There are major cities around the world where humans seem to have excluded nature by extruding concrete. Washington isn’t one of them.
With its low skyline, two languid rivers and a stream named Rock Creek that could keep a Romantic poet inspired for years, the District is a city that embraces the natural world. The eminent biologist E.O. Wilson found nature here as a 10-year-old boy living in an apartment in Northwest. “I was born as a naturalist in Rock Creek Park,” he once told The Post.
Downtown sightings of such wild creatures as snowy owls, peregrine falcons and vultures may generate media attention, but after perusing Howard Youth’s “Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C.,” I don’t find these episodes as outlandish as the headlines might suggest.
Nature is thick in the city. The only divide is our awareness of it. Some people barely notice the natural world; others could not live without it. The second group will rejoice at the publication of this new field guide — a survey of the animals and plants that share our metropolis and enrich our lives. (Okay, sometimes the squirrels are a bit annoying).
The book opens with a guide to the many parks in each of the city’s quadrants; this section includes a short history — both natural and human — of each green space. Youth then introduces us to creatures of every stripe, and offers suggestions about where you would be most likely to find them (woodchucks along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, for example, or great blue herons in the marshes along the Anacostia River). Plants are well represented, too, mostly in the form of trees that line our streets and shade our parks. There are also brief chapters on the region’s mushrooms and geology. Who knew that the Georgetown Intrusive Suite was a “group of rocks formed by the intrusion of magma into metamorphic” rocks? You can find outcroppings at points along Canal Road NW.
The guide is enhanced throughout with photographs by Robert E. Mumford, Jr. and illustrations by Mark A. Klingler. The latter demonstrate the power of skilled drawings to capture the full detail and vitality of these subjects. The illustrations of reptiles, in particular, seem to imbue the snakes and turtles with their own individualities.
Such an encompassing guide is necessarily skewed toward the more commonly seen plants and animals. Many species are not illustrated, so if you come across a brown creeper (a bird), a red-eared slider (a turtle) or a five-lined skink (a lizard), the book may tell you where these live, but it won’t help you identify them.
Still, the guide represents a considerable documentation of the species that share our corner of the world. Readers will discover that one reason for the District’s rich biodiversity is that the city is positioned on the fall line, which straddles the Piedmont and the coastal plain.
In 2007, a snapshot inventory of life in Rock Creek Park recorded 661 species of plants and animals. This abundance almost compels us to take stock of our fellow creatures, if only for the real thrill of seeing, for example, a wood duck or a hooded merganser for the first time. As this guide demonstrates, we are just one of many species in these parts.
Higgins is a garden columnist for The Washington Post.
FIELD GUIDE TO THE NATURAL
WORLD OF WASHINGTON, D.C.
By Howard Youth. Illustrated
by Mark A. Klinger. Photographs by Robert E. Mumford, Jr.
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 393 pp. Paperback, $24.95