A Brief Review of
The Sibley Guide to Trees.
David Allen Sibley.
Flexibound: Knopf, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
One of the most valuable type of books in basic nature education is the tree identification guide. Of course, given the relative immutability of the knowledge contained therein, there is not exactly a massive wave of tree identification guides that hit the shelves of bookstores each year, and most guides are rather uniform – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But when I heard that noted painter David Allen Sibley – who has gained a solid reputation for the bird identification guides he has compiled – was releasing a new guide to trees, my interest was piqued. In many ways, this guide is similar to most other tree guides in the information it provides. However, Sibley’s exquisite artwork with its careful attention to detail, as is particularly evident on the illustrations of the flowering trees, distinguishes this guide from others. In the book’s intro, Sibley gives us some advice on the practice of identifying trees; reflecting his careful attention to detail, he says:
One of the keys to identifying trees at a distance is knowing how to sort the important bits of information from the unimportant ones. … Getting out into the field and looking at lots of trees is the only way to develop this knowledge, as you will gradually, and subconsciously, begin to understand which elements really distinguish each tree. Looking at the same trees daily throughout the year and noting changes will also provide valuable experience. Taking notes or making sketches of what you see is an excellent learning tool – it forces you to focus on all the aspects of the tree and the act of recording your observations will reinforce what you have observed (ix).
It should be noted that The Sibley Guide to Trees is a magisterial work, not simply focusing on the trees of a specific region as many guides do, it instead features every native species of tree found in North America (north of Mexico) – with the exception of “trees only found in southern Florida, which is home to over one hundred native species found nowhere else on the continent” (ix). My only complaint, and it is a relatively small one is that the illustrations of each tree’s bark tend to be rather small, thus making it difficult at times to good sense of the distinctive texture and other characteristics of the bark.
If you do not have a tree guide in your home or classroom, I encourage you to go out immediately and get yourself a copy of this excellent work. Even if you already have a tree guide, you very well might want to consider upgrading to this one. And of course, The Sibley Guide to Trees would be an ideal Christmas gift for the budding naturalist in your family.