Trees of New England: A Natural History

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Trees of New England by Charles Fergus is not another field guide, and thank goodness for that. If I were to lug around all that are available these days, or even a selection of those of most interest, there would be no room in my backpack for much else, and my peanut butter sandwich would get flattened into a messy tortilla. I wonder if there’s a correlation here – that the less contact we have with nature, the more books are published about nature.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened this new tree book and began reading. But quickly, my fears were put to rest. Right away the author lets us know you can leave this book at home (or in the car) and not feel guilty. It really does, as the author claims, “take up where a field guide leaves off,” presenting information about trees in an unadorned narrative style – and alphabetically by common name, so readers can flip directly to species accounts, which include description, range (accompanied by a helpful map), ecology, information on how each tree interacts with various kinds of wildlife, and on how humans have made use of the tree. The straight narrative approach – text not broken into sub-categories such as leaves, flowers, buds, general comments – does have a tradeoff, however. Though pleasingly uncluttered, it does convey the impression that the book is to be read sort of like a collection of short stories. But since it is really a reference book, sub-categories would have facilitated quick finding of specific information within an entry.

The book, in fact, is chock-full of information that is both helpful and interesting. While this is a pleasant discovery, it is not entirely unexpected. Fergus is a prolific and eclectic author on the outdoors. He has written 15 books, whose subjects range from general natural history, to specific animals, to memoirs, to hunting. His books on hunting, in fact, confirmed my feeling that many hunters are keen naturalists, with eyes sharpened, awareness broadened, and sensitivities heightened by this particular, very personal, interaction with nature.

The black-and-white illustrations of Amelia Hansen are admirable companions to the text. She, too, has an impressive resumé, including a long list of publications (several with Fergus), in various media. Here, the clear, crisp, pen-and-ink renderings of trees, tree components, and landscapes are a good visual fit to the style of the book. I only wish there were more.

So why do we need this book now, when there are so many books out there about trees, forests, and nature in New England? A good question, and it’s puzzling that Fergus does not pose it or answer it. My answer is that this is the only recent book that has taken an in-depth popular approach to the natural history of trees in this region. Trees of New England is not thickly scientific or scholarly but rather is geared more to the average person with an interest in trees – of which there are many. Fergus really is breaking new ground here, even though the ground itself is quite old and well trod.

The book is timely, too, including information on the many species now threatened by serious diseases and insect infestations (mostly of non-native origin, such as butternut canker on butternut, beech scale/nectria fungus on beech, woolly adelgid on hemlock), as well as by acid precipitation generally. Many of these threats, individually or collectively, have the potential to transform the forested landscape in New England much in the way the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease have done.

Fergus could have added other new threats lurking in the wings, such as the emerald ash borer and Asian longhorned beetle. He also might have addressed the issue of global climate change, which, according to several respected scientific computer models, could eliminate species such as sugar maple and hemlock from New England forests within 50 years. And the book would have benefited from a sharper copyeditor. But these do not detract from its value. There is a lot to like about it and a lot to learn from it, and I have great respect for what Fergus has done. His book is a welcome member of the household now, sitting on a nearby bookshelf, waiting comfortably and patiently for the field guides to come home.