Snake In Your Laundry? Read On

SNAKES: THE EVOLUTION OF MYSTERY IN NATURE

By Harry W. Greene

Photos by Michael and Patricia Fogden

U. of California Press

351 pp., $45

Three years ago, "Scales" entered our lives for a season or two. Discovered in the basement among socks and sweats in the dirty-clothes pile, the tiny slip of a garter snake had come to seek shelter from autumn's chill.

Three kids quickly converted a 10-gallon aquarium into a terrarium fit for a snake. All winter long, Scales proved a constant source of fascination as it slithered among rocks and twigs, shed twice, and served - quite contentedly, thank you - as the end of the trail for a long line of earthworms.

Yet one thing was missing: a "manual" that could help answer the questions the children raised about snakes,their habits, and history. Harry Greene's new book, "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature," would have fit the bill.

Dr. Greene, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and curator of herpetology at the university's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, has written a work that he hopes will be useful for scholars as well as accessible to people who don't "do" snakes for a living.

Reading through the sections on snakes' lifestyles and diversity, one can't help being impressed by Greene's vast knowledge of - even passion for - his subject. But writing for both worlds, the elements that might engage and hold the layman either are buried among the more scholarly tracts or omitted altogether.

His readers must take his longtime fascination with snakes for granted, for example: he doesn't share in any detail of how he came to it. In his epilogue, "Why Snakes?" he eloquently answers the question, yet it is perhaps the first question a layman might ask a biologist who spends months in the field studying wildlife. One element that does help bridge the gap is the photography. Michael and Patricia Fogden, two well-known nature photographers, supply the lens work on the project, to stunning effect.

One nine-year-old spotted the gracefully curved Sumatran Tree Pitviper on the front cover from across the room, exclaimed, "Is that about snakes? Cool!" and immediately began leafing through the book and pointing enthusiastically to one picture after another. It didn't matter one wit that mom, dad, and Merriam Webster would have had to help translate what lies in between.

Yet what lies in between - even if sometimes hard to mine - are valuable insights into creatures that have evoked a range of emotions in the humans that share their world.

This may not be the book to read cover to cover. Its real value lies in the range of information available on an as-needed basis - from the evolutionary history of serpents, to the eating habits of bushmasters. Do have it handy the next time junior hauls you to the pet store and asks: How much is that boa in the window? It might help junior change his mind about wanting the snake or yours about saying no.

* Peter N. Spotts is a science writer for the Monitor.

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