and includes an annotated list of 23 additional trees, shrubs, herbs and ferns that may grow in one or more community. And finally, the book ends with a description of pathways and boardwalks worth visiting.

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And so this morning, I walked out back to look at our wetland, where the sphagnum moss’s pompom heads were crisscrossed by spider webs donned with beads of water.

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It’s there that the round-leaved sundews grow, which I only discovered last year. Notice those bad-hair day “tentacles” or mucilaginous glands and the black spots upon the leaves. Dinner was served–in the form of Springtails or Collembola–their nutrients being absorbed by the plant to supplement the meager mineral supply of the sphagnum community.

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And in the plant’s center, the flower stem begins to take shape. This summer, it will support tiny white flowers that will turn to light brown capsules by fall.

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Sheep laurel also grows in this place, its new buds forming in the axils below the newly emerged leaves. I can’t wait for its crimson flowers to blossom. Its flowers provide an explosion of beauty, and yet, danger lingers. This small shrub contains a chemical that is poisonous to wild animals, thus one of its common names is lambkill.

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Another short shrub is the rosy meadowsweet or steeplebush with its deeply toothed leaves.

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Being only June 1st, it’s too early to flower, but last year’s steeple-like structure still stands tall in the landscape.

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Low-bush blueberries grow here as well and it’s only now that I realize I need to return and study these some more for Davis differentiates between velvet-leaved blueberries and common low-bush. I assumed these were the latter, but according to his description, the leaves will tell the difference. Apparently velvet-leaved, which I’ve never heard of before, feature “smooth-edged, alternate leaves, and bear fine, short hairs on the underside, edges and along veins of the upper side,” while low-bush leaves “have a finely serrate edge and a lack of pubescence, except rarely a sparse pubescence along the veins.” The next time I step out there, I will need to check the leaves to determine whether we have one or both species.

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Of course, my favorite at the moment is the black chokeberry because the flowers provide a wow factor.

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I’m not alone in my fascination.

b-water scavenger beetle larvae

Because I was nearby, I walked to the vernal pool, where a wee bit of sunlight highlighted another fascination of mine–my most recent discovery of water scavenger beetle larvae. Check out those heads and eyes.

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Today, the tadpoles weren’t as shy as the other day and so they let me get up close and personal.

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I’m holding out hope that the pool doesn’t dry up before they are able to hop away. Already, I can see their frog form beginning to take shape. This is a shout out to one of the Books of May: Vernal Pools–A Field Guide to Animals of Vernal Pools.

But back to the Book of June, and really the book of all summer months–Bogs and Fens by Ronald B. Davis. It’s heavy as field guides go and so I don’t always carry it with me, but it’s a great reference when I return to my truck or home. I appreciate its structure and information presented in a format even I get.

Bogs and Fens: A Guide to the Peatland Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, by Ronald B. Davis. University Press of New England, 2016.

My copy came from Bridgton Books, my local independent book store.

Book of March: Upstream

As friends often do, one, whom we fondly call Señora because she was our sons’ high school Spanish teacher, recommended a book to me.

And as I often do, I visited my favorite independent bookstore, Bridgton Books, took a quick look and made a purchase.

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Book of March: Upstream

Upstream by Mary Oliver is a collection of essays, many which she previously published elsewhere. In 175 pages, the essays span a lifetime of writing–but even more so a lifetime of living. And noticing. And contemplating. And wondering. And making connections. And wondering some more. But all the time, believing, even in that which she could not see or quite comprehend.

She speaks to the writing process, a process I have embraced for what seems like forever. Only a few minutes ago I shared with a friend that a final draft is never really final. Each time we return to the words, we find other ways of playing with them.

She speaks to the natural world that she has spent a lifetime observing and recreates it on the printed page with elaborate detail. And so, with each sentence, I travel beside her, whether she wants me to or not, for Ms. Oliver embraces solo moments of exploration. I get that.

She speaks of Emerson and Whitman and Wordsworth and Poe. And actually, about the latter, she turns my head for she writes about him with such compassion.

She speaks of the reality of the universe and reminds us to exist. She is. We are.

She speaks of observing a mother spider and her egg sacs in the cellar of a rented home over the course of several months, and I sense her wonder. As a child, I was afraid of those cellar spiders. As an adult, I’m intrigued by them.

And so today, I took Ms. Oliver with me when I stepped into the woods.

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It was a snow-eating foggy  sort of day and the dampness grazed my cheeks.

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As my snowshoes slapped the hardened snow pack, rain drops drew my focus. On this particular pine sapling, I was drawn to the crosses formed by raindrops and needles, which seemed apropos given that today is Ash Wednesday. And then I noticed the spider silk.

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Every where I turned, long beaded strands of miniature raindrops connected one branch to the next.

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What I soon realized, however, was that the strands weren’t merely on single trees. Each tree was connected to the next throughout the forest. As I moved slowly about, I inadvertently snapped some of those lines and felt a sense of sorrow for all that work lost.

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And because I was looking, I found other curious sites that I didn’t expect. That is one of the take-away messages of Ms. Oliver’s book–get outside and even if you are searching for something specific that you may not find, it’s what you see along the way that is more important.

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As I often do when a book such as this one pulls me in, I turn back the bottoms of pages to remind myself that there are passages I will want to revisit. If the corner is turned back and back again, as this one, it means there is something to reread on this page and the one to follow.

For me, Upstream is that type of a book. It’s broken into five sections. Ah, the word broken–it doesn’t feel right in that last sentence because there is nothing broken about the book. Perhaps divided is a better word. Or maybe there’s another that will come to me eventually. That’s the thing about the writing process–it’s never final as I said above. Anyway, I found myself relating to each section with a different part of my soul.

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And give thanks that Ms. Oliver chose to share her reflections in this manner. I also thank Señora for the recommendation.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Book of February: The Stars–A New Way to See Them

If you don’t mind stepping outside on a crisp winter night, it’s the perfect time to turn your eyes skyward. With less ambient light and no humidity, the stars and constellations (and the cold air) will take your breath away.

The first thing to do is move away from any house or street lights to orient yourself. With arms outstretched, point your right hand toward sunrise and your left toward sunset–thus you’ll now face north with the east to your right and west to your left. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, your backside should face south.

Now, if you were an Ancient Greek or Roman, you’d look at the stars above and draw elaborate pictures in the sky to represent the gods and goddesses you knew so well. But you aren’t. Nor am I.

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Book of February

Instead, I connect the dots in a manner learned from H. A. Rey, author of the Curious George series (think Man with the Yellow Hat). Mr. Rey also wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them, which guides us amateur stargazers in how to look at the constellations in a graphic way that shows the shapes implied by the name.

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Almost everyone recognizes the Big Dipper, the seven stars that form a large scoop–or dipper. The curved handle is created by three stars while four others form the bowl. Though we may think of the Big Dipper as a constellation, it is actually an asterism or group of stars within a constellation. In this case, the asterism is within Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation. The tip of the dipper serves as Great Bear’s nose and the bowl forms part of his back–like a bicycle saddle bag. If you follow Rey’s diagram, you’ll see the rest of the side view, including the bear’s front and back legs and paws, plus his rump.

With Rey’s help, you can use the pointer stars in the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star, and then navigate your way around the night sky to other constellations. It’s a fun journey to take, especially when the sky is clear and wind calm.

Other winter favorites include Orion the Hunter and Gemini the Twins.

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An easy way to locate Orion is to first find the three bright stars lined up that create his belt. Do you see his sword dangling from the belt? He’s the heavily armed guy that dominates the sky right now with one arm raised high and holding a club, while the other extends forward and grasps a shield. The constellation includes the brightest star–Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle juice), which marks his left shoulder (leading to the club in his hand).

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Above Orion stand the Twins or Gemini (to the south),  who remind me of the stick figures I used to draw in elementary school (and beyond). Their heads are the bright stars–Castor and Pollux. I love how they stand side-by-side, holding hands.

There’s so much more to see and I like the simplicity Rey has taught me to find my way about the night sky. Yeah, you can hold your phone up and use an app, but that takes the fun out of it.

Go ahead, treat yourself to Rey’s The Stars and turn your eyes to the sky.

I found my copy of The Stars: A New Way to See Them at Bridgton Books. Where did you find yours? (I hope you’ll join me in supporting local independent bookstores whenever possible.)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008 (with update on the solar system and our planets), originally published in 1954.

 

 

 

 

Books of December: A Holiday Wish List

In the spirit of changing things up a bit, I decided that I’d include five books I highly recommend you add to your holiday wish list and two that I hope to receive.

These are not in any particular order, but I’m just beginning to realize there is a theme–beyond that of being “nature” books.

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Book of December: Forest Forensics

Tom Wessels, forest guru and author of Reading the Forested Landscape, published this smaller work in 2010. Though only 5″ x 7.5″, the book is rather heavy because it’s filled with photographs. Despite the weight, Forest Forensics fits into a backpack and is the perfect guide for trying to figure out the lay of the land. Using the format of a dichotomous key, Wessels asks readers to answer two-part questions, which link to the photos as well as an Evidence section for Agriculture, Old Growth and Wind, plus Logging and Fire. In the back of the book, he includes Quick Reference Charts that list features of particular forest and field types. And finally, a glossary defines terms ranging from “age discontinuity” to “Uphill basal scar,” “weevil-deformed white pines” and “wind-tipped trees.” In total, it’s 160 pages long, but not necessarily a book you read from cover to cover. If you have any interest in rocks, trees, and the lay of the land, then this is a must have.

Forest Forensics by Tom Wessels, The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT, 2010.

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Book of December: Shrubs of the Northern New England Forest

Michael L. Cline is executive director of Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, New Hampshire. In September, I had the pleasure of attending a talk he gave at the center about Shrubs of the Northern New England Forest. The 6″ x 9″ book weighs about the same as Wessels’, and will also fit handily into your pack. Of course, you might want to leave the books in your vehicle or at home and look up the items later–thus lightening your load. Using Brownfield Bog as one of his main go-to places, Cline describes 70 species of shrubs from Creeping Snowberry to Mountain Ash. The book is arranged by family, beginning with Mountain Maple and Striped Maple of the Aceraceae (Maple) family and ending with the American Yew of the Taxaceae (Yew) family. Each two-page layout includes photographs (and  occasionally drawings), plus a description of habit, leaves, flowers, twig/buds, habitat, range, wildlife use, notes and other names. I have no excuse now to not know what I’m looking at as I walk along–especially near a wetland. That being said, I’ll think of one–like I left the book at home, but I’ll get back to you.

Shrubs of the Northern New England Forest by Michael L. Cline, J.S. McCarthy Printers, 2016

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Book of December: Bogs and Fens

Ronald B. Davis’ book, Bogs and Fens, was a recent gift from my guy. I hadn’t asked for it, and actually didn’t know about it, so I’m tickled that he found it. I’m just getting to know Dr. Davis’s work, but trust that this 5.5″ x 8.5″ guide about peatland plants will also inform my walks. Again, it’s heavy. The first 26 pages include a description of vegetation and peatlands and even the difference between a fen and a bog. More than 200 hundred pages are devoted to the trees, plants and ferns. In color-coded format, Davis begins with the canopy level of trees and works down to tall shrubs, short and dwarf shrubs, prostrate shrubs, herbaceous plants and finally, ferns. He also includes an annotated list of books for further reference, as well as a variety of peatlands to visit from Wisconsin to Prince Edward Island. As a retired University of Maine professor, Davis has been a docent and guide at the Orono Bog Boardwalk for many years. Field trip anyone?

Bogs and Fens: A Guide to the Peatland Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Ronald B. Davis, University of New England Press, 2016.

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Book of December: Lab Girl

I’d never heard of Hope Jahren until this summer and then several people recommended her book, Lab Girl, to me. Rather than a guide, this is the story of Jahren’s journey from her childhood in rural Minnesota to the science labs she has built along the way. As a scientist, Jahren takes the reader through the ups and downs of the research world. And she does so with a voice that makes me feel like we’re old friends. Simultaneously, she interweaves short chapters filled with  information about the secret life of plants, giving us a closer look at their world. I had to buy a copy because for me, those chapters were meant to be underlined and commented upon. I do believe this will be a book I’ll read over and over again–especially those in-between chapters.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

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Book of December: The Hidden Life of TREES

And finally, a gift to myself: The Hidden Life of TREES by Peter Wohlleben. I’d first learned about this book in a newspaper article published last year and had to wait until recently to purchase it after the book was translated from German to English. Again, it’s not a field guide, but offers a delightful read that makes me think. And thus, you can see my bookmark. I’ve not finished reading it yet, but I’m having fun thinking about some different theories Wohlleben puts forth. As a forester, Wohlleben has spent his career among trees and knows them well. He’s had the opportunity to witness firsthand the ideas he proclaims about how trees communicate. And so, I realize as I read it that I, too,  need to listen and observe more closely to what is going on in the tree world–one of my favorite places to be. Maybe he’s right on all accounts–the best part is that he has me questioning.

The Hidden Life of TREES: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, Random House, 2016.

And that’s just it–the underlying theme of these five books you might consider is TREES. I can’t seem to learn enough about them. One word of caution, each author has their own take on things, so the best thing to do is to read the book, but then to head out as often as you can and try to come to your own conclusions or at least increase your own sense of wonder.

And now for the books on my list (My guy is the keeper of the list):

Naturally Curious Day by Day: A Photographic Field Guide and Daily Visit to the Forests, Fields, and Wetlands of Eastern North America by Mary Holland, Stackpole Books, 2016

Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts: A Field Guide to Common Bryophytes of the Northeast by Ralph Pope, Cornell University Press, 2016.

Do you have any other suggestions for me?

One final thought about books–support your local independent book store as much as you can. Here in western Maine, we are fortunate to have Bridgton Books. Justin and Pam Ward know what we like to read and if they don’t have a particular book we’re looking for, they bend over backwards to get it for us.