A Naturalist’s Library

In addition to some of the books mentioned in the New England Resources section, here are some of my “must-haves”. The first section is Field Guides and Other Useful Information, and the second section is Books by Naturalists and Other Weirdos.

Field Guides and Other Useful Information

Field guides

Multi-category field guides:

Peterson Field Guides – go-to guides for everything from birds to amphibians.

Stokes Nature Guides – smaller range of subjects but deeper in scope than the Peterson series. I particularly like Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter; also, Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior and Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 1 (and other volumes).


The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. He also has a field guide but I don’t own it yet.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson. I know I mentioned the Peterson series already, but birders are very picky about their field guides, and I was taught on Peterson and still think he’s the best. So there.


Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. A classic, and still one of the best.

Identifying Trees: An All-Season Guide to Eastern North America by Michael D. Williams. This is definitely the most useful tree id book that I own, followed closely by Bark (see below). The author is a former forester from Tennessee, and his in-the-field-practicality really shows through. Like Bark, it is NOT primarily focused on leaves, which is an utterly useless classification system for half of the year (at least, if you live in northern or high altitude climes). It focuses primarily on bark characteristics, but also includes seeds, leaves, twigs, overall tree shape, and any other useful identifiers. The only slight downside to it is the book’s broad range, which includes a lot of southern trees that just don’t grow in New England.

Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech. Another useful guide for identifying trees in winter, using bark as the primary method. This is a really good way to learn trees in New England, when you can’t rely on leaves for much of the year. The downside is that such an exclusive focus on bark does leave out some other useful characteristics, like overall tree shape. However, in general it’s a very useful book.

Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in Winter (Eastern US) by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts. One of a number of small, handy “key it out” plant guides published by  Nature Study Guides.

Tree Identification Book : A New Method for the Practical Identification and Recognition of Trees by George Symonds – sadly, it’s in black and white and is awfully large for a field guide. However, when you’ve given up trying to figure out what lenticels and stipule scars are and just want to flip and point, this is your book.

Fascinatingly, the USDA has put out its own list of botany books. While they claim not to endorse any of these books, if professional use in the field is not endorsement, I don’t know what is. http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/features/books/

Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign by Paul Rezendes. This unique and graceful book is not just for tracking but for thinking about tracking  – and life itself.

As for tracks and signs in general, there are a number of field guides which are useful reference points. However, in my opinion, the best way to learn tracking is to get out in the field under the tutelage of an expert and put in some  “dirt time”. Tracks can vary substantially depending on substrate (snow, mud, etc.), weather, and age of the track; time and practice are your best teachers here.

Reptiles, Amphibians, and Insects:

Peterson or Stokes. See “Multi-category guides”, above.


There are about a gabillion gardening books, with an equivalent number of foci. My best overall go-to is still Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. This excellent reference has beautiful photographs, clear instructions, and, unless you have a really complicated or unusual concern, covers enough topics to get most folks quickly on their way.

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set) by David Jacke. Two encyclopedic, and I do mean encyclopedic, volumes on permaculture. If you are serious about this subject, this is an excellent resource that is also handy for pressing flowers.

Organic Gardening magazine. Ok, not a book, but I keep them all on my bookshelf for reference and entertainment. Unfortunately, as of the spring of 2015, Organic Gardening (which is unique, and over 70 years old) will “rebranded” into something called Organic Life (which is neither). As for the presumable shift in target audience from producer to consumer? They can bite me.

Books by Naturalists, Environmentalists, Back-to-the-Landers, and Other Weirdos:

SandCounty  The Good Life  prodigal-summer

Pretty much anything by Ed Abbey, beloved crank. Try Desert Solitaire, or The Monkey Wrench Gang for your inner rabble rouser.

The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living by Helen and Scott Nearing, some of the original back-to-the-landers.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Duh. I’m not sure you can claim to be a naturalist if you don’t own this book.

Any of a number of natural history books by Diane Ackerman.  I particularly like A Natural History of the Senses.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. A beautiful classic – if you haven’t read it, you should.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. Michael Moore meets the water grabs of the American West. The author doesn’t pretend neutrality, and you can see why.

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird. A woman you’ve probably never heard of, but should have. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_Bird

The Peacocks of Baboquivari by Erma J. Fisk. The who of the what?? Autobiographical account of a 73-year old woman living alone in a tiny cabin in Arizona banding birds for The Nature Conservancy. Probably out of print – worth a read if you can find it.

Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness by Anne LaBastille. Another autobiographical account of a kick-ass woman living alone (and building her own cabin) in the woods. Here’s her 2011 obituary from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/nyregion/anne-labastille-environmentalist-dies-at-75.html.

Prodigal Summer: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver – in which a woman living alone in the woods (shut up!) meets a mysterious man (aha!) and they start a farming life together in a rural valley. Barbara Kingsolver’s writing is phenomenal – gifted, lyrical, and searingly brilliant – and this is no exception.

Foxfire Set (Volumes 1 – 9), ed. Eliot Wigginton, et. al. Out of print, but not hard to find, either individually or as a set. The first one (of at least 11) is subtitled: “hog dressing, log cabin building, mountain crafts and foods, planting by the signs, snake lore, hunting tales, faith healing, moonshining, and other affairs of plain living”. Enough said.

The Curious Naturalist by John Mitchell and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It contains a very useful seasonal calendar (what to look for when) and some lovely  ideas for engaging children in the natural world. Probably also out of print. (Sorry!)

There are plenty more, but at some point, one just has to stop. What’s on your shelf?

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