June 2012

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Great Outdoors

Being a big fan of bird watching, I am more than a bit addicted to field guides. Is it the pictures, the descriptions, the color-coded location maps? I have no idea, just can't get enough of them. Bill Thompson, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, has come out with a new Peterson Field Guide, The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America, which is a sweet introduction to the hobby for budding ornithologists. Arranged first by location (swamp, pond, meadow, farmyard) and then by species (ducks, hawks, jays, sparrows), each page offers a color photo of the bird, descriptions of appearance and song, and something special to remember it by -- such as the straight bill of the Black-Necked Stilt or the black and white appearance of the Black-Throated Gray Warbler (it is the only western warbler dressed all in black and white).

Along with the prerequisite location map and notes on how to find the birds in their specific habitats, Thompson includes a "WOW!" factor for each bird. Some of these are about sounds to listen for or curious habits like the Turkey Vulture puking on intruders. (Let's just stop and think about vulture puke for a moment, shall we?) But others are more along the lines of the notion that "If the Beach Boys had been birders, their hit song might have gone 'I wish they all could be California Gulls!'" (Cheesy, yes, but worth a chuckle.)

The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of North America is not the most comprehensive field guide for your area as it covers all of North America and thus will note birds that likely will not apply to any one reader. But it is a great overall guide, very well put together, and if you are traveling about the country (or our border neighbors) then it must be tossed in the duffle bag for easy reference. (I also want to note that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt just came out with the first new guide to moths in a zillion years, the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, and it's a beauty. Summer nights are prime times for moth spying and you will want this full color title at your side.)

Older teens with a deep interest in bird lore (or natural history fans of any age) should be sure to take a look at Winged Wonders: A Celebration of Birds in Human History by Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland. This elegant little book (the cover is stunning) considers sixteen different birds and how they have been discussed in literature, science, and history. The eagle is here, along with the peacock, owl, and falcon, but smaller less impressive birds also prove to be worthy reads, such as the wren and sparrow. The information the authors have so lyrically put together manages to be wonderfully esoteric but still useful. I had no idea that Alcatraz was actually originally named La Isla de los Alcatraces, the island of the pelicans, by Spanish explorers who were saved from colliding with The Rock in 1775 by a flock of the birds. (This makes the whole "Birdman of Alcatraz" story that much more interesting.)

The authors discuss William Blake on eagles, the connection between the Crusaders and falconry, how Charlemagne's mother is the likely origin of the Mother Goose legend, the connection between mahjong and sparrows, and what peacock meat tastes like. (Turkey is much tastier, apparently.) The chapters are short and meander in the most charming manner while catering to readers with time to read in short bursts (or as long as you might like). I found it to be enormously informative, and while the appeal to bird lovers is obvious, I couldn't help viewing Winged Wonders as a quite valuable literary reference tool as well. If you want to be an ornithologist or just watch the bird feeder outside your window, Winged Wonders is a step beyond field guides in truly appreciating the long relationship between humans and their feathered friends.

For younger nature-minded teens, Loree Griffin Burns (author of Tracking Trash and The Hive Detectives, both of which I highly recommend) explores the notion of "scientific discovery from your own backyard" in Citizen Scientists. The concept here immediately made me think of The Great Backyard Bird Count, which is sponsored jointly by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Burns certainly writes about bird-watching (including the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count), but she also delves into butterfly spotting, frog monitoring, and even "ladybugging."

Far more than a simple nature activity book (miles from one of those actually), Citizen Scientists includes numerous interviews with scientists in the field doing the sort of work children and teens are encouraged to participate in. Burns includes maps, checklists for field equipment and clothing, and dozens of photos taken by Ellen Harasimowicz, which illustrate how the research she writes about is conducted outside and later analyzed in the lab. She takes readers through a year of outdoor observations making this title an endless resource. I love this kind of title for the way it talks up to its audience and respects their understanding on serious subjects. Burns is an author any nature-minded reader needs to be following and Citizen Scientists is another example of why she is a must have for libraries everywhere.

For the budding artist, Peter Jenny has come out with Learning to See, a nice little set of three compact books that fit easily into a jacket pocket. In each one he focuses on a different aspect of the drawing process: The Artist's Eye, Drawing Techniques, and Figure Drawing, but the main appeal is the inspiration kick-start that Jenny's brief essays, exercises, and examples provide. In black and white on matte pages, he shows readers how to take chances, view the world differently, and become a better artist.

There is real work that can be accomplished with Jenny's books (most of it outside) and readers should not come to them expecting a soulful journey composed of "setting yourself free" or "finding your inner diva" or whatever those self-actualization books that pretend to be about art are selling these days. Instead of feelings, Jenny provides exercises on shading, exposure, anatomy, and composition (among many other topics). The books fit in your hand, they are useful and fun, and with a long summer ahead, the Learning to See series is a perfect choice for those seeking some handy personal improvement that doesn't reek of a bad Oprah episode. This is my kind of vacation studying, and it's pretty darn stylish too. (Expect to hear more of these books at Christmastime, because if they don't have stocking stuffer written all over them, I don't know what does.)

Finally, if you're traveling in the U.S. this summer, National Geographic has a couple of easy to pack along titles. National Geographic Guide to State Parks of the United States is split up into regions, has hundreds of full color photos, and includes maps and handy lists of what to explore at each park (fishing in Bryce Canyon, caving in Jewel Cave, and the apparently quite popular Pirate's Cover Miniature Golf in Bar Harbor, Maine). For those moments when you're stuck in the back seat, the National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas will come in mighty handy. With road maps and fact lists for every state, plus quirky roadside attractions, it's a pretty useful atlas and the inclusion of driving games and activities will help to make the hours pass. But don't see either of these books as just time occupiers; even in the age of GPS and apps, you need to know how to read a map and look something up in a guidebook. Depending on technology to give you all the information you need is, well, stupid (unless you intend to never leave the comforts of home). National Geographic gets the whole concept of "outside" better than anyone (they practically invented the idea) and are the perfect place to turn to for easy to follow maps. Consider these valuable learning tools, and then enjoy using each and every page. (And just subscribe to the magazine too while you're at it. It's worth it.)

COOL READ: I grew up in the land of small wave surfing (Central Florida) and four to six foot waves were plenty big enough for me. Chris Dixon explores the wave of crazy big waves -- and I do mean big -- in Ghost Wave, which manages to be not only a thrill ride about the likes of Laird Hamilton and the birth of drop-in surfing but also a deep history of the Cortes Bank where the biggest ridable wave on earth is found. You have Surfing magazine, purists and charlatans, Spanish explorers, scientists, and more than one guy first dumbfounded and then obsessed by the water found on a shoal about one hundred miles off San Diego. There's a rock (Bishop Rock), a wreck (the scuttled Jalisco), and a lot of water that can do some things out there like no place else on earth.

Is it fair to call the Cortes Bank "the Everest of the sea"? Honestly, I'm not sure. (Should anything be compared to Mt. Everest?) But Dixon goes a long way toward making an investigation about the Bank, not just about dramatic heights but those men who go to sea. He talks to the expected surfers but also sailors and divers and fishermen, men who work the sea, use it, and are focused on saving it. He pores over records for mariners from decades and hundreds of years before and he talks to everyone -- everyone -- who has been intrigued by the Bank or involved in big surfing. Along the way there is the first definable measurement of a killer wave, (112 feet from the deck of the Ramapo, as it was fighting for its life in 1933), and the tragic death of big wave surfer Mark Foos at Maverick's in 1990. Dixon wants to get readers inside not only the piece of ocean he is writing about but also the heads of the men who are mesmerized by what it contains. He infuses Ghost Wave with all of their stories and creates a blend of science and sports and Americana that is unique. This is the kind of outside that I can't get enough of, although frankly I'll read about it from the safe perspective of my small wave past, thank you very much. I know my limits, and they sure as hell aren't anywhere near where these guys dare to tread.

Colleen Mondor doesn't really write much about her surfing past because she is too obsessed with her flying one. The Map of My Dead Pilots is her recent book on Alaska aviation. She blogs at chasingray.com.