Our book today is George Reiger’s 1983 book Wanderer On My Native Shore, a wonderfully personal work of natural history sub-titled “A Personal Guide & Tribute to the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast” which we’ve met before here at Stevereads, but I read it again recently in a kind of commemoration of that pleasant melancholy that always comes to me at summer’s end – a melancholy that’s been enormously extended in 2015 by the fact that mid-80s heat and humidity has stayed and stayed and stayed here in Boston. The calendar has said summer is ending, but September had not one but two heat waves, and even now, on the doorstep of October, the weather outside is mild and chokingly humid, perfect for shorts and sandals. So I’ve kept revisiting these books of summer, and Reiger’s book – with graceful illustrations by Bob Hines – has been a battered favorite of mine since I first bought it in a Cape Cod bookshop when it first came out.
Reiger doesn’t concentrate on the Cape but rather on Eastern seacoasts in general, starting in Maine and working his way down the coast to Key West. Reiger was an extensively-published nature writer and a hugely influential nature-editor at magazines like Field & Stream, National Wildlife, and Audubon, and all through his leisurely tour in this book, he stops to indulge in discourses on the natural history of the places he visits, like the lovely area of Sandy Hook, New Jersey:
The Army’s occupation of this pivotal piece of real estate during the decades of northern New Jersey’s most frenetic growth saved this peninsula from a fate that can be seen most everywhere else along the neighboring coast. Although a sunny June day will bring more than 50,000 bathers to the Hook’s seaside beaches, horseshoe crabs, identical to their arachnoid ancestors which steered with their telson tail spikes between the feet of wading dinosaurs, spawn on the peninsula’s bayside flats while gulls and shorebirds crowd around to gobble the greenish eggs. In the fall, monarch butterflies pause on their migration to Mexico to feed on seaside goldenrod blooming in the dunes, while sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks hunt robins in a three-hundred-year-old holly grove just north of Spermaceti Cove – named in 1668 after a sperm whale stranded and was salvaged there.
It often seems like Reiger has read every work of popular natural history from Aristotle to the week his book went to press, but there’s also a persistently personal note running through the book. Reiger knows quite a bit about the nature of the places he’s visiting, but he always takes care to place himself in his stories, mixed in with the natural history:
All eagles seem to be half-vulture. Although as ornithologist Alexander Sprunt, Jr., points out in his North American Birds of Prey, “eagles can attain considerable speed when the necessity arises – certainly enough to capture some of the ducks,” bald eagles prefer picking off sick or crippled waterfowl rather than chasing down healthy birds. One December afternoon not many years ago, retired Fish and Wildlife Service director John Gottschalk, artist Ned Smith, and I watched a pair of bald eagles hunt a Virginia marsh for crippled black ducks when there were pods of healthy diving ducks in the open channels around the marsh. During several decades of eagle watching, Alexander Sprunt saw a bald eagle take only one uninjured game bird – a hen mallard – besides an occasional coot, which normally fly like they are crippled!
I love re-reading Wanderer On My Native Shore, love revisiting Reiger’s stories and re-examining the bright drawings of Hines. In the past, those re-readings had always connoted summer’s waning days to me, but I’ll still keep re-reading it even if I have to recalibrate that.
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