send
Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Waldbillig & Besteman
© Waldbillig & Besteman

December 2006

Words worth your while

Settle down with good books for facts, fun and an indoor escape to the outdoors.

Kathryn A. Kahler


North American Mushrooms: A field guide to edible and inedible fungi
Graced by the Seasons: Spring and Summer in the Northwoods
Living with Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country
Museums, Zoos and Botanical Gardens of Wisconsin
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, Second Edition
Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets and Highways
The Dirty Dozen and Beyond: Identifying and Managing 25 Pasture Weeds of Wisconsin

Editor's note: The three packages we enjoy most? Your letters, a box of homemade cookies and new books. Until you are moved to write us again, bake up a fresh batch of snickerdoodles and dig into these new titles.

North American Mushrooms: A field guide to edible and inedible fungi

Dr. Orson K. Miller, Jr., and Hope H. Miller, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT, 540 pages, $24.95

Any book that comes with a disclaimer absolving the authors of responsibility for readers' death should be taken seriously. The first entry describes a deadly poisonous mushroom (the "Death Angel") which in an early stage can be confused with two types of edible mushrooms. It was enough to reaffirm my habit of sticking with cultivated varieties, at least for culinary purposes.

Students of mycology, mushroom fanciers and cooks with a higher sense of adventure will find this Falcon field guide as authoritative as they come. It features almost 600 species, with color photos of each. Narratives include measurements, color, shape, structure, odor, habit and distribution, spore description and comments comparing similar species, toxins present and any other notable characteristics. For example, Amanita polypyramis or A. ravenelii, have "an odor of old ham bones or old tennis shoes."

Each entry is followed by a succinct description telling which species are deadly poisonous, poisonous, edibility unknown, nonpoisonous, inedible or edible, for those who might need to make a quick judgment. It is interesting to note that only a handful of wild mushrooms are considered "deadly poisonous" and an equal number are considered really choice and edible. A comment section explains why some varieties are "edible with caution" and others "not recommended." Most often they are easily confused with poisonous varieties.

The guide contains an abundance of keys to help distinguish among the major groups – agarics, chanterelles, boletes, polypores, fungi with spines, coral fungi, puffballs, earthstars, bird's nest fungi, stinkhorns, jelly fungi, cup fungi, earth tongues and true and false morels – and then down to the species level. A visual key of the major groups, an illustrated glossary and a glossary of terms help readers navigate the keys.

A section on toxins offers a sobering review of eight toxin types ranging from amatoxins, responsible for the majority of fatalities in adult humans, through toxins producing a host of symptoms like heavy perspiration, blurred vision, diarrhea, lowered blood pressure, delirium, muscle spasms, hallucinations, nausea, extreme thirst and intestinal cramps. The guide states, "Most toxic species are not fatal to man. They usually produce only nausea, act as a laxative, or induce mild to strong hallucinations. Unfortunately, a small number of mushrooms have toxins that are fatally poisonous while others affect the central nervous system and are very debilitating." Words to heed and live by.

In addition to the superb photography and keys, the guide includes a ruler on the back cover, to measure 'shrooms in both inches and centimeters, and boasts a guaranteed binding and durable, reinforced cover.

The best advice, stated several times throughout the guide, cautions mushroom collectors to consult field guides before picking. In judging edibility, "we advise that if one is still in doubt, throw it out!"

Graced by the Seasons: Spring and Summer in the Northwoods

John Bates, Manitowish River Press, Mercer, 385 pages, $14.95

A naturalist with an inquisitive mind, keen observation skills and unbounded enthusiasm for the outdoors, John Bates inspires his audience to relish the change of seasons in the Northwoods. His latest volume is a phenological collection of nature notes that leads readers through northern Wisconsin from March ice-out, through the height of the avian concert season in late May, on to peak berry time in August.

Bates' previous works include Trailside Botany and the two-volume A Northwoods Companion: Spring and Summer and Fall and Winter. This book and its companion Graced by the Seasons: Fall and Winter in the Northwoods provide a benchmark to note which periodic events happen when in today's climate.

Most of the one- to two-page pieces come from columns Bates wrote for The Lakeland Times. Some are personal observations, others he collected from Northwoods neighbors. Page after page, the reader wonders with him how hatchling turtles can survive their first eight months of life without eating, or half their lives without breathing. Bates often has answers to his questions, like how high migrating birds can fly (37,000 feet, as reported by a jet that collided with a vulture) and how they breathe at those heights (via air sacs). Yet he just as easily admits that some things in nature defy human reason, such as why a sharp-shinned hawk would choose to lunch on a tiny hummingbird – "hardly enough meat for one chew."

His exhaustive research answers the why's and how's of nature balanced by his simple philosophy, like this explanation of how humans fit into the puzzle of nature: "Maybe the most important thing to do is to remember that we are members of a biological community, and when we sign our names on our properties with chainsaws, lawnmowers, and the like, we are demonstrating what that membership means to us. Of all the membership cards we carry in our wallet, possibly none is more important than our God-given membership in the natural world."

Living with Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country

Linda Masterson, PixyJack Press, Masonville, CO, 233 pages, $20

Accounts of human/wildlife encounters, some with tragic consequences, point out the need to find ways to peacefully coexist with critters that share our living space. Linda Masterson, outdoor enthusiast and member of the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Bear Aware team, has authored an easy-to-read handbook devoted to bears.

It's a must-read for urban wildlife specialists, community leaders and homeowners looking to protect their property from ursine neighbors. Masterson uses wit and a wealth of wisdom to convince readers that most human/bear conflicts come when a bear's unending search for food is easily satisfied when humans unknowingly serve it up on a silver platter in easily accessible garbage cans, bird feeders, camp coolers, orchards and gardens.

Masterson paints a sometimes shocking picture of what happens when people in bear country offer up easy meals for their big, furry neighbors. Bears are adaptable, smart and will do whatever it takes to get to food, including breaking doors, opening windows or crunching sheds. Masterson believes the saddest consequence of these conflicts is when "nuisance" bears must be euthanized.

Homeowners will find the chapter "Home, Bear-Proof Home" the best for finding ways to keep bears out of their houses. Closing and locking ground-floor windows, replacing lever-style door handles with round knobs, locking cellar doors and securing storage sheds all help. The chapter "Cleaning Up Your Act" advises how to store trash to save bears. The discussion opens with this eye-opening assertion: "Ask almost any bear behavior expert what's the biggest cause of human-bear conflicts and the answer is always the same: garbage, one way or another, kills bears."

Community leaders struggling with human/bear conflicts will find 14 case studies to tailor programs to fit their community's needs. There's one about Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, where a combination of public education and regulations against feeding bears keeps human/bear conflicts to a minimum. Another focuses on Durango, Colorado's Bear Smart program that features a website, brochure and advertising campaign.

One of the most instructive pages in the book, the "Bear Calorie Counter" makes it clear why bears find homes so inviting. When they can get 12,180 calories from seven pounds of birdseed, or 42,425 calories from an unprotected 25-pound bag of dog food, why look for berries?

Museums, Zoos and Botanical Gardens of Wisconsin: A comprehensive guidebook to cultural, artistic, historic and natural history collections in the Badger State

Anton Rajer, Fine Arts Publishing, Madison, 278 pages, $17.95

Make a New Year's resolution to visit one place each week from this book and it will take you 10 years! It's hard for the average Wisconsinite to believe that our state is home to over 500 art museums, historical museums and societies, zoos and nature centers, botanical gardens, house museums and historic buildings, heritage farms, spiritual sites, sculpture parks and halls of fame.

Rajer is an avid art historian, professional conservator and heritage preservation specialist with childhood memories of family trips around the state. His guide is divided into four geographic regions, with alphabetic listings by city. Some cities host a single cultural site, others are blessed with several. Each listing provides essentials such as the site name, address, phone number and a contact, hours and admission fees, followed by lively descriptions of what visitors will find.

Aside from more well-known institutions, notable listings include the Knox Creek Heritage Center in Brantwood, a farmstead of historic buildings moved to the site and featuring a century-old Waahto Sauna, made of hand-hewn logs in dovetailed construction; the Museum of Fraternal Studies in Berlin, revealing the mysteries of handshakes, rituals and ceremonies of the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias; the Badger Mine and Museum in Shullsburg, where visitors descend into a mine beneath the city, or view early farm tools, medical equipment, general store, drugstore, tobacco shop, and turn-of-the-20th century kitchen; and the Green Meadows Farm in Waterford, where people of all ages can interact with over 300 farm animals, and enjoy pony and tractor rides.

Sprinkled among the listings are "Tony's Tips," of personal dining recommendations to find the best piece of walnut or cherry pie, or advice to Illinois visitors for avoiding speeding tickets.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, Second Edition

David More and John White, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 832 pages, $79.95

This exhaustive, breathtaking work lives up to its title claim. It is the culmination of years of work by British artist David More who painted more than 5,000 color illustrations of nearly 2,000 species of natives and cultivars from Europe and North America.

Each entry is arranged taxonomically and includes identifying details, but the book reads more like a literary work than a dry scientific guide or key. The text by John White mixes descriptions of foliage, bark, flowers and seeds with the history of species, cultivars, and points of general interest.

This is not a field guide to Wisconsin or even North American trees, but Wisconsin tree fanciers should not be put off by the need to pore through 50 pages of maples to find the few that are native to our state. The sugar maple pages are worth the search, showing meticulous drawings of leaves, from spring to autumn, bark, seeds, and full trees with and without leaves. Every two-page spread contains about a dozen such illustrations, balanced by a half-page of text.

Wisconsin readers will also find a few discrepancies in names. Our majestic eastern white pine, for example, is known as the Weymouth pine in Britain, because it was brought from Maine to Britain in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth. The book gives this interesting European perspective on one of our most important forest trees: "Unfortunately the enthusiastic use of this valuable forest tree in Europe in the nineteenth century encouraged the spread of white pine blister rust, a fatal disease from Asia. This has destroyed any plantation potential the tree might have once had. The disease spreads by way of an alternative host, Ribes species (currants). Nowhere that provides suitable growing conditions for the pine is far enough away from a currant bush to be safe."

The heft and price of this comprehensive volume may dissuade the casual tree enthusiast, but it would make a fine addition to any personal, school or public library.

Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets and Highways

Roger M. Knutson, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 89 pages, $9.95

A tongue-in-cheek guide to all manner of road kill, this little book is the perfect gift for that hard-to-please dead animal aficionado on your list. As the author describes it, it's about animals that "like the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz, are not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead...In becoming part of the road fauna celebrated in this book, an animal loses not only its life but also its third dimension."

The section "The Road as Habitat" maintains that since the road fauna has only come to exist in the past 100 years, it represents less than "an eye blink of evolutionary time." Because of its very low reproductive capacity, insufficient time has elapsed for the development of adaptive behavior or traits. Knutson speculates that "when roads have been a dominant feature of the natural environment for centuries, we might expect turtles with very sturdy, nearly flat shells to emerge by the normal processes of natural selection."

In "Mimicry and Protective Coloration in the Road Fauna," Knutson does an admirable job with the subject despite his admission that "analysis of mimicry [among the animals of the road] is difficult at best, since neither the mimic nor the object of mimicry will blow its cover by moving."

The bulk of the book is a dichotomous key and field guide to the categories of road fauna – road snakes, legged reptiles and amphibians, road birds and road mammals. Knutson cautions beginning "students" of road fauna to work in pairs rather than attempting to use the guide while driving at highway speeds. "Better to conclude that a particular specimen is probably a vole," he says, "than to be certain it is Microtus pennsylvanicus and join it on the road."

Many descriptions lump several species together in one general category since it is difficult to find distinguishing features in two-dimensional specimens, especially after several days on the road. The descriptions include size, habits and abundance, field marks and range, an outline of a standard 4 inch lane marker to show scale of the specimen, along with the silhouette of a typical flattened specimen. Here's how Knutson describes one of the most common of road fauna, the opossum:

"Contrary to popular southern opinion, opossums are not born dead by the side of the road.... In their off-road habitat, opossums are too tough to kill easily, and many a dog has left for dead an opossum that went on its way once the dog departed. But on the road the opossum's toughness may work to its disadvantage. Becoming limp and lying there with an open mouth after a near miss by the first car may serve to put off a dog or coyote, but stands little chance against even compact cars. Such behavior is surely fatal on the road, where lying down quickly becomes a permanent condition."

The Dirty Dozen and Beyond: Identifying and Managing 25 Pasture Weeds of Wisconsin

UW-Extension Publication GWQ042, 60 pages

The vast majority of pastureland acres in Wisconsin suffer from poor fertility, coupled with weed and erosion problems. This handy pocket-sized guide helps landowners identify 25 of the most common weeds and offers tips on how to control them. Species descriptions include clear photos of the plants in their habitat, whole plants, plant parts (roots, leaves, stems, flowers, fruits, seeds), and what an infested field looks like.

Suggested management techniques range from mechanical controls (such as mowing, digging or cutting), to improving drainage patterns and applying herbicides, and specifies when each technique will be most effective.

The publication is available through county UW-Extension offices, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offices, or at The Learning Store. Wisconsin residents can get it free by calling 1-877-947-7827 to obtain a coupon code necessary for the on-line transaction, which also requires visitors to set up a free account.

Kathryn A. Kahler writes from Madison and is the circulation and production manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.