"The Way of the Woods" and "Field Guide to the Cayuga Lake Region" by Linda Underhill and James Dake


SUGAR MAPLE Acer saccharum, Maple Family  Bark dark brown-gray, furrowed, blocky.  Leaves opposite simple, 2-10″, mostly 5 lobes, pointed, firm.  In autumn, orange-yellow, red. Fruit 1 1/4″ paired seeds with wings.  Try breaking a leaf stem to see the clear sap.  The similar Norway Maple (A. platanoides), often planted in neighborhoods, has milky white sap.
— from “Field Guide to the Cayuga Lake Region”

This process of cutting trees and replanting them has gone on several times in the history of the neighborhood.  I can see that in the different ages and type of trees planted along the street.  Many of the newcomers are the non-native Norway maple variety, and despite their hardiness, they don’t look healthy.  It is only the end of August, but already some of them are beginning to lose their leaves.
— from “The Way of the Woods”

It is a truism that we people are a part of nature, not just members of a social institution that functions from above trying to exercise control.  We interact with other species in ways that may be more scheming than, say, a woodpecker relating to a cavity in a dead tree trunk.  But the human response encountering “the natural world” — a field of wildflowers, a red fox scampering into the woods —  is basically emotional.  To truly understand the natural environment takes study, a real effort of will and intelligence.  Two new books will help people recognize and comprehend the workings of the world that we didn’t build but which we interact with, for better or worse.  “The Way of the Woods” by Linda Underhill is a book of “journeys through American  forests”.  Ms. Underhill is a native of Pittsburgh.  She and her sculptor husband live in Wellsville, NY and she teaches at Corning Community College.   Her previous book is “The Unequal Hours: Moments of Being in the Natural World”.

Some of the forests she has journeyed to are far from home — in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest — but some are at our own doorstep, like the Allegheny Wilderness of Pennsylvania.  Ms. Underhill’s most passionate quest is for old-growth forest , not just trees that have been growing for hundreds of years but extensive woodland with all the animal population and plant systems that it supports.  Another benefit of virgin forest is that it would not contain unwelcome aliens — imported trees and shrubs that may have carried pests for which the native plants have no resistance.

Once a foreign fungus or an exotic insect invades a backyard garden, it can escape to the forest, and as we learned with the chestnut blight of the early twentieth century, it can be devastating.  The magnificent American chestnut that once dominated this forest is now only a legend; most people over fifty have never seen one.  I have spotted the ragged sproutings of chestnut that grow in forests where old rootstock still exists, but these trees rarely live more than a few years before succumbing to the blight.
— from “The Way of the Woods”

Linda Underhill’s writing is lyric, often poetic, and takes account of the emotional ties people have to trees and forests.  By contrast, James Dake’ s “Field Guide to the Cayuga Lake Region” is practical and straightforward.  Its 152 paperback pages (with a map and a ruler printed inside the back cover) make it simple to carry into the woods, or through the Cayuga Nature Center, an educational attraction and microcosm of the regional environment on the west side of Cayuga Lake, five miles  north of Ithaca.  The CNC has a close association with the Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth in Ithaca; James Dake is liaison between the institutions.

The compact Field Guide includes geological background on the formation of the Finger Lakes , a chronology of the human impact on the area and a guide to the Nature Center.  But most of the pages are photos and facts about the most common conifers and broadleaf trees, fungi, ferns and flowers, insects and spiders, butterflies and moths (which are not the same thing), birds and mammals, all presented in a format to help anyone who wishes to understand the activity in the natural world and call things by their name.  It can be especially valuable in identifying and understading the “weeds” that can come to dominate a landscape (garlic mustard, yarrow, goldenrod…).  Dake warns, however, “please be sure to always observe or photograph wildflowers without harming them.  They are an important part of the ecosystem and some are protected by law.”

Linda Underhill and James Dake join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the wonders of nature in our part of the world and the best way to observe them, and to answer istener questions.

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