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Reverence for the Natural World

By Louis WernerLouis Werner is a freelance movie producer living in New York City. / July 30, 1992



TWO nature writers, two very different subjects, and two dissimilar means of approach can be equally rewarding. River historian Bruce Stutz chooses to paddle his craft upstream in open water, while garlic farmer Stanley Crawford finds his subject by digging down deep into the earth.

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As Bruce Stutz reminds the reader on the opening page of Natural Lives, Modern Times: People and Places of the Delaware River (Crown, 390 pp., $22) the river's name is attributed to a man who never set eyes on it - the 17th-century English Lord De La Warr. This great, if neglected, river was first known as the Lenapewhihituck, meaning "swift waters of the Lenape," named after the Indian tribe living on its banks long before De La Warr's time.

The Delaware is easy to overlook still today, squeezed between the Chesapeake and the Hudson Rivers. The only view most Americans ever get of the river is the blighted, industrial waterfront as they cross Interstate 95's high-suspension bridge in their cars. Yet the river provides safe drinking water to some 20 million people, including the residents of New York City, and the population of its drainage basin is greater than the population of 40 of the 50 states.

Rather than a grimy, snapshot image taken from a speeding automobile, Stutz finds more intimate vantage points from which to view the river. And in doing so, he offers readers new perspective on the Delaware's surviving river culture, its industrial ups and downs, and its past and future environmental battles.

He sees the river from a small outboard in the company of two crusty shad fishermen on the upper bay, from its litter-strewn banks just below Trenton on a hike led by a far-seeing urban preservationist, and atop an eel-catching weir built upstream by a stonemason who quotes Lao Lsu. These are just three of the many river men - lay and professional alike - whose love for the Delaware speaks loud and clear in this finely researched book, well-laden with just plain river talk.

Stutz begins his voyage near the river's end on the lower bay. He watches water birds feast at the annual egg-laying ritual of the horseshoe crab, whose ancestors similarly crawled upon land 400 million years ago to lay their eggs.

"Here is a river so long settled and so much changed," he writes, "one can look at it anew, a modern river in an ancient course, an ancient river in a modern world."

He finds a solemn lesson about time, past and present. The crabs seem to survive whatever man throws at them - oil spills, sewage leaks, channel dredging - but the birds that feed upon them cannot. Sanderling and red knot bird counts are down 20 to 40 percent in just a few years, due no doubt to the degradation of habitat in their key migratory stops like the Delaware Bay. Plenty of crabs for them to eat perhaps, but the crabs themselves now eat industrial waste.

And the modern world still threatens the river's ancient course in the most fundamental way as engineers, against all common sense, keep alive the idea of damming the Delaware Water Gap, he says. A seventh-generation farmer who has led the battle against the dam recalls her father's view of the plan: "like taking Miss America and using her for scientific research." If only, Stutz seems to say, all river lovers were this blunt, the Delaware would be safe.

Out West, along a tributary of another great American river, the Rio Grande, New Mexican garlic farmer Stanley Crawford scratches out a living from one of nature's stingiest crops. In his book A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (HarperCollins, 241 pp., $20) he talks about his profession as one requiring the patience of Job and the back of an ox just to yield a harvest big enough to break even. So it's fortunate that he finds pleasure in the everyday chores of a 12-month calendar - job s like plowing, irrigating, and hoeing - to grow a food plant many people consider foul-smelling.

And it's fortunate for readers that he also harvests from these same chores such penetrating insight about why people choose a particular line of work and about the many turns and dead-ends taken before they find out what makes them happy. Following proudly within the philosopher-farmer tradition set by Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and more recently, Wendell Berry, Crawford has surely written the most literary book on growing garlic to date.

He has a special talent for drawing odd parallels between the natural world and the man-made. Just as the reproductive strategy of some bird species is to display the showiest feather, we see a similar method used in his display of decorative garlic braids. Tourists buy the fanciest ones and in turn are likely to plant bulbs from these braids in their gardens. Thus, because they buy his garlic rather than someone else's, he figures it will be the most widely propagated throughout the land.

While the bigger lessons he teaches about respect for the land and laboring on it are not always new, they bear repeating. Thus, during the annual review of his farm loan, he tells of how the Amish classify field labor as a product rather than an expense. If loan managers did the same, their ledger books and perspective on family farming in general would improve, he says.

But money alone can never explain or justify a farmer's life, he writes. For that, something else is needed, something more tentative yet also more enduring.

Crawford might be a mystic at heart, but this book and his previously published "Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico" (1988), along with the dirt under his fingernails and the calluses on his hands, prove him to be simply a hard-working writer with a few acres of garlic out back.