Calling the wild 

Craig Childs chats up animal kingdom

While reading Craig Childs’ Animal Dialogues, I often found myself holding my breath, then laughingly remembering he must survive—after all, he had to write the story. In this collection of essays, each of which takes him into the wild and, in some cases, inadvertently face-to-face with danger, it’s Childs’ vibrant accounts that prevail.

Whether crossing into a large carnivore’s territory or unearthing fragments of prehistoric marmot bones in a cave, Childs invokes every sense, helping readers taste a trickle of water on a hot desert rock, smell a predator, feel the texture of mountain goat wool snagged on a branch, hear the faint response of coyotes calling through the night, or visualize the wrinkled skin of a toad. Childs’ goal throughout is to intimately explore what it is to be an animal.

“It feels as if we are traveling together,” he writes when following the three-day-old tracks of a black bear through the desert, “separated by only a few turns of the sky, seeing these same scorched boulders. Feels as though we know each other, two animals out for a long walk to see what we can see.”

This sense of connection with the animals, and respect for their differences, ties each of the essays together. With a scientist’s gift for observation and a poet’s mastery of metaphor—he’s written for Outside, Audubon and the Los Angeles Times, and is a commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition”—Childs enters the animals’ worlds and tries to talk to them, sometimes in English and sometimes in whatever way he can think to make the connection. At one point, he plays a flute for a coyote, engaging in a sweet back and forth.

In English, Childs tells a trapped raccoon not to worry, he’s there to help. The raccoon doesn’t understand and proceeds to claw and bite at its would-be benefactor. When Childs comes across a stomping, head-shaking big horn sheep—something the author doesn’t understand—he responds by stomping and head-shaking, too. Despite communication barriers, Childs conveys these dialogues in a way that gives readers a sense of what it is to be a part of nature, a human in the wilderness.

For instance, accidentally stumbling upon a mountain lion at a watering hole in the Arizona desert, Childs explains why he treasures uncommon encounters in the wild: “In the moment that we faced off, I had been picked clean of my questions. At the edge of a water hole, in the Blue Range of Arizona, I had been in the presence of the absolute.”

Childs often highlights the idea that humans are animals, cousins to the wild creatures he encounters. Climbing out of his tent on an Arctic morning, he writes, “I flared my nostrils, taking in the fresh air. It stung my nasal passages.” Two pages later, surprised by a nearby bear, he “watched the bear’s eyes, waiting for a sign. The nostrils flared, taking in air.”

Childs also explores the death he discovers. In one essay, he describes the remains of a mountain lion, dead of old age, with blunted teeth, a carcass turning to soil, inhabited by fungus. Referencing the hypothetical game of “If I could be any animal,” he gives the stakes a twist, choosing also how he’d die: “I choose the peregrine falcon to kill me should I be born a bird. I have watched them kill and have crept close to their eating, seeing them tear meat from small, limp bodies, blood-studded feathers flustering to the ground. It does not seem like such a bad way to die, taken into yet another body, made finally pure.”

Reading each of these essays is like watching a David Attenborough documentary, traveling into the remote places of the world and trying to unobtrusively record bits of what he sees. With just as much detail as the films, Childs tells kinetic stories incorporating myth and science, observation and feeling.

Gazing up at a blue heron that has just landed on a telephone pole above him while he breaks camp on the Colorado River, he articulates what it is to be in the presence of a living, breathing piece of nature.

“You want to ask questions now, now that the heron is so close,” he writes. “But you can’t. You can’t get a word out. You just stare for as long as you can because suddenly it will be over, you will get your name back and life will begin again.”

Animal Dialogues leaves the reader with a similar feeling of speechlessness. Childs has created a beautifully written conversation with animals in their habitats, which he shares with readers in vivid doses.

Craig Childs reads from and signs copies of Animal Dialogues at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, March 12, at 7 PM.
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