Across the Species Divide
Books | Review of: The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild
By ERIC ORMSBY
January 2, 2008
Conversations with wild animals are always one-sided. If we speak to them, we hear how empty our words sound in the silence between us. If we manage to make eye contact with some startled deer in a forest clearing or with a caged lion in the local zoo, we search their faces for visual clues, but we can't quite decipher the look they give us back. We depend almost exclusively on our eyes, but animals apprehend us with all their senses. They know us by our smells and sounds as well as by sight; the lion may even anticipate the way we taste. For all our wordiness, we are mute in this wordless realm. Our ears are no longer disciplined, our noses have grown dull. Perhaps the strangest aspect of such privileged encounters is the image of ourselves the eyes of wild animals give back. For an instant, we realize that it is we who are the true strangers on this earth.
In his beautiful new book, "The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild" (Little, Brown and Company, 326 pages, $24.99), the well-known naturalist and NPR contributor Craig Childs tells of his strenuous attempts to bridge this gulf in communication with the wildest -- and often the oddest -- of creatures. Here he breaks the ice not only with pumas and porcupines but with mosquitoes, wasps, and praying mantises. Of Mr. Childs, it might be said, inverting the old adage, that "nothing inhuman is alien to him." His efforts, occasionally as comical as they are foolhardy, tend to misfire. He may say, "I recognize myself in ravens," but those shrewd "theatrical birds," as he aptly calls them, don't return the favor. Still, relying on remarkable powers of observation as well as a profound knowledge of wilderness, he comes uncannily close to those secret lives.
Mr. Childs is a born storyteller. You may not be especially interested in the domestic arrangements of bighorn sheep or the spawning habits of smelt, but after a few sentences, you find yourself drawn irresistibly in. In part, this is due to his unusual eloquence. Mr. Childs has a distinct gift for the clinching description. When he writes of the "subtle steel blue" of a heron's plumage, you catch the gloss of its feathers. In his spookiest chapter, about a conclave of vengeful ravens in a hidden canyon, he describes the way one flying raven tucks its talons against its body "as if each grasped a marble," and the image is both vivid and exact. Occasionally he gets carried away -- when he says that the same raven's beak seemed to be "pointing at me like a librarian's finger," you can't help wondering what libraries he's been frequenting -- but these little lapses are rare.
Each of his chapters is devoted to a single animal -- from bears and mountain lions to rattlesnakes and squid -- and in each, the same distinctive voice carries the tale. To read Mr. Childs is to recover the magical sensation of sitting around a companionable campfire on a windswept shelf of the northwest coast while some grizzled wilderness explorer spins his yarns. And yet, these yarns aren't just alive with remembered adventure; they're dense with scientific fact, often drawn from the latest research. We learn about "epidermal sculpturing," the ingenious way in which the red-spotted toad drinks through its skin in a parched environment. The mosquito is hardly Mr. Childs's favorite insect, and yet he can marvel at the "fifteen thousand sensory neurons" which populate its antennae. Whether he is discussing the evolutionary adaptations of a cat's jawbone, designed for maximum crushing power, or the fatal "conversations" that take place between a stalking predator and its terrified prey, he is exceptionally skillful at weaving solid fact into his most improbable anecdotes.
Mr. Childs belongs to a venerable tradition of nature writing extending back to William Bartram, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. He shares their keenness of eye and sharpness of ear, along with their obsessive desire to come as close as humanly possible to the elusive lives of wild things; like them, he believes that "the forest is, without a doubt, eternity." But he brings other, more personable qualities as well. Some of his exploits are quite goofy. Who else with a dread of rattlesnakes would trek barefoot through a snake-infested desert in pitch darkness, or rescue a trapped and snarling raccoon with his ungloved hands from a waterhole, and not only survive but speak with perfect frankness of both his clumsiness and his fear?
Mr. Childs also mounts a refreshing and spirited defense of anthropomorphism, a much-discredited viewpoint nowadays. As he says:
We are asked to temper our language when speaking of animal traits, lest we call them by a name that is not theirs, forming words in our mouths that do not sound like a snake's whisper, a grasshopper's clicking. It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm. Bees form a mind of a hive, don't they? Doesn't the bear dream when it sleeps, and don't grasses stretch with all their might toward the sun?
In one chapter, Mr. Childs describes a sea lion peering from the offshore waves at his campfire with something like yearning. In the end, his dialogues may be merely monologues, but we sense that somewhere, beyond the circle of the fire, his wildest animals lie listening, and their eyes too are radiant with anecdote.