Your average Naturalist has a close relationship to their books. Now, I’m not saying it needs to work that way or works that way for everyone; I’m sure that people have been paying close attention to the natural world long before books, and that there’s a lot of folks out there today whose knowledge isn’t based on what they’ve read. But for me and for everyone I personally spend a lot of time in the field with, an important part of our study of what’s out in the field takes place at home.
I can still remember being a child, sitting on my grandmother’s couch and lovingly paging through the Golden Guides, or her old Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, my imagination fired up by the silhouettes shot along dotted lines on the inside cover and confounded by the plates of “Confusing Fall Warblers.” Or slowly turning the pages of the Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, dreaming of seeing the strange salamanders and startling lizards depicted in paintings from the 1950s.
Besides being fun, that’s one thing a book is for, of course, being an aid to learning. And finding out more about the plants and animals and built and natural environment, being connected to nature, is a kind of learning. For that reason, then, this post marks the beginning of a series you can expect irregular updates to here at the LandHealth urban ecology blog, a series of book reviews. It’ll give us a chance to tell you about books we like, books we’ve learned from, and books we suggest you might want to take a look at, especially to learn more about urban ecology and natural history right here in Philadelphia.
Today, it’s my pleasure to recommend The Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia, by Kenneth D. Frank (Filter Square Press, 2015.) In this book Frank, a medical doctor, shares with us the result of years of pursuing his passionate avocation of urban natural history. Species by species the reader accompanies our most knowledgeable guide through Center City, exploring ecology, history, anecdote, and observation. The book is laid out like a textbook, with lovely illustrations, short one-page accounts amid longer chapters, and is thoroughly well researched. A lot of the information contained within it is hard to find elsewhere, and Frank does a great job of clearly and succinctly summing up the results of what must have been monumental research. Species are introduced not just in terms of their biology and ecology, but also explained in the context of the historical city and its changes across time. This gives the reader and student of urban ecology not just information about what plants and animals exist in the city, but why, and how. It shows the careful learner that nature is not some static constant outside and impinged upon by the human world, but that us and it are all mixed up together, that just as history happens within the natural world, nature has a history. The plants and animals in a place change, and our interactions with them change. We also get a ton of fun details: house sparrows were brought here to eat bugs, mugwort fell off of ships, and there’s a predatory planaria in our backyards hunting worms!
Urban ecology shows us how deeply everything is connected, and The Ecology of Center City is a great introduction to the subject. It's available from the web at Filter Press, both as a print on demand book and as a .pdf. Check it out!