Page  69



Joshua G. Cohen, Michael A. Kost, Bradford S. Slaughter, and Dennis A. Al- bert. 2015. A Field Guide to the Natural Communities of Michigan. Michigan State University Press. xlii + 362 pp., paperback. ISBN: 978-1-61186-134-1. $34.95 (also available as an ebook: PDF).

It appears that serious efforts to characterize the natural plant communities of Michigan began with K. A. Chapman, 1986, “Michigan Natural Community Types.” This was apparently a “publication” of the Michigan Natural Features In- ventory. It transpires that at least some of the earlier foundational works have been removed from various websites—therefore, I have no idea what Chapman had to say. A search for a print copy of the Chapman paper was equally in vain. This makes it difficult to get a grasp of the evolution of the current understand- ing of Michigan’s natural plant communities.

Yet another antecedent to the current volume has the same authors (but in dif- ferent order) and the same title; it was “published” in 2010, with 189 pages, ac- cording to the “References” segment of the present book. Again, it appears to have vanished into the ether: it is not to be found at the website of the Michigan Natural Resources Inventory (the alleged “publisher”), nor have I succeeded in finding a print copy of it. It’s an oddity of the digital age that authors can cite ref- erences that, in a manner of speaking, no longer exist.

In any case, the work over so many years now culminates in the present book, which recognizes 77 natural plant communities in Michigan. The book stems from “Natural Communities of Michigan: Classification and Description,” by Kost et al., 30 September 2007, Report Number 2007-21, Version 1.2, last up- dated: 9 July 2010, available at Natural_Communites_of_Michigan_Classification_and_Description.pdf. Its 317 pages contain detailed listings of all the plants and animals, and far more technical detail, than the present field guide. It is unillustrated.

The full-color cover illustration is of a volcanic escarpment in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. It is a beautiful picture, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is adorned with many hundreds of color photographs, all beautifully reproduced. The pictures seem to convey the essence of the vari- ous plant communities; each is faithfully captioned; and the hand of man is nowhere detectable. The photographers are credited on page ix; they have con- trived to picture Michigan as if it were a pristine wilderness. Oddly, the title-page photograph, both recto and verso, is uncaptioned; it is apparently a sedge meadow of some sort, but it does not recur within the book.

The book begins with a [Table of] Contents, representing pages vi and vii. I make this point because the reader will want to refer to it regularly, given that there is no index at the back. The contents page is color coded, consonant with the tabs on recto pages throughout the book.

The 77 communities are grouped into five classes: Palustrine (aquamarine),


Terrestrial (green), Palustrine/Terrestrial (brown), Primary (blue), and Subter- ranean/Sink (black). I infer that the Primary class is short for “primary succes- sion,” in that it includes communities that occupy sites where little or no soil de- velopment has occurred—sand dunes, cobbles, and the like.

There is a dichotomous key to all the recognized community types. I think this is intended as an organizational device, rather than as a literal key as would appear in a flora or a monograph. It functions to tell the reader how the authors have made some fine distinctions, but it is hard to imagine even the most avid community ecologist using it: there he stands in the hot sun with biting insects buzzing about his face, trying to decide whether the wetland is minerotrophic or ombrotrophic (terms defined in the glossary, pp. 343–358).

For 74 of the 77 recognized communities, the authors provide a segment called “Places to Visit.” The three omitted communities are extinct in Michigan, or nearly so: bur oak plains, mesic prairie, and oak openings. The places are very largely sites open to the public, such as national forests, DNR lands, and the like. They are listed by county, alphabetically. There is no county outline map of the state provided, but such maps are abundantly available elsewhere.

For each recognized community, the authors provide a landscape ecoregion map as a kind of guide to where such a community might be found. The num- bering system on the maps is not explained, but it’s probably not important.

The 77 recognized plant communities of Michigan are subject to revision, as the authors make clear (pp. xxi and xxii in the Introduction). In addition, there are problems of terminology. If one compares the labels for prairies alone, be- tween this book and Hoffman, 2002, Wisconsin’s Natural Communities, the dif- ferences in language are obvious:

Cohen et al.: Hillside, Dry Sand, Dry-Mesic, Mesic, and Mesic Sand

Hoffman: Dry, Dry-Mesic, Mesic, Wet Mesic, and Wet

Even where the terms happen to be congruent, the explicit intent of the authors may not be. The complexity of plant communities is what attracts many to this field of study. Equally, one suspects, it is simply too daunting for others.

The authors have made a major contribution to conservation, preservation, and appreciation. They and Michigan DNR are to be congratulated. Nature lovers of all stripes will want to add this book to their shelves.

——Neil A. Harriman Biology Department University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Oshkosh, Wisconsin 54901