What's so great about being human? Granted, we are, as author Craig Childs acknowledges, "members of a species famous for road building, artwork, and claims of superiority ... able to ask many questions and give voluminous answers." We invented the wheel and the Internet, the vacuum cleaner and the Clapper. But in his latest work, the wandering Western author urges us to go beyond our tame and carefully constructed modern life, rediscovering our wildness and humanity through encounters with animals.
In The Animal Dialogues, a collection of new and previously published essays, the author of House of Rain and Soul of Nowhere writes of the power of chance meetings with lion and raven, grizzly and housecat, swallow and smelt. Coyotes listen to Childs' flute in the Sonoran Desert, watch him in his sleeping bag under moonless night skies, and "fill spaces like water or darkness" as they spread across the continent despite efforts to control their populations. Childs stalks a mountain lion lapping at a desert water hole, only to find the lion stalking him instead, an experience that lands him squarely "in the presence of the absolute." He wakes from dreams to hummingbird wings breezing his face, and futilely chases a herd of pronghorn antelope through the butte and wash country of western Wyoming.
In these tales, Childs rediscovers himself as animal, vulnerable and keenly aware, and reminds us that we are creatures as ordinary and extraordinary as any other. "It is said to be improper to see animals the same way we view ourselves," he writes. "It seems odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, the sole proprietors of smarts and charm ... Every living thing has the same wish to flourish again and again. Beyond that, our differences are quibbles."
Throughout the book, Childs' synesthetic style, where taste is color is light is smell, infuses the essays with bright immediacy and palpable wonder. It is tempting to classify this well-researched, beautifully written collection as natural history. But The Animal Dialogues is less about the lore and habits of bear and raven (though these details are present in spades) than it is about what is possible when you confront the wonder and mystery of a living world with wide-open eyes.
The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild
322 pages, hardcover. $24.99
Little, Brown, 2007.