In his introduction to The Animal Dialogues, author and naturalist Craig Childs invites his audience to read the book out of sequence. He hopes, in fact, “that you. . .might come upon this book by accident. . . left open to a passage on mountain lions, or flipping through its pages until you are caught in the stares of fifteen sorcerous ravens.”
Each of the essays in Animal Dialogues focuses on an encounter between author and wildlife: from grizzly bear to mouse, bald eagle to hummingbird, blue-finned shark to smelt. They are snapshots of time in which the author captures his impressions of the natural world and ponders the existence of the animals he happens upon for as long as each creature will allow. Each essay is infused not only with the author’s personal reactions, but also interesting details about the species and the natural world in general—an essay on mountain goats, for example, takes a side trip into the world of olfaction, perhaps the least appreciated of our senses.
Every encounter in the collection is a grab-bag of emotion and the reader never knows whether the result will be comical, as when the author suspects his cat of having made a side deal with the mice to let them run wild; tense, as his standoff with a mountain lion, a scene with enough dramatic tension to rival Argo; or poignant, as when he and a group of beach campers contemplate the death of a shark. The book is full of surprises, too: malaria aside, who knew that the essay on mosquitos would be the most horrifying of the lot?
For all Childs’ wonder and respect for nature, some of the most memorable portraits he sketches are of other humans. In “Camel,” one of my favorite essays, he describes an archaeological dig of a Pleistocene-era cave, where he meets a wonderful array of humans, from twelve-year-old Kate, who works so seriously and intensely that she is put in charge of one of the dig rooms, a job she embraces without flinching (“I will need three people at least”), to Dennis, a 17-year-old genius who makes our hardened author feel like a fool in the wilderness. One of the most touching essays in the collection is “Rainbow Trout,” which is as much about the author’s admiration for his father the fisherman as it is a celebration of the fish: “He is a person whom people meet along the stream, and they will talk about this stranger and his fishing for years afterwards.”
In a sense, I suppose I let Mr. Childs down by reading chronologically, but my experience as an English lit major years ago has left me with a compulsion to read books cover to cover, at least the first time—anything else feels like cheating. But the beauty of this collection is that one reading won’t be enough. Now that I’ve had my taste of all the critters within, the book will sit on my shelf, waiting for me to get that urge to revisit the mountain lion or the raven or yes, even the dreaded mosquito. While I recognize that not everyone will want to read this book front to back as I did, I believe that there is a little something in it for everyone—who among us couldn’t use a little rattlesnake in our day to keep us humble?