The Private Lives of Animals, Roger Caras (McGraw Hill: $12.95). We associate nature with science, but its world of right and wrong, tragedy and triumph, is really closer to religion. Most readers will be spiritually moved by this eloquent and dramatic book. Some will look at the rich blue, black and yellow tail feathers of a peacock or the malevolent tusks and spikes on a rhinoceros viper and conclude that the Creator makes French fashion designers and Steven Spielberg seem especially unimaginative. Others will watch Western diving birds court each other in a dance resembling ballet or a male penguin search through the icy tundra for a rare pebble to give to the female (if she accepts, the pair is bound) and conclude that we need not look for a sacred world above; earthly love and caring are enough. (A few might criticize Roger Caras for skirting some of the hard questions--what is the evolutionary purpose of the grebe's ballet?--but Caras does use his sparse text effectively, examining cause and effect in less enigmatic rituals.)
There are few of the usual omens in these pages about the grave danger of species extinction. Caras' introduction, for instance, contends that Americans love nature more than concerned conservationists might think. "More people will go to the zoo this year," he writes, "than to all spectator sporting events combined." Yet, despite the spiritual gratification that comes from close proximity to nature, whether through books or trips to game reserves, we are moving away from nature as our nation matures (and cities spread) and as we grow older (and turn from children's tales about animals to stories focusing on the human predicament). Perhaps we turn away from wilderness nature because it represents the basic struggle for survival that we believe we have transcended. This transcendental state of consciousness, however, can result in apathy and lack of enthusiasm, and Caras' look at nature's vibrant, visceral struggle is a kind of cure. Emotions suggested in these pages are pure and consequential, from joy (wandering albatrosses hissing, rattling and yelling enthusiasm for their mates) to courage (zebras that must stand and feed within minutes of birth, lest they become a meal for one of many predators). Of related interest are the brutal and beautiful pictures in Mitsuaki Iwago's Serengeti: Natural Order on the African Plain (Chronicle Books: $19.95).