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Nature in the Eye of the Beholder

by David Quammen

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-83728-5
Publisher: Scribner

The only downside to this collection of Quammen's (Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, 1997, etc.) natural history essays—and it is a painful one—is the reminder that he no longer writes them on a monthly basis.

Here is Quammen doing what he does like no other, knocking about in nature, one eye skinned for the curious organisms through which he explores big questions, the other on the lookout for a suitable opportunity to stick his finger in the eye of our speciesspecific complacency and selfdelusion. Like the cats (Felis sylvestris) he so admires, Quammen walks alone. He is an odd fellow, not selfconsciously so, but rather for the fresh and unexpected take he brings to such puzzles as ``what drives the evolution of bizarre forms of penis'' and ``does the female sea horse take foolish pride in the size of her thing''? Or why Tyrannosaurus rex ought to be the state bird of Montana. Or why two oneeyed poets are masters of the exigent art of seeing. Or what motivates the plague of defenestrated cats. Through such probings, improbable as it may seem, Quammen raises other grander questions—and infers a direction in which answers may lie—about the ``confusion of good logic and bad logic, earned emotion and specious emotion.'' If at times he pursues in his work ``a fascinating scientific question that might lend itself rather well to vulgarization and mockery,'' more often he discovers something jarring and demanding: ``a chimpanzee, confronting its own reflected image, is capable of selfrecognition. But humans look in a mirror and see only God.''

It is a rare and beautiful thing, Quammen's entertaining, challenging, and sustained brilliance. No wonder he needed a break from the monthly grind; it must have been like giving blood one too many times.