Down East 2013 ©
In 1604, when Samuel de Champlain named “L’Isle des Monts Desert” for its summits of bare rock, splendors lay all around this coast: dark coniferous forests, wide bays, deep clean rivers, rich marshes, and those scoured and towering island mountains. It seemed an indomitable landscape. A glimmer of the island as Champlain first saw it lives on today in Acadia National Park. Hiking into it, you can’t help but catch sight of some of the old, raw magnificence.
For well over a hundred years people worked hard to preserve this island landscape through generous gifts of money and land, and in 1919, Acadia became the first national park east of the Mississippi. A place of contrasts — wild nature set side by side with fishing, farming, and rusticating — it is overseen by devoted and attentive caretakers. The latest manifestation of this devotion is the guide, The Plants of Acadia National Park (University of Maine at Orono Press, Maine; paperback; 542 pages; $24.95), compiled and edited by four field botanists, Glen H. Mittelhauser, Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. It tackles the flora of the park, some surrounding non-park lands, and the park-owned lands on Isle au Haut, Schoodic Peninsula, and a few small islands.
Those mountains weren’t so barren after all. In crevices and crevasses, on slopes and summits, and along headlands and beaches, grow an astonishing number of plants, both indigenous and introduced. This guide is divided into four sections: flowers (you will find the hardwood trees here), ferns, conifers, and grasses.
People who spend time out in the field looking at wild plants take along their favorite identification guides. Some are simple, keyed by color. Some have more challenging keys, but once learned, a plant guide can be as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. This one includes a history of botanizing on the island, descriptions of the organizations that work to protect the park and other undeveloped habitats nearby, tributes to the work of botanists who have gone before, and one of the largest glossaries I have ever found in a plant guide. It also gives an extensive step-by-step explanation of how the authors would like you to use the book.
But it is up to you. Use it in the most casual way, by thumbing through the photographs until you find what you want, or let it lead you, slowly, surely, through specific families and species of plants. The detective work does take a bit of back and forth, but botanizers and botanists, both professional and occasional, are a patient lot. The way to crack the busy key is to practice what the authors suggest until it gets easy: master key, flower and leaf key, plant family photographs. From there you move into the heart of the guide.
The authors are serious scientists, supplying a list of historical collecting records, and suggestions for further reading. Even without these, if you peruse the book from cover to cover, you will have earned a college course-worth of information about wild plants, their study and protection, and some of the people who have spent a good deal of their lives thinking about them.
What draws most of us to the book, however, are the precision and clarity of the photographs. Published by the University of Maine Press, and designed by Michael Alpert and Betsy G. Rose, the guide is a gorgeous cornucopia, and a heavy one: two and a third pounds. Not one to slip into your jacket pocket, or stuff into the waistband of your jeans, it is, rather, a backpack book, and goes along best with a water bottle and a tube of sunblock, and maybe a sandwich for a long day of botanizing outside.
Those who love this book — and there are many of us — buy it and give it away as a gift, and then buy it again. You don’t have to live near Acadia to find it useful because many of the plants have ranges that encompass more of the Northeast than just the park and its environs.
To tell the truth, part-time botanists often learn to identify and to love wild plants by opening a guide like this under lamplight in their homes on a mid-winter evening. You tackle a bit of the text, wander slowly through the pages of photographs of the orchids, the roses, the heaths, sedges, cinquefoils, pausing, perhaps, at the adder’s tongue, the spiny-spored quillwort or the tufted hairgrass. There is beauty here, and the memory of beauty is a picture held tight in the mind. A rare gift.