Some high-quality books have recently come out of the Maine Department of Conservation. While aimed at the professional scientist, they offer considerable leeway to engage the enthusiastic amateur as well.

A couple of years back, I reviewed the Maine Geological Survey’s formidable “Maine’s Fossil Record: The Paleozoic” for this publication. Now the Maine Natural Areas Program, also within the DOC, has given us “Natural Landscapes of Maine: A Guide to Natural Communities and Ecosystems.”

The foreword wastes no time in taking on the specialist/generalist dichotomy. University of Maine conservation biologist Malcolm Hunter throws down the gauntlet in his first sentence: “You may not want to read this book.”

It’s like a dare. “Are you a person who sees trees and flowers rather than hemlocks and trilliums? Do you call all the birds you see swimming in a pond ‘ducks?”‘ After a series of similar challenges, Hunter admits that “if you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you may not be a good candidate to read this book.” Well, you wouldn’t want to be one of those people, would you?

“On the other hand,” Hunter adds, “if you answered ‘no’ — you are probably ready to take the next step toward fully savoring the myriad species that share our planet.”

And I would add that you could not ask for a more helpful hand to hold as you take that next step than this book. In the interests of full disclosure, it was funded in part by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund (I am the organization’s board chair). The money was well spent.


Authors Andrew Cutko and Susan Gawler could hardly have better credentials. Cutko is an ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, where Gawler also worked before becoming a regional vegetation ecologist for the national conservation organization, NatureServe. Their work has taken them to most of Maine’s natural places.

In a recent Maine Sunday Telegram article, Cutko voiced the appeal of this sort of guide: “Maine is a special place and people with a general appreciation of those places want to put names to them.” “Natural Landscapes of Maine” put names to 104 natural communities to be found in the state. A natural community is “an assemblage of interacting plants and animals and their common environment, recurring across the landscape, in which the effects of human intervention are minimal.” In the book, each one gets a double-page spread, ordered under four major headings: Wooded Uplands, Wooded Wetlands, Open Uplands and Open Wetlands.

If you are like me, you won’t sweat the details about “How This Classification Was Developed” or “Its Relationship to Other Classifications,” though they may be essential reading for the professional ecologist. Jump straight to the double pages, which pack the information into blocks, field guide-style, including Community Description, Soil and Site Characteristics, etc. The rarity of each type is ranked from 1 to 5. There is a list of the typical fauna and flora for each community, plus a map and full-color photographs. The pages also recommend areas of conservation land where the community can be found.

To look up a particular area, the authors offer a dichotomous key, “a series of paired statements representing mutually exclusive choices.” Starting at the beginning, you choose the statement that most accurately describes your area. Each statement directs you to another couplet and so leads you deeper and deeper into Uplands or Wetlands, Wooded or Open, until you identify the natural community type you are looking for.

One other dichotomy: For each community, the left-hand page has its name across the top and down the side, and the two titles are not always exactly the same. I had to go to the authors for the explanation, which is actually quite simple. The full scientific name occurs on the side. Those less comfortably acquainted with scientific names will find the more general name along the top (and in alphabetical order).

The book is superbly produced. The clean layout — and the key system — makes it easy to consult. Being about landscapes, it is beautifully illustrated with photographs, mostly from the archives and staff of the Natural Areas Program. And if there is anybody who still thinks that there is a trade-off between recycled and high-quality paper, the thud with which this tome hits the desk will disabuse them of the notion. It’s chlorine-free as well.


“Natural Landscapes of Maine” is another great addition to the literature on the nature of Maine.


Thomas Urquhart is the former director of Maine Audubon and author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”


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