A Pack-Sized Guide to Our Mountains
In the "Natural History of the Pacific Northwest Mountains", you’ll find photos and descriptions of plants, birds, mammals, fungi, fish, lichens, rocks and more. The new edition of the book features an additional 132 species, updated scientific information and an expanded focus on how climate change could affect the Pacific Northwest.
My favorite class in college was Natural History of the Pacific Northwest. It was wonderful: a bit of botany, a bit of geology, a bit of ecology. We took outdoor field trips every week and went camping as a class.
The textbook, “Cascade-Olympic
Natural History,” was also my favorite textbook, and the only one I still use regularly. (Unless you count the chemistry book that’s propping up my computer monitor.) Just looking at the cover of the book—a simple image of clouds drifting through evergreen trees—floods me with a rush of fond nostalgia.
So I was thrilled when a new version of the book came out recently. It has a new cover and a new name, “Natural History of the Pacific Northwest Mountains,” to reflect its expansion to cover a wider area.
The book is a sort of condensed field guide. You’ll find photos and descriptions of plants, birds, mammals, fungi, fish, lichens, rocks and more. The new edition of the book features an additional 132 species, updated scientific information and an expanded focus on how climate change could affect the Pacific Northwest.
While the book will help you identify the various creatures you discover while hiking, it also is simply entertaining reading. Daniel Mathews has a sense of humor. In one of the many bits of history that are interspersed throughout the book, he writes of Thomas Nuttall, who studied the plants of the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. Mathews includes a quote describing Nuttall’s enthusiasm, from the perspective of his fellow explorers:
“When the boat touches the shore, he leaps out, and no sooner is his attention arrested by a plant or flower, then everything else is forgotten. The inquiry is made ou est le fou? where is the fool? … he is gathering roots.”
Mathews also sprinkles fascinating tidbits into many of his descriptions. In his write-up of the Douglas-fir, he slips in a mention of Steve McCarthy, a Northwest distiller who spent 15 years perfecting a spirit infused with young Douglas-fir branch tips.
While I love this book in nearly every way—the writing and photos are bright and entertaining—Mathews missed one important opportunity. There are very few mentions of the indigenous people of the Northwest. There are entertaining stories of the men who explored the Northwest in the 19th and 20th centuries. They’re a fun read, but they’re focused on European men. Mathews has missed a huge chance to tell stories from a different perspective. His book is full of the amazing diversity of the natural life in the Pacific Northwest. His stories of the human history—while a small bit of the book—lack any such diversity. As I read, I felt the lack.
Aside from that downside, it’s a wonderful book. As a natural history of the Pacific Northwest, it’s a carefully curated overview that crams an immense amount of knowledge into a small space. It has earned a space on my bookshelf next to the older version—which has too many fond memories for me to ever let it go.