Friday, August 14, 2009
A Guide to the Guides
This is going to be a fairly low-tech post. Retro, even. Because my books—real paper books—about singing insects finally arrived. More about both of the books in a moment. Now I feel like my education about singing insects really begins.
There is nothing quite like the potential that a new field guide embodies. All it really promises is to help you organize its small part of the world into a structure or a system that will presumably help you understand it a little better. But from that little corner, whether it's cloud shape or soil type or plant species, that tiny foundation gives you a place to stand and observe the rest of the world swirl around it. It's something we do less of these days. Carol Kaesuk Yoon had a very nice essay in this Tuesday's New York Times describing the decline of taxonomy, or the science of identifying and organizing the natural world. We lose something of the richness of the world if our ability to name it falters.
The act of naming, of identifying, also allows us to claim the thing for our own, not in outright ownership, but in awareness. By naming we bring it into our world and through that act, our world becomes richer. It also opens our horizons to the vast amount of stuff out there that we have yet to even turn our attention to. I remember when a friend began teaching me woodland plants and I discovered through those half-dozen names the phenomenal diversity of the unnamed green things poking up through the forest floor in early spring. It was giddily overwhelming.
It's the same now when I open the Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast or The Songs of Insects, I feel like I'm stepping into a whole other world. Now, not only do I have to learn body morphology and feeding or mating behavior, but I need to also think about frequency spectrum and song timing. So much to learn; so little time.
Both books come with a CD of insect songs, but that's where the similarities end. The Songs of Insects (SOI) relies primarily on large, well-lit photographs to identify each insect. Text is relatively minimal on each glossy two-page spread, unlike Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast (NIS), which is laid out in a more conventional, guide-book style, with entries describing range, habitat, size, call, etc. next to simple drawings of the insects and identifying characteristics.
The CDs, are also markedly different. The one that comes with SOI (which focuses on northeastern species) lets the insects speak more for themselves. You hear a voice identify each species with common and Linnaean names, but after that it's all up to the insects to tell you who they are. NIS, on the other hand, tells you something about each insect and their song before playing what they just told you about. Maybe it's because I just came off an eight-hour stint of trying to tease out the best quotes out of an interview I did with a bioelectrical engineer, but I find myself wanting the voice on the NIS disk to shut up and the insects to start singing. (Although I bet when I load both of these onto my iPod to take into the field tomorrow night I'll be glad I have at least some description of the insects themselves available to me without using a flashlight.)
Bottom line—if you have kids (because of the photos) or you just want a nice-looking, nice-sounding book about singing insects, get SOI; if you want a more traditional field guide, go with NIS. Me, I'm glad I have both. Now I can start enlarging my world through theirs.
I live above a busy, confusing intersection in the Bronx, so most of my day is filled with horns honking and engines revving. On nights like this, however, when I find myself awake in the relatively quiet hours, other sounds filter into my window that I hadn't paid much attention to until now. Insects. Across the street is a narrow strip of green called Fort Independence Park. Like anything with any vegetation, something calls it home. Something I may soon be able to name.