Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of a young man reading

February 2010

Regional reads

Kick back and enjoy books about Wisconsin's roots, routes and rituals.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Image of book cover © Wisconsin Historical Society Press

If Trees Could Talk
by R. Bruce Allison
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 68 pages, $15.95

Trees and the stories they tell are the subject of this children's book by arborist Bruce Allison, author of Wisconsin's Champion Trees and Every Root an Anchor. Allison relates the stories of 43 trees that grace Wisconsin's landscape, most in the southern half of the state. Some tell stories of events that took place under their branches, like the Neenah Treaty Elm, the Delavan Founder's Oak and the Civil War Sign-Up Tree. Others, like the Centennial Maple in Fort Atkinson, have been cherished and protected by families and communities as symbols of pride "in their ancestors, their home, their state, and their country."

One entry documents a grove of some of the only pure American chestnut trees left in the world – the Lunde Chestnut Trees of Trempealeau. They stand tribute to vast forests of the American favorite that once covered much of the eastern U.S. before chestnut blight killed all but a few. Another remembers the beautiful arching elms that once shaded our streets and how a Wisconsin scientist, Gene Smalley, found a strain of elms resistant to Dutch elm disease that became famous around the world.

Many of the featured trees are still standing, while others are long gone. The Poet's Larch in Dodgeville was saved by Wisconsin poet Edna Meudt after a tornado swept through her farm and leveled her beloved larch. At the advice of a half Crow Indian, she tied strips of bed sheet to the roots, covered the roots with a blanket and watered it, to keep the tree's spirit from leaving. The tree was replanted and survived to put out new needles the next spring.

Young readers will love reading about and visiting the featured trees, to hear the stories they tell and the lessons they teach.

People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin's Love Affair with an Ancient Fish
by Kathleen Schmitt Kline, Ronald M. Bruch and Fredrick P. Binkowski
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 320 pages, $29.95

Image of book cover © Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Many of us know what the deer-hunting tradition means in Wisconsin, but it pales in comparison with the love affair that the "people of the sturgeon" have with the fish that they've helped bring back from the brink of extinction. This beautiful book introduces readers to a mix of people – Native Americans, scientists, policy makers and anglers – whose beliefs, traditions and vocations are intertwined with the ancient fish.

This excellent historical account traces the plight of the sturgeon from its near disappearance in the early 1900s due to overfishing, dams and pollution, to the place it holds today in the hearts of people dedicated to protecting it. Interspersed in the text are "fish tales" of some of the major characters along the way. These tales relate stories of people who advocated for fish laws in the early 1900s to halt the sturgeon's extinction, game wardens working the ground and air to uphold the laws, and spearers who sometimes morphed from poachers to conservationists and helped establish groups like Shadows on the Wolf and Sturgeons for Tomorrow.

One chapter – "Beneath the Ice" – is devoted to the February ritual of sturgeon-spearing on Lake Winnebago. The fish tales in this chapter paint a picture of generations of sports enthusiasts who live for a few days each year when they can sit in a dark shanty and stare hour after hour into a hole in the ice for the chance to throw a spear at a passing shadow. Page through the photos, see the smiles of sheer pleasure and you'll understand what these huge ancient fish mean to the people who spear them.

Others who grew to love them were biologists and fish managers who spent entire careers studying this species that has survived since the age of the dinosaurs and grows to be the size and age of humans. Authors Ron Bruch and Fred Binkowski, along with "living fossils" like Dan Folz, Mike Primising and others, netted and tagged thousands of sturgeon, collected eggs and sperm (milt) to raise them in labs and hatcheries, and spent hours standing in icy streams while sturgeon spawned to learn the mysteries of their lives.

Above all, the book is testament to how people with diverse backgrounds and motivations can work together toward a common goal. The dedication of resource managers who studied the life cycle of a fish unlike all others; the realization by spearers that volunteering time to guard spawning females would help build and sustain sturgeon populations to maintain their sport; and the educational efforts of tribes, resource agencies and sports clubs, are just a few of the keys to the success of this restoration program.

According to author Ron Bruch, "the book was a joint effort involving the DNR, Wisconsin Sea Grant, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute and Sturgeon for Tomorrow. Sturgeon for Tomorrow donated $25,000 to help underwrite publication costs, and its members conducted many of the dozens of interviews to gather the data that are the heart of this book. Proceeds also will support the Winnebago lake sturgeon management program.

Image of book cover © UW-Press

Sunday Rides on Two Wheels
by Barbara Barber
UW-Press, 170 pages, $19.95 (spiral bound)

I love a book that makes me itchy to get out of my chair and try whatever it's about. While it's unlikely I will take up motorcycling any time soon, this book gives a clearer understanding of why so many Wisconsinites – and many of our friends and neighbors – find it such an enjoyable pastime. You can almost feel the sun on your back and the wind in your hair as the author takes you on 18 rides covering 1,874 miles of the back roads of southern Wisconsin.

Each trip was meticulously planned, tells riders which way to turn at each juncture, where to stop for gas or a bite to eat, and offers advice that only those who ride on two wheels would appreciate – like which roads to avoid when spring rains slicken manure on roads through farm country, or which roads might end in dirt or gravel.

"Notes and Highlights" of each trip offer a bit of history, geology and tips on out-of-the- way spots to park and see the sights, stretch cramped legs or appreciate scenic vistas. Most trips are loops and each description includes a map, turn-by-turn directions and a listing of websites and phone numbers for more information on area attractions. The shortest trip – "Holy Hill Side Trip" – takes riders to the breathtaking site of the National Shrine of Mary in the Kettle Moraine of southwestern Washington County. The longest trips are each 182 miles. One – "A Tale of Three Rivers" – winds through Coulee country along the Mississippi, Wisconsin and Kickapoo rivers; and the other – "Look Out Above" – begins in the Baraboo Hills and includes stops at other high places like Castle Rock, Roche-A-Cri State Park, Quincy Bluff and the Air National Guard Gunnery Range near Findley.

The format is a no-frills, spiral-binding with black and white photos that slips handily into saddlebag or roll bag. Author Barbara Barber is an experienced rider; she bought her first motorcycle in 1997 and has since ridden over 200,000 miles on five different bikes.

Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide – Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan
by Teresa Marrone
Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MA, 280 pages, $14.95

Image of book cover © Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MA

This is an absolute gold mine of a field guide, with an abundance of well-organized useful information. Whether foraging is your latest hobby or you just want to check the edibility of that fruit you've seen on your forays in the field, this book is for you. Berry picking is a relaxing, worthwhile pastime and this guide will point you in the right direction at the right season to ensure a bucketful of juicy nuggets.

Not sure when to look for your favorite wild berry? Consult the "Ripening Calendar for Edible Fruit" in the front of the book. It lists all edible fruits with a May to October timeline of when they flower and ripen, or in some cases, persist through the winter. Each fruit has a two-page listing, organized by fruit color, with a full-page photo for each entry. Some include inset photos of similar species or other plant parts for better identification. A plant description opposite each photo includes habitat, range, how the plant grows, leaf and fruit description, ripening season, comparisons with other fruits and notes of particular interest.

The most useful indicator in each entry is the thumb tab at the top of the page that describes the fruit as delicious, edible, not edible or toxic.

Image of book cover © Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MA Once you've gathered your harvest, find out how to prepare it in the companion cookbook, Cooking with Wild Berries & Fruits.

This delightful cookbook contains over 150 recipes featuring more than 40 edible fruits and berries found in the three-state region. You'll enjoy the more conventional jams, jellies, pies and muffins, or take some culinary risks with more exotic dishes and condiments. "Cherry Barbecue Sauce" is a sweet and savory sauce using wild cherries that works particularly well with duck and goose.

The cookbook includes several recipes for after-dinner liqueurs – like Crabapplejack, Currant Cordial and Elderberry Liqueur – as well as other treats like Sweet and Snappy Ground Cherry Salsa and Highbush Cranberry Sorbet. Several pages at the back of the book will help you sort out the mysteries of pectin and how to make adjustments for wild fruit or small batches. There are also tips for dehydrating wild fruit and making wild berry or fruit leather.

Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan
by Michael Edmonds
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 288 pages, $24.95

Image of book cover © Wisconsin Historical Society Press

This is an interesting look at how Paul Bunyan folklore evolved from stories told around the lumberjack camp stove to children's storybooks and tourism marketing schemes. If you're too young to have heard or read a story of the fabled lumberjack and his blue ox, you'll find more than 100 of them in the appendix, as told aloud by Wisconsin lumberjacks between 1885 and 1915.

Michael Edmonds, author of several books and articles on literary and intellectual history, delves into the theory that, despite claims that Paul Bunyan tales originated with the logging industry in New England or elsewhere, the tales were actually first told in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Edmonds' painstaking research points to timber cruiser Eugene Shepard, a colorful character and master storyteller, as the source of the Bunyan stories. Shepard's mastery of the art of storytelling by embellishing and amplifying on previous recounting was legendary.

Edmonds adds depth and color to his research by exploring life in the logging camp. A glimpse into the difficulties and dangers of their profession lends an understanding of what the tales meant to these tough men and how the oral tradition of their folk hero may have eased their lives a bit.

Edmonds explains his fascination with the Bunyan tales: "I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed digging up Bunyan's roots. The early stories themselves, with ironic touches reminiscent of Mark Twain and logical contradictions worthy of Lewis Carroll, had much to do with it. They are, quite simply, fun."

Take this one, for example, about an interesting definition of cold: "It was so cold during one winter at one of Paul's logging camps that even the fire in the big camp range froze. When a lumberjack wanted to write a letter to his home, he just stepped outdoors and shouted the words he wished to write. These froze solid. He wrapped them up in a gunnysack and sent them home. When the sack arrived, all his folks had to do was to thaw them out in or on the kitchen stove, and they had the letter just as it was spoken."

Image of book cover © Ells Interlink Publishing Group

On-the-Road Histories: Wisconsin
by Mark D. Van
Ells Interlink Publishing Group, 235 pages, $5.95

If you are the type of traveler who likes to explore every aspect of the places you visit, check out this account of Wisconsin's history from its geologic roots to modern times. Learn how the glaciers molded the landforms with kettles, eskers, moraines and dells that grace your drives through the state, and where to find effigy mounds built by early inhabitants more than 1,200 years ago. Visit such French forts as Ft. LaBaye, Ft. St. Nicolas and Ft. LaPointe, remnants of France's quest for a worldwide empire in the early 17th century. Discover sites of ethnic significance like the Milton House where staunch abolitionist Joseph Goodrich helped runaway slaves in their journey to freedom, and Milwaukee's 16th Street Bridge where Father James Groppi and other 1960s-era civil rights activists marched for open housing rights.

The book is conveniently organized by historical era with sidebars highlighting significant points of interest from each time period. Plan an ethnic heritage tour or day trips to Little Norway in Blue Mounds, Norskedalen in Coon Valley, or Old World Wisconsin in Eagle. Or if Wisconsin's maritime, agricultural or beer-brewing customs are more to your liking, you'll find listings of places and events to help chart your travels.

For out-of- state travelers, there are nine other books in this series – Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas. Each includes a wide-ranging account of the state's history, maps and historical photos, must-see sites, visitor resources and much more.

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
The Lyons Press, 437 pages, $29.95

Image of book cover © The Lyons Press

I have for several decades known Roger Tory Peterson as the author and artist responsible for the first birding field guide I ever purchased. I took for granted the detailed color drawings that point out what to look for to tell one species from another, and the roadside and flight silhouettes that distinguish common birds by their shape, posture and relative size. What I didn't know about the author was the revolutionary nature of his work, or the dedication and sheer genius that went into this guide and the dozens of other field guides and nature books he wrote and illustrated.

When it was first published in 1934, small, portable identification guides simply did not exist. Bird books in print then were heavy, sometimes multiple volumes, with drawings more attuned to artistry than scientific identification. Peterson's simple descriptions, written in lay language and illustrated by focusing on the diagnostic traits of each bird, revolutionized nature study and introduced generations to a new recreational pursuit. It was Peterson's early obsession with birds coupled with his "indefatigable energy and constant pitch of enthusiasm" for sharing that obsession that helped educate millions.

One source described Peterson as the type of genius who set goals, met them, then set new ones. He was never content, which explains his remarkable list of literary achievements. Among them are field guides (with several revisions) to eastern and western birds, wildflowers, mammals, butterflies, shells, trees, shrubs, amphibians and rocks. He wrote Birds Over America, The Birds, Wild America, and The World of Birds. In the 1950s he did for Britain, Europe and Canada what he had done for the United States by producing field guides for those parts of the world.

Peterson's field guides continue to be the standard by which others are judged. Rosenthal quotes British bird fancier Trevor Gunton: "Fifty years on, the standards that he set are still what field guides are judged by. In my opinion…the original book has never been beaten. It made the identification of birds so simple! It was really groundbreaking...Ordinary people like me could actually start confidently going out in the field and identifying birds."

To her credit, Rosenthal doesn't omit less complimentary descriptions of Peterson. His perfectionism, work ethic, dedication and ability to focus on nothing but the task at hand did not always nurture family and other relationships. Readers of the biography come away not only with a respect for Peterson but for those – like his second wife Barbara, and sons Lee and Tory – who endured his idiosyncrasies and lived their own lives with an enduring respect for Peterson.

Elizabeth Rosenthal interviewed over 100 people and consulted hundreds of documents to give her readers insight into the life of this extraordinary man. Only by reading the anecdotes shared by his family, friends and colleagues from around the globe do we get to really know his personality, motivations and the depth of his contributions to the study of nature and environment. One account described Peterson as not being motivated by fame or money, but by mission. "He definitely wanted to change the world. And he wanted to educate. But I think he also wanted to prove that he was the best at what he did. That was very, very important to him," said literary agent Arthur Klebanoff. On the other hand, Peterson was described as a humble, quiet man who treated other people as equals and respected people for knowing something he didn't know.

I will forever consider my 35-year-old dog-eared Peterson field guide (the 44th printing of the third edition) with a different kind of respect.

Image of book cover © Christine Reed

Thor & More
by Jay Reed
published by Christine Reed, 312 pages, $29.95

More than 100 columns by the late celebrated outdoor writer for the Milwaukee Journal are compiled, chosen by Reed from his favorite pieces published from 1963-2002. His days afield took readers along on deer hunts, into his duck blind and into his skiff as he cast for muskies. In these short, quick reads we relive the adventures of his beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Thor, from his days as a seven-week-old pup through his last fall pheasant hunt 13 years later. We admire Thor's dedicated concentration to retrieve ducks and shake our heads as Reed retells the dog's head-on run-in with a skunk while pheasant hunting. As readers, we are along for a ride that is all too brief in these pages.

The collection also includes columns from Reed's tours to Vietnam in 1967-68 and his return there 22 years later where he admits failing to make sense of the senseless losses or to shake free from the ghosts of war that killed, maimed and mentally scarred so many.

I think the book's strongest entries are the insights we get from Reed's formative years in Nelson just upstream of where the Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi. He recounts the hard life of tougher times for river people who scratched out an existence in simple homes raising a few crops, running setlines for catfish, paying out gillnets for carp, trapping in the sloughs and backwaters, and hunting ducks and deer to put some meat on the table. Those were definitely different times from the pleasure boats that now cruise the river for a little recreational fishing or a weekend family picnic.

Kathryn A. Kahler crafts feature stories and reviews from Madison.