Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox:A Fondness for Field Guides

One of the first books I remember owning is a Golden Nature Guide to Mammals by Herbert S. Zim. My family was poor, so buying a book was rare, this one came from a discount store when I was 6. As I look at the familiar cover, light green with a white-tailed deer, I wince at the tears and the missing lower corner. At some point I enclosed the entire cover with sticky, clear plastic vinyl, which probably kept it in better shape than it otherwise would be. Each page has a watercolor of the animal in its habitat on the top half, the bottom is filled with a description and small map in the corner with the range in pink or blue. Sometimes there’s a silhouette of a paw print, which I found quite exciting as a child, as it made the wilderness feel closer and myself better equipped to identify any grizzlies walking through my yard in suburban Cleveland.
Mammals was only one volume of a whole series of Golden Nature Guides, most of which I acquired as I grew up and still use today. Along the way, I expanded into other field guides, including those from other countries. There’s even one from South Africa that I found at an antique show.
Field guides are a modern phenomenon; artist Roger Tory Peterson perfected the form in the 1930’s, when his first one on North American birds exceeded all sales expectations in the midst of the Great Depression. Nowadays there is great variety in formats and mediums, some with photos instead of paintings, some with pages of information for each species, others with a few sentences of main identifying marks. Some, such as Sibley’s, are too bulky to actually carry into the field and should properly be called “desk guides”.
I learned about geography, climate and geology from field guides. Instead of memorizing the imports/exports of a country, and being bored by rows of numbers, I associated maps and data with something positive–animals. The descriptions of things that affect animal populations, usually human activity, would send me off in seeking more info on say, women’s fashion or oil drilling to see why it impacted egrets or buffalo.
While encyclopedias provides an overview of the Big Picture, field guides are detail oriented. Their non-linear format allows the reader to open at random or search specifically and a person can easily become engrossed in comparing pictures and facts or pursuing an endless line of questions. So while they aren’t as absorbing in the same way as a novel, they are enjoyable for their snapshots of fun facts, I seldom come away from a field guide without learning something. Often a whole bunch of somethings. In that way, field guides are like a long table lined with hors d’oeuvres, not as meaty as a meal, but certainly full of tasty tidbits.

Jackie would like to know if others share her feelings for this type of book and if VL readers have their own favorites?

10 comments on “Thursday Soapbox:A Fondness for Field Guides

  1. annebrooke
    February 25, 2010

    They are fascinating books – I grew up with The Observers’ Guides to British Mammals and also the Birds one (which explains a lot) – glorious books. Thanks for the article – it’s taken me back to my youth!


  2. Christine
    February 25, 2010

    I share your passion for field guides! Birds, fish, coral, sea creatures, rocks, trees, mushrooms . . . Wonderful sources of random knowledge. And there is no “best”, just what you like and what works for what purpose. For example, I use the fish guides for diving and the fish are classified mostly by shape, so you can start with the general shape and narrow it down by markings. My husband studies them before we dive and I use them just to catalog what I’ve seen. Either way, they make the trips much more fun.

  3. Patrick Murtha
    February 25, 2010

    I complete agree about the delights of field guides. Those Golden Guides, pocket-sized as they were, were awesome books for a kid naturalist. My absolute favorite was Pond Life, published in 1967 when I was 9. I took that book with me to local ponds and parks and on vacations, always looking for the creatures and plants and phenomena it described. Since the guide concentrated on a setting rather than a category such as birds or fish, it gave me a wonderful feeling for what an ecosystem is.

  4. Hilary
    February 25, 2010

    What a beautiful cover that book has! I too love field guides, and was brought up by Observer Books (possibly the same bird book as you knew, Anne, though I didn’t get as much benefit from it).

    I have an old-fashioned preference for the lovely watercolours in older field guides, rather than the highly colourful photographs you get in some guides these days. I still think the artists’ illustrations give an impression of the creatures that is far more alive.

  5. RosyB
    February 26, 2010

    “I learned about geography, climate and geology from field guides. Instead of memorizing the imports/exports of a country, and being bored by rows of numbers, I associated maps and data with something positive–animals. The descriptions of things that affect animal populations, usually human activity, would send me off in seeking more info on say, women’s fashion or oil drilling to see why it impacted egrets or buffalo.”

    I’m not sure I have a proper field guide, although I have an entire shelf of animal books – including David Attenborough’s Life on Earth which I had to treat very carefully and I was very in awe of when little. Funny, it must look very dated now with the kind of picture quality and photography they do now.

    I would love to know more about animals and economics. Ever since having my eyes opened by the Museum of Colony and Empire (is that what it’s called) in Bristol when I turned up for a quick visit and ended up spending the entire day there instead, I am more and more interested in how economics nearly always comes first…

    There was an extraordinary part of the exhibition all about top hats and the way people set up in Canada to provide beavers to make the felt for them. I had no idea that beavers were the basis of felt/top hats. And neither did I know quite how prolific the top hat industry was and how it decimated the beaver population.

  6. kirstyjane
    February 26, 2010

    What a lovely piece, Jackie. I was absolutely bug-crazy as a child and had a whole collection of field guides – it was a great education. Great to read of your continuing passion!

  7. bZirk
    February 26, 2010

    Does it have to be a field guide about nature? 😀

    The guide I grew up with was Kodak’s Photography Guide. One of my parent’s very close friends gave it to me when I was about 12, and for a few years that thing was practically glued to my hip. My dad also had an Audubon Field Guide that I used on occasion. Loved the watercolor pictures in that book, and I was sad when dad updated it with one that only had photos. My mother had a few geology field guides, and we used to go looking for shark’s teeth, trilobites, cephalopods, etc. Great memories of those digs!

    But it wasn’t until I was in college and became fascinated with the West that I began to take more interest in field guides. I started with Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking. Wonderful, wonderful book. Over the years I’ve added to my collection and now have A Field Guide to Tracking Animals in Snow By Louise Richardson Forrest and a few on orienteering, geology and survival. Going blank on the exact titles.

    One of my prized possessions is a roadside guide to geological formations in Colorado that I picked up for 10 cents at a yard sale. I’ve had more fun with that book and using it to take my kids out to get the lay of the land, literally. LOL!

  8. Lisa
    February 28, 2010

    Really enjoyed this piece, Jackie. I was another one for bird field guides. Loved the colourful pictures and would spend hours browsing through the entries. Nice to be reminded of that early interest. Great soapbox.

  9. silverseason
    March 3, 2010

    Thank you for reminding me of the pleasures of field guides. My mother had a number of books for identifying wild flowers. She would come back from walks with specimens and page through looking for her find. It taught me about observing details within the big picture.

    My favorite animal book was Ernest Thompson Seton’s Biography of a Grizzly. It would probably seem very romanticized to me now, but I enjoyed the story which portrayed the animal in his environment where he did not interact with people, just other animals. My childhood edition had wonderful line drawings, including paw tracks.

  10. Daniel
    March 16, 2010

    I absolutely love the outdoors and I found this book in an old apartment I was cleaning out the other day, I kept it, decided to look throught it and it was all old and rusted. best keep it closed. 😛

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