, August 23, 2007
(view all comments by Hermester Barrington)
A thorough introduction to the plants of Southern California
The function of a field guide is to invite humans to leave the confines of the city and go out into the wilderness. These things are chameleons, however: at home, they are little bits of nature which remind you of the way into the wilds, and in the wilderness they stand out as symbols of the civilization that produced them. To paraphrase the title of Leo Marx's book, they are not only machines in the garden, but also gardens in the machine, calling us back out of wherever we are. The creation of a dichotomy between nature and civilization, and its subsequent denial, is an old tradition in Anglo-American nature writing: Thoreau devoted considerable space in Walden to the signs of civilization which intruded upon his solitude; Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur dreamt of going into the wilderness to live with the Indians, but imagined that he would be able to do so without giving up the comforts of his farm; even the doomed researchers in The Blair Witch Project, in the middle of the woods, were unable to escape the sound of one single plane flying far overhead. Though the meaning of the play between civilization and wilderness is different for each of these texts, they all work with the idea that the concept of wilderness is defined by civilization, and vice versa.
Professor Belzer makes use of this play of meaning in the very title of his book, in which nature and artifice are juxtaposed. Here, civilization and nature meet, and Belzer has developed this conceit in such a way as to allow the beginning naturalist, who may not know where to begin, to take baby steps from the road into the wilds. The country traveller and even the city dweller need look just beyond the edge of the pavement to find nature again: it is all around us. Taking part in the Emersonian tradition, Belzer reminds us that the sun shines today also, and that nature is near at hand. This is as true for Southern California now as it was for Concord in the nineteenth century. The author builds on this promise by informing the reader of artifices which will lead deeper into the wilderness: botanical gardens, interpretative centers, and hiking trails. This book will help the reader not only to leave civilization behind completely and explore the wilderness, but also to find bits of nature closer to home, stuck in between the cracks in the sidewalk, alongside roads and freeways, and preserved in local parks and gardens.
My wife Fayaway and I found this guide very inviting indeed; it was part of the parcel of books which our West Coast friends sent to us in order to entice us to Southern California. We accepted that invitation, and I have been using the guide on a daily basis in the Santa Monicas ever since we arrived. It is an excellent place for a beginning botanist to start: the author initiates the student into the proper way to begin a collection of plants, and provides further resources for identification, and hints about photographing specimens. Belzer's decision to photograph his subjects in color was wise: plants are much easier to identify with color photographs than with drawings. Another nice touch is the arrangement of the photographs of the wildflowers along the spectrum according to color, that they might be identified more easily. The texts accompanying the plates always include a description of the plant and information about where it can be found, and may also tell the reader about the place of the species in the local ecology, including the ways in which it is used by humans, and legends and lore pertaining to it. The rest of the guide is well designed not only to lead the reader deeper into the wilderness, but into the field of scientific knowledge: a glossary of scientific terms used in the book is included, so that the beginner does not become confused. There are also two indices: one of common, the other of scientific names, for the plants in this guide. Belzer thus shows his ability to address the beginning naturalist as well as the educated amateur. As if these weren't enough, there is also a map of the region covered, a beginner's guide to flower parts and leaf shapes, parts, and arrangements, and a bibliography. Already I have gotten much use out of the book during my rambles through the Santa Monica Mountains, and I expect that many years will pass before I exhaust its uses, as it leads me out of my comfortable armchair and back out into the hills in search of its subjects.