All Things Maine
All Things Maine

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Trees of New England: A Natural History

I've just finished reading Charles Fergus' Trees of New England: A Natural History, published last October. Fergus asserts in his introduction that "This book is not a field guide," and he's right: It's more a stay-on-the-shelf guide to consult after discovering a leafy specimen and exhausting the resources of more portable handbooks.

Each genus is given its own chapter, alphabetically arranged, with an index that picks up the colloquial and scientific names. Range maps for most species are given—drawn from Little's Atlas of United States Trees. Amelia Hansen provides illustrations that show distinctive features of bark, leaf, or silhouette, or side-by-side comparisons of species.

Fergus manages to fill each section with helpful information that traditional guides omit—details on the reproduction of the trees, their evolved defenses, and their utility to two- and four-legged creatures—while saving his readers from onerous repetition. At points he allows himself to indulge in the affectionate prose his subjects demand:
If even a faint breeze stirs the air, the leaves of the quaking aspen will dance and flutter, twisting on their pliant stems. The undersides of the leaves show silvery, then the green upper surfaces display their slick sheen, in a ceaseless, energetic, back-and-forth flashing that makes the observer wonder if the tree itself is generating light rather than simply reflecting it. [p. 18]
Trees of New England will have a permanent place on my bookshelf, between my field guides and Tom Wessels' excellent Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, which I can't help but join Fergus in recommending.
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