Devil in the Details
By Dave Butler
Because Pam, Greg and I write in the genre of eco-fiction, I want to focus this week on the importance of getting details right when it comes to incorporating natural history elements into our writing. As we all know, though, it’s not about overwhelming (or trying to impress) our readers with pages of facts, but when some component of the natural environment becomes key in plot or setting, the devil is in the details.
When I wrote a Free Range Writers post about home landscapes back in July 2019, I only scratched the surface about that need to strive for accuracy when it comes to writing the natural world.
This is as true for geography as it is about trees or animals. From my experience, we environmental authors get as many letters from readers telling us we’ve erred in describing a piece of geography as we do about almost anything else … such plot or character development or point of view.
Even with flora and fauna, however, it’s critical that we know what we’re talking about, that we do the research, that we get those facts straight when it comes to describing what plants or animals look like, sound like, smell like, and/or where they can normally be found (not only the general location, but the ecosystems they inhabit). There’s nothing worse than writing a description of a tree species in a setting where it doesn’t grow, and won't, even after a few generations of climate change.
Because I live in the SE corner of British Columbia, just north of the joint Washington, Idaho and Montana borders, I like handbooks and field guides that don’t give the impression that the Rocky Mountains (or any of the other major western mountain ranges for that matter) suddenly stop at the 49th parallel. Are the “northern Rockies” really in Montana, or are they more accurately in northern British Columbia? I digress; it’s a rhetorical question that flows from a personal annoyance of mine.
It’s easy to identify my favourite natural history field guides by the degree to which they are dog-eared, faded, soil-stained, and/or fall open where the bindings have given out.
Here’s a sampling of the books that sit to my left in my reference cabinet (I can’t guarantee that any or all of them are still in print.).
Two of the most dog-eared in my personal library are the field identification guides on ‘Birds of North America,’ and ‘Trees of North America,’ from Golden Press in New York. The drawings are clear and simple, the descriptions effective, and the maps obvious. In fact, the field guide to trees was invaluable in helping me score high grades in dendrology at the University of BC. I still use it to this day.
Plants of the Rocky Mountains (A Lone Pine Field Guide) is a great example of a field guide that uses the botanical (or diagnostic) key system, where by looking at a plant, and answering a series of yes or no, or true or false questions,
you move from family to genus to species with confidence. The photos are generally good, the descriptions not overly scientific, and the book is helpfully divided into trees, shrubs, wildflowers, aquatics, grass-like plants, ferns and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), and lichens.
“Land Above The Trees” (by Ann H. Zwinger and Beatrice E. Willard; Johnson Books) is a self-styled guide to American alpine tundra that is an enjoyable mix of narrative and line drawings, as much a love affair of high places as it is a technical field guide.
For mammals, I often refer to David Shackleton’s “Hoofed Mammals of British Columbia.” It offers detailed and accurate descriptions of individual species such as mountain goats, mountain caribou and bighorn sheep, but it also includes thoughts on evolution, adaptations, and behaviour. It’s one of
the many handbooks produced under the imprint of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
If you live in the west, and are truly excited about wildflowers, I recommend Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest” by Lewis J. Clark (Gray Publishing). It’s not a field guide, coming in at a good 5 lbs, but it is the kind of coffee-table book you can refer to when you get home from a trip, comparing field photos to descriptions and photos in the book.
A favourite all-around guide that I use often is the seminal work by Ben Gadd – “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies” (Corax Press). It’s engaging and wonderfully written and covers everything from geology, climate, and weather, to plants, fishes, birds,
mammals, and human history. And it recognizes that the Rocky Mountains aren't found only in Canada...
If you’re thinking that I’m a complete luddite who carries around a pack full of tattered field guides, I do admit to an increasing reliance on cellphone apps such as iNaturalist (California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society), eBird (The Cornell Lab) or Plant Snap. They not only make field identification easy, but users can see who else has made similar observations in their area. Once I discovered the life-lists in these apps, I knew they would bring out the competitive spirit in naturalists around the world. And they do.
These are my favourites amongst the thousands of field guides written for western North America. With such a wealth of information on bookshelves and at our digital fingertips, it’s easy for environmental writers – fiction or non – to get the facts right. And, perhaps, to cut down on those nasty letters accusing us of being sloppy, misinformed, or worse.
I’d love to hear from you about your favourite field guides and natural history handbooks.