Wild Ideas: Library bolsters its Conservation Collection

Three books on pollinators have been added to the Conservation Collection, including one on pollinators of native plants, such as this honeybee on common milkweed.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Three books on pollinators have been added to the Conservation Collection, including one on pollinators of native plants, such as this honeybee on common milkweed.

The Conservation Collection at the Rappahannock County Public Library recently got a bit bigger, with the addition of books on pollinators, moss and the “forest unseen.”

Library director Dave Shaffer and I have been working to build the collection, and this time around when I sent a list of recommendations, I consulted members of Old Rag Master Naturalists (ORMN).

The response, from three members in Rappahannock, included a truly wonderful book recommended by former ORMN president Jack Price, “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature,” by David George Haskell, a biology professor at the University of the South who was named the Carnegie-CASE Professor of the Year in Tennessee in 2009. The 2013 book garnered several prestigious literary honors, including finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction that year.

Jack said he found the book to be “one of the most informative and best-written books” he’d read about the forest world — “seen or unseen.” He was so impressed with it that he recommended adding it to ORMN’s training curriculum.

"The Forest Unseen," the winner of several prestigious literary honors, starts in the forest but takes readers on a journey through nature.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
“The Forest Unseen,” the winner of several prestigious literary honors, starts in the forest but takes readers on a journey through nature.

The basis of the book is Haskell’s almost-daily observations of a single square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest over the course of a year. Haskell says, in the preface, that he got the idea for his study of the tiny patch of forest from watching Buddhist monks make mandalas, detailed sand paintings, from memory. “The mandala is the re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of the Buddha,” he writes. “The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.”

While his observations may come from this tiny portion of the forest, he expands on what he sees there, taking the reader on a journey through nature — its complexity and beauty, and the spiritual role it plays in our lives. As noted biologist E. O. Wilson aptly put it, “Haskell leads the reader into a new genre of nature writing, located between science and poetry.”

Among the diverse topics that inspired the 43 short chapters are winter plants, footprints, a salamander, spring ephemerals, sunrise birds, moths, seeds transported by ants, earthquakes, wind, herbivory, mosquitos, an eft and a coyote, the intrusion of a nearby golf course, medicine, a sharp-shinned hawk, denizens of the soil and the emotional power of faces.

After reading about the book, I thought it might make good bedtime listening, so I paid the extra few bucks to add Audible narration to the Kindle version I purchased. When I first started up the narration, late one night, I was expecting to hear the soft drawl of a North Carolinian that would ease my way into sleep. Instead I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, to hear a crisp English accent. Belatedly reading the author’s bio, I found he is actually English, although New England actor Michael Healy, a former cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” does the Audible narration.

In listening to the book, I felt both soothed and inspired as I accompanied Haskell on his mental journey into that square meter of forest and beyond. I thought back to the start of my own journey into nature — in Germany, looking on the forest floor for bugs. Since reading the book, I’ve been spending a lot more time in the forest above my house observing its floor and the life on and within it.

I like this book so much that I know I’ll revisit it again and again, so I’m going to buy a hard copy, too, just in case civilization ends abruptly — or we experience the occasional power outage during a storm — and I can’t use my Kindle.

The other books recommended by ORMN members mostly deal with pollinators. Robin Williams, who recently retired from the ORMN board and still sits on the Virginia Native Plant Society board, suggested two great books on the subject. The first is “Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants,” by Heather Holm. It covers a host of pollinator species, including butterflies and moths, bees and wasps, ants, beetles, bugs, lacewings, and spiders, as well as prairie, woodland-edge and wetland-edge plants that can attract and help support them.

The other pollinator book Robin suggested is “Northern Virginia Butterflies and Skippers: A Field Guide,”  by Robert Blakney. It is, as she says, a nice size for a field guide” and has photos of both the dorsal and ventral sides of most of the butterfly species in it. It also includes each species’ brood times, host plants, and whether it is common in Northern Virginia.

Added to the Rappahannock County Library's Conservation Collection is "a moss love story," “Gathering Moss: A natural and cultural history of mosses.”Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Added to the Rappahannock County Library’s Conservation Collection is “a moss love story,” “Gathering Moss: A natural and cultural history of mosses.”

Former ORMN board member Joyce Harman suggested a pollinator reference recommended by her mom, bee expert Ann Harman: “Wasp and Bee Management: A common-sense approach,” by Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a Senior Extension Associate with the New York State Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program at Cornell. According to the publisher, this spiral–bound, 88-page book includes detailed identification information for more than 20 wasp, hornet, yellow jacket, and bee species in the Mid-Atlantic and other regions. It also details their habitat, appearance, behavior and “the risk for stings, swarms, and property damage,” recommending nonchemical solutions where action is appropriate. This book is on order and should arrive soon.

Robin also suggested a book on moss: “Gathering Moss: A natural and cultural history of mosses,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is “not a field guide but a moss love story,” Robin says. It explains why mosses are so important to forest habitats and was “a delightful learning experience” for her, she adds. Being a big fan of moss, and having a lot of it up here on this damp, forested mountain, I’m looking forward to digging into this one.

Patrons of the public libraries in Rappahannock, Culpeper, Fauquier and Warren counties can all check out items from the Conservation Collection, which includes DVDs and CDs as well as books.

© 2015 Pam Owen

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