A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Book Shows the Nature of New Hampshire

If you want to make sense of the woods and waters where you roam, it’s nice to have a naturalist right there to explain it.

Well, you can’t always have a naturalist handy, but a new book comes pretty close to filling that role. The Nature of New Hampshire: Natural Communities of the Granite State is like a field guide to the state’s great outdoors, explaining why places look the way they do and what kinds of ecosystems they are.

Handsomely illustrated with drawings and photographs, the book is written by Dan Sperduto and Ben Kimball and produced by the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau with help from The Nature Conservancy and New Hampshire’s conservation license plate, the moose plate.

It is the job of the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau to understand the state’s natural communities. Sperduto, Kimball and other skilled botanists at the bureau have toured every corner of the state since the bureau was established in the mid-1980s, gathering data about the state’s rare and common plants and natural communities.

In the process, they have meticulously identified nearly 200 different types of natural communities that occur throughout New Hampshire. These natural communities are well-defined, based on the types of plants found there, the area’s structure (like a marsh or a shrubland), and the combination of conditions found there.

If you’re not used to the names of these natural communities, they may seem a bit wonky at first. But there’s a good reason for the names. For example, the natural community “black gum – red maple basin swamp” is found in a basin swamp with abundant black gum and red maple. This natural community happens to be uncommon and important to conserve. Black gums are among the longest-living hardwood trees in North America.

The black gum – red maple basin swamp is distinctly different than the red maple – sphagnum basin swamp, which is common and is dominated by red maple, with scatterings of hemlock and sometimes red spruce.

The book is organized by major landscape types in New Hampshire: Alpine and subalpine, rocky ground, forests, peatlands, swamps, marshes, river channels and floodplains and the seacoast. Within each landscape type, the authors describe the kinds of natural communities found there.

For instance, New Hampshire’s premier alpine environment is high in the Presidential Range, where you can find 12 square miles of alpine tundra. The book identifies several distinct natural communities found there. You might see the “alpine heath snowbank” community, which is well-drained areas under late-melting snowpacks. It features Labrador tea, crowberries and alpine bearberry, among others.

The authors show examples of the types of plants found in these communities, what the places look like and where you can find them. For example Mount Monadnock is a good place to see the “subalpine rocky bald” or the “red spruce – heath – cinquefoil rocky ridge” communities.

They have checklists of the types of plants found in various natural communities, and very clear line drawings that show cross-sections and overhead. All help to understand how these places work and why certain plants grow there.

This book will make you want to get out and learn more, see some of New Hampshire’s cool places, like the Ossipee pine barrens, the intertidal rocky shores in Rye or the boreal forests in the North Country. The more we understand these special places, the more likely we are to conserve them.

The Nature of New Hampshire is available for $29.95 in bookstores and by the University Press of New England.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.