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Book Reviews : Nature and the Great Indoors

May 12, 1987|LEE DEMBART

The Way of the Hummingbird: In Legend, History & Today's Gardens by Virginia C. Holmgren (Capra Press: $8.95, paperback; 176 pp.)

The Indoor Naturalist: Observing the World of Nature Inside Your Home by Gale Lawrence (Prentice Hall: $10.95, paperback; 210 pp.)

As these words are written, I am looking out of the window at six hummingbird feeders that hang outside my house and at the endless circus of hummingbirds that they attract.

The birds consume more than five pounds of sugar a week, but I am happy to give it to them, for these darling little creatures--hardly bigger than your thumb--provide no end of interest and amusement.

They are the smallest birds known, and that is only the beginning of their uniqueness. They can fly in all directions--including upside down--and they can hover like helicopters. They are among the very few birds that take nectar like insects, do not eat seeds and are fearless. If a person stands next to their feeder, they will feed nonetheless, oblivious to his being there. They will fly up to a person and hover beside him, staring.

I never get tired of watching hummingbirds, and I could go on at length about my observations, but I would run out of space before getting to the books at hand. But from these remarks you can understand that I began reading "The Way of the Hummingbird" with great enthusiasm. Hummingbirds always make me smile. Unfortunately, the book did not.

'Scientific Explanations'

As its subtitle indicates, "The Way of the Hummingbird" records many hummingbird legends from primitive Indian societies--far too many legends for my taste. A few Indian stories would have been more than enough to give the flavor of how primitive people explained things they did not understand. Virginia Holmgren loads the first half of the book with these tales, contrasting them with contemporary "scientific" explanations.

Truth to tell, her scientific explanations aren't all that scientific either. Seeking to explain why hummingbirds are territorial and tend to fight off intruders, she writes, "When food is scarce, they survive by keeping it all for themselves--not in greed but in simple need for survival. Hummingbirds do not arrive at this knowledge by reasoning. They are born to this pattern and they follow it."

This sort of folksy blather does not inspire confidence in the rest of Holmgren's book. Anyone who wants to know about hummingbirds would be better off reading "Hummingbirds: Their Life and Behavior" by Esther Quesada Tyrrell with stunning photographs by Robert A. Tyrrell (Crown: $35), a solid discussion of these remarkable birds.

But a book doesn't have to be dry to be worth reading, and Gale Lawrence's "The Indoor Naturalist" is a case in point. She is a writer who lives in Vermont and has put together an informative, entertaining, personal book about all manner of plants, animals, insects and other living and once-living things that are found around the house.

Dogs and cats are just the beginning. There are discussions of the life cycles and life strategies of parakeets, canaries, hamsters, goldfish, jade plants, grape ivys, cockroaches, yeast, bread mold, mildew, sponges, witch hazel, corks, chopsticks, pencils, erasers and even of dust. And that is far from a complete list.

Lawrence's reporting is sound, and her style is engaging. What's more, she talks about the benefits of exploring natural history indoors. "The more I learn about the animals that have won their way indoors," she writes, "the more I will know about the human species."

Further, she says, "The outdoors has brought me back indoors in a way that the indoors never took me outdoors."

Live and Let Live

Perhaps the most interesting and informative part of Lawrence's book is her philosophy of live and let live. Her first reaction on seeing insects or other pests is not to kill them. She figures that it's their world, too, and they are as entitled to be here as she is. It is only when they start eating and contaminating her food or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves that she takes strong action.

Not that she endorses letting them destroy your home, mind you. Of mildews Lawrence writes, "In my campaign against household mildews, I am only defending my own interests against their misplaced efforts at decomposition."

There are many tidbits of information to be gleaned from Lawrence's book, and there is also an approach to the task that is infectious. The writing is deceptively simple, at first glance masking the research that has gone into it.

"The Indoor Naturalist" shows that solid books do not have to be hard to read and that a personal style does not disqualify a science book from being serious. Lawrence's book is fun to read and will amply reward the reader's time.

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