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Wednesday
Jun242009

Introduction to California chaparral: book review

by Ronald D. Quinn and Sterling C. Keeley
University of California Press
September, 2006, 323 pp.

The ecosystem that made Hollywood famous...
My first job in conservation involved me crawling on hands and knees through thickets of intertwined shrubs in the chaparral landscape north of San Francisco trying to identify strange and beautiful plants I had never seen before. So it seems appropriate that the first book that I review for my new website is a natural history of this iconic semi-arid, shrub-dominated landscape that blankets 7 million acres of California. I stumbled across Introduction to California Chaparral in a used book store a few years later. At that time, I was working mostly in an office, and my summer doing grunt work in the field seemed like a distant, fond memory. Author's Ronald Quinn and Sterling Keeley managed to write a book that brings me stark back into this fascinating ecological community.

Quinn and Keeley describe chaparral as:

"a community of co-adapted plants and animals found in the foothills and mountains of California… comprised of a diverse assemblage of different species of evergreen drought - and fire-hardy shrubs…from the car window…a soft, bluish green blanket gently covering the hills…up close…a nearly impenetrable thicket of shrubs"

Ronald Quinn is Professor of Biological Sciences at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and Sterling Keeley is Professor of Botany at the University of Hawaii. Their book gives a fairly straightforward account of the natural history of chaparral of California along with 80 color plates and 57 figures drawn by Marianne D. Wallace.

Following the introduction, they devote two chapters to the two major physical factors that shape the chaparral ecosystem - the Mediterranean climate and fire. The next two chapters - which make up the bulk of the book - describe the plant and animal species found in chaparral. The chapter on plants provides an extensive section on each family and key species that comprise the shrubs, sub-shrubs, and herbaceous plants. The chapter on animals gives greatest attention to rodents, birds, reptiles, and insects. Both chapters focus on those species whose range is more narrowly restricted to chaparral. The species descriptions are particularly engaging and are peppered with interesting stories - the wood rats that build condos among the chapparal; the tarantula wasp that hunts spiders 100s times its size -  such that I think this book will fascinate many who only know chaparral from seeing the hills behind the Hollywood sign on their tv.

The book concludes with a chapter titled "Living with the Chaparral" that discusses the major issues that have arisen at the human-wildland interface. The chapter gives the greatest emphasis to chaparral and fire which is a major issue in California where people have dramitcally altered the natural fire regime and chaparral fires regularly inflict catastrophe on ever expanding suburban and exurban areas.

For me, a key consideration in evaluating Introduction to California Chaparral is whether it can walk the fine line of appealing to the casual reader while serving as a good reference and learning tool for those with a stronger background in ecology. The book does a great job engaging the more casual reader - the policy makers or those living near chaparral - to help them better understand the importance of this threatened ecosystem. I also think the book covers enough of the major topics in great enough detail to serve as a valuable learning resource for those with a background in ecology and conservation. I think a weakness of Introduction to California Chaparral is that it provides little detail of the research that has provided us with the knowledge that we have today or the gaps in the knowledge that researchers should be focusing on in the future. That type of scientific detail can serve as a springboard for more engaged readers to explore the topic further. Otherwise, I think the book is a very good learning resource and enjoyable to read.


--Reviewed by Rob Goldstein

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