The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild  By Craig Childs

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

The Animal Dialogues is a book that nature-lovers and people who love writing deserve to know. It’s not recent, it’s not trendy, and it’s definitely not sexy, but I envy you who have not read it because you have a great treat in store. Although it’s a book that mesmerizes on first reading, when you pick it up a year later, and then again years after that, it’s just as good as it was the first time, maybe even better. Craig Childs is Thornton Burgess for adults (Thornton Burgess, in case you missed him as a child, wrote two classic books about animals: Wild Animals I Have Known and Wild Animals I Have Known at Home).

This book, divided into thirty-seven short chapters, takes place almost entirely in wilderness areas of the Western United States. The author meets his subjects in all weathers and all seasons. Usually, he is alone. Childs is a nature writer; his business is to be out there seeing what he can see. But you get the impression that even if nobody wanted to read what he wrote, he would be there anyway. He says so himself. In this passage, he has been wandering all day in the Arizona desert where the heat is well above 100 degrees:

It would be better if I were  here for a reason. If I were here to find red-spotted  toads, to map water holes, to seek heat-induced, maddening, hair-pulling,  salt-encrusted visions, or  to find some  Holy Grail of Anasazi petroglyphs. But I was not. I was here to be here.

100 degrees or twenty below, envy besets me when I read this book: experience-envy, which takes the form of my wishing I had been out there in those wild places, too, having the great experiences the author had, and writer’s envy, wishing I could write as well as he does. Still, I consider myself lucky to be able to snuggle down in my sofa and read about encountering a herd of elk, suddenly, at night, in deep snow. Childs says of his purpose in writing: “I want the reader and me to become each other, for you to inhabit every shade of the experience.” And that is what happens. You are there in the snow in the midst of the elk, on the mountainside running for your life from a bighorn sheep, shoulder deep in a salt water pond on the Mexican coast, holding a squid in your palms, transparent, kaleidoscopic, scintillating.

The moment by moment vividness and clarity of the experiences Childs records are matchless. And the most interesting and memorable experiences do not necessarily involve jaguars or grizzlies. This author can make the red-spotted toad into a superhero – of survival. Often he achieves this kind of effect with science.

Though he has little formal training in the fields he writes about, Childs has researched his material, in his words, “one curiosity at a time.” Because he has studied geology, he figures out that the toad he meets in the only patch of shade in twenty miles of desert must be a remnant of the last Ice Age. He learns from an expert that the toad absorbs water through the skin of his abdomen, which is so sensitive it can take in even the slightest trace of moisture. Hence, its presence in this virtually waterless place. (The wood fern that Childs discovers in the same cranny even he cannot explain). He folds the science into his narrative skillfully, so that we’re not even aware of it. When specialized knowledge arrives as the answer to a burning question, we drink it up.

The genius of the book lies in the quality of the author’s attention: his senses are sharp, his intelligence acute, and he knows how he feels about what is happening at every moment. Much more is involved than minute observation of facts:  it’s the questions he asks of what he sees, the way he brings what he knows to bear, how he stays right there in the moment, his intimacy with his own experience. (Because I’ve been meditating for a long time and have heard my share of dharma talks, I’m sure he’s a Buddhist.)

But it’s the writing that takes all this and puts it into the stratosphere. Here are the openings of three consecutive chapters. Northern Spotted Owl: “We moved fast.” Broad-tailed Hummingbird: “Quiet dreams are sunk into the pillows.” Raven: “When the first raven came it was alone . . . .”  All the sentences have the feel of the beginning of a story.  You want to know what happens next. And each chapter is a story, not the kind that you could put into a comic book, or make a blockbuster novel or movie out of, but the story of an experience. Childs writes: “I try to touch the animal with one hand and the reader with the other.” He succeeds.~