Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You need this book [addendum at bottom]

I'd like to recommend one of the two or three best books of natural history I've ever read. Despite the word "piedmont" in its title, I can assure you that nearly everything in it applies to the plant and animal communities of the southern Appalachians.

It's not new, but its excellence and usefulness is such that I've been evangelizing for it since the day it was published. The book is the "Field Guide to the Piedmont" by Michael Godfrey, who (I think but I'm not positive) is the son of the old radio and TV entertainer Arthur Godfrey. I first got this book when it was part of the Sierra Club field guide series. Later it was reissued in a handsome trade paperback format by the University of North Carolina Press, with revisions and over a hundred new illustrations.

I don't often encounter a book whose quality is such that I am stumped for superlatives. But this book taught me more about the land -- and the plant and animal communties on it -- than any other book I've read. I am tempted to apply to it the overused and now weakened word "classic," because if any such book deserves it, this one does.

In describing the plant and animal associations of the Piedmont (and to repeat, nearly everything he says of the Piedmont applies to the Appalachians), Godfrey uses two ruling schema. First is the moisture content of a community and the drainage regime that produced it.

There are three of these: xeric, hydric, and mesic; basically dry, wet and somewhere in between.

The other ruling idea is the concept of plant succession: the collection of transitional communities that occupy a given plot of ground, each with a different set of dominant species, from bare or nearly bare earth to mature climax forest. The progression of communities from first to last is known as a sere. Each drainage regime has a different sere, with a predictable series of plants, insects and larger animals associated with its various stages.

Within these seres are microhabitats at various stages. One of the most interesting, and most typical of our region, is the community associated with woody, fence-line hedgerows, a familiar sight to anyone driving through the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies.

Different drainage regimes produce different kinds of forest. There's a similar division in hydric, or wet, areas: one community is associated with lotic, or flowing water; another with lentic, or still water. We learn, for example, why ponds are, geologically speaking, short-lived phenomena, due to the rapid deposit of organic and mineral sediments in the impounded area. Thus, a pond becomes a marshy field and eventually a grassland and forest as plant sediment piles up and increases the local elevation.

In xeric environments, western Virginia hawkwatchers will be familiar with early colonizers of old fields: bull thistle, hawthorn and cedar, all familiar companions at Rocky Knob and other high pasture environments.

There are few books I feel safe in recommending to all amateur naturalists in the southern Appalachians. One is "The Field Guide to the Piedmont" by Michael Godfrey. I've persuaded many people to buy copies, but none regretted adding it to their library.

ADDENDUM: I should have made clear when I first wrote this piece that "field guide" is not quite the phrase I'd use for this book. Godfrey identifies quite a few species of all types. But it would not be my first choice when going out in the field after birds or trees or flowers or mammals or herps.

Rather, its excellence lies in the clarity of Godfrey's exposition about how animal and plant communities are related to each other and to different landforms. Stick with this volume from start to finish and I guarantee you'll come away with a new awareness of the multifarious connectedness of plants and animals in the mountains and piedmont.


Anonymous said...

Seth, I have ordered the book, and am looking forward to its arrival. May I suggest another? "Reading the Forested Landscape" by Tom Wessels, a fine tool.
Scott Jackson-Ricketts

Seth Williamson said...

Thanks for the tip -- just ordered it from Amazon. I believe you'll be glad you read the Godfrey.

Cotinis said...

Yes, this is an excellent book--very detailed on plant ecology. The book was originally published in 1980 as A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to the Piedmont. I have a copy of this edition. Michael also produced a number of nature videos--he used to have a production company in Chapel Hill, NC, I believe, but I don't think that is active any longer.
I believe you are correct that Michael is the son of the famous broadcaster, Arthur Godfrey. The first edition of the book is dedicated "to my father, Arthur M. Godfrey, a Piedmont farmer". I believe Arthur and his family lived on a farm in Virginia, though that was not their livelihood.