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The rain forest: splendors imperiled

In the Rainforest, by Catherine Caufield. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp. $16.95. It sometimes seems to me that the most reliably good writers of nonfiction come from The New Yorker magazine. Week after week, month after month, appear fascinating and deftly written articles by the likes of John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Bill Barich, Berton Roueche, Roger Angell, Janet Malcolm, and so many more.

Judging by the evidence of her first book, ``In the Rainforest,'' Catherine Caufield is ready to join this group.

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Veteran viewers of TV nature programs may have the image of a rain forest as jungle to be hacked through with a machete.

No, writes Caufield, ``the intrepid explorer of popular fiction who needs an ax to penetrate the tangled jungle is not in a pristine tropical rainforest. To be sure, travelers see a dense wall of green along roads and rivers, where the open edge of the forest is exposed to the sun. But deeper inside such a forest very little sunlight filters through the dense canopy, and the floor is surprisingly free of undergrowth.''

Life in the tropical rain forest is lived at various levels by various animals. ``Each layer -- the floor, the understory, the canopy, and the giant emergent trees -- is a distinct habitat, each with different conditions.'' That this is so poses special difficulties for scientists who would understand the rain forest's flora and fauna.

Indeed, the mechanical problems are daunting. Most rain-forest trees have no branches closer than 60 feet from the ground, and, notes Caufield, ``the wood of many species is so hard that metal spikes cannot pierce it.''

The dynamics of the rain forest are also difficult to comprehend because ``we don't even know how long rainforest trees do live.'' And the fertility of rain forests is simply astonishing: Rain forests take up only 2 percent of the earth, yet roughly half of all living things are found there.

Caufield's book is not simply a disquisition on the splendors of the rain forest. In fact, it is largely devoted to explaining the ways in which rain forests are being destroyed.

There is logging in Malaysia and in the Philippines; there are dams in Brazil; there is cattle ranching in Costa Rica. Everywhere Caufield looks, she finds rain forests being done in. Unique animal habitats disappear, and with them the animals. It is a familiar story and a depressing one.

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To Caufield's credit, she presents all this very evenhandedly, thoroughly, and with exceptional attention to details of fact and prose. ``In the Rainforest'' tells us things that are fun to know and things we need to know -- it opens a truly extraordinary world to our eyes.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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