Our book today is a kind of thing I’ve praised here at Stevereads many times in the past: regional natural history, in this case a pretty new volume from University Press of New England called Through a Naturalist’s Eyes: Exploring the Nature of New England, written by Michael Caduto and illustrated throughout by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol.
One possible unfortunate upshot of these author-artist combos can be the little natural history book where you’re quickly convinced the artist was brought on as some kind of bitter family favor, and you train yourself to squint just enough at facing pages so that you don’t quite see the loused up lynxes and botched bobolinks. The other possible unfortunate upshot is the reverse, where the illustrations are little oases of subtlety amidst a great parching desert of dull prose. Caduto raises the worry of this second scenario immediately, by opening the book with a groaner of a line: “New England is a land that dwells in the heart of its people with a passion unequaled.”
Luckily for us readers, things brighten considerably after that; neither hypothetical mis-match happens in Through a Naturalist’s Eyes. The illustrations by seasoned pro Tyrol are charming and evocative throughout, and Caduto’s narrative lives up to the book’s title: every little scenario that one might encounter while wandering in a New England wood or field or marsh is illuminated both with some friendly personal anecdote and also with great blocks of exposition shared with the conversational ease of a life-long teacher:
And don’t get the idea that boreal birds are food-flighty – departing at the first sign of shortage. Animals prepare well for the cold, preserve their energy stores, and only undertake a long winter journey when normal feeding behavior won’t suffice. Many birds mitigate the dangers of food scacity by stashing food for later use. Gray jays or “whiskey jacks” use saliva to glue their food to tree trunks and branches above the normal snowline. Chickadees store considerable quantities of seeds, insects, spiders, and other foods by jamming them into bark crevices and other nooks. Research shows that chickadees may cache up to 100,000 morsels of food each year, and that, using visual cues, they are able to recall where they put their food for up to several weeks.
In just this way, any reader will be both fascinated and educated throughout, and the only price those readers will have to pay is the occasional suffering of Caduto’s – how to put it? – idiosyncratic sense of humor. Like being dive-bombed by a jay, the experience can leave you surprised, maybe a bit stunned, but almost on principle never amused:
As winter progresses and sap starts to flow, red squirrels sometimes chew holes in the bark of sugar maples and other hardwoods. After the sap oozes out and evaporation concentrates the sugar, the squirrels return to lap up the sweetness. The Europeans who first came to New England learned maple sugaring from indigenous peoples, but we’ll never know how red squirrels figured it out. That closely guarded secret is only handed down on a need-to-gnaw basis.
Groaners aside, the book is a little treasure of enthusiasm and nerdy nature-information. Any life-long walker in New England wild spaces will want a copy.
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