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Field Notes From the Northern Forest Hardcover – June 1, 1998
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Biologist Stager's collection of essays about plants, animals, insects, and physical phenomena in the forests of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada is based on a series of weekly radio programs he has cohosted since 1990. The region contains a patchwork of conifer, hardwood, and mixed forests--to say nothing of a large number of people. Following the course of the four seasons, Stager probes the lives of such animals and insects as bees, woodpeckers, snakes, fireflies, beavers, and bears. He discusses plant defenses (tannins, resins, alkaloid poison, etc.) and mosses, lichens, and bogs (a botanical paradise, he calls them). Chapters on conifers, princess pines, the woods in winter, the northern lights, bird feeder biology, snow fleas, and maple sap precede the glossary of scientific names, which includes English names and root words translated into English. Although Stager's abundant research included interviews with experts in various fields, the book is written for the layperson. Anne Lacy's appealing illustrations complement the informative and amusing text. George Cohen
From Kirkus Reviews
Short, personable essays enthusiastically explore the natural history of one of North America's largest (and possibly most overlooked) ecosystems. The Great Northern Forest sprawls from the Western Adirondacks to the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Stager, who teaches biology at Paul Smith's College in the northern Adirondacks and hosts the public radio program ``Natural Selections,'' argues that it's as complex as the tropical rain forestand just as threatened by overdevelopment and pollution. Debunking woodcraft myths (like the belief that moss grows exclusively on the north side of trees), demystifying the northern lights, or weighing the pros and cons of backyard bird feeders, Stager balances his love of a good story with rigorous consideration of the latest scientific research. He explains with the passion and patience of a teacher, and his lay translations enlighten without bogging down in complexity and jargon. What's surprising is how little scientists know about much of the natural world: Research often turns up no definitive answers, especially regarding the tiniest plants and insects, such as lichens and bee-flies. When he runs up against such gaps, Stager reacts like a good scientist and tries to fill them himself. He stretches out in the grass to observe ants and trout lilies, halts a campus construction project to rescue ground-burrowing bees, and challenges his students to unravel the conundrum of why snowfleas swarm in winter. Only the most devoted nature-lovers will be transfixed by every essay (especially since Stager spends more time on bugs than bears), but he succeeds in painting the big picture by focusing on the small scale. Stager's upbeat short takes are like a day afield with an avuncular guide, paying tribute to his neck of the woods while inspiring the rest of us that getting in touch with nature can be as simple as looking around our own backyards. (illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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_Field Notes_ is not a show & tell identification guide, nor is it a malediction, written solely to remind us of our reckless and wanton ravaging of the environment. Instead, it is a series of essays covering several years of Stager's careful observations of nature, bolstered by relevant information in the scientific literature. His research, importantly, is gleaned largely from primary sources of information, not from secondary, often cherry-picked and tendentious interpretations of scientific data we so often see in agenda-driven publications. With the flood of books, journal articles, and newspaper stories relating to the natural world that has swept into our everyday lives since the environmental movement emerged three decades ago--most of which is sullied by political correctness and environmental extremism--Stager's _Field Notes_ is a refreshing departure from the "the sky is falling!" message which so often suffuses the Nature genre. Stager does, however, caution us of
environmental degradation relevant in the Northern Forest caused by humans, such as the problems of acid rain, unchecked development, and insatiable resource consumption. But on the whole, the book remains delightfully non-alarmist and upbeat.
One thing that keeps the content of _Field Notes_ close to earth is Stager's ability to appreciate and mediate both sides of a contentious issue. The vast Adirondack Park, where Stager makes his home, contains more than its share of dichotomies--political, social, cultural, and economic--where land-use controls dictate how the area is to be developed, and where a constant battle is waged between many of the natives, who feel the controls are intrusive, and the preservationists, who want minimal human impact on the land. Stager, obviously keenly aware of the struggles that go on in the lives of the creatures around him, is also mindful of the cultural tug-of-wars that surround him, and his sensitivity to both sides resonates in _Field Notes_. For example, Stager risks incurring the wrath of the animal rights activists when he daringly proposes a radical method of controlling the burgeoning beaver population: by--perish the thought!--harvesting them!
Stager's essays probe and lay open to question many of our idealistic, romantic, and often intuitively-held notions of nature. He challenges us to rethink our tendency to regard all things natural as healthful and benign. Quite to the contrary, as he mordantly points out in his revelatory essay on plant defenses. In his chapter on native species, Stager reveals the dynamic and transitory nature of the natural world, one that is in a state of constant flux, thereby pulling apart our idea of stasis in nature, and invalidating such a thing as a "native" species. The well-intentioned foot soldiers waging war on invasive exotics might pause to consider this before brandishing their Round-up-filled spray guns.
My only disappointment with _Field Notes_ is (to me) a palpable omission in his essay on beavers. In it he talks about the modern beaver's giant six-foot-long ancestors, but he fails to speculate on what might have caused their demise, along with the extinction of several other species of magnificent megafauna that once roamed the Northern Forest a mere ten thousand or so years ago. He only cites a Native American folklore account, most likely based on mysticism and superstition, of how the present beavers came to be. But there is fairly convincing evidence in the scientific literature (of which I'm sure Stager is aware) that adduces their demise to over-hunting by Native Americans, and I suspect that this political-cultural hot-button, coupled with Stager's close friendship with local Mohawk Indian poet Maurice Kenny (to whom he co-dedicates the book), and Native American rights advocate Ray Fadden, colored stager's decision not to share this information with his audience. Had he shared this information, it would have been in keeping with much of the Nature myth-dispelling that runs through his essays, and the notion that Native Americans were intentionally careful stewards of the land could have been another popularly-held idea worthy of more scrutiny by his audience.
No one can fault a culture for behaviors based on mysticism and superstitions thousands of years ago, but today, more than two centuries since The Enlightenment, the notion of a scientically advanced culture clinging to such irrational beliefs is astonishing. And Stager, who has already warned us of the potential health-related dangers of our foolish New-Age belief in the supposed innocence and benignity of nature, in his chapter on bears again warns us of the potentially far-reaching and devastating consequences of the silly and superstitious belief that a bear's bladder (or a rhinoceros horn, etc.) can cure impotence. This irrational belief, largely based in Eastern cultures, is fundamentally no different from the New-Age belief system that has most recently emerged in scientifically and technologically advanced societies today. This sort of fuzzy thinking is anathema to science, and we may be facing another wave of extinctions of megafauna if it continues to manifests itself as an assault on the natural world. (That is, of course, if we don't manage to kill them all off some other way first.)
Stager's allusions to the folly of magical thinking add even more to the depth of _Field Notes_, already rich in content. Keeping in mind that his intent is to keep the content optimistic and hopeful, as well as instructive and entertaining, inviting too much controversy would only defeat this purpose. Field Notes will go up in my bookcase and share a space next to two of my favorite popular biology books, May Theilgaard Watts' _Reading the Landscape of America_, and Paul A. Colinvaux's _Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare_.