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Book Review : A Field Guide for the Urban Biologist

February 19, 1988|LEE DEMBART

Natural History of Vacant Lots by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong (University of California: $22.50; illustrated, 284 pages)

While science is usually done in laboratories by professionals with expensive equipment, it is possible for amateurs to do science anywhere. Perhaps not high-energy physics, which requires giant atom smashers and the like, but biology is all around us, and it requires little more than a good eye, a curious disposition and a few jars and notebooks.

This is the message of "Natural History of Vacant Lots," the 50th volume in the California natural history series published by the University of California Press. Vessel and Wong, longtime natural-science educators, have written a do-it-yourself book that urges readers to poke around in the vacant lots in their neighborhoods and discover the many varieties of life that exist there and the interrelationships among them.

After a brief overview of the seasonal patterns of natural ecosystems, the authors describe the kinds of things to look for and offer many practical suggestions about how to go about doing it. The book seems to be written with students in mind, but it could be used by anyone.

Realistic Projects Outlined

The bulk of the book contains very good and useful descriptions of plants and animals regularly found in neglected lots throughout California. The authors outline realistic projects for collecting flora and fauna and for identifying and studying them. Here's one that I've already put to use for collecting seedlings:

"Use medium-sized vegetable cans from which both ends have been removed. Place this tin cylinder over the plant and press down with your foot until the top of the can is level with the ground. Then wiggle the container with its specimen and soil out of the ground. These specimens can be placed in a tray of wet sand or sawdust and kept growing until they bloom. Identification can then be made with certainty."

This is a field guide for urban biologists. But it is more than that. Vessel and Wong, being teachers, also point to some conclusions to be drawn and things to be learned from collecting specimens of all kinds. Vacant lots, which are subject to vagaries of weather, water, pollution, trampling and herbicide spraying, are not the most hospitable environments for life. Yet life adapts and thrives in them.

Adaptive Forms of Behavior

"Examples of adaptive forms of behavior are: the abundance of wind-dispersed seeds; the animals' assumption of a prostrate form during certain threatening conditions, such as mowing or trampling; the production of small leaves and seeds that will withstand being trodden on; the development of a tolerance to particular poisons; and the possession by some organisms of a disagreeable taste or odor or of characteristics that make them hazardous to touch."

Part of the value of a little book like this is that it opens your eyes to things you would otherwise miss. The authors estimate that as much as 20% of the land in a typical city is underdeveloped or uncommitted. Whatever land humans don't make use of, plants, insects and animals do.

But these things don't happen willy-nilly. Complicated food-energy relationships and predator-prey relationships take hold. Even within the same lot, there are many different habitats that support different kinds of life. The area next to a well-trod path will contain different organisms than the area under a nearby rock.

With the help of this user-friendly book, people interested in finding out about the ways of living things need look no further than the nearest vacant lot.

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