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Aside from your letters, the nicest thing the mailbag brings is the occasional gift of new books. Under the plain brown wrappings, we find new offerings about Wisconsin, invitations to explore the outdoors, local biographies, and insights into outdoor issues. Here are some that crossed our desks in the last year.
Wisconsin's Weather and Climate
The hard science portions of the book describe the physical features that continue to shape Wisconsin. Season by season summaries chronicle the highs and lows, wet times and snows, hot, dry and humid times that shape our days and our sense of humor. Among the pleasant surprises for me are the condensed histories that explain the role weather has played in our rural history and the transitions from wheat and hops farming to rye, corn and soybean agriculture.
Sections of the history of weather observations were also interesting. It turns out that the first systematic nationwide weather observations were made by the Army Medical Department whose officers started keeping diaries of weather conditions (especially temperature and wind records) in 1814. Doctors at the time strongly believed that diseases were strongly linked to weather and seasonal changes. In those days more soldiers' lives were lost to disease than combat. Weather records from the Army posts led to a nationwide network of weather observers organized by the Smithsonian Institution in the mid-1800s, succeeded by the Army Signal Corps. A daily map of the nation's weather developed in the decades thereafter as telegraphers were given incentives to forward temperature, wind speed and precipitation records every morning and night to Washington, DC.
Subsequent chapters examine the tools scientists use to gauge climatic conditions throughout time. Readers learn how pollen data, fossil exploration, sediment cores and a host of chemical core sampling can reconstruct our meteorological past. This exploration of past conditions also describes a vast coniferous forest that covered eastern and northeastern Wisconsin 11,000-12,000 years ago.
For those with a favorite or least favorite Wisconsin season, there are separate chapters that provide ample statistics to cuss the heat, cold, dry and snowy spells in the Badger State.
Mice in the Freezer, Owls on the Porch
She brings readers closer to the Hamerstroms in stories and anecdotes. They were an interesting couple and a study in contrasts. Fran's formative years were in Boston's high society circles; "Hammy" was a student at Dartmouth when they met in 1928. We follow their travels as university students in Madison, graduate work in Michigan, the war years as Hammy was shuttled around the country to different posts and back to Wisconsin. We marvel how people living such simple, frugal lives arranged to send hundred of CARE packages to scientific colleagues in Europe devastated by postwar poverty, and how ingenuity kept their family fed.
The Hamerstroms' decades of research on prairie chickens, studying raptors, working with farmers to manage grasslands, battling bureaucracies and living a somewhat eccentric rural lifestyle are all laid out and speed by far too quickly in these pages. This is a story well told of lives well lived.
National Park Ranger: An American Icon
The book is fun, chock-full of pictures and interesting anecdotes as the narrative traces the creation of the Ranger Service and the National Park system from 1864 when Yosemite Valley was still a state park. Most stories in the paperback book run a page or two, so this is an ideal book for bedside reading or killing a few moments. You can pick it up, browse and learn tidbits about the "Greats of Green and Gray" in the Ranger Hall of Fame, or read about ranger danger – accounts of rangers who lost their lives due to natural disasters, fighting fires responding to rescues, whacked by bootleggers, chasing poachers and battling drug dealers. The closing portion of the chapter describes efforts to fight terrorism at such vulnerable monuments as the Statue of Liberty. A final chapter describes a bit about how to become a ranger and enjoy the ranger life. Indeed, this might make an especially interesting read for high schoolers considering careers as park rangers or interpreters.
Common Sense Forestry
In these times when larger holdings are being split up and sold in lots of ten to a few hundred acres, I would consider this book a valuable companion if I owned a small chunk of countryside. Morsbach is a Chicago suburbanite who bought himself a few hundred acres in the rolling wooded hills outside Cazenovia in Richland County, truly one of my favorite areas of the state. He shares tips he has picked up the hard way after more than 25 years of working his woodlot and planting "tens of thousands of trees."
The style in the book is conversational and congenial, and though he has definite opinions, he never pontificates and the style is never stuffy. To the contrary, each section is broken up into very small, digestible pieces and you could pick and choose sections as you face the problem de jour on your few happy acres. There are practical tips here for creating a diverse forest that should provide timber, wildlife habitat and years of enjoyment. He offers practical lessons that also extend beyond the trees to establishing good relations with local foresters, scratching out a business strategy and tax planning.
Morsbach also has a real sense of humor about his own acreage that had been badly eroded by a tenant farmer who didn't make the time to practice contour farming on hilly land. He is also blunt about his financial failures trying to raise cattle and bees before turning to trees. These were lessons learned bit by bit, through trial, error and observation by a family that mainly had time for the farm on holidays and weekends.
He takes us through many steps that I imagine most new woodlot owners will face – How to match your expectations to the land. How to work with nature and natural forest succession. Learning the value of different tree species. Practical tips for planting trees, seedlings and direct seeding. Solid pruning advice. How, why and when to thin trees. The value of establishing "old-fashioned" hedgerows. When small clearcuts may be warranted. Understanding and considering government incentive programs, and recommendations for useful books, equipment and hand tools for the woodlot owner.
The book is also liberally sprinkled with short two to three paragraph comments about the topic at hand as well as some interesting profiles of tree growers that Morsbach views as forest mavericks for the planting, harvesting and management experiments they are conducting.
Morsbach regularly revisits his major theme that woodlot owners who get the most from their property are those who learn to simply enjoy what they have and become members of both their new communities and the community of woodland owners. He encourages owners to take a long view on their return on investment as they grow a bit wiser cultivating trees and a rich landscape over many years.
ABCs Naturally: A Child's Guide to the Alphabet Through Nature
Each letter is accompanied by a simple quatrain that is fun to read aloud or would amuse young readers learning to read to themselves. I liked the fact that all the images show items and scenes we can readily see in Wisconsin. Even the serpentine neck like the flamingo at the zoo might be seen in a swan gliding through a nearby pond.
For those who want to kick the discussion up a notch, there's interesting narrative in the back providing facts and folklore about each pictured item. Both Diebel and Kalscheur are teachers and there are hints in the back for becoming a more careful observer outdoors by looking wider; changing your point of view by looking up and down or at different angles; or getting a closer look with magnifying glasses and frames. Classroom teachers and home schoolers get hints for a host of lessons, sketchbooks and collections spawned by alphabet hunts.
The Critter Control Handbook: Pro Secrets for Stopping Sneaky Squirrels & Other Crafty Critters in Their Tracks
Among the lessons, experience taught Hershey that many people have a tough time identifying the kind of critter that is gnawing at, squeaking in or making a nest in their home. He provides tips that will help you hone your powers of observation whether your primary interest is wildlife watching or getting rid of the noisy neighbors. He advises readers to judge the animal's size, color, scat, tracks, nest, sounds and smell. As a clue to controlling an animal, he gets us thinking about what animals eat, how they eat and where they live.
His humane approach stresses taking the least invasive steps possible to keep animals out. We learn about deterrents, repellents and a host of nonlethal solutions before considering traps, poisoning, fumigation or the "lead headache" solutions. Then Hershey provides step-by-step advice for removing 26 animal species most likely to claim squatters' rights in your domain. For each species, Hershey reviews the damage the animal can do, repellents, deterrents, live capture methods, lethal controls, best baits to lure an animal in, handling and relocation steps, and diseases the invader can carry. For those who want a hired gun to do the dirty deed, Hershey offers tips on hiring a contractor, asking for references, considering liability insurance and asking how and where the trapped animal will be relocated or disposed of.
The book is also full of quick ideas that are worth a try. Without giving away all his tricks, we'll share a few. Hershey offers an inexpensive way to make chimney caps at a small fraction of the cost to buy them. He tells readers to hang snap traps against a wall a few inches off the ground. That way a mouse has to reach up on its hind legs and stretch across half the trap to reach the bait, which is almost always a fatal mistake. He also notes that many of the sprays used to control bees are good conductors of electricity, so one needs to be really careful which product to buy if the bees are near electrical wires. (Hershey dissuades chemical usage and recommends lots of alternatives.)
Consider adding this one to your shelf of home improvement references.
A Guide to the Archaeology Parks of the Upper Midwest
I'd keep this book on hand to build short stops at these places on your travels. The effigy mounds and unmarked memorials mentioned remind us that Native American cultures knew the Wisconsin lands and settled here for centuries before the relatively recent waves of European immigration, statehood and westward "pioneers."
The World's Top Photographers and the stories behind their greatest images: Wildlife
Equally engaging are the short descriptions of each photograph, short biographies of the photographers and the photographers' stories of how they came to capture each of these shots. Here you will see a small tussac bird square off with a sea elephant on the Falkland Islands, insects more elegant and bizarre than any sci-fi invention, elephants from on high, ants from below, orphaned orangutans from above, polar bear families in the setting sun, penguins peeking out from a feathered belly, soaring osprey and the delicate interplay of a butterfly and a Brazilian caiman. The journeys underwater, over desert dunes, through torrential rain or across the frozen arctic will whisk you away on a worldly exploration.
Aspiring photographers will learn a lot about the field life and diligence it takes to capture such moments. The rest of us will just marvel and express thanks for being taken on a wonderful ride to dramatic and exotic places.
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.