HAVE you ever thought about what life was like for the intrepid woolly mammoth in the Ice Age, or how the spectacular Rocky Mountain range came into being, or followed the extraordinary life-cycle journey of a sockeye salmon? James Michener has. In ``Creatures of the Kingdom: Stories of Animals and Nature,'' he has gathered nature stories from some of his best-selling novels, plus one new story, and joined them with illustrations by Karen Jacobsen.
What might appear to be a rehashing of material turns out, instead, to be a thoroughly engaging retelling by a master storyteller.
In the foreword, Michener writes: ``I am not an impartial witness to developments in the animal kingdom. I love animals, have always lived with them, have tried to understand them, and have written about them with affection in an effort to remind others of what a significant enrichment to human life they can be.''
This appreciation shows through in his descriptions, from the diplodocus dinosaur: ``As she went she was a veritable poem in motion ... she moved like some animated mountain..., to the ingeniously engineered armadillo: ``How beautiful, how mysterious the armadillos were .... They bespoke past ages, the death of great systems, the miracle of creation and survival....''
Relationships between humans and wildlife are explored in ``The Hyena'' (from ``The Covenant'') and ``The Invaders'' (from ``Texas''). ``The Hyena,'' appears to be drawn from Michener's own experience with two hyenas - one on the Serengeti in east Africa and the other in Spain. This is typical Michener methodology - the successful combining of factual data into a multifaceted fictional character. The hyena, Swarts, is a baby orphaned when hunters shoot its mother. Its endearing qualities captivate the two men until they merge into three fast friends off together on an adventure in Africa.
``The Invaders'' is a hilarious, rollicking tale about a ``rowdy lot'' of ``immigrants'' who move into a quiet oil town in Texas - a family of armadillos. Some people find them fascinating animals to be studied and accommodated; others see them as annoying pests to be gotten rid of. Reading between the lines of this humorous incident, one sees that the author is pointing to a greater crisis in the relationship between the natural world and humans - the endangered animal and its habitat, particularly the debate over predators.
If an award for most maligned predator were presented, the wolf would most likely take it. Author-editor John Murray comes to the rescue in this anthology ``Out Among the Wolves: Contemporary Writings on the Wolf.'' As in many of his other collections, he has rallied the support of an impressive variety of nature writers. Authors such as Farley Mowat of ``Never Cry Wolf'' (you may have seen the 1983 movie); or the introspective Richard Nelson, ``The Island Within;'' and Adolph Murie who wrote ``The Wolves of Mount McKinley'' (1944), the first scientific study about wolves, are among the 20 writers included.
The articles cover three endangered species in the United States, red, gray, and Mexican wolves, and are arranged chronologically from 1944 to 1992, allowing the reader to observe how attitudes have changed over time.
In one of the earliest articles, Aldo Leopold writes about his encounter with a Mexican wolf he has just shot that ``there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain.'' This experience changes his view about the need for their elimination. The resulting essay, ``Thinking Like a Mountain'' (1949), is considered to have had a major influence on the predator debate.
In ``The Importance of Predators'' (1986), David Rains Wallace, exploring the Puritan roots of American attitudes toward predators, writes: ``Nothing was more opposite to the Puritan ideals of redemption through domestication than the predator,'' But during the same period, he points out, more tolerant thinking was also evident in the literature of the so-called ``natural philosophers'' like French author John Bruckner, who likened the predators to a ``pruning hook'' that held a ``check'' on the balance of nature.
Several essays deal with the prospects for reintroduction of wolves into areas where they are scarce. ``A Chorus of Wolves'' is a riveting firsthand report by author Jan DeBlieu about the efforts of a team of natural scientists to release red wolves in the Carolinas. The accounts are touching, sometimes disturbing as the animals come into conflict with the expanding human population.
The haunting cry of the wolf pack is an experience shared by many of these writers and seems to embody the poignant beauty that is in danger of being silenced. John Murray, describing the first time he heard the call in his essay ``Wolf Country'' (1992), writes that ``the entire pack began to howl, their voices lifting and falling as if seeking some familiar harmony.... Their song, I concluded, was not an invitation, but was, rather, a plea to be left alone.''