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Wild Neighbors: A New Field Guide to All Things Sierran

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday September 18, 2007

A few years back, the Planet asked me to review a slim (hip-pocket-size, actually) volume called Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide by John Muir Laws, a joint venture of Berkeley’s Heyday Books and the California Academy of Sciences. I gave it a thumbs up, calling it “ideal…for beginning birders or hikers with only a causal interest in birds,” but also useful to seasoned watchers. Laws, like Peterson and Sibley, had written and illustrated his own guide, which did not assume knowledge of formal bird classification: all the streaky brown birds were illustrated together. The art was lively, the text concise and to the point. 

That same summer, in one of those unlikely coincidences, Ron and I ran into Jack Laws at the Summit Lake campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Laws said the bird book wasn’t just a one-off: he was putting together a field guide, or series of guides, to the whole natural world of the Sierra Nevada—wildflowers, trees, insects, fish, mammals, the works.  

He happened to be at Lassen sketching bog-orchids and other montane flowers. Laws gave us a prototype of the mammal and fish sections of the project, which for the first time gave me some hope of telling the Sierra’s myriad chipmunks apart. (The range is in fact a hotbed of chipmunk speciation, but that’s a digression I’ll resist for now.) I later saw him as artist-in-residence at the Academy’s exhibit on California’s biodiversity, where more of his images were on display, and I’ve followed his work in Bay Nature. 

Well, the project is complete: The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada ($24.95) was published by Heyday and the Academy this summer. And I’m happy to say that it lives up to expectations. It’s thicker than the bird book, but would still fit comfortably in a backpack. 

I tend to carry a lot of reference baggage into the Sierra: not the Jepson Manual, but just about everything else. The old UC Press Sierra Nevada Natural History was good up to a point, but it had its limitations. So I found myself packing multiple bird guides, a regional flora or two, tree manuals, mammal and insect and reptile guides. And then I’d encounter an odd fish. No fish guide. Another time I found a meltwater pond in the Lakes Basin swarming with neon-green fairy shrimp. Not in the books. I remember stumbling across an extraordinary moth in a wet meadow in Lassen and having no idea what it was. There is no such thing as a field guide to western moths. Eventually, consulting a reprint of a 1903 moth manual, I concluded it must have been a common sheep moth. 

That identification would have been a snap with Laws’ new book. 

The coverage is inclusive. Not only are there moths, there’s a half-page of bumblebees, and pages after pages of those beetles of which God is so inordinately fond. There are spiders (with web diagrams), plant galls, obscure underwater things like freshwater sponges. Sponges in the Sierra? Yes, and bryozoans and hydroids. 

Fungi. Lichens. Tracks and scat.  

The wildflower section follows the precedent of the stand-alone bird book. You don’t need to know the ever-shifting terrain of plant taxonomy to use this book. (I’m now taking a taxonomy course at Merritt College, and I figure on learning this version—in which the lily family has been broken up, and water lotuses are next of kin to sycamores—and then not trying to keep up any more.) Laws provides simple keys to identification, based on color and other obvious features. There are helpful asides: “Difficulty identifying Arnica? Relax, it’s not you…” That made me feel a lot better. 

The guide covers all the Sierra’s national forests (Lassen to Sequoia) and national parks. Range maps are used sparingly, mostly with the small rodents—location is important in sorting chipmunks—and shrews. Did I mention the seasonal star charts? 

Omissions are inevitable in a project of this scope, but they’re few.  

The book went to press too late to include the newly discovered Yosemite bog-orchid, a tiny yellowish flower that smells, depending on your source, like feet, Limburger cheese, or a corral of horses on a hot day. Although the bizarre cave-dwelling creatures of Sequoia National Park, featured in this month’s National Geographic, are not included, most of us non-spelunkers will never encounter them. I would have liked to see larval amphibians (I’ve met more tadpoles in the Sierra than adult frogs and toads) and mosses, a truly underappreciated division of the plant kingdom. Geology isn’t covered, but there’s an excellent volume in the new UC press series of guides. 

Overall, though, well done, and a model work for other regional natural history guides. How about the Mojave and Colorado deserts? The Coast Ranges? Laws is still young, but there’s a lot out there.  



Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Ron Sullivan’s “Green Neighbors” column on East Bay trees.