Anne Stinson - January 2008

Snuggle Under the Covers with a Good Book
Anne Stinson

   Well, fellow bookworms, the holidays are over, three months of winter are upon us and it’s time to kick back and get under the covers. Book covers, that is.
    It’s time to cocoon and relax after the stress of shopping and cooking and trimming, entertaining and being entertained and paying the piper (or at least the credit card bills) for our excesses. Drift off with books. My recommendation for this first month of a new year is to avoid anything too taxing as we decompress.
    On the list are three new books, all coffee table size and heavy enough to induce a nap. In some, the text is scant, not requiring deep study. In all of them, the photographs are big, so if your glasses fall off your nose, who cares? The pictures are ravishing without being demanding. The very different subjects are diverse. One book is quirky, one is edifying and another is pure eye candy.
Let’s begin with the last one.
    Rhapsody in Blue: A Celebration of North American Waterbirds, by Middleton Evans. Ravenwood Press. ISBN 978-09778055-1-8. 275 pages with Index and Photography Notes. Price $50.
    Middleton Evans and his cameras have done it again - captured the majesty and beauty of our native waterbirds. Those among you who bought the book at the Waterfowl Festival already know what a visual feast these thick, slick pages offer. Along with Middleton’s genius at composition and timing, his collection is tantalizing in his chapter groupings.
    The opening sequence in the book teases the reader with a series of unlabeled species that would tax the wits of all but expert birders. Many of the examples are full-page photographs of a single bird interspersed with the photographer’s introduction to his travels in pursuit of subjects.
    Unwilling to be satisfied with snapping photos of birds in zoos, Evans wanted to find them in their own habitats, a policy that found him above the Arctic Circle, in Florida swamps, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico and almost everywhere in between. The Baltimore photographer, initially inspired by the Chesapeake Bay birds and shorebirds on the Atlantic Coast, spread his itinerary to include the watery homes and their winged populations where they live: Hence the book title - Rhapsody in Blue - blue sky and blue water to set off its feathered inhabitants.
    Chapter one features “The Portrait Gallery,” in which he contrasts sandpipers with a black-necked stilt in a paragraph describing “The Long and the Short of It.” Cormorants and frigatebirds make an odd couple. Drakes in full breeding plumage are markedly more dazzling than their somber hens. He calls hawks and eagles “The Vise Squad” for their curved beaks. Red beaks, orange or blue beaks, sword-like, or pincers, even multicolored beaks illustrate the diversity and function of species.
    Chapter two is titled “Flights of Fancy.” These are birds photographed on the wing. Singly or in flocks, their mastery of the insubstantial air is breathtaking. Chapters three and four continue the saga with “Three Square Meals” and “The Daily Grind,” chronicles of spearing, foraging and biting off more than they can chew - a great blue heron with a muskrat in its beak is a case in point, followed by bringing home the bacon to the kids.
    Evans’ command of words is perfectly partnered by his expertise with the camera. Sub-heads in chapters play with wit and perception, like a preening egret under “Vanity Fair,” and “Splendor in the Grass” above wary and furtive marsh birds. The photographs brilliantly combine admiration and affection.
    The hazards of infancy takes a look at nestlings and the perils from predators in “The Next Generation” chapter when dangers comes from the air and the water. Finally, Evans explores the range of his five-year journey to find and record these airborne miracles. His great circle odyssey roams from bays to gulf shores, ice shelves in the far north, placid inland potholes and lakes. He marvels at birds on the California coast and subtropical coastal Mexico, cliffhangers in the Pribilof Islands off Alaska, and more in such disparate homes as deserts and rocky ledges.
    Birders and all nature lovers will find bliss in these pages.

   In the introductory paragraph I mentioned the word “quirky.” Brace yourself for this one. Spirits in the Garden, The Amazing Realm of Secret Life Around Us, by Joan Solomon. Grynwild Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-0-9786166-0-X. Price not given, 142 pages.
    One of the quotes in this big book of flower photographs is from Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look’s what you see.”
Most of us see flowers, all glorious, but utterly without secrets. Ms. Solomon sees flowers that are visited by spirits, gnomes, fairies, gargoyles, trolls, pixies, sprites, ad infinitum. She photographs them and often enlarges them so we can see the faces that come to call, no doubt with a message of some sort. They also lurk in rocks, trees and mountains, she says.
    Part 1 is devoted to Discovering Spirits in Nature. Part 2 is Meet the Nature Spirits, complete with their portraits, medicinal value and unique messages and Part 3 is Using the Plant Wisdom to Nurture, Nourish and Heal. It’s replete with recipes, remedies and preparation methods.
It’s not nice to make fun of people with mystical, far-out ideas, but the temptation is strong with this quirky book. I couldn’t help thinking of Bea Lilly, the famous English comedienne whose signature song was “There are fairies at the bottom of my garden,” delivered while she swung a dress-length string of pearls in wild arcs.
    Some people have fairies at the bottom of their gardens. Some people have bats in their belfries, too.

   Which brings us to the third book in this trilogy of how to get through January. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s mine with cucumber sandwiches and scones for a sumptuous feast. The subject is mushrooms.
    The title is Chasing the Rain: My Treasure Hunt for the World’s Most Beautiful Mushrooms, by Taylor Lockwood. Published by the author at ISBN: 978-0-9709449-2-4. 128 pages, 504 images. Price $29.95.
    Anyone who’s noticed slender umbrellas in the grass or marveled at puffballs and fairy rings that appear overnight as if by magic will be bowled over by the ephemeral beauty of these jewel-like examples. The diversity of form and color, lighted by a talented photographer, should cure the crankiest fungiphobiac.
    Words are inadequate to describe the feast of pleasure these pictures display. Consider the photo on page 2, Cysstollepiota sp., a virginal white umbrella on a curved stem, its canopy as beaded and intricate as a bride’s bodice. The example on page 25, a Stropharia aeruginosa, was photographed in Finland. The cerulean blue cap appears to be encrusted with clumps of snow, its roof eaves’ edges laden with more snow. The neck of the white stem has a ruff of ruching and circles of lace bedeck the stem to the forest floor.
    The reader needn’t know the scientific names of the specimens. Mycologists, of course, will be avidly admiring and jealous at the same time, envying Lockwood’s far-flung travels with his camera.
    Chasing the Rain is a perfect title, as Lockwood explains, because that’s when these spores germinate and rise for their brief hour of exposure. Not all fungi are so brief in their appearance, to be sure. We’ve all seen clusters of “oyster shells” growing out of tree trunks. We’ve been slightly grossed out by slime growths on twigs and stones. They’re all members of the same family, but with different lifestyles.
    And, oh! the forms! Some are flat as tortillas, some like chalices, others like danish pastries with cheese in the center. The caps can be cinnamon colored ruffles or miniature forests of coral.
    As engrossing as the photographs of mushrooms are, Lockwood’s accounts of travel are equally fascinating. His prose style is conversational, salted with amusing mishaps and the joy of new friendship among kindred enthusiasts. The California writer/photographer is a busy public speaker who narrates slide shows of his work. He’s also a missionary for his cause, “thawing the frost” of misconceptions about mushrooms.
This is an altogether wonderful book, one that’s almost certain to whet interest and appreciation for these natural treasures. If I had seen it in my salad days, I’d most likely be a mycologist now.
    There’s only one flaw in this marvelous book. The book jacket is a montage of areas of the world where Lockwood searched for mushrooms. He’s a small figure in the center, stretched out on a stone wall. A curious gorilla checks out his head. A Brahma bull sniffs his boots. Temples, palms, a wagon wheel , mountains and forests clutter the scene footed with mushroom types. It’s all color and confusion. The impact on potential readers would have been better served with a single specimen of incredible beauty.
    Even with that niggling caveat, it’s still my nominee for the best book I read in 2007.