Wild Ideas: Beating the dog days by diving into fishes

Exploring nature at the Rappahannock County Library

For those interested in learning more about nature and its conservation, the Conservation Collection is a great place to start. To find out what is in the collection, visit the library or rappahannocklibrary.org. On the website, click on “Search Catalog” on the right, then click on “Rappahannock County Library” (the only collection listed) under “Other Collections.”

In the page that comes up, type in “conservation collection” in the “Find” box and click on “Subject” below it to bring up the list of the items in the collection. Books on nature can also be found in other collections in the library. The library has a reciprocal arrangement with libraries in neighboring counties, so books from the collection can be checked out by anyone with a card from one of those libraries.

With the dank, oppressive dog days of August finally settling in lately, I decided it was a good time to dive into “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia,” by Robert E. Jenkins and Noel M. Burkhead, of Roanoke College.

Priced at more than $100, this large-format, 1,079-page reference is not something most people — and particularly not an itinerant writer — are likely to buy on their own, so I headed for the Conservation Collection at the Rappahannock County Library.

I came across “Freshwater Fishes,” the latest addition to the collection, in talking about American eels with Jeb Wofford, a biologist with Shenandoah National Park. Jeb pointed me to the book, which is published by the American Fisheries Society with support from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Greenstone Foundation.

All but 18 of the 210 species covered in the book are considered native to Virginia, constituting “one of the richest state faunas in North America,” according to the authors. While most Virginia freshwater fishes are “small and adapted to warm clear streams,” they say, “the fauna exhibits broad ranges of morphology, color and life styles.”

While the writing style isn’t exactly breezy, the book is packed with information, and where else are you going to find an entire book devoted to Virginia’s fish? It has a lot to offer to anyone interested in them, from ichthyologists to fishing enthusiasts:

The history of freshwater ichthyology; drainages, physiography and fish habitats; biogeography (the relationship of the biology of a species to geography); endangered species; fossils, introduced fish and other special cases; how fish are studied; taxonomy; and descriptions of fish species by family.

“Freshwater Fishes of Virginia” explores the commonwealth’s 210 fish species. The cover illustration, from a watercolor by Lora L. Giessler, is courtesy of the American Fisheries Society.
“Freshwater Fishes of Virginia” explores the commonwealth’s 210 fish species. The cover illustration, from a watercolor by Lora L. Giessler, is courtesy of the American Fisheries Society.

“Freshwater Fishes” comes with black-and-white photographs of all species and color plates of many, along with watershed maps showing where each species occurs in Virginia, and several appendices, including (thankfully) a glossary. Whether you want to find out if red dace might be swimming in a nearby stream, what bass like to eat (pretty much everything, from my experience) or what an abbreviated heterocercal is (a type of fin), this is a good place to start.

The idea of the Conservation Collection was to focus mostly on books specific to our area and Virginia more broadly. When I had the idea to start the collection a few years ago, I first talked to our library manager, David Shaffer, who was enthusiastic about it.

Along with specificity to this region and overall quality, we considered the price of some references, which could make some of them, especially the more narrowly focused, such as “Freshwater Fishes,” beyond the reach of the average nature enthusiast. Some highly recommended references that go beyond our geographic area are included in the collection.

To develop a list of what to include, I asked experts in my nature network — from master naturalists to biologists and ecologists in government and nongovernmental conservation organizations. I also had a few books of my own, or in the inventory of my book business, to help get us started. With financial help from the Riptide Fund and the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, we quickly built the core collection.

In the course of writing this column, I came across more great references, doing research on my own or through recommendations from experts I’ve interviewed. The collection is now up to 115 volumes, all housed together in the same location in the library.

It ranges way beyond fish, with books covering whole ecosystems (from vernal pools to grasslands and forests) down to specific inhabitants, from plants and fungi to animals. Amphibians and mammals are well represented, as are birds, from field guides to in-depth explorations of families and species, including the epic “Virginia’s Bobwhite Quail.”

Invertebrates, the most plentiful animals on the planet, are also covered well in the collection, from butterflies and moths to ants, including the pocket-sized “Ants of North America” and the giant (in size and scope) “The Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson.

Hölldobler and Wilson explore the fascinating lives of social insects further in a more recent work, “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies.” Books on other invertebrates — from pollinators to predators, on land and in fresh water — are also in the collection.

The plant kingdom takes up a good portion of the collection, from the amazingly thorough (and weighty) reference “Flora of Virginia” and the earlier, four-volume “Flora of West Virginia,” to books on the wildlife uses of plants and on growing and marketing woodland medicinal plants. A thin but well-illustrated, easy-to-use field guide published by the Fairfax County Park Authority is among several books on invasive plants.

Those who enjoy growing plants can learn more about them in “Botany for Gardeners” and several references on native plants, including wildflowers, ferns, vines and woody plants. Along with field guides, books on trees include two on the American chestnut and the beautifully photographed “Remarkable Trees of Virginia.”

Some field guides go beyond our area but are applicable to it, including several on native grasses and a lovely little guide on fungi (a much more thorough, local one by a West Virginia mycologist is on order). References on weather (“The Cloudspotter’s Guide”) and geology (in Shenandoah National Park) are also included.

Human impact on nature and the growing concern about the ramifications are explored in works on conservation and habitat-restoration programs and practices, including sustainable farming and forestry. The history of conservation and conservationists is covered in, for example, a lovely 1916 set of John Muir’s writings and in “Breaking Ground,” by Gifford Pinchot, founder and first chief of the Forest Service.

Richard Louv breaks ground in another way in “Last Child in the Woods,” exploring the effect on children of not experiencing nature, “nature-deficit disorder.” Joseph Cornell offers a practical guide on the same subject for parents and teachers in “Sharing Nature with Children.” Pamphlets, DVDs (e.g., “Living with Black Bears in Virginia”) and CDs (e.g., on frog calls) round out the collection. Most of the items are available to check out; others can be used only in the library.

I can think of few better ways to spend time on a muggy, dog day afternoon in August than exploring the writings of some of America’s most inspiring and passionate conservationists, or learning about Virginia’s diverse fish species or its remarkable trees.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”