Listening for winter in the silence of birds; Twelve Moons of the Year, By Hal Borland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.50.
Readers nowadays ought to be grateful for any reminder that nature is still with us. While the human world seems bent on further violence and confusion, it's good to know that the lunar month still operates, that the flowers bloom on graded schedules, that one can hear the arrival of winter in the silence of birds.
Ordinarily we find little in the news media to confirm that another world of tides, seasons, and non-human lives working out their own intricate destinies really exists. If it weren't for daily columns of "nature writing," from which this book was compiled, from the pages of The New York Times, we might not know that orioles and appleblossoms, June bugs, milkweed, and monarch butterflies are still at their business out there.
Columnist Hal Borland had the integrity to stay home in the country and turn himself into a chronicler of real rather than manufactured events -- events that may seem unimportant on an editorial page, but which center on the simple, recurring facts that mirror the universe.
Nature writers who get any kind of critical attention at all usually are compared with John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and even Darwin and Huxley, apparently with the thought that such uplifting comparisons will help them out a bit.But Hal Borland is not a Muir or Thoreau. His writing, instead, has a worthy ancestor in John Burroughs, a dedicated observer, thoroughly immersed in his subject, but not one to tax his readers over much with metaphysics or religious overtones.
The little essays in "Twelve Moons of the Year" are quiet, workmanlike, and in their very simplicity attain an art of their own. They are distillations, summaries, notes from a lifetime of paying attention to the real "facts of life." If Mr. Borland seldom stretches his reader through the reaches of imaginative thought, he has to be given credit for his own spare and loving way of interpreting the daily miracles of the year, common mysteries faithfully recorded. His observations are often intriguing, having to do with the basic structure of corn, the energy of a hummingbird ("a little demon dressed like a miniature dandy"), the busy nature of sparrows, the intelligence of crows, the characteristics of jewelweed.
Detail is what Hal Borland was after and what he succeeded very well in recording. "Twelve Moons of the Year" is the kind of book that encourages us, in an unassuming and faithful way, to keep after things, to walk toward the hooting owl, to track the dragonfly, to stay alert for those constant suggestions in nature of the deeper news that in the long run will outlast our own events.