Essays of a naturalist full of wonder, perspective

The Wingless Crow, by Charles Fergus. Harrisburg, Pa.: The Pennsylvania Game Commission. 188 pp. $10. Charles Fergus is a watcher, a listener. When he is in the woods, he pays attention, and he obviously enjoys himself. That he thinks of nature as a gift, and that he wants us to share his enthusiasm, is communicated on every page of ``The Wingless Crow.''

The book is a collection of 33 essays Fergus originally wrote for Thornapples, a monthly column which appears in the Pennsylvania Game News, and which proves that there is some very fine writing being done in publications most of us will never see.

Fergus is at ease with his subjects, and the range of his subjects is wide. He can talk about starlings, hats, heating with wood, hunting, or lightning.

He will describe a night's vigil in a field; he will take on the matter of poisonous mushrooms and even write about an odonatologist (expert on dragonflies).

These essays are short (the average length is five pages), so ``The Wingless Crow'' is easy to dip in and out of. But once you start a given essay, you will be hard pressed to stop; Fergus knows how to begin and how to pull us along. Consider, for example, the start of ``Sulfur in the Air'':

``In the 15 seconds it takes you to read this paragraph, lightning will jab the earth 1,500 times. Most of the strokes will spend themselves harmlessly. Others will shatter trees, start fires, and stop the hearts of beasts and men.''

And what about this first paragraph in ``The Vulgar Bird,'' an essay on starlings? ``In 1890 and 1891, Eugene Scheifflin released 120 European starlings in New York City's Central Park. Scheifflin belonged to the Acclimitization Society, a group dedicated to stocking the New World with exotic species. His personal goal was to give Americans all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.''

Fergus does not end as well as he begins. Sometimes the essays end in midair, arbitrarily, and other times he tries a little too hard for a compelling image, but these are minor matters. For the most part, you will simply be sorry the piece had to end.

The essays in ``The Wingless Crow'' are not the first or last word on their subjects. You can't really cover the field of, say, poisonous mushrooms in any depth in five pages, and Fergus does not pretend to be expert in each area he writes about.

What Fergus has is a user's appreciation of the wild. He will as easily sit on a fence watching for an hour as he will hunt. He wants to know how nature works.

He possesses a child's sense of wonder, an adult's ability to assemble matters into perspective, and a craftsmanlike prose that has rendered it all into a very fine book.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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