First lessons in ecology. For young naturalists

AS frogs bury into deep mud and surrounding plant life closes up for the winter, young naturalists can find intriguing indoor activity with several new collections of natural history books. First published in London, The Forest, The River, The Rock Pool, and The Roadside, by David Bellamy, illustrated by Jill Dow (Crown, New York, $9.95 each, 32 pages, ages 6 to 10), provide a characteristically British approach to the environment - an attitude that is as sensible as Wellies on a rainy day, and hopeful despite the threatening clouds. The premise in all four books is that nature can survive whatever man-made catastrophes come along, from oil spills on scenic beaches to the demolition of timber forests.

Bellamy sets each ecological scene with quiet care, introducing the various plants and animals that live near a roadside, in a tide pool, in a river, and deep in the forest. After explaining their interdependent relationships, he gradually hints at the human intrusion to come by letting Jill Dow's graceful watercolor illustrations tell the story in revealing detail. In one page there's a wheel from an earthmoving vehicle. On another, a work boot disappears behind a door.

Although we never see the destruction that follows, its impact on the environment is evident. As a six-lane highway replaces an abandoned farm track in ``The Roadside,'' a pond turns muddy and drainpipes are scattered where foxes used to play. But a page or two later, we learn that ``the road builders have done a good job,'' and the mice and foxes are gradually returning. When an oil spill wipes out most of the fish and mollusks living in ``The Rock Pool,'' it takes only about a year for things to get back to normal, because, the author explains, ``it is the way of nature to cleanse, heal, and recolonize.''

This may sound like so much saccharin to parents, but Bellamy is the Mr. Rogers of the great outdoors, and his gentle explanations of what often happens in apparently hopeless situations are reassuring for younger readers.

Another new series from the same publisher takes a bolder approach and offers the kind of would-you-believe-it data that kids find so irresistible. The Hidden Life of the Pond, The Hidden Life of the Forest, and The Hidden Life of the Meadow, by David M. Schwartz, photographs by Dwight Kuhn (Crown, New York, $12.95 each, 40 pages, ages 5 and up), are, primarily, vehicles for stunning, full-color nature photography. Thankfully, the text keeps pace.

With big type and easily negotiable sentences, the author begins each ``walk'' with an obvious subject - spring frogs, sprouting seedlings, or newborn mice - and then zeroes in on some surprising facts and figures. The extraordinary leaps that a water strider takes, for example, would be the equivalent of a human being jumping from the ground to the roof of a five-story house. And how about those dainty little ladybugs that can dispatch several million aphids in just a few months? There are some thoughtful asides, as well: The mallard drake takes no part in caring for its young, Schwartz says, because its bright green head might attract predators.

In the end, though, the photographs steal the show, and two come instantly to mind: a close-up of a silky parachute that turns out to be a dandelion seed, and an even closer look at a cloud of spores shooting out of a puffball mushroom. With more than 60 glossy pictures per book, and sharp accompanying observations, these three titles should stir a lot of indoor, wintertime adventures.

Yet another series - ``Eyewitness Books'' - that is more visual encyclopedia than rainy-day reader has added three nature titles to its previous selections about sports, armor, skeletons, rocks and minerals, and birds. First published in Britain, each book is the work of a different author-and-photographer team: Pond & River, by Steve Parker, photographs by Philip Dowell; Butterfly & Moth, by Paul Whalley, photographers Colin Keates, Dave King, and Kim Taylor; and Tree, by David Burnie, photographs by Peter Chadwick (Viking Kestrel, New York, $12.95 each, 64 pages, ages 10 and up).

Since these books trace in colorful detail the life cycles of moths, look at the camouflage adopted by various pond dwellers, and marvel at the mimicry of certain clever butterflies, they're appropriate for both the serious naturalist and the child whose far-ranging interests may parallel the amazing migratory flights of the little cloudless sulfur butterfly.

Diane Manuel reviews children's books regularly for the Monitor.

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