Field Guide Fever

article image
Discovering the wonder of field guides.

Discover the wonder a field guide can bring into your life.

More than books, a field guide is a window on a wider world.

My life of addiction began a long time ago.

It was a perfect 10th birthday party: the weather was sunny and warm, all three of my friends were there, my Aunt Louise couldn’t make it, and the presents were coming hot and heavy. Our side yard was littered with boxes and bits of wrapping paper.

I might never even have noticed the tiny package, overlooked and half-buried in birthday detritus. But then Johnny McGowan came around a corner of the house waving a battery-powered burp gun, shouting “Banzai!” As I turned to flee, I stepped on a paper plate greased with mushy Neapolitan ice cream and — whomp! — fell face forward.

There it was, beneath a rumpled sheet of gift wrap. “I missed one!” I screamed, leaping to my feet and pawing at the present. My pals gathered ’round.

It was a paperback book about the size of a wallet. Insects, the cover said. A Golden Guide.

From that moment on, we were out for bugs. Stink bugs and shield bugs (page 42). Spittlebugs (page 38). Flatheaded borers (page 134). Tiger beetles (page 109). Sphinx moths (page 84). Caterpillar hunters (page 115). You name it; if it was in “The Book,” we’d search for it, leaving no shrub unshaken, no stone unturned.

We never did find The Ultimate Insects, the carrion beetles gnawing at a dead mouse on pages 112 to 113. But we did capture and identify countless leafhoppers (page 34), field crickets (page 22), earwigs (page 29) and cabbage butterflies (page 76).

There was no stopping me after that day. I filled my room with Golden Guides: Birds. Trees. Rocks, Gems and Minerals. Reptiles and Amphibians.Butterflies and Moths. Each little book opened a window on a wider world: Those weren’t speckled birds out there, those were Eastern meadowlarks. That wasn’t just a pretty rock, it was granite. “Hey, neat butterfly,” one of my buddies would say. “Hmmm, Eastern tiger swallowtail,” I’d remark offhandedly.

Looking back, I realize that I treasured those books not only because they helped me put names to familiar plants and animals, but because they gave me new and amazing things to look for. Each was a catalog of wonders I dreamed to one day see. Carrion beetles. A gold nugget. A luna moth. A whistling swan.

And that, I think, is the reason why I still can’t pass a bookstore without heading for the field guide section — and why my office shelves are packed to bursting with guides big and small, paperback and hardcover, old-fashioned print and new-fashioned compact disc.

“Another mushroom book?” my wife asks incredulously.

At least I know I’m not alone in my addiction. Under titles that begin with “Field Guide,” Books In Print lists more than 300 volumes. There are guides both exceedingly general (Field Guide to Iowa’s Critters) and excruciatingly specific (Field Guide No. 4: Tertiary and Quaternary Geology of the Salinas Valley & Santa Lucia Range, Monterey County, California). There are guides to slugs, germs, fossils, cows and molluscan spawn. There are titles that make you wonder (Field Guide to Common Americans) and others you don’t want to think about (Field Guide for Human Skeletal Identification). There are those that have nothing to do with nature (A Field Guide to . . . Windmills; Sailboats; Hot Sauces) and others that have more to do with human nature (Field Guide to North American Males).

Making a Field Guide Choice

Choosing a field guide to a subject as basic and popular as birds or trees can be especially daunting. Dozens of possibilities exist. Here are some tips.

Look for guides specific to your interest. Don’t buy Birds if you’re mainly curious about waterfowl; look for Waterfowl. If you want to identify wild edibles, Plants & Flowers could help, but Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants will get you there faster.

Two field guides are better than one. Spoken like a true field-guide junkie, but it’s a fact. One guide may have excellent illustrations but no range maps; another may feature great descriptions and range maps but murky photos.

If you can swing it, get both a popular guide from one of the major publishers and a good regional guide specific to your area. I love my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, but I’m glad I have Wild Flowers of North Carolina, too.

If it moves, get a picture guide. If it doesn’t, look for a “keyed” guide. Picture guides help you identify things by sight; they show you what to look for in the few seconds you may have to glimpse a bird or animal. Keyed guides take you through a deductive series of questions — what shape is the leaf; what color is the flower — that leads to identifying a single species. In some books the keys are in ordinary language. In most, though, they contain terms such as fibrovascular bundle and cylindric-ovoid. Don’t be intimidated. Just use the guide’s glossary. A description might read, “Leaves pubescent with capitate trichomes, or farinose when dry.” Hey, all that means is that the leaves are covered with soft bristly hairs or whitish powder.

Start small. If you’re a beginner, don’t buy The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, volumes 1, 2 and 3 when Birds: A Golden Guide would probably do. You can always add to your collection later.

When in doubt, stick with the “brand names” in field guide publishing, such as Peterson Field Guides, Golden Nature Guides and Audubon Society Field Guides.

What’s in a Name

Of course, even field guides have their limitations. Shakespeare had it right: A rose (genus Rosa, according to my guides) by any other name would smell as sweet. Never mind that an aspen’s leaves are “2 to 6 inches long, with flattened leafstalks.” Have you seen how each leaf dances in the breeze?

Funny, how these things come full circle. I used to love field guides for their sheer naming power. By knowing their names, I could say I “knew” my trees, my insects, my mushrooms, my rocks.

Now I understand that the real joy to be found in each of nature’s creations is not knowing what it is, but simply that it is, with its own beauty, its own unique presence.

“Look, Dad,” says my son, Josh. “An Eastern tiger swallowtail.”

“Uh huh,” I reply. “Neat butterfly.”