It's so good to find an unburdenedm nature writer. At a time when many wildlife essays are intense defenses of unknown endangered species, Robert Finch's "Common Ground, A Naturalist's Cape Cod" reminds us that saving the world starts with caring for it, quirks and all.
When Finch happens upon a bird in the bush, his response is often a mixture of curiosity, delight -- and even exasperation:
". . . there it was, off to my right, somewhere among a young stand of pines, that unpassionate, almost comical sound that is something between a grunt and an electrical buzzer: peent . . . peeent.m A male woodchuck was warming up.
". . . Five, ten, twelve, fiften times the bird preened with agonizing slowness. Soon it would be too dark to see. Come on, come on,m I urged -- I'm giving up pepperoni and Woody Allen for you."
The short essays in this book are collected from the weekly nature column that Finch writes for several Cape Cod newspapers. Year-round Cape codders and those who spend summers there will be sure to find a favorite. For Orleans residents, there's the one about the family of red foxes that cavort through the shrub forests of the old Mayo duck farm. Dennis buffs will appreciate the poignant tale of a stranded finback whale on Corporation Beach.
The appeal of this collection researches far beyond Cape Cod, however. Finch is a backyard conservationist with an eye on the universal horizon. the lesson he learns from chasing a pigeon hawk on Nauset Beach he passes along to readers everywhere -- that while modern man needs the stability of nature, there are limits to nature's capacity to supply the needs of the human heart.
When Finch writes about the "civil" death of a colony of ants and the "contemptuous indifference" of a snowy owl, one has to make the inevitable comparisons with other classics of nature writing about the Cape: Henry Beston's "Outermost House," John Hay's "The Run," and even Thoreau's "Cape Cod."
Stylistically, Finch certainly holds his own. There's the wind "trying to pry me open like a quahog," a flock of grackles sounding like "tons of scrap metal pouring down a metal chute," and a weatherbeaten fishing boat "trailing a thousand-foot scraf of screaming gulls behind it." Most beautiful of all is his recollection of Maine loons calling to one another: ". . . wild, wondrous canticles plucked from the lake's bottom on their long, deep dives, balanced a moment in their throats, then flung up toward the stars, the moon-edged clouds, and the dark, brooding shapes of the mountains-sliding away, one behind the other, into the steep night."
The lasting satisfaction of this book is that we learn as much about the author as we do about tide fingers and beach plums. Finch isn't afraid to bare his heart or his idiosyncrasies. We hear him struggling with age-old conservation questions on one page, and see him running among a least tern colony like a banshee on the next. He livesm the "intermingling of man and his environment" that he writes about.
This is a book I'll read again and again, an another I'd like to me et.