Curious By Nature:
One Woman's Exploration of the Natural World
By Candace Savage
GreyStone, 184 pages, $22.95
'One of the best things that ever happened to me was being stung by a bee," Candace Savage writes in the opening sentence of Curious By Nature. Savage was just 2 or 3 at the time. One moment the child was enthralled by the beautiful insect in her hand, the next she was screaming in agony. "How could anything so pretty have hurt me so much?" she wondered.
That contrary relationship of human beings and wildlife is the theme of Savage's latest offering, a selection of wildlife essays and magazine articles that the prolific author and Canadian Geographic columnist has written over the past two decades. Curious By Nature covers creatures and plants as diverse as grasshoppers and grizzly bears, prairie grass and peregrine falcons, exploring the ways in which humans and wild things have had an impact on each other.
Happily, in doing so, Savage doesn't succumb to the recent and unfortunate trend for environmental writers to disclose intimate details of their personal angst in the guise of philosophical analysis of the natural world. In fact, Savage goes completely in the opposite direction, explicitly distancing herself even from such accomplished nature writers and philosophers as Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson -- for whom, by comparison, "the forces of nature were not merely phenomena but signs and symbols of transcendence." Her goal, Savage explains, is much humbler: simply to raise greater awareness of the "wild world" out there.
If so, she certainly achieves that goal in the 19 essays of Curious By Nature. The book is not entirely consumed with how humans and wildlife interact, however; as its subtitle suggests, it also contains intriguing and occasionally arresting stories about those aspects of Canada's natural environment that have simply appealed to Savage's interest.
The stories are also extraordinarily diverse in their subject matter. The author tells us, among other things, that storm petrels vomit "reeking stomach oil" over attacking predators; that Canada's boreal forest is one of the last three remaining natural forests on the planet; and that "a single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around five billion . . . animals and plants, all of them fiercely engaged in the business of life and death." In the essay Prairyerths, we learn that an agricultural experiment in the 1930s produced more than 250 kilometres of grass roots in just half a square metre of ground. Savage also informs us that most female mammals are averse to motherhood until they actually get pregnant, and that crows are smart enough to have figured out the most efficient height from which to drop snails so they don't waste excess energy by flying too high (about five metres works best, according to Savage).
With an eye for the unusual and the absurd, she invites consideration of her subjects from a fresh perspective. The book begins with an essay on parasites, for example, in which she attempts to persuade us that they are not malicious invaders so much as simple opportunists with a "cool, criminal disregard" for their victims: "They . . . demand a grudging respect for the ingenuity with which they conspire against their hosts." You may not like the little critters any better by the end of the essay, but at least you'll understand why they do what they do.
Savage also has a flair for placing the reader immediately in the scene through evocative and humorous use of language. Describing storm petrels returning to their chicks at nightfall, for example: "There is a crooning 'churr' from thousands of underground nests, a tumult of staccato flight calls, and the occasional thump of small bodies colliding in the dark."
But it is the author's strong connection with the grasslands of Canada that brings out some of the richest narrative. In Stuck on the Prairies, she recalls the state of the plains two centuries ago, covered in bison beyond counting and unrestrained or modified by agricultural development: "These memories lie at the very threshold of the present, so close that we half expect to be able to walk into a fold in the landscape and encounter them."
Her journalistic background keeps Savage relatively neutral on most issues: Logging versus environmentalism, for example, is dealt with in a balanced manner in her essay on Canada's boreal landscape, The Singing Forest. But she does on occasion permit her point of view to come across strongly when it comes to the impact human beings have had on some aspects of North America's natural environment. Having described the desperate state of the peregrine falcon after its decades-long exposure to chemical agricultural fertilizers, for example, the author concludes: "Although the peregrine has been rescued from extinction, the rain of toxins has not stopped." And regarding the Canadian prairies, she cannot help declaring her bias loud and clear: "There are people who think of the prairie as boring, and it is hard not to pity them."
"Good science is mostly play disguised as work," Savage quotes biologist E. O. Wilson early in the book. Much the same can be said of this entertaining and informative collection of stories.
Katherine Gordon is an author living on Gabriola Island, B.C. Her most recent book, The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley, was short-listed for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in this year's B.C. Book Awards.