Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 16 • August 14-20, 2008
now in our 38th season

Summer Reading

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

I was just talking to my friend, Nantucket Conservation Foundation Middle Moors Ranger and Board of Selectmen member, Allen Reinhard, about this column and how writing these articles helps to force me to do my “homework” and learn more about Nantucket. We started to talk about leading nature walks and other educational activities and began to compare books that we have found helpful in our personal “homework” and studies. That’s when I had one of my few epiphanies of this summer; this column would be a great way to let people know about some of the wonderful books out there on Nantucket and its historical and natural history. There are many fantastic Nantucket authors and lots of good information out there, and no matter how long I live, I doubt I’ll have time to read them all. A few of them are essential reading for the budding naturalist or historian and I hope learning about these will also encourage you to find our more about these topics.

One of the first books on-island naturalists mention as their favorite is Life and Death of a Salt Marsh by John and Mildred Teal. Usually you can find copies of this excellent book in a paperback version at the “Take It or Leave It”. This book clearly documents the ecology value and function of salt marshes and thoroughly covers the birth, growth and potential for destruction of these vital resources. Although it was written in 1969, its discussion of the perils to the survival of salt marshes is just as useful now as it was then.

A fun book that is ideal for kids is The Seaside Naturalist: A Guide to Study at the Seashore written and illustrated by Deborah A. Coulombe (University of New Hampshire). And of course, no one can be without A Field Guide to the Marine Life of Nantucket by Jennifer C. Andrews and Inga M. Fredland published by the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association and available in their gift shop. I give this book to my visiting inner city high school kids as a guide and a reminder of our island marine life. The photos by Laura C. Barrett make it very easy to use it as a field guide and although not comprehensive, it does an excellent job as an introduction to the life that share our Nantucket shores. For the very young, grab the Woods Hole Sea Grant’s Beachcombers Companion (available locally and online) which includes 50 colorful laminated cards illustrating local marine invertebrates, a mesh collecting bag, and a species checklist for kids to use at the beach.

 A Practical Guide to the Marine Animals of Northeastern North America by Leland W. Pollack (1998, Rutgers University Press) is more along the lines of a textbook, but it has been valuable resource for serious study of the creatures lurking in our harbors and offshore. A practical and simple book that doesn’t require its own backpack to carry is Life Between the Tides: Marine Plants and Animals of the Northeast by Les Watling, Jill Fegley, and John Moring with illustrations by Andrea Sulzer (Maine Sea Grant Program). Although somewhat “Maine-centric,” I’ve found it useful for identifying some of our aquatic denizens and the section on worms is especially helpful. And of course, one should always have a copy of the Peterson Field Guides’ A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Hatteras by Kenneth L. Gosner, which is full of handy information and great color plates and line drawings. And for all around utility including 1,300 photographs and 20 maps on topics from weather to geology to flora and fauna, you should try the National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England by Peter Alden and Brian Cassie. For enhancing your exploration of our island, and reducing the chance of getting lost, you should have, Walking Nantucket by Peter B. Brace in your backpack. Brace’s book features 25 island walks with descriptions of the flora and fauna along with maps and photographs.

The first gift I received from a colleague at UMass Boston when I came to Nantucket was the indispensable Nantucket Garden Club book Wildflowers on Nantucket (2001) written by Peter W. Dunwiddie and illustrated by M.J. Levy Dickson. This is an essential field book with lovely illustrations that is clearly laid out with plant indexes in the back listed by both scientific and common names. I would recommend it as a gift for anyone and I have loaned my copy many times. And of course, any serious plant lover who wants an extensive resource for reference can’t go wrong with The Vascular and Non-Vascular Flora of Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget Islands by Peter Dunwiddie and Bruce A. Sorrie. For wetland plants, I often depend on A Field Guide to Coastal Wetland Plants of the Northeastern United States by Ralph W. Tiner, Jr. with drawings by Abigail Rorer (University of Massachusetts Press). And if you are hungry, you can flip through A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America by Lee Peterson with line drawings by Lee Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson and photographs by Lee Peterson. Although many of the plants are not found on Nantucket, some are; and even more helpful to the reader is the author’s labeling of plants using the extremely convincing skull and crossbones motif of what one should not eat! I get a lot of questions about seaweed (at least they are not difficult philosophy questions regarding life and death) and when I need to come up with an accurate answer I often turn to Seaweeds: A Color-Coded, Illustrated Guide to Common Marine Plants of the East Coast of the United States by C.J. Hillson (Keystone Books). As the name suggests, it divides the identification of seaweeds based on the three groups of color distinguished seaweeds, brown, green, and red, and also includes a short section on seaweed-like flowering plants and animals which look like plants. The author also has a short section on the use of seaweeds as decorative objects. I have met several people on island who use seaweed as art which I find both creative and delightful. Another excellent book that covers just our area of the world is Seaweeds of Cape Cod and the Islands by John M. Kingsbury.

There are many, many useful bird guides out there. I usually keep a copy of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds and the National Geographic Society’s The Field Guide to the Birds of North America in my fieldpack. The former has a great series of color photos and the latter bases identification on detailed color plates. Many of our very talented birders on island depend on one or the other and have an opinion on which is more helpful. And of course, our on-island bird experts’ books are essential, such as Birding Nantucket by Edith Andrews and Kenneth Blackshaw (2007). Ken and Edith have also developed a checklist and both of them have written other very helpful birding books specific to Nantucket. Ken has even combined exercise and birding in his book Bike Birding Nantucket. Another good guide is Birds of Massachusetts by Richard R. Veit and Wayne R. Petersen. Ask one of our local ornithologists for their recommendations for essential guides and beloved books which may range from David Allen Sibley to Roger Everett to Roger Tory Peterson.

To learn more about our island geology, no one has yet bested the seminal book by Robert N. Oldale, Cape Cod and the Islands, the geologic story. Make sure and get the completely revised and greatly improved edition, published in 2001 by On Cape Publications. Oldale is not only the most knowledgeable geologist in the field on Cape and Island geology, but his book is easy to read and generally tilts in favor of a clear understanding for the layperson. Go to this link: for a list of other useful geological texts concerning the Cape and Islands. To look at the changes in our cultural landscapes, many people I work with use Peter Dunwiddie’s Changing Landscapes: A Pictorial Field Guide to a Century of Change on Nantucket published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. It is truly enlightening to view from the same perspective photos and pictures of our island over the past century. For copies of books published by Mass. Audubon listed in this article, go to: I was amazed by the list of books they carry and may make a special trip just to purchase them all!

There are so many excellent historical texts on Nantucket that I am hesitant to even name a few that I have read and use as resources. The first book I read upon coming to Nantucket in 2003 is Nat Philbrick’s excellent Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 with illustrations by Diane Swartz (Mill Hill Press, 1993, available locally). It seemed critical to me upon my arrival to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible and this is one volume that was up to the task for the first three centuries of Nantucket’s history. Among Philbrick’s many exceptional books, I appreciated the exploration of the historical account of the first islanders, the Wampanoags, in Abrams Eyes and his excruciating visceral account of whaling in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Online, read more about the Wampanoags and find more books and resources on their culture and heritage through the website: For a historical tour of our last century, you should enjoy Nantucket Only Yesterday by Robert Mooney, a Nantucket historian. I also really liked Robert F. Mooney’s Tales of Nantucket: Chronicles & Characters of America’s Favorite Island which is packed with fascinating stories. For a first person narrative that is both fun and informative, you can’t miss Jack Warner’s Tom Never’s Ghost. And for viewpoints that cannot and should not be ignored, turn to Frances Karttunen’s The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket's Oars and Nantucket's People of Color - Essays on History, Politics and Community, edited by UMass Boston faculty member, Robert Johnson, Jr. The Maria Mitchell Association can recommend a book on America’s first women astronomer when you visit their gift shop. The Nantucket Historical Association’s gift shop at the Whaling Museum offers many other books on Nantucket history and our local book stores (Mitchell’s Book Corner and Nantucket Bookworks),and our toy stores and gift shops carry a wide range of Nantucket books suitable for all ages. It’s never too early to think about Christmas and the cold weather that can enable a reading addiction. It’s probably a good time to admit that my family’s primary expenditures on items other than food are facilitated by Nantucket bookstores.

We haven’t even started on the many excellent photography books with intrinsic scenes and fascinating information on Nantucket. I’ll leave that list to my more artistically inclined colleagues. As is inevitable in the creation of any list such as this, I realize that every year, new books are published loaded with information on Nantucket’s natural, cultural, architectural, artistic, religious, scientific, and historical heritage. Today’s trusted field guide may become tomorrow’s coffee cup coaster. The search for knowledge and fun can lead you to our incredible local bookstores or to the Atheneum and adventures online and I am certain you can find a guide or text that will enhance your enjoyment of our island and its natural and cultural resources.

Editor’s Note:  Our staff favorites also include  Nantucket Voices vol. 1 and 2 by Mary Miles.  We find these to be the best sources for reading about interesting people who have lived and still live on Nantucket.

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