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Now in Paperback

November 08, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

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).

Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series, edited by Archie Hobson (Coller Books: $11.95). From 1935 to 1943 the Federal Writers' Project, a branch of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid hundreds of writers to create detailed portraits of everyday American life. F.D.R. wasn't merely offering beneficent busywork for unemployed writers. He felt the time had come for citizens to stop saving money by hibernating at home and thought the guides would stimulate Americans to board or buy that novelty, the car, and explore outlying wonders. F.D.R. already had some help from Hitler, of course, who was making Europe sufficiently unsafe for travel, but he needed to discourage people from taking the straight-and-narrow path of the railroad, for it would be difficult to spread the scanty wealth if prairie lands were not patronized. Yet, while the car made unique American communities easier to discover, it also made them harder to find: The automobile spread the city out, dribbling uniform buildings and new national institutions such as motels across the landscape. WPA officials skirted around this problem. When Mabel Ulrich, the director of the Minnesota guide, ridiculed the notion that one town or state or region was romantically different from any other in the nation, the guide officials responded: "You say you have no folklore other than Indian and Paul Bunyan. We advise that you interview prisoners in the penitentiary." This advocacy of innovative journalism was unusual for the guide directors, however, for they prefered checking, revising, double checking and re-revising to aggressive investigation. John Cheever, Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel were involved in the project, but their style is eclipsed by this corporate art.

Most of the vignettes that Archie Hobson has excerpted do not, as he claims, "analyze and criticize": While clear and accurate, they are not inspired; a piece on an Arctic lake, for instance, describes length, depth and thawing but doesn't evoke the mystery or challenge of the icy wilderness. Hobson's introductions are stylish and substantial, but those most moved by intellectual and emotive studies in the line of de Tocqueville will be disappointed by the disconnected details and romantic nationalism in these pages. The most colorful and lively vignettes are, not surprisingly, about peregrination, the spirit of the time.

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