Just finished reading Ronald Lanner’s Conifers of California, which we picked up at Donner Memorial State Park a week ago. It’s a wonderful book, one of those guides that is at once field guide and literature and coffee-table artwork. Few people know as much about California’s conifers as Lanner, who’s written a few other notable books on trees and their animal cohorts, and it’s almost tempting to find a way to pack this two-pound book in a more or less waterproof place on my next Klamath backpack trip.
Of course, if I made a habit of taking along fieldguides just because they might be useful, I’d have to rent a mule. I can just barely stand to carry Ertter and Bowerman’s The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Mount Diablo, California on day hikes, and that book only weighs a pound and a half. I carry sandwiches that heavy. And it’s not like Ertter and Bowerman wouldn’t come in handy. It’s almost certain that any Diablo hike I might take will involve seeing a plant I’d like to identify. Sure, there are some local field guides that cover living things you’re unlikely to encounter on a typical hike. Oddly, though, I find that it’s the more specialized guides I most often find myself wishing I’d brought along on a trip. (Admittedly, that may be because I’ve already often brought Kaufman’s book on birds and often his guide to butterflies as well. Those two guides, the second co-authored with Jim Brock, are likely the most useful field guides I have.)
The last few trips I’ve taken out of the Bay Area, for instance, I’ve found myself wishing I’d remembered to pack Tamara Hartson’s Squirrels of the West. I picked it up almost as an afterthought a year or two ago from a shelf of review books sent me at the Earth Island Journal, and have found myself referring to it more often than I could have imagined. Makes sense: what kind of mammalian wildlife do you see more often than squirrels and chipmunks? You can be camping for days looking for an elusive warbler or flycatcher, and meanwhile the local endemic species of Tamiascurus might be rifling your backpack for granola bars. Hartson’s excellent descriptions and detailed range maps make identifying your local pilferer easy and fun, and there’s more diversity among these tree rats than you might think, especially in the western mountains.
Also highly useful in the “stuff that’s there whether you notice it or not so you may as well identify it” category is Pinau Merlin’s Field Guide to Desert Holes, which is exactly what it sounds like. One of the little secrets of desert wildlife watching is that most desert wildlife is nowhere to be seen until it’s too dark to see them. It’s cooler at night, and only crazy things like ravens and hikers are generally out during the day. Everyone else has found some shade, and the most dependable source of shade in the desert is the kind you dig yourself. Being able to distinguish between badger holes and desert tortoise burrows becomes useful if you want to know who your neighbors are. Besides, once you read Merlin’s book you start noticing things like wolf spider and ant lion holes that might once have blended in the the stony surround.
The University of California Press has been updating and re-releasing many of their historic publications, probably the most specialized of the lot being Pests of the Native California Conifers, which either you need or you don’t. There’s very little middle ground there. Another in their series is the arguably slightly more mainstream Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America, which is charming and probably the kind of book best left at home for later use in case you happen to see a horned lizard. That is, unless you regularly hike in a place with more than one species common there. At 180 pages, and with just 13 named species of horned lizard in existence, you might guess that this guide contains a bit more information about the genus than just terse descriptions of identifying features. (The Horned Lizard guide is not, however, the UC Press guide with the best pages-per-species ratio: that honor goes, I think, to their 288-page Introduction to the California Condor.
Clearly, the UC Press guides attempt to be something more than mere identifying tools: many of them attempt to provide information about the context in which the organisms being discussed make their livings. (Some of the guides are about geological topics, so just mentally edit that previous sentence as appropriate for them.) While providing context is a laudable goal, every square inch of real estate devoted to discussions of ecological interrelationships or scientifichistory or what have you is room not available for describing rarer species, so that some of the guides provide at best an approximation of the diversity they cover. Trees and Shrubs of California, for instance, will certainly get you an identification to the genus level for diverse groups like Ceanothus or manzanitas, but you’ll likely have to turn to some other text to get to the species level. (You did bring your Jepson Manual, right? It’s only six pounds.)
Sometimes this has its drawbacks, as we found out this past weekend turning to Jameson and Peeters’ Mammals of California for help in determining what the bats were that flew over us last Sunday night, eating mosquitoes above the Truckee River. Each bat species was well-described as to range, habits, coloration, bone structure, hair patterns, ear length, eye color, and whether they part their hair on the side or down the middle. What we needed were simple silhouettes of the bats as they’d be seen in flight: dark outlines against an illuminated background. No such luck, and there are enough bat species in the Tahoe Basin that we couldn’t use range as the identifying factor. If I ever find a dead bat in my campsite, Jameson and Peeters will no doubt aid me to identify it precisely. (“Do its ears fold down to reach the tip of its nose, Becky? Well, I’m not touching it either. Use a stick.”) Incidentally, it’s Jameson and Peeters pictured in the thumbnail cover included in this post, and that handsome fella on the cover is a golden-mantled ground squirrel.
Exhaustive accuracy isn’t always the most important aspect of a field guide. Take Ronald Taylor’s Sagebush Country, a guide to flowering plants of the Great Basin. It’s printed in a style you used to see a lot in the 1970s and 1980s: arranged by plant family in alphabetical order (rather than by flower color or with related families listed together), and if you’re not adept at using dichotomous keys that often depend on descriptions of plant parts you may not have on hand (such as flowers in the off-season), you will likely need to leaf through Sagebrush Country to find a plant if it’s utterly unfamiliar to you. The book, at pocket size, is of necessity incomplete, especially in contrast to works such as the University of Nevada’s exhaustive and wonderful and unbackpackably heavy Max C. Fleischmann Series in Great Basin Natural History. In his grasses section, Taylor says “The grasses constitute the single most important group of plants in the sagebrush steppe,” and then goes on to describe just 11 species for the whole Great Basin, only six of them with photos.
But that doesn’t matter. It was Taylor I carried with me on my first trip up through the Owens Valley 20 years ago, and it was Taylor who helped me learn such Great Basin commonalities as rabbitbrush and prickly poppy and firecracker penstemon, and when Sharon left my copy in a rain puddle overnight ten years ago I went out and got another, and I’m likely to take it with me in a couple weeks when I head to the Mojave, just in case.
Though Plants of the East Mojave really is the better fit, what with its author Adrienne Knute living a fifteen-minute drive from Cima Dome and all. I’ll take that one too.