I 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.
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.