Click our logo for the Sierra Club homepage.
Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Sierra magazine
Mixed Media | Deep Thoughts and Oddball Interpretations

Nature in the Know | Earth Beat: Watching Your Health | Croak Concert

Nature in the Know: A Guide to Field Guides

As a child I had more fun losing myself in a field guide than in a candy store. Every page slowly turned was a nugget of easily digested goodness, with maps of places I'd never been and flawless images of exotic animals.

These weren't handbooks for hunters in Africa or the Amazon but garden-variety surveys that transformed my neighborhood into the world's densest jungle. With a classic Peterson or Golden Guide in one hand and a net in the other, I launched many successful expeditions.

The beauty of these handbooks is that they make the natural world so seemingly knowable and accessible by taking the identification of wildlife out of stuffy museums and placing this skill in the hands of anyone, including youngsters.

Roger Tory Peterson set the standard in 1934 by emphasizing easily observable field marks (spots, patterns, colors, etc.) in a style of scientific illustration that was new to many birders. His Guide to the Birds (Houghton Mifflin) so perfectly met the needs of the first environmental-era generations that since then there's been an explosion of similar efforts.

Fortunately, our tools for understanding the natural world have moved beyond standard compendiums into a wildly innovative spectrum of books, videos, and Web sites. One need only compare Peterson's original with the fifth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2006) to see the quantum leap: from dazzlingly precise illustrations of feather patterns to detailed range maps showing every subpopulation of a species.

Even the Peterson series soars to new heights with the astounding Gulls of the Americas (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), which meticulously describes and illustrates molt patterns and variations.

I was thrilled to find Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Princeton University Press, 2005). Who ever thought caterpillars would have their own guide? And Robert Michael Pyle's lovely Butterflies of Cascadia (Seattle Audubon Society, 2002) charms us with the specificity of a family photo album. Hermann Heinzel and Barnaby Hall's Galapagos Diary (University of California Press, 2001), a montage of photos, sketches, and a travel diary, provides a seamless introduction to the islands' natural history.

One of the most interesting guides in years is John Muir Laws's Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (Heyday Books, 2007), a deeply personal volume that succeeds because the author spent six years hiking the range in search of the 2,700-plus plants and animals he illustrates. It's like peering into the artist's sketchbook.

There is no substitute for having the arcane terminology of gull-ology explained while hearing and watching the birds in action. I have spent hours with Jon Dunn's Small Gulls of North America and Large Gulls of North America (both from Peregrine Video, 2004), by one of North America's top birders. The easily searchable DVD format also lends itself to the Audubon VideoGuide to 505 Birds of North America (Mastervision, 2004) and the recent Audubon VideoGuide to Butterflies Common and Endangered (Mastervision, 2008).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology takes interactivity to a new level with, a massive database of nationwide bird sightings that anyone can contribute to or query with remarkable precision. And you can even access genuine tweets on an iPhone using applications from or

After navigating these fact-dense offerings, it's a relief to kick back with more general eye candy like Planet Earth (2007) and The Life of Birds (2002), both from BBC Videos, and Winged Migration (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005). Though not field guides, they show us what details to look for in the field.

Sometimes having all this information at your fingertips can make the natural world seem too knowable rather than majestic and mysterious. Few modern field guides achieve the grace of Ralph Hoffmann's Birds of the Pacific States (Houghton Mifflin, 1927), in which the author describes the experience of braving the ocean's spray to watch sandpipers. But any worthwhile field guide, of course, does the good work of prompting us to pay attention to what we see outdoors, helping us reinvent our connection with the natural world. --David Lukas

Naturalist and author David Lukas (and his field guides) live near Yosemite National Park.

Excerpt from David Lukas's Wild Birds of California (University of Nevada Press, 2000): One spring day I hiked up to a local viewpoint to watch migrating birds. Unfurling oak leaves filled the air with promises of warblers and coming spring, the air smelled sweet, and for the first time in months the granite boulders exuded a soft warmth on their sunward sides. Lichen coated the rocks except where I had worn down a spot from previous watches. I had been coming here for weeks, scanning the sky in a census of the spring's first birds, and each day brought different birds, or none at all. I would find it hard to explain this passion, but the anticipation of seeing birds drew me back time after time.

Earth Beat: Watching Your Health

Journalist Marla Cone's beat is environmental health, but when you look over the stories she's written, she seems more like a war correspondent. In a very long war. Hazardous chemicals, breast cancer, DDT's effect on fertility, feminized toads, and whales poisoned by contaminated salmon are just a few of the issues that Cone has covered in three decades on the front lines. (She also found time to pen a book, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, for Grove Press in 2005.)

In 2008, after 18 years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Cone became editor in chief of Environmental Health News, an online publication that tackles these thorny but critical issues 24/7. Sierra talked with Cone about her devotion to a field that might cause lesser mortals to despair.

What drew you to environmental health issues?
The air-pollution battle in Los Angeles. The Clean Air Act is a health-based standard, so you had to understand science, health, and economics. It was an easy progression to air toxics and hazardous waste. Then in the late 1980s, studies on low-dose chemical exposure and endocrine disruption started coming out. I was blown away. If you're feminizing male animals and possibly male humans, what would that do to populations in the long run? It's fascinating.

It sounds depressing.
What I learned from the Arctic is the resilience of the human population. We'll find solutions. We just need knowledge.

What is the rationale behind your publication?
Environmental Health News has been around for a long time, mostly aggregating news from other places. When I was at the L.A. Times, I read it every morning. Since September we've produced our own journalism. When new studies about the health risks of bisphenol A [BPA, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic] came out in September, we were the first on it.

Why not rely on newspapers for original reporting?
Newspapers don't have the space to do this type of specialized journalism anymore. We're foundation-funded, so we don't have to worry about making a profit.

Are newspapers doing a poor job, or no job?
The quality and the quantity isn't there. The stories are often left to health writers who don't understand the science. There's also hesitation because industry can bring its power to bear.

Are you obligated to cover industry's view?
Industry people might talk about the impacts [a topic] has on their products. And that's valid because there are economic issues. But if an industry person tells me something that doesn't match the science, I won't put it in the story.

Which newspapers cover environmental health issues well?
None of them. Some of the European media are good, but sometimes they go overboard and their stories become alarmist. One of my missions is to train a new generation of reporters to feel comfortable writing about environmental health.

How do you cajole a general reader to pay attention to these issues?
It takes an experienced reporter to talk about all the uncertainties and limitations and still make it interesting. You need to show them how the story impacts their health, their economy, everything they do. Consumers are savvy. We wouldn't be seeing replacements for BPA if it wasn't for consumers. It hasn't been government. Some of it was driven by pregnant women and mothers, an active audience when it comes to environmental health.

Do you expect to see progress under the Obama administration?
I do. Senator Boxer [Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair] is attuned to these issues, especially when it comes to BPA, endocrine disruptors, and phthalates--chemicals used to make plastic flexible. You'll see new [decisions] from EPA for the herbicide atrazine and for perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel.

What are your favorite environmental health stories?
How Arctic people and animals are the most contaminated living things on Earth. It's a huge environmental injustice. And perhaps finding environmental roots to diseases such as autism and ADD.

Which environmental health issues are underreported?
All the endocrine issues. When I choose a story, I choose one that's underreported.

What's your environmental vice?
I feel guilty when I put flea vials on my cat. I don't know the risk to my cat or myself. --interview by Reed McManus

Croak Concert

When the San Francisco Conservatory of Music invited composer Philip Collins to premiere Requies Ranarum in November, nobody chortled or told stupid frog jokes.

Inspired by a recording of frog calls, Collins, 57, spent years categorizing and cataloging hundreds of frog utterances for his composition. "Frogs are natural amphibian musicians," Collins rhapsodizes. "Their music is symphonic, and it is beautiful." Collins's work zeros in on humans' role in causing frogs to croak. A soprano section consists of the Latin names for eight extinct species, and one movement includes the sounds of frogs in distress and of humans stomping the hapless amphibians to death.
--Janet Wiscombe

Requies Ranarum appears on the CD Night of the Living Composers (newmusicworks, 2006). You can listen to a sample of it at

Photos, from top: Lori Eanes (2), Bob Winberry, Tim Bower; used with permission



Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2014 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.