Prince William Sound may have been knocked down on its ecological knees by the Exxon Valdez, but it is far from out, claims a former science editor of Life magazine. On Good Friday, 1989, the Valdez made an unscheduled stop on Bligh Reef and offloaded 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Wheelwright, a noninterventionist when it comes to ecological recovery, went to Alaska to see for himself the effects of the spill. After umpteen interviews and thousands of hours spent in the field he sensed that opinions masqueraded too often as facts: Doomsaying conservationists never allowed that nature might right herself; Exxon spin-mongers never thought twice about the rightness of their ""clean-up"" efforts. The short-term consequences of such a massive oil spill are self-evident -- befouled beaches, dead sea creatures, a glut of righteous politicians on TV -- but we have little real knowledge of the long-term results. Wheelwright keeps an upbeat attitude as he goes about debunking some long-held notions. An oil-rich habitat is actually beneficial to some sea life, he notes; scrubbing beach cobbles with detergent is often more deleterious than the oil itself; oil and water do mix (it's called oil mousse). He doesn't want to gloss over the spill, he says, just to get the information straight. Wheelwright believes that if we leave nature to lick her own wounds, she will do just fine. Oceanic populations will rise and fall, then gradually steady themselves after a catastrophe, he argues, for the seas are everywhere in flux, a perpetual-motion machine of renewal. Five years after the spill, the sound appears to be recovering, and nature is doing more than humans to get life back to normal. Ocean, heal thyself. Wheelwright might just be onto something here, but one hates to think what the energy companies might do with his approach.