By John Kricher and Roger Tory Peterson, with illustrations by Gordon Morrison (Houghton Mifflin, 1988)
Pity the poor “reference” book — sturdy and uncomplaining, plastic-bound for a dictionary stand or a doctor’s office or, in the case of Peterson Field Guides, a backpack. Need, rather than pleasure, drives us to seek it out. What a shame. Because what pleasures it can give. Take, for instance, the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests. For anyone with ties to a specific rural place — or just drawn to the concept of “place” itself — this is a treasure. As a former Alabama farm kid now living in Iowa, I’m captured by the Field Guide’s wealth of resonant terminology: old field succession (the gradual dissolution of pastures back into forest, seen on so many abandoned farms), windthrow (“an important disturbance factor, creating gaps of various sizes that permit light to enter, churning up the soil and providing new sites where seedlings and saplings can grow”), and forest islands (“as suburbia and agriculture have each claimed ever-increasing amounts of land, forests in many areas have become fragmented”). There are careful descriptions of animals: meadow voles (“husky little rodents”), possums (“gives birth to babies so tiny that a dozen will fit on a tablespoon”), and roadrunners of the Texas savanna (“reminding one of a tiny feathered dinosaur as it races along.”) The tone is quietly humorous, quietly marveling. “Don’t bother looking for Field Sparrows in an Oak-Hickory Forest and forget about finding Hermit Thrushes hopping between ragweed stalks,” it advises. “The factors by which birds recognize and orient themselves to their chosen habitats are poorly known.” Today, rooted in a place eleven hundred miles from my home, I’m reminded of rainy days spent poring through my family’s Peterson guides, and the way the sturdy pages with their color paintings rendered the familiar creatures of my world — rat snakes, mockingbirds, bobwhite quail, fox, and white-tailed deer — miraculous. “With persistence and patience,” the authors promise, “you will see many species and come to understand many facets of their natural history.” This is a patience and persistence we need more than ever. And so we need the Petersen Guide — a handbook of quiet ecstasy, organizing the wonders of the visible world for anyone who cares to look.
A graduate of Auburn University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amy Weldon is assistant professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.