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Two encounters with the wilderness

Mountain Time, by Paul Schullery. New York: Schocken Books. 221 pp. $17.95. The Grizzly Bear, by Thomas McNamee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 308 pp. $18.95. ``I went to the woods,'' wrote Henry David Thoreau, ``because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.''

Paul Schullery did not go to Walden Pond; he went to Yellowstone National Park, and he was not a musing transcendentalist but a ranger-naturalist. Yet the spirit that infuses his ``Mountain Time'' is related to Thoreau's ``Walden.''

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Schullery, in talking of the importance of the grizzly bear, for example, will say things like: ``One of the most important parts of the grizzly country experience, beside its rareness, is that hackle-raising humility that comes from knowing one is in the presence of a superior predator.

``Of knowing that one is, for once, a potential prey species. I hope we never reach the point where we are not allowed to have that feeling, but, given the gloomy outlook for the grizzly bear in the lower forty-eight, we may not have to worry about the feeling in the first place before long.''

While Schullery does post many and predictable warning signs, does stress often the need to preserve our wild lands, he is not a knee-jerk conservationist. And he has that quality rare to a nature writer -- humor.

In a chapter called ``As the Eagle Flies,'' Schullery writes that ``some nature magazines . . . will insist that eagles do not kill sheep. . . . but there's no doubt about it.'' He then adds: ``And why not? . . . Eagles are too practical to avoid such easy food [lambs] just because some writer with a whale on his T-shirt says they don't like mutton.''

``Mountain Time'' is divided into three sections and contains 21 short essays. They range from the subject of ``Winter Nights'' (``Winter night is a place, as much as if it were on a map'') to the national park idea (``the resource is wildness'') to fish and fishing (``I love to fish. I love the places it leads me'') and campers in Yellowstone (``Dealing with the campers, week after week, year after year, was probably the closest I'll ever come to knowing what's on America's mind'').

There is much more, and all of it paraded in a friendly and carefully assembled prose. There is nothing particularly flashy about ``Mountain Time''; its sincerity is its strength, and it is obviously worthwhile to learn what Paul Schullery has learned in the woods.

David McNamee's ``The Grizzly Bear'' is equally interesting but quite different. First, his subject matter is more limited; at the center of his story is, not an entire park, but a particular species: the grizzly bear. McNamee has chosen to divide his book by months. We start with a mother grizzly and her two cubs emerging from hibernation in April and stop seven months later, in October, when the bears' waking cycle is complete.

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In September grizzlies are preparing for hibernation by eating truly enormous quantities of food. Toward the end of that chapter, McNamee tells of the mother bear and cubs killing a young bull elk, eating from it, and then sleeping by their kill.

Then, writes McNamee, ``At dawn a subadult male black bear out on a routine prowl, also incautious owing to his own hyperphagia [voracious eating], digs through the blanket of duff beneath which the grizzlies have buried their kill. A big mistake. They kill and eat him too.''

Probably the most feared animal on our continent, the grizzly bear is also one of the most adaptive. ``The range of environments his style of life is suited to is exceedingly wide -- tundra, forest, swampland, prairie, desert. He does not, contrary to the general view, absolutely require wilderness,'' McNamee tells us. ``All he needs is to be left alone.''

But finding space is more and more difficult. Grizzlies are victimized by poachers, campers, regulations, confused hunters, and each other (they are cannibalistic), and their glories and tragedies are told in detail in ``The Grizzly Bear.''

There is a lot of writing about grizzly bears, and McNamee, judging from the book's lengthy bibliography and from his own admitted debts, knows the literature well. He is part lobbyist for bears, part bear historian, part pure nature writer, and part self-conscious prose writer. All this makes for a very interesting book.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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