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Carstensen, Armstrong create a better ‘Nature’

Richard Carstensen (l) and Bob Armstrong in front of Sitka's Old Harbor Books. The new edition encompasses "twenty-two years of learning," says Carstensen. (Marjorie Hennessy photo)

Richard Carstensen (l) and Bob Armstrong in front of Sitka’s Old Harbor Books. The new edition encompasses “twenty-two years of learning,” says Carstensen. (Marjorie Hennessy photo)

Critics have called it the best book about the natural history of Southeast Alaska in print.

Naturalists Richard Carstensen and Bob Armstrong have completely revised their classic text The Nature of Southeast Alaska, which they first published in 1992.

The authors were in Sitka to speak at a UAS Natural History Seminar last night (3-13-14). Carstensen stopped by our studios and spoke with KCAW’s Robert Woolsey.

The old Nature of Southeast is kind of embarrassing for me to read in places now, especially the section on forests. I was totally bought into the language of volume: You describe an important forest in terms of volume, which now we can look back and say that was a tangent from what we should have been looking at — forest structure. Volume is just a measure of how much wood there is in a forest. It’s important to people logging and building houses, but not very much to fish and wildlife values.

Nature_of_Southeast_AlaskaCarstensen says that 22 years of fieldwork has informed the writing of the revised edition of the book. There are over 50 new sidebars, and the number of his illustrations has more than doubled.

The core text — as co-authored by Carstensen, Armstrong, and Rita O’Clair — remains mostly intact. Carstensen concentrated on habitat and mammals; Armstrong covered fish and birds.
O’Clair took on invertebrates, lichens, fungi, and vascular plants in the first edition. But she only consulted on this edition.

As a result, Carstensen and Armstrong had to close ranks on O’Clair’s specialty areas. Carstensen says this is exactly what naturalists do — focus on a place, rather than a discipline.

Carstensen – A naturalist is broad-but-shallow, and a scientist is typically narrow and deep. Some scientists are — frankly — oblivious to areas outside their discipline. But typically as a scientist matures and gets into the late phases of their career, they can also be pretty good naturalists, too.
KCAW – Do you get along with scientists?
Carstensen – Yes. I’d be helpless without scientists. All the great information in Southeast Alaska — you can usually track it to a scientist. As naturalists, we’re just trying to keep things from falling through the cracks between scientific disciplines.

Carstensen remains on the staff of Discovery Southeast, a Juneau-based natural history educational organization. He says Discovery Southeast is planning its 25th anniversary celebration this April.

The revised, third edition of The Nature of Southeast Alaska is available in area bookstores.

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