A sense of each place, by the book

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / January 31, 2010

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New England is an endlessly fascinating region, full of nooks and crannies, peculiar attractions, and a rich natural landscape. Right now, a lot of it is encased in ice, which makes this an excellent time to dream of seasons to come. Every year there’s a new bumper crop of books about our region, and 2009 was no exception. Taken together, they are like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant. “It’s like a tree,’’ exclaims the man clutching a leg. “No, it’s like a rope,’’ says the man feeling the tail. And so on. Curl up by the fireplace and peruse these books. By the time you’re done, you’ll have the whole elephant in the room.

Specialized guides
We remember photographer Ralph Gibson describing his shooting process at a lecture at Boston’s Photographic Resource Center. Each day, he said, he went out with the intention to capture a certain kind of image. It was his “point of departure,’’ and inevitably led to his finding something even more interesting. We feel the same way about specialized guides. They offer a sliver of place, drawing you in to discover everything else.

Jeremy D’Entremont has a passion for lighthouses and their history, and “The Lighthouses of Maine’’ (Commonwealth Editions, $19.95) is a highly readable and exhaustive reference to the Pine Tree State’s iconic aids to navigation. It’s worth picking up just for D’Entremont’s tales of rescues and his scrupulously researched stories of lightkeepers’ lives.

Photographer Jeffrey E. Blackman also has an eye for the iconic, and his new photo book, “Barns of New England’’ (Countryman Press, $19.95), chronicles our region’s rustic rural architecture. Blackman favors authenticity over merely pretty scenes. Our favorite shot is a weathered, dilapidated Grantham, N.H., hay barn propped majestically between gritty snowbanks and a mackerel sky.

When Traute M. Marshall and her husband retired, they set out to explore the art museums, artists’ homes, and other cultural repositories of the region. Then she wrote about them in an engagingly personal and opinionated way in “Art Museums Plus: Cultural Excursions in New England’’ (University Press of New England, $24.95). Behemoths like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Yale University Art Gallery get their due, but so do small gems such as the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Freylinghausen Morris House & Studio. Marshall’s “Plus’’ sections offer bonus sites near the originals. Going to the Cornish Colony Museum in Windsor, Vt.? Don’t miss the Cornish-Windsor covered bridge, which Traute calls the longest in the United States.

Lighthouse fans might also want to pick up C. J. Fusco’s “Old Ghosts of New England’’ (Countryman Press, $17.95), as those lonely offshore structures seem to have more than their fair share of restless shades. Appropriately subtitled “A Traveler’s Guide to the Spookiest Sites in the Northeast,’’ this volume is a breezy survey of many allegedly haunted locales in New England, from graveyards to B&Bs, woodsy parks to covered bridges. It’s also a cautionary tale about what you let your children watch on TV: Fusco’s childhood interest in the supernatural was enflamed by “The X-Files.’’

You might want to keep “The Big Book of New England Curiosities’’ by Susan Campbell and Bruce Gellerman (Globe Pequot Press, $19.95) handy on the nightstand to dip into now and then. The authors pitch a very big tent, highlighting everything from Car Talk Plaza (home of Click & Clack, the Tappet Brothers) in Cambridge to the best blueberry pie in the country (or so Road Food guru Michael Stern says) at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias, Maine.

Trail guides
Three preservationist groups offer fantastic trail guides as a benefit of membership. You can put the 25th anniversary edition of “The Catamount Trail Guidebook’’ (Catamount Trail Association,, memberships start at $35) to immediate use. The 300 miles of cross-country ski trails, finally fully connected in 2008, span the state. The guide is full of detailed topographic maps, side trail excursions, and route descriptions. Snowshoers are also welcome.

To find out where to fish, where to camp, where to observe shore birds, and how to handle the mighty water of New England’s “Great’’ lake, you need “The Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail’’ (Lake Champlain Committee,, memberships start at $40). Long-distance kayakers swear by it, but the guide is useful for day paddlers, too.

Kayakers, sailors, and motor-boaters alike will find a wealth of useful information in “Maine Island Trail’’ (Maine Island Trail Association,, memberships start at $45), which details more than 150 island sites on the trail and how to use them. Knowing which uninhabited island has a freshwater spring could save your life. Stewardship is key here - most sites are privately owned.

Field guides
We’re suckers for field guides; it’s always easier to appreciate a natural feature when you can call it by name. “New England Wildflowers’’ by Frank Kaczmarek (Falcon Guides/Globe Pequot Press, $24.95) matches superb photographs with succinct descriptions, bloom season, and habitat notes for more than 350 flowers, sedges, rushes, and flowering shrubs. The notes sometimes cite Native American medicinal and culinary uses.

David L. Spahr is what mycologists call a “pot hunter’’: someone who hunts wild mushrooms to consume them. His “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada’’ (Random House, $19.95) is a lovely and sensible guide to foraging fungi and giving a wide berth to unfriendly species.

Sense of place
The adage that you can see the world in a grain of sand or a blade of grass also holds true of certain books. Henry David Thoreau glimpsed the universe in one dinky kettle pond. Several new books use their tight focus on a single corner of New England to illuminate larger truths.

Pick up a copy of “The Big One’’ by David Kinney (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24) so you can read the book before you see the movie. (It’s been optioned by Dreamworks.) Nominally about the frenzy of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, this narrative account of the madcap New England contest is a classic fish tale and then some. It’s essential reading for anyone who has ever chased monster stripers with a rod, reel, and a bucket of eels.

The fishermen who populate “Down at the Docks’’ by Rory Nugent (Pantheon, $15) are a decidedly rougher bunch, but then they’re manning New Bedford’s deep-water vessels and don’t give a whit about sport. Long Island preppie turned gonzo journalist Nugent revels in the seamy side of New Bedford. We bet the city fathers loathe this book, but it does provide a telling counterpoint to all that Melville worship.

As soon as we read Christopher Camuto’s description of the ebbing tide in the throat of a channel - “seconds and minutes of seawater straining through an hourglass of granite’’ - he had us hooked. “Time and Tide in Acadia’’ (W.W. Norton, $24.95) is a delightfully ruminative volume of essays about place. Camuto has intimately engaged with Mount Desert Island, and generously shares what he has learned.

When the New England acorn crop failed in fall 2007, naturalist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas began feeding cracked corn to the deer near her home in Peterborough, N.H. And then she watched them. Closely. The upshot was the marvelously lyrical and blessedly unsentimental “The Hidden Life of Deer’’ (Harper/Collins, $24.99). Not only is the book a terrific rundown on our region’s ubiquitous ungulate, it’s a soothing meditation on nature in New England.

When “place’’ speaks French, it’s called terroir - the real subject of “In a Cheesemaker’s Kitchen’’ by Allison Hooper (Countryman Press, $19.95). While much of this beautiful volume consists of great recipes using Vermont goat and cow cheeses, mascarpone, crème fraîche, and butter, it is really a love story about Vermont and wonderful food.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at