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Kaufman and Kaufman: Field Guide to Nature of New England

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KgI used to dream of a field guide that would let me identify everything I saw, a childish fantasy I gave up long ago: no book, no library can ever come close, not even for so relatively circumscribed and so relatively uniform a landscape as New England. Those six states are a big place, and “nature” is even bigger.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman know this, of course, and their new field guide sets itself the more reasonable goal of covering “those things that people are most likely to notice,” providing those of us with wide-ranging interests but uneven expertise — and that’s just about every birder I know — a quick, easily used reference to those organisms and phenomena that don’t fall within the areas where our knowledge is necessarily deepest.

The guide begins with the physical landscape, offering a brief overview by Eric Snyder of the region’s geologic history, with a separate discussion dedicated to the effects of glaciation. Weather and the night sky are treated cursorily; the four full-opening sky charts will prove handy for those of us (like me) who relearn the same three or four constellations every season.

Especially valuable to the visiting naturalist are the six pages by Ken Keffer dedicated to brief descriptions of habitats. At least to non-specialist eyes, the ecology of New England is fairly straightforward, but outlanders will be grateful for the discussions of such exotica as krummholz and peat bogs, a familiarity with which is essential to seekers of Bicknell’s Thrushes or Black-backed Woodpeckers.

These preliminaries behind us, the book proceeds to treat “wildflowers,” woody plants, and primitive plants, fungi, and lichens; most are grouped by color or by general habitat, an arrangement that will bother only those sophisticated botanists who will be using more technical manuals in any case. Mammals come next, followed by birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Insects and other invertebrates conclude the systematic section of the guide. Twenty fascinating pages are then devoted to the wide variety of living things found on beaches and in tidepools, from snails to seaweed.

There’s a lot of knowledge communicated here, but what is most important is whether any of it passes the “who cares” test. The authors drive home the meaning of New England’s natural history riches in a concluding chapter title simply “Conservation.” Unfortunately centered around a likely misattributed quotation, this otherwise concisely eloquent section traces the 400-year history of European exploitation in the region. The accounts of a selection of endangered species, from the northern right whale to rhe Red Knot, are counterpoised by a discussion of introduced invasive plants and animals; I thought I’d heard every bit of bad news on this topic, but only here did I learn of the insidious effect of the spread of garlic mustard on the populations of the mustard white. There are no easy solutions to any conservation issue, but readers are urged to take simple concrete steps to reduce their own negative impact and, above all, to speak out to encourage conservation whenever possible.

However right-minded a field guide is, its true value can be assessed only in the field. I had occasion to measure this book’s effectiveness on a two-week visit to Grand Manan, New Brunswick, in September — not, strictly speaking, New England, but close enough. That trip (unsurprisingly) focused on the birds of that wonderful island, but (equally unsurprisingly) our group was interested in everything that flew, swam, waddled, or grew. The European Rabbits grazing on the clifftops might have mystified us, and (as always) I could have wished for greater specific precision in identifying those maddening meadowhawks, but I was all in all greatly impressed by how many organisms this book let me pin down with confidence.

How greatly impressed? I’ve added the Kaufman Guide to Nature of New England to the fiercely selective list of references I recommend that participants pack on my trips — and removed from that list some of the more comprehensive and more technical guides to organisms that are more than satisfactorily covered in this fine book.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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