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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 04:51 am

Home for the holidays

Illinois Wildflowers Cloudland.net Publishing, 2004, 256 pages, $22.95.

Most of us have at least one book lover on our holiday shopping lists. This year, get creative and think beyond bestsellers. The following titles were chosen because of their local ties -- the ties that bind us to home, the place everyone wants to be for the holidays.

Native Trees for North American Landscapes: From the Atlantic to the Rockies
By Guy Sternberg and James W. Wilson
I first heard of Guy Sternberg years ago, when a friend who works with his wife kept talking about his property near Petersburg where he had planted hundreds of trees. His labors blossomed over the years into the Starhill Arboretum. They continue to find fruition in a beautiful book published this year. As Illinois Times contributor Ginny Lee wrote in a review of the book on Arbor Day, Native Trees for North American Landscapes is "a definitive text on American trees. From palmettos to pawpaws, Fagus grandiflora (American beech) to Quercus virginiana (live oak), these guys have the subject covered." Don't let the word "text" frighten you off. This book, though scholarly, will grace any coffee table. Sternberg is a landscape architect, arborist, tree consultant, writer, lecturer, and photographer. He was assisted by Jim Wilson, a veteran horticulturist and formerly a cohost of the Victory Garden television series.

Illinois Wildflowers
By Don Kurz
Artist Georgia O'Keefe said, "Nobody sees a flower really, it is so small, we haven't time -- and to see takes time." Don Kurz, apparently, had the time. He shares O'Keefe's artistic eye, but whereasher medium was paint, his is film. I was hooked by the cover's showy purple coneflower, just the first of more than 400 stunning photographs of flowers native to the Prairie State. Not only does Kurz see his flowers, he captures them for us in ways that make us see them anew. His passionflower reminded me of a Native American Indian clad in his best ceremonial costume. His common forget-me not? Uncommon -- and unforgettable. Most of us, in describing a flower we've seen will begin with a description of its color and when we saw it, so I appreciated the way in which the book is organized by color and season. All of the scientific information is here as well. Kurz holds masters' degrees in botany and zoology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and has been working in the wild for more than 30 years.

Birds of Illinois
By Sheryl DeVore, Steven D. Bailey, and Gregory Kennedy
I have a birdbath in my backyard. It took a while, but I can finally tell a grackle from a crow, a pigeon from a dove. Thanks to Birds of Illinois, I now know that a pigeon is a kind of dove. Given time, I will be able to identify a few others winged creatures among the 319 species found, if not in my backyard, then in my neck of the woods. The advantage of this new guidebook over, say, a "birds of North America" field guide is that the creatures featured here are ones you might actually catch a glimpse of. Birds of Illinois is a little larger than your average Audubon guide, which is helpful for those of us with aging eyes; the format also makes it possible to showcase the beautiful paintings that illustrate the text. The soft cover is actually made to be water-resistant, always a good thing when you're taking to the trails.

Decatur: Images of America
By Dan Guillory
One hundred years ago, you could get more than a drink of water on Decatur's Water Street. As Dan Guillory notes in Decatur, a photographic history of Springfield's neighbor to the east, the thoroughfare afforded rye whiskey for the thirsty, new soles for those who were down at the heels, and a little extra cash by way of the pawnbroker. This look at a central Illinois town is part of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Press. Guillory, who recently retired after many years as a professor of English at Millikin University, has taken great care in telling Decatur's story, selecting some 200 archival photographs from many sources. The result is a unique collection that offers an informative snapshot of an archetypal Midwestern city. For those with ties to other Illinois towns, a quick glance at the Springfield Barnes & Noble reveals Arcadia titles for Springfield, Chillicothe, Jacksonville, Vandalia, and Quincy.

prayer against famine and other irish poems
By John Knoepfle
For quite a while now, the pages of Illinois Times have been graced with the words of poet John Knoepfle. Readers who long for more will be requited in his new book, prayer against famine, of which reviewer Theodore Haddin wrote: "No one who reads the remarkable new poems by John Knoepfle can fail to be touched by their penetrating strength. If poems from the sangamon (1985) brought history up out of the Midwest, this one goes back to Knoepfle's place of Irish ancestry, taking everything American and Irish with him, and us, too. There are accounts of the lost histories of Knoepfle's mother and great-grandmother, a tribute to Yeats, some longer meditational poems, reports from the Dublin streets, trips to nearby ruins and islands. But more than these, Knoepfle's ancestral journey of loss and discovery has turned to the world's hunger and suffering as well, a great contribution for which we are extremely thankful."

Wild and Scenic Illinois
Photography by Willard Clay, text by Robert Hutchinson
When the makers of this book began their work, they first asked the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to suggest the most "wild and scenic areas" in the state. DNR's answer amounted to "all over." The results are spectacular. Clay, one of the nation's leading landscape photographers, focuses his lens lovingly on Illinois, from the Lake Michigan shore to the Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois. Camera buffs will gain insight from Clay's tips for tackling the technical challenges of landscape photography. Across regions, seasons, and varied subject matter, Clay astonishes us with the breadth and variety of our native habitat. Robert Hutchinson was formerly a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His text reminds us that in Illinois, we have inherited places as scenic and wild as those anywhere in this country.

More Stories from the Round Barn
By Jacqueline Dougan Jackson
I include this book, the only one here without a 2004 copyright, because nothing will get you in the holiday mood like reading her story "Big House Christmas." Oh, sure, you can go see Tom Hanks' computer-animated version of The Polar Express, but if you want real holiday emotion, this is the place to start. Anyone old enough to remember being given a handkerchief for Christmas may find himself or herself in need of one in these beautiful vignettes. Jackson's memoir, a sequel to the popular Stories from the Round Barn, is about growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the first part of the last century. The stories are nostalgia without the syrup. There was nothing warm and fuzzy about the flu epidemic of 1918. But in a nation obsessed with "family values," one need look no further than to a real family whose members worked and played together and spawned a writer to tell their stories with skill and panache.

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