What the peepers said

Sooner or later, everyone who experiences the natural beauty surrounding Asheville must agree with what the late Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. of North Carolina said in his book, Humor of a Country Lawyer: “In my heart and unlicensed judgment, the Good Lord will place the Garden of Eden in North Carolina when he returns to earth. He will do so because he will have so few changes to make in order to achieve perfection.”

Now that spring is here, it’s time to dust off those hiking boots. Local bookstores and libraries are bursting with information to enhance your wilderness enjoyment, offering dozens of comprehensive guides to hiking trails, camping sites, recreation areas and secret forest nooks, as well as knapsack-size photo books on wildflowers, trees, birds and mammals.

But confirmed couch adventurers are in luck, too — the publishing industry has recognized that coffee-table nature books are big business. Accordingly, local bookstores new and used are brimming with collections of breathtaking photographs. Many cover expansive topics such as Africa, Antarctica or our national parks. Others narrow their focus to one spectacular subject — penguins, parrots or the deserts of the Southwest, to name a few.

And, of course, there are armloads of books on the Southern Appalachian wilderness, such as those by Asheville photographer George Humphries, which you can’t even glance at without wanting to be immediately transported to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I am convinced that the best way to save our planet is to concentrate on our children. If we encourage enough kids to become intimate with nature — with the bugs and birds and grasses they see every day — they’ll become adult eco-lovers who will always walk gently on Mother Earth.

The good news for busy and/or nature-challenged parents is that you can satisfy a young child’s insatiable “why” questions with the library’s equally endless supply of nature books — many of which are so beautifully illustrated you’ll want to sneak them out of the kids’ beds and into your own.

One of the best examples is the meticulously researched and charmingly illustrated Crinkleroot series. In 1974, author/illustrator Jim Aronsky introduced his wise woodsman, Crinkleroot, in I Was Born in a Tree and Raised by Bees. Now the family-friendly series numbers more than 25 titles, such as Crinkleroot’s Guide to Walking in Wild Places, Crinkleroot’s Book of Animal Tracks and Wildlife Signs and my personal favorite, Rabbits and Raindrops.

And don’t forget children’s songs and stories on tape, of which there are plenty. However, though there are loads of printed books suitable for older kids, I had trouble finding many nature audio books for that age group. The exception was outdoor-adventure stories with teenage heroes and heroines, like Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry, in which a Polynesian boy, branded a coward, faces the sea alone and becomes a man. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, is the unforgettable story of a young girl alone on the Alaskan tundra. A suspenseful contemporary tale is Will Hobbs’ Downriver, in which teenagers must battle themselves as well as the raging Colorado River.

Adults have more choices in nature books on tape. I was delighted to discover that Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat, is an often hilarious account of his famous study of the Arctic wolves (humor that the movie missed). More subdued but equally fascinating is Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist, in which he traces his obsession with insects from his lonely childhood in the South to worldwide travels and acclaim.

In the print book Biophilia, Wilson presents his fascinating theory that human beings need to be connected to other living things as much as they need shelter and nourishment. When we are denied access to nature, he claims, we are as hungry as when deprived of food.

Like the Irish saints — who were driven literally giddy by their passion for nature — many contemporary wordsmiths also choose the outdoor world as their muse. One sparkling gem is Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, by Linda Hogan. Her flawlessly structured essays on bats, corn, water, wolves and other living things from her Chickasaw heritage literally soar off the page. In Another Country, Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains, Christopher Camuto weaves back and forth through time in the land once owned by the Cherokee (and into which the endangered red wolf was re-introduced in 1992). After you read this one, you can’t travel even 10 minutes out of downtown Asheville without invoking Camuto’s intoxicating imagery.

But my personal favorite is Mountain Year: A Southern Appalachian Nature Notebook, by Barbara G. Hallowell, who used to write the “Nature Notes” column for the Hendersonville Times-News. For mountain newcomer and old-timer alike, these charming essays, meant to be read one month at a time, capture the amazing details of Appalachian wildlife. For instance: We know it’s definitely spring not when the pussy willows come out or the daffodils bloom, but because the “peepers” announce it. These one-inch-long male frogs (pseudacris crucifer) balloon their throats out and serenade the forest with piercing cries for female companionship. And their calls of longing are so impassioned they can be heard a mile away.

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