Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Nature of Massachusetts!

Our book today is the gorgeous 1996 volume The Nature of Massachusetts, written by Christopher Leahy, John Hanson Mitchell, and Thomas Conuel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Massachusetts Audobon Society, and given that the volume is lavishly illustrated with the wistful, evocative artwork of Lars Jonsson, it's hard to imagine a better tribute-volume.

Conuel's precision and Leahy's all-encomassing passion drive the book, but it's the quirky, passionate prose of Mitchell (author of the immortal nature classic Ceremonial Time, which we'll get to one of these days here at Stevereads) that lifts the volume to the status of a classic – one that all nature-lovers should own whether they've set foot in Massachusetts or not.

The book starts off exactly as it should: with a lengthy tribute to the indomitable Boston women who got the whole business of wildlife preservation started, properly organized, and properly funded. The essays is called “Founding Mothers” and pays heartfelt tribute to such pioneers as Olga Owens Huckins, Rachel Carson, and most of all Harriet Hemenway, and the playful perception the reader encounters here stays the same throughout the book:
Proper Boston women, it used to be said, liked getting old. They could wear their hair in the Queen Mother style with impunity, ignore fashion altogether, and say what they wanted. The Boston abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and lived to be ninety-one, confided in her diary at the age of eighty-seven that she hoped the coming year would bring her useful work. Aging was like a cup of tea, she believed. The sugar was at the bottom.

The book takes us on a leisurely tour of all the various “rooms” to be found in the Bay State's “House of Nature” - streams and floodplains, grasslands, red maple swamps, oak-conifer forests, coastal heathlands, and many others. Each of these very different ecological niches is examined in vigorous detail, and each chapter comes with its own mini-bibliography. When our writers tells us that “The peaceful grandeur of the large estuarine salt marsh masks the orgy of biological activity taking place in and around it,” they're not pandering to sensationalism – their enthusiasm is as genuine as it is infectious. To them, the most commonplace physical setting invariably hides great riches:
Despite the characteristically depauperate plant and animal communities, a good bog is a naturalist's dreamland: often secluded by a surrounding wall of forest; the vegetation, water, and reflections laid out in a pleasing arrangement of planes and horizons; an unparalleled assortment of greens spotted with orchid pink in spring and splotched with moorland crimson in the fall; an assemblage of strange plants such as sundews and pitcher plants that must catch and digest insect food to survive; great multicolored dragonflies patrolling the water's edge; perhaps the ethereal piping of a hermit thrush floating on the spice-scented air; and of course the magic of walking on waves as you cross the undulating mossy mat.

And there's an appealing immediacy to all of it that seems to put the reader right into the imagined location – with our authors standing nearby, equally spellbound:
If you have never stood by a marsh before dawn during the breeding season and listened to the wails, moans, cackles, and lunatic laughter with which rails, bitterns, gallinules, and other marsh birds express their territorial jealousies and sexual longings, you have missed one of nature's strangest performances.

Of course, everybody has their own favorite ecological setting (those who favor a nice sinus-clearing desert will be out of luck in this volume), and I've surely made no secret of my own throughout the years. Yes, I'm fond of the ocean and its tidal pools, and of course I've poured affection on ponds right here at Stevereads, and I very much enjoy a patch of old-growth forest, but my heart will always belong to salt marshes, so I was particularly pleased by prose poetry they invoke here :
Anyone who lives near these sea-drowned prairies has internalized a host of indelible impressions: canoeing into the silent heart of the marsh via a meandering creek; squadrons of tree swallows hawking for mosquitoes in August; a snowy owl perched on a hay straddle in January; an unmistakable sweet tang in the nostrils; the dawn song of the seaside sparrow; the surprisingly painful bite of the greenhead fly; catching mummichogs with a dip net; watching a merlin plunge into a mixed flock of shorebirds; the mechanical jousting of fiddler crabs; the October scarlet of samphire ...

[caption id="attachment_1532" align="aligncenter" width="269" caption="northern harrier over miacomet plains, nantucket"][/caption]

Of course, content is the twin of context; you could hardly open this book knowing it's an Audobon Society production and not expect one of its strongest themes to be wildlife preservation and conservation, and that's certainly the case here – but not intrusively so. The volume was written ten years ago, at the very cusp of the modern 'green' movement that has seen such huge strides in Massachusetts since then (despite wide-scale Bush-era depredations elsewhere in the country) – the dark tidings our authors have to impart – about the fishability and swimmability of Massachusetts lakes and streams, among other things – have in many cases actually improved in the ensuing decade.

So when our authors geekishly inform us “River fishes are neurologically equipped to maintain a constant position in relation to the current without (so to speak) thinking about it – a trick called rheotaxis,” they're perhaps unaware of the neat little feat of rheotaxis they're documenting with their own efforts. Would that all upstream-swimming had monuments as nifty as this book.


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