Reading Other People's Books

For the holidays this Christmas, our family rented a house near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. We've had a wonderful time exploring the southern shore of Nova Scotia, eating its food, exploring its beaches (yes, even in winter), and snaking our way along its undulating shorelines. We did all of our Christmas shopping for each other in Lunenburg's shops, and have loved exploring and eating our way through this quaint harbour town. It's been really cold, and we've also spent an equal amount of time tucked into our house overlooking the ocean, a fire roaring in the wood stove, chowders bubbling away in pots, reading lots of books.

Both my wife and I brought books to read, but I don't think either of us has touched them. Instead, we've been enjoying finding and reading things we've found around the house--we've both got piles of books on the go. I love exploring other people's bookshelves. Just as I love enjoying the landscapes, people, and change of pace when I travel somewhere new, I also love to try-on someone else's intellectual life by temporarily inhabiting their bookshelves.

And so I've been cooking and baking recipes out of half-a-dozen cookbooks I've found, and we've planned many of our excursions based on maps and descriptions from local authors. I've also been enjoying Keith Baker's thriller "Lunenburg," which is set in Lunenburg in winter, and takes place exactly where we're staying. It's been fun to be at once away from home and also a "local," as I read descriptions of my temporary home and recognize places Baker uses as his backdrop.

However, I think my favourite book has been "Owls Aren't Wise & Bats Aren't Blind: A Naturalist Debunks Our Favorite Fallacies About Wildlife" by Warner Shedd. It does a great job discussing the behaviour of various North American mammals and birds. I've been a great collector of field guides and nature books since I was a little boy, and I'm always on the hunt for longer treatments of animal facts, especially those that deal with information beyond habitat, identification, and general info. Shedd does a nice job discussing the habits of these animals, and mixes personal anecdote with more formal scientific information.

One throw-away paragraph in the chapter on flying squirrels has been in my mind all week. I've always wanted to see a flying squirrel, and have yet to find one. The fact that they are nocturnal, and spend so much time up high in trees, makes them hard to find. Shedd writes that they often nest in a hollowed out branch or old woodpecker hole, but also build another type of nest:

"In far norther climes, these squirrels often hollow out growths known as witches' brooms. These peculiar masses are caused by a fungus that sometimes infects spruce and balsam fir trees. The fungus causes the tree to grow a dense tangled maze of tiny branches that somewhat resembles an old-fashioned broom--hence the name. This hollow in a witch's broom, after being heavily lined with grass, feathers, or other soft material by the enterprising occupant, is evidently warmer than a tree cavity lined with soft material." (Shedd, 47)

This is a beautiful image: the magic of the forest, which somehow sees squirrels turned into flying squirrels when they nest in a Witch's broom. How have I never heard it before! I haven't been able to get it out of my mind ever since I read it, and had to share it with you, too. Further research reveals that these nests are also known as 'dreys' (or 'drays'), and that Witch's Brooms have a variety of uses, both for man and animals.

None of us will read that many books in our lives, and there are infinitely more books you'll never read than those you will. It makes the collection of books you read, and keep, the ones on your shelves, special. They form another kind of tangled growth, a hollow in which memory, ideas, and images can safely nest and stay warm. Shedd says that flying squirrels change nests frequently. What a joy it's been for me to find such a nest of books already collected and ready to be inhabited again, even if I'll only do so for a few more days.

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