Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why We Need Field Guides

Travel books are popular and tend to sell well. They don’t make best seller lists, at least that I know of, but they usually occupy more shelf space in our favorite bookstores than titles on philosophy, for example, or music or even field guides.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody. We prefer traveling to thinking deeply, after all; and, as far as music goes - well, we’d much prefer to just listen to it rather than read about it. But what about field guides? This might seem like an odd question. After all, what does traveling have to do with field guides?

Well, frankly, traveling has - or at least it should have - a lot to do with field guides. The truth is that the most distinctive part of any place we might visit is more evident in the native animals and plants (even in the fungi and microbes for that matter) than in whatever man-made structures we might otherwise associate with them.

This is evident in spades to the business traveler who flies to a big city, eats at a nice publicly owned restaurant, sleeps in an upscale hotel and hardly steps outside except to hop in a cab back to the airport. “Oh the food was great,” our traveler might confess back at the office. But, in reality, our traveler has really not traveled at all. At least he hasn’t really experienced what is unique about the place he has just visited. All he has really done is change locations for few days. Unfortunately this is becoming more and more common as places all around the world compete for the world traveler’s business. The more interconnected we become nationally - and especially internationally - the more our business and tourist attractions begin to look more and more alike (as Daniel J. Boorstin has pointed out in The Image).

I don’t mean to downplay the many historical buildings and parks that make up our cities and give them personality and charm. I merely wish to point out what should be obvious. The complex of living things, that have made individual places around the world their home, is a part of the history of the world that should take priority to many other human constructs. These complexes are what make places unique.

We recognize this in ways we might not have realized. Experienced connoisseurs of wine (which I am not) are keen to the types of grapes that grow in a particular region. Sometimes these grapes are different varieties and give a corresponding flavor that is distinct. Sometimes, though, the same grapes just taste differently in different places that experience different climates. Even subtle environmental differences can make a very different wine.

Restaurateurs are also keen on locally produced foods. Crab cakes are just better on the Delmarva Peninsula than they are in Detroit. I can also vouch for the superiority of key lime pie in the Florida Keys over any other place I’ve tried it. Place is important after all, even if the purveyors of global markets try ceaselessly to convince us otherwise.

An acquaintance of mine - a true foodie - once told me that he would never eat at a chain restaurant if a local restaurant were available. And although it happens that the local cuisine is not always impressive, it at least has individuality. If he happens to misjudge a place because of a poor dinner choice, he has at least made a judgment using better criteria than the quality of a handful of national chains.

All of this may seem like a long way from field guides but, in fact, it isn’t. If food and wine are sufficient to give a place a level of local interest, the kinds of wildlife that live in a given place should do so to an even greater degree. If you like the seafood in Seattle, you should check out the coast and see how many unusual seabirds you can identify. Of course, you’ll need a field guide to help you - and hopefully you’ll be able to find a local one. Bird guides of the entire US are nice to have but for beginners looking to identify organisms in a specific place of interest, local field guides are quite a bit more helpful.

When you’re done with your trip, you’ll probably have many more fond memories of the place you visited and a more accurate understanding of what makes that place unique. Before long you’ll start planning your trips around places of natural interest instead of places that are just popular. You’ll also have a better understanding of the real world and be wiser than you would be for having just been a tourist. Before long you’ll have started to collect field guides from different places and have a lot of great reading material for bedtime. Field guides, after all are the perfect light reading at the end of the day. The information comes in small reading bites and leaves you with thoughts of interesting places to visit. You may even start dreaming of exotic places and beasts. Then, to top it all off, you’ll also be a lot smarter. This is hard to beat. And all of it for the price of an inexpensive paperback - that is usually bound to take a bit of beating. So next time you buy a travel book, make sure you stop by the field guides as well. They go hand-in-hand. And have a nice trip.

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