The Write Stuff: Capturing Natural History in Open Spaces

By Peter A. Bowler

 Laguna resident and photographer Allan Schoenherr

Laguna resident and photographer Allan Schoenherr

Allan Schoenherr, author of “A Natural History of California”, has done it again!  In an elegant, magnificently illustrated treatment of Orange County open spaces, Schoenherr has brought forward basic ecological principles, applied them to local communities and habitats, and produced a superb guide to the “natural history of open spaces of Orange County.”  This reader friendly text by a longtime Laguna Beach ecologist is a classic that is a “must” for anyone interested in the outdoors and the ecology of the region.

The book is attractively bound and contains 346 illustrations, primarily consisting of very high quality photographs but also including a few maps and drawings, and four tables.  The book is exceptionally well organized into seven topically integrated chapters.  The stage is set in Chapter 1 (“Orange County’s Public Lands”) with a lovely photographic sequence and narration describing the mosaic of federal, state, county and privately managed parks, reserves, and conservancies.  Several accurate and easily readable maps site these lands surrounded by the urban template.  The graceful introduction is followed by straightforward descriptions of “Ecological Principles” in Chapter 2, incorporating good sketches of important climate and weather factors, the seasons, fire history and ecosystems.  Chapter 3 is an excellent description of the County’s geology, followed by Schoenherr’s usual high quality but absolutely understandable discussion of “Plant Communities” (coastal sage scrub, chaparral, valley or coastal grassland, southern oak woodland, and riparian woodland) and the invasive plant problems these communities experience.  Invertebrates and vertebrates are elegantly presented in the next two amply illustrated chapters (162 figures, including a nice image of both the Pacific pond turtle and non-native red-eared pond slider turtle in a diagnostic pose making their comparative identifications unmistakable).  The final chapter (“The

Intertidal Region”) completes the ecological transect by treating County sandy beach, rocky headland, and estuarine settings.   Clear illustrations show the diversity of bird beak lengths and shapes, foot design and color – greatly enhancing the reader’s ability to rapidly make bird identifications in estuarine and beach habitats.   The zonation within salt marshes and rocky shore communities is easily understood from attractive diagrams and good pictures.

The reference section includes 42 citations, forming a very good base from which to select additional readings or books relevant to county open space areas.  The four-page index and two-page list of illustrations are complete and make it easy to locate species accounts, habitats, or images of them.  Clear and well-chosen photographs are an unforgettable hallmark of this book. From a lovely picture of the UC Natural Reserve System’s San Joaquin Freshwater Marsh Reserve to facing full-page illustrations of sites with coastal sage draped on the county’s attractive foothills, the book is gem.  No one knows Orange County open spaces better than Allan Schoenherr, and he has again communicated his knowledge in a fabulous way!

I most strongly recommend this book for use by anyone interested in the county’s out-of-doors from naturalists to hikers and cyclists.  The book is very suitable for classroom use directed toward high school and college clienteles.  Although I have a copy, I’m buying several more to give to friends. “Wild and Beautiful” is a jewel, and is available at a modest price.  The non-profit publisher, Laguna Wilderness Press, describes the book as follows: “Explore the paths and trails of Southern California’s wildlife in reading Wild and Beautiful: A Natural History of the Open Spaces in Orange County, by Dr. Allan A. Schoenherr. Provided in this book is an abundance of illuminating information about what can be glimpsed from the creatures, plants, habitats, and landscapes that constitute the open spaces in Orange County. This book highlights an impressive array of information and photographs that creates a resource valuable to both the reader in the comfort of their home and the hiker ascending up the trail. You will be hard-pressed to find another book that is such a wonderful blend of incredible photography and informative material.”

Allan A. Schoenherr.  2011.  Laguna Wilderness Press.  Laguna Beach, California. $24.95


Peter A. Bowler is a senior lecturer in UC Irvine’s ecology and evolutionary biology department.

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