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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Truths About Bugs and Other Creatures

THE RED HOURGLASS: Lives of the Predators by Gordon Grice; Delacorte $18.95, 260 pages

April 06, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What red-blooded aficionado of James Bond can forget the deadly tarantula in "Thunderball" crawling across the hairy forearm of 007 only to be whipped off the bed and crushed beneath a Bondian shoe, accompanied by a tattoo of orchestral sforzandos? Who among us can forget Sean Connery, armed in that scene with only a shoe and his pajama bottoms, stumbling into the bathroom to vomit? No shame to that. The tarantula is the deadliest spider known to man. Isn't it?

Everyone has his or her own predator legends. Some are based on common cultural memory, some are more private. Some prove everything we suspected about the venomous spider, the rabid canine, the sharp-tongued serpent. Some surprise.

I treasure, for example, the memory of catching a blood-thirsty piranha in a Peruvian lagoon. With the fish flat across a strut of the boat, I placed a stout twig between its teeth, convinced it would snap the wood with the ease of Jaws in Ian Fleming's "Moonraker." Five minutes later, I threw the dud back in the water.

According to Gordon Grice, author of the superb book of essays "The Red Hourglass," the study of predators has been infected by centuries of misconceptions. Wolves have been reviled, while dogs have been petted, even though, according to Grice, "in the United States, domestic dogs kill more people than rattlesnakes, venomous spiders, stinging insects, bears, or sharks. Dogs, in fact, are second only to humans as killers of humans." Black widow spiders have been treated variously as harmless and, during the height of the Cold War, like the "deadliest Communists . . . [who] conceal their red underneath."

Although he's strictly an amateur, Grice possesses the combination of a 9-year-old's fascination and an adult's common sense that makes him an ideal naturalist. His curiosity is like something out of Gerald Durrell, but his reactions are purely American. His hunting ground is the American heartland: the plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, the desert of Arizona, the trash cans of the community colleges and the trailer parks of the hopeful. His specimen bags are plastic; his jars, foam, emblazoned with the names Kmart and McDonald's. His experiments are less like science and more like cockfights: large black widows pitted against small, males against females, a giant "cricket-beast" ("larger than some adult mice I've seen") against a ferocious praying mantis.

Occasionally, his scientific method will involve him making "chicken noises at the mantid" when it runs away from the cricket-beast. And Grice shares with his fellow naturalists an appetite for sex. The cannibalistic female mantid comes in for some of his squeamiest description: "The hardwiring for the entire mating ritual lies in a cluster of nerves in the floor of the thorax. The brain is not involved. . . . That's why the male not only can finish without a head, but even performs with more gusto once he's decapitated."

Sometimes, Grice's observations trace behavior back to the Bible. In a passage on the carnivorous nature of pigs, he suggests that their classification as unclean had as much to do with the experiences of the biblical Jews who found that their loved ones turned to pig food when they couldn't bury them in the rocky soil of Judea. In the hands of Grice, it's a short step from the Cave of Machpelach to a sty in Harper, Kan., and a tale of an old man who collapsed from a stroke while feeding his pigs. There was "nothing left of him but the shoes."

But, most often, Grice's reactions are enchantingly lyrical. Once, he tripped while carrying a container of young black widows. "Tangles of broken web clung to my forearms, and the spiderlings moved among my arm hairs like trickling water. . . . I walked out into the open air and raised my arms into the stiff wind. The widows answered the wind with new strands of web and drifted away, their bodies gold in the afternoon sun. In about 10 minutes my arms carried nothing but old web and the husks of spiderlings eaten by their sibs."

E.B. White--eat your heart out.

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