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.

 

 

 

 

Book of August: BARK

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Book of August

It was my journey through the Maine Master Naturalist class several years ago that lead me to this book of the month: BARK–A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech.

The book actual evolved from Wojtech’s work, under the tutelage of Tom Wessels, toward a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England.

Between the covers you’ll find information about bark structure, types of bark and bark ecology. There is a key for those who are so inclined.

And then the biggest chunk of the book is devoted to photographs and descriptions for each type of tree that grows in our New England and eastern New York State forests. These include the common and Latin names, family, habitat, range maps, leaf and branch pattern, leaf shape and notes.

For me, there are two take away items from this book. First, I learned to categorize bark based on its pattern from smooth to ridges and furrows, vertical strips, curly and peeling to others covered in scales and plates. He breaks bark type into seven varieties that I now find easy to identify.

Second, I came to realize something that I may have known but never gave much thought to–except for  American beech bark, which remains smooth all its life (unless it’s been infected by the beech scale insect), bark differs from young to mature to old for any particular species. Oy vey!

Though this book is useful in the winter, now is the time to start looking. To develop your bark eyes. The leaves are on and will help with ID, thus you can try the key and you’ll know if you’ve reached the correct conclusion or not.

Go ahead. Purchase a copy and give it a whirl. I must warn you, it becomes addictive and can be rather dangerous when you are driving down the road at 50mph. As Wojtech wrote in the preface, “If you want to experience a forest, mingle among its trees. If you want to know the trees, learn their bark.”

While you are at it, I encourage you to visit the small western Maine town of Bridgton, where the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge leads into Pondicherry Park. Each of the sixteen bridge beams is constructed from a different tree and the bark is still on them. Test yourself and then grab one of my brochures at the kiosk to see if you got it right. If there are no brochures, let me know and I’ll fill the bin.

And while you are there, stop by the independent bookstore, Bridgton Books, to purchase a copy of BARK.

BARK: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech, University Press of New England, 2011.

Book of January: A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes

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Book of January

I have a number of winter nature books, but one of my go-to favs is A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes. My copy is old (1976–it was a very good year–I graduated from high school) and a bit weathered, but that’s because it has seen frequent use.

Divided into eight field guides, Stokes covers all aspects of winter: winter weeds; snow; wintering trees; evidence of insects; winter’s birds and abandoned nests; mushrooms in winter; tracks in the snow; and woodland evergreen plants.

For each topic,  pen-and-ink drawings by illustrator Deborah Prince and the author are included in the key, as well as natural history descriptions.

The natural history descriptions are just that–Stokes’s descriptions are part of the story that Kevin Harding of the Greater Lovell Land Trust reminds us to share with others. Here’s an example: “St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)–An old country custom in Europe was to hang a special yellow-blossomed plant in your window on the eve of St. John’s Day (June 24), in order to repel bad spirits and counteract the evil eye. In general, the presence of this plant was considered a good omen, and since it was thought that the plant warded off lightning and revealed the identity of passing witches, St. Johnswort was allowed to prosper around the farmhouse. It became known as St. John’s Plant or St. Johnswort (wort meaning “plant” or “herb”). When the plant immigrated to North America it left its traditions behind, and although still as effective as it probably ever was against evil, St. Johnswort is now seldom used for that purpose.” Of course, then he goes on to describe how the plant grows and the seed heads that will appear in the winter landscape.

One of the things I’ve learned from this book is to keep it simple. In the chapter about winter trees, Stokes encourages the reader to begin with the six most common deciduous trees: oak; maple; ash; beech; birch; and aspen. Learning these along with the evergreens provides you with knowledge about 80% of the trees in your forest. I’ve spent the last couple of years developing my bark eyes. I still have much to learn, but can eliminate the common species when I encounter bark I’m uncertain about.

It’s well worth taking the time to read A Guide to Nature in Winter from cover to cover–it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I say it won’t take long–unless you are like me and you pause to underline (yes, I mark my books up–even write in the margins, oh my!) details and take time to understand what you do see along the trail. I probably should invest in a more up-to-date copy, but I feel right at home engrossed in the one that I have.

And it’s also easy to turn to a particular chapter to figure things out. The simplified, illustrated keys should bring you quickly to an identification. And as I said before, the natural history description will further enhance your learning.

The book is available at Amazon.com, but if you live near an independent book store like Bridgton Books, then I strongly encourage you to shop there.

A Guide to Nature in Winter: Northeast and North Central North America, by Donald W. Stokes, illustrated by Deborah Prince and the author, published 1976, Little, Brown & Company.