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Bounty for the Nature Nut

Scott Weidensaul's new book, <I>Return to Wild America -- A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul</I> is one of many nature books and rootsy CDs recommended here.
Scott Weidensaul's new book, Return to Wild America -- A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul is one of many nature books and rootsy CDs recommended here.

I've had RAIN BARRELS on my holiday wish list for three years. Nobody will buy me a rain barrel. I asked for a load of manure for my birthday once, and I got that, so what gives? I guess I understand why; they're big, and oddly expensive. So I drew up a little list of presents that are cheaper, and easier to wrap.

At the risk of coming off like a nature nerd, which (pssst) I am, I find my holiday book and album list crawling with bugs, birds, and other wild things. I have to admit that the new book I'm most excited about will not even be out for a few weeks -- the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Laugh if you must, but picture this: A giant and exceedingly strange bug lands on your screen door. What the heck is THAT? your children ask. "Why, it's just a Wheel Bug, Zelus longipes technically, one of the Assassin Bugs," you reply, hiding your new Kaufman guide behind your back and basking in your sudden expertise. I'm willing to wait a few days for that!

To tide me over, I'll take Scott Weidensaul's new book, Return to Wild America -- A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul. Weidensaul is one of my favorite nature writers, and in this book, he retraces the steps of James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson's epic journey in 1953: 30,000 miles in 100 days, birding their way around North America, an odyssey outlined in their classic book, Wild America. Best of all, reviews say Weidensaul found that much of what Peterson and Fisher celebrated still exists. If only Peterson could have lived long enough to see an ivory-billed woodpecker again.

The Zickefoose line comes from the heart of West Virginia, though it was still Virginia when Samuel Zickefoose settled there. I'm coming to the realization that my roots in the Appalachian foothills are deep for a reason -- they are very old. And so, I want to read John O'Brien's memoir, At Home in the Heart of Appalachia. He explores what it means to be of Appalachian stock. "In time I would learn that Appalachia was an imaginary place and that being Appalachian was imaginary but terribly damaging." I hope to emerge from reading it an undamaged Appalachian.

Of all the books I've read this year, two are still prowling and swimming through my mind. Nature writer Sy Montgomery's two best to date, I think, are Spell of the Tiger: The Man-eaters of Sundarbans and Journey of the Pink Dolphin. Montgomery skillfully interweaves biological fact and myth, making folk legends both accessible and entirely plausible. I can't wait for her next book, The Good Good Pig, due out in June 2006. Anyone who loves a pet porker right through to his 600-pound end is OK by me.

A book that I have read and plan to give this year is Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds. This is an instant classic in the annals of ornithology, as much a portrait of a singularly driven man as it is a bird book. A friend of Kroodsma's described it as a "stealth textbook," so readable that it is able to deliver an enormous amount of biological fact almost intravenously. Kroodsma explores how birds learn to sing (some come pre-programmed, while most have to listen and practice) what birds do as they sing (you'd be surprised how complex the whole endeavor is), and why they do it. This beautiful book and its accompanying CD have forever changed how I listen to, and hear, the songs of birds all around me.


Since I can't listen to the birds through wide open studio windows this time of year, I think it's time to update the CD collection too. Yup, I've got a wish list right here, most of it pretty rootsy stuff. First is Boy with a Fish's Birds Fly Backwards. This offshoot of the old-time fiddle band The Horseflies combines keening vocals with hypnotic, sawing fiddle and driving banjo rhythms -- think Talking Heads at the Galax Fiddler's Convention.

A little more mainstream selection is Nickel Creek's Why Should the Fire Die. I love this band, their absolute command of their instruments and influences, and it's OK with me that some of the musicians I listen to most are half my age. Take the Canadian group called The Duhks, and their eponymous first CD. I find their mix of Celtic, folk, and rock influences absolutely irresistible. Drummer Scott Sencor leads their breathtaking attack on material both old and new. Listen to Jessica Havey's vocal on "Mists of Down Below" and see if the hair stands up on the back of your neck!

In that vein, I'm also intrigued by Tim O'Brien's new album, Cornbread Nation. It's hard to go wrong with this consummate musician (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar) and classic Irish tenor. It's a must-have for me.

Jackson Browne has a new album, Solo Acoustic, Volume 1. I've loved Browne's music since I first heard it in 1973. In concert, Browne can weave an incomparable spell with just his voice and a guitar. He's deepened and warmed with age.

Another live album on my wish list is Lucinda Williams' Live at the Fillmore West. I adore Lucinda's songwriting, and I'm listening to the evolution of her voice, which gets looser and loopier with each album.

My favorite album to give in 2005 was Tangleye: Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Revisited. This is a grabby, hypnotic, gritty mix of classic field hollers and haunting folk solos, overlain with brass, percussion, and thoroughly new beats.

I also gave a number of Alison Krauss' Forget About It, still my favorite of all her albums, and Edie Brickell's Volcano. It's so good to have Edie back on the shelves with a recent CD. She doubtless took time off to raise her children, and she's returned with a beautifully rounded, bittersweet collection of songs. If you could listen holes in a CD, Krauss' and Brickell's discs would look like Lorraine Swiss.

I know the lists are long, but I still hope Santa will drop two rain barrels out of his sleigh, one for the front downspout, and one for the back. Ka-BONGGG! You can't beat rainwater for watering orchids and filling freshwater aquariums. It's free and pure, and all you have to do is figure out how to catch it. After you figure out how to wrap the rain barrel…

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Julie Zickefoose