{Book Review} Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

Let me start off by saying that this is one of my favorite books of all time.

Feel free to cross the jump if you need more of a review than that. 

Craig Childs has several other books that I’ve yet to read, but seriously look forward to after Animal Dialogues. Childs is a seasoned outdoorsman, having led excursions with groups of others and having spent what sounds like innumerable days (and nights) in the wilds alone. In this book he recounts stories of his experiences with a variety of animals, including bears, cougars, ravens, coyotes, raptors, and even a blue shark.

Childs’ writing style is my favorite kind: he’s writing about real life stories but with such artistic storytelling that you could think yourself lost in a novel. This was a book that I looked forward to each and every night, and I read each sentence slowly to fully absorb the panorama he was describing. He never talks about it outright, but every now and then you can catch a suggestion of an otherwordliness that Childs finds himself in. I love this passage, where he and a friend are caught captivated by the close landing of a Great Blue Heron and how common sightings don’t prepare the viewer for such an up-close encounter:

You see them wait until the last moment before they fly and screech…But never a view like this. Not straight up, not right into its eyes. You want to ask questions now, that the heron is so close. 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, and you will get your name back and life will begin again.

I love the idea of being so lost in a moment that you lose yourself, forget your name, go someplace else entirely until the moment has passed. I’ve been there. He travels lakes, mountains, and especially deserts. It’s clear that Childs is something beyond “in love” with his surroundings and the creatures that live there, and it was reaffirming to find someone else like this in writing. Nowhere in my life do I get swept away like I do with the unfurling of a fiddlehead, or the wet, sliding nictitating membrane of a raptor’s eye. Childs gets it.

The book is part adventure read, and part education – I learned a great deal, like that the big cats have well-nerved teeth for carefully discerning the right place to press them into their prey’s spinal cord. And this:

We are far more packed with neural receptors for smell than for color vision or for taste, with the physical capability to sort through ten thousand scents at once. But few come to the surface…Eight molecules are enough to send an impulse to your brain and alter your hormones, but it will take at least forty for you to take note. Without our permission, molecules snagged on our olfactory nerves can change the way we breathe, start and end fights, induce miscarriages, and cause our stomachs to rumble.

Each animal gets its own chapter of varying length, and there’s no linear storyline; each chapter has its own “plot”, and sometimes there are several stories about one kind of animal. I read it cover to cover, but at any time I could have skipped forward or back and become engrossed in any chapter, without risking confusion or the ruining of plot twists. Childs suggests (and I support this suggestion) taking one chapter at a time, carefully, drinking it in and being present with him and that creature before moving on to the next chapter. Live there a while. Get lost in it.

My two favorite stories in this book are from the chapters Mountain Lion and Raven. In Mountain Lion, Childs comes upon a young cougar drinking from a water hole; after the animal leaves, he goes to investigate its tracks. He turns around to find the animal only a matter of feet from him, watching him, smelling him. The animal approaches and there is a suspenseful confrontation. In the Raven chapter, Childs describes happening upon a canyon full of ravens who behave defensively at his presence, even picking up pebbles and throwing them at him. What they discover is pretty incredible, but I’ll leave it to you to find out.

Have I gone on enough? Because I could continue. I love this book. I want to take it with me into the wilderness and read it as the light fades on the mountains, or stay up late at night on a winter weekend safely tucked into my bed with a mug of hot tea. I can’t wait to read it again. I want to read it to my nieces and nephews, like a Shakespearean poetry about mosquitos, squid, and owls; they won’t get it, but they’ll be better for having heard it.

If you love animals, the outdoors, or enjoy reading the same paragraph several times just to ingest the lyrical word-smithing, get this book. And then get comfortable; in a hammock, in a tent, anywhere you can get lost without leaving.

There is, of course, an instant drama to an encounter, but remember that beyond the single moment is the long and ornate process of living. The life of an animal lies outside of conjecture. It is far beyond the scientific papers and the campfire stories. It is as true as breath. It is as important as the words of children.
– Craig Childs,
Animal Dialogues

Posted on May 18, 2012, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Agreed. I love this book!

  2. Wow, wow, and wow is all I can say! Child knows how to capture a soul, and break the magic bubble just at the right moment!! I bought his book for my husband for Christmas, and he had no chance to read it, for I snatched it away, and can’t get enough!!

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