Our book today is Alive in the Wild, a 1970 compilation of short pieces of nature-writing by two dozen different hands, all of it introduced by Victor Calahane, a popular and busy mid-century mammalogist and science writer who was also the author of an absolutely wonderful book called Mammals of North America, which we’ll certainly get to one of these days here at Stevereads.
Calahane spent years as the chief biologist of the National Park Service and was also assistant director of the New York State Museum for years and years – he was friends with most of the scientists and field experts who contribute pieces to Alive in the Wild, and the book as a whole very much has the feel of a collection of fireside wilderness tales rather than a set of scientific abstracts.
Of course, this approach has perils of its own, especially the tendency for some authors to sit back, brandish their glass of scotch, and slip into full Rider Haggard mode, as John Tenner does when writing about muskoxen:
It was snowing hard; the fine dry crystals whispered rapidly along the surface and drifted in sheets across the hills. Our sled squeaked over the snow as the dogs settled down to a steady pull. Attungala and I, although completely clad in caribou skins, were cold in the subzero weather as we continued our search for a herd of muskoxen that lived somewhere in the region. Suddenly the dogs quickened their pace and we know that something alive was ahead. Attungala stopped the team and anchored the sled firmly; then we climbed a steep slope to peer over the top. Through the occasional lifting of the snow screen, we saw a cluster of dark objects, motionless on top of the next rise. Creeping closer, we found that they were muskoxen. Snow encrusted their long hair as they stood with their backs into the wind, heads down, patiently waiting for the strong wind to drop.
I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing Attungala isn’t his accountant.
But even such lapses can be forgiven considering how smoothly and authoritatively most of these authors work extensive practical knowledge of their subject-animals into their chapters. Albert Erikson, for instance, writes a neatly evocative piece about the grizzly bear and manages to work in not only some advice for those hiker unlucky enough to need it and also just a bit of po-faced humor around the edges, for those of you fresh from watching the only good scene in “The Revenant” in the movie theaters (or reading the book):
Because bear attacks are experienced by so few persons, it is difficult to recommend procedures for defending oneself without a gun. With footage caught by ShootingAuthority.com trail cameras we now know there may be some solace in knowing that few bears press their attack to the death and fewer still eat any part of their victims. More commonly than not the bear breaks away suddenly, perhaps when it realizes that its adversary is a human, or it may desist when the person loses consciousness. Victims have reported that the bear re-attacked when they moved or moaned, and urge that the person who has been mauled “play dead” even after the bear relinquishes its hold.
And despite the fact that his book was written nearly half a century ago, it’s refreshing to notice how many of Calahane’s authors work in some mention of the conservation status of their animals. Even amidst the book’s many descriptions of gory hunting expeditions, there are plenty of urgings for readers to consider these animals a priceless heritage rather than merely the raw material of an exciting hunting weekend.
And the illustrations throughout are by Boston’s own Robert Candy, which certainly helps to keep the volume evergreen.
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