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Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians

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Scott Weidensaul shows how geology, ecology, climate, evolution, and more than 500 years of human history have shaped one of the continent's greatest landscapes.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Scott Weidensaul

44 books102 followers
Born in 1959, Scott Weidensaul (pronounced "Why-densaul") has lived almost all of his life among the long ridges and endless valleys of eastern Pennsylvania, in the heart of the central Appalachians, a landscape that has defined much of his work.

His writing career began in 1978 with a weekly natural history column in the local newspaper, the Pottsville Republican in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. The column soon led a fulltime reporting job, which he held until 1988, when he left to become a freelance writer specializing in nature and wildlife. (He continued to write about nature for newspapers, however, including long-running columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Harrisburg Patriot-News.)

Weidensaul has written more than two dozen books, including his widely acclaimed Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds (North Point 1999), which was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.

Weidensaul's writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Audubon (for which he is a contributing editor), Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife, among many others. He lectures widely on conservation and nature, and directs the ornithological programs for National Audubon's famed Hog Island Center on the coast of Maine.

In addition to writing about wildlife, Weidensaul is an active field researcher whose work focuses on bird migration. Besides banding hawks each fall (something he's done for nearly 25 years), he directs a major effort to study the movements of northern saw-whet owls, one of the smallest and least-understood raptors in North America. He is also part of a continental effort to understand the rapid evolution, by several species of western hummingbirds, of a new migratory route and wintering range in the East.

- excerpted from his website

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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for Bret James Stewart.
Author 6 books4 followers
November 15, 2013
This book rocks. Weidensaul is a scientist writing about the Appalachian Range. He has written a number of other nature books and is a licensed bird bander. I expected this book to be dry as so many books written by scientists are. It seems they go out of their way to suck any vitality out of the text. Weidensaul, however, as the title implies, brings a love and vitality to the text that is phenomenal. He loves the mountains, and it shows. The book is written more like a story than a scientific text, so you can relate to it. Combining learning and fun--what a novel idea!

He and I, of course, bring different perspectives to the text. He is coming from an evolutionary perspective, and I from the bibilical/creation perspective. He lives in Pennsylvania, so he probably mispronounces the word as "Appa-lay-shun" rather than the correct way, "Appa-latch-un", but I can forgive him for this :). Other than these, there is no problem.

Weidensaul treats the Appalachians holistically, which is refreshing. He addresses natural history, animals, plants, geology, climatology, etc., tying them all together into one living entity--this is how an area, large or small, should be treated. He does deal with current issues such as global warming, but this is not the focus of the book. What I love most about it is that he is clearly having fun. Whether he is tagging raptors, carefully lifting logs seeking salamanders, or floating the rivers examining aquatic ecosystems, he is having a smashing good time, and that sort of passion transfers to the book. He makes you love what he loves.

The icing on the cake is the artwork. The cover art is fantastic, incorporating what I consider to be the two primary calling cards of the Appalachians: running water and autumnal colour. The interior art is nicely chosen. Some is technical, but most just beautiful. As with the text, Weidensaul has managed to bring an element of personality to the artwork, which makes it stand out of the crowd.

There you have it. If you are interested in a book with accurate and impressive scientific chops, or you're seeking a nature-based philosophical jaunt a la Thoreau (but more active), or travelogue highlighted with tons of anecdotal and factual tidbits, or some mixture of them all, this is a book for you. I urge anyone who is interested in any aspect of the Appalachian Mountains--and everyone should be--to read this book.
Profile Image for Tim Martin.
690 reviews45 followers
May 30, 2013
It always strikes me as interesting that nature programs on TV – and the rare theatrical release of one – always focus on distant lands and creatures (distant for North Americans and Europeans at least)…lions and wildebeest in the Serengeti, meerkats in the Kalahari, penguins in Antarctica, giant tortoises in the Galapagos, exotic orchids in the tropics, bizarre plants in Hawaii and Australia…all fascinating, all things I love, but what about fauna and flora close to home, at least for someone in the eastern United States? How many people who live in that part of the world really know what practically in their backyard (and depending upon where they live, might quite literally BE in their backyard?).

Scott Weidensaul has produced with "Mountains of the Heart" one of the best examples of popular natural history writing I have read in a while, a book I intend to read again. Thorough and authoritative, yet an easy read and a bit of a page turner, he addressed an immense subject with both passion and in depth knowledge. Discussing the geology, ecology, fauna, flora, and conservation of the entire Appalachian mountain chain from central Alabama to Belle Isle, Newfoundland, you will never find a better book on the subject (though that won’t stop me from looking, as I love this part of the world).

I also love books that tackle both fauna and flora. Though I started out in my younger days loving birds, insects, and reptiles, I over the years expanded to fungi and especially plants. It is very fitting indeed in covering one of the botanically diverse areas of the world Weidensaul spends a good deal of time on plants.

Wait you non botanist you. It is more interesting than you think. Do you know why leaves change color in fall or how they undergo this change from green to brilliant oranges, reds, and yellow? Why some trees turn one color while others turn completely different colors? Or did you wonder what effect this had on the animals of the forest (learn just exactly what foliar fruit flagging is).

Plants – especially trees, as the region is among the richest in the world in trees – are definite stars of the book. The author makes engaging the sad, sad tale of the American Chestnut and the on-going plight of the Fraser Fir (and what this all means for the rest of the forest), the role of oaks in modern forests (and why it is possible to have too much of a good thing), and sings the praises of the magnificent White Pine.

Did you know that many Appalachian tree species can survive winter temperatures as low as 80 degrees below zero, far colder than the mountains ever get today? Bet you didn’t know that! Anyway, on to the fauna.

Almost an entire chapter is devoted to the awesome annual hawk migrations down the length of the Appalachians, a spectacle beloved by bird watchers throughout the United States. The many unique and highly local species of the mountains salamander fauna, one of the richest in the world, are recounted in great detail. Another unique fauna, the mussel fauna, again one of the world's richest, is also discussed, a subject not much known to the lay naturalist (it wasn’t to this one). Weidensaul discusses some of the Appalachian fauna winners - such as black bears, successfully co-existing with people in crowded Pennsylvania and elsewhere, moose, which are rebounding in the northern Appalachians, and the raven, formerly a bird of deep wilderness but that one that is increasingly adapting to disturbed habitat - and its losers as well - such as brook trout, a species in decline in all but the most pristine streams, the red wolf, long gone from most of the range and yet to be successfully reintroduced to the mountains, and the passenger pigeon, once a the most common land bird in the world, thriving on the vast crop of acorns in the Appalachians, now extinct.

This is a really good book, one that I think anyone interested in natural history would enjoy
496 reviews2 followers
September 16, 2021
This is a keeper. I live in the foothills of the Appalachians in New York State and agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Weidensaul everything he says about the mountain range. It is clear he loves everything about the Appalachians, the trees, the flowers, the rocks themselves. This one goes on my bookshelf to dive into every once in a while to refresh me. One thing: the Appalachians do not end in Newfoundland. They pick up again in Scotland where they were ripped away from the North American continent. I guess Mr. Wiedensaul needed to end the book neatly, but a trip to Europe would have made a fascinating addendum.
Profile Image for Claudia.
1,182 reviews35 followers
September 11, 2021
One of the oldest mountain chains in the world and stretching from Nova Scotia to Alabama, the Appalachians provide a natural diversity that would please any naturalist, ecologist and geologist. Starting with a basic geological history of the land - note that the Adirondacks are not part of the Appalachians but a remnant of the Canadian Shield further north and west - along with the ebb and flow of glaciation epochs that left distinctive formations that various plants and animals at every elevation. Mountain top islands in the south can share similar species from up north due to the difference in elevations. Those same delicate but hardy alpine tundras - able to endure wind, cold, low moisture - can be destroyed with a careless footstep upon the low-lying plants. Isolated population with their narrow tolerances - be it light, wind, elevation, temperatures and/or humidity - can be just as easily driven into extinction by a carelessly placed road, dam, or housing development. Bogs and swamps formed where leftover glacial ice embedded itself into the soil or when sediment-laden ice slowly melted with the rocks and silt creating a dammed area with little drainage available.

Weidensaul takes his readers deeper into the forestland - utilizing words like a paintbrush when describing the life that entrances his attention and careful examination. The birds, the salamanders, the insects, the flowers, trees and every other piece that nature has provided. Of course, he also discusses the damage that pioneers and early expansionists inflicted on the forest - the massive and straight trees that were hundreds of years old and used for sailing ship masts, the removal of predators which created exploding prey populations that would starve during harsh winters. The mast or tree seedlings - pinecones or acorns or others - that nourish bears and deer and other inhabitants of the woods. True winter hibernation verses winter "dozers" (bears are not true hibernators like frogs as they can come awake quite suddenly when disturbed).

As you can tell, there is a lot of information available between the pages and the tone is very much a man that adores being able to drive a short distance and lose himself in the beauty of nature. He even tells of how nature is attempting to work around the devastating chestnut blight (old root stock still send up sprouts hoping that a cure will either be found or some trees will develop a form of hypervirulence that enables the tree to overcome the virus) or that the defoliation done by hungry gypsy moth caterpillars - although looking really bad - unless the oak is already under stress, it will likely slowly recover since the moths are on a 9-11 year cycle.

When you look overall at the book, it's a love story dedicated to a mountain range and its inhabitants.

Profile Image for Liz.
402 reviews9 followers
January 12, 2023
I've lived proximal to the Appalachians my entire life but never really learned anything about the geography of my state or region. But on a clear day, in certain sections of my hometown, I can see clear to the Kittatinny Ridge, a long ridgeline of continuous Appalachian mountain terrain that bisects Pennsylvania. Several times a month, I drive through a tunnel blasted right through it and emerge into a mountain valley on the other side of the ridge. I nestle into a little house in the Poconos, surrounded by tall trees and wildlife (we see more deer than humans) and try to identify the birds by song since the canopy is so thick we can rarely see them. I hike along creeks and up gentle slopes and arrive at boulder fields and try to identify what animal made this track or what animal left this scat or what animal lives in this den, and what is this stuff hanging from the trees or clinging to this trunk?

All of this has made me deeply curious about my local ecology, geology, geography, Earth-time history, and pre-colonial indigenous history. Mountains of the Heart is about the entire Appalachian range but my beloved Pocono Mountains feature heavily as the author, Scott Weidensaul, is a Pennsylvanian. The mountain of his heart is the Kittatinny, so readers walk alongside him as a explores and uncovers what is here, and what used to be, and how it got that way, both in the recent anthropecene era, but in the deep time that it takes for these old mountains to ride up and eventually erode themselves into the rounded mountaintops of our eastern mountain range.
January 12, 2023
This book was such a nice way to get to know the Appalachian mountains and all the ecology that makes it special. The author acts like our guide taking us along the long journey from before the tectonic plates shifted to the current, (upto time of publication) more recent ecological changes that have taken place. Very much a call to action in educating the readers in the beauty and wonder of these mountains but also the environmental science that is at play, either from nature itself or the effects humans have had on these mountain ranges.
17 reviews
January 29, 2018
An excellent well researched and well written book. Covers many topics in detail that are seldom discussed outside scientific literature. For example, there is an interesting section on the black bear and it's re-emergence as an almost urban animal that has adapted itself to living near and even amongst humans. The author shares many personal first-hand experiences. Anyone with an interest in or love for the Appalachian Mountains will learn from and enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Melissa.
108 reviews
September 4, 2022
Since I live in the Appalachian Mountains much of this information was already known, it is still interesting however I just feel that some of the information is dated and could do with some updates otherwise for now some of the book is dated. But the author did a good job for when the book was written and did not focus on one geographical area.

If you knew nothing about the area being presented without a doubt I think you would enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Dan Carey.
668 reviews11 followers
August 10, 2019
This book is all over the map, both literally and figuratively. The Appalachian mountains are an extensive chain, and Weidensaul wants to cover all of it, including those parts that are only technically (i.e., geologically) included in it. Consequently, the book strikes me as unfocused, and therefore only moderately satisfying.
October 13, 2021
Beautiful prose and description of the Appalachians. It was a bit hard to follow any logical narrative of his descriptions which made it hard to devour; however the imagery was second to none and made me stop and admire more of the mountains around me
10 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2012
This is such a gorgeous book. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant, Weidensaul blends detailed, accurate science with true passion and understanding. I use this book in a class I teach and it holds the students enthralled, just as I myself am drawn in by his imagery, language, and sheer humanity every time I re-read it. There is one line in this book that I return to again and again. Weidensaul has just concluded a succinct, articulate discussion on the hemlock wooly adelgid, which is both a fascinating and a horrifying problem in eastern forests. The science he presents is thorough, riveting, and beautifully written. He concludes, though, with a truly heart-wrenching line, a line with which those of us who love the woods as much as study them can empathize all too well. He says, "I sat for a long time beside the old hemlock, listening to the wind crying in its needles, and tried not to think of my visit as a deathwatch." Read this book. You will absolutely be grateful that you did.
Profile Image for Linda.
9 reviews
May 7, 2013
Loved this so much. This author speaks my language when it comes loving and learning about the natural history of the Appalachians.
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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