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One View of the Nature of Life

DANCING ON THE SHORE: A CELEBRATION OF LIFE AT ANNAPOLIS BASIN by Harold Horwood, New York: E.P. Dutton, 224 pp. $17.95

IF you liked Aldo Leopold's ``A Sand County Almanac'' or the writings of Loren Eiseley, you will probably like much, if not all, of what you'll find in ``Dancing on the Shore.''

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Harold Horwood is a Canadian writer who lives by the Bay of Fundy, specifically at Annapolis Basin. His book is a collection of essays, or meditations, on nature as he and his family have encountered it. His observations on plants and animals, especially birds, are perceptive and beautifully written.

Pheasants, herons, woodcocks, finches, seals, earthworms, reptiles, and a host of other creatures come to life through his words. I felt as though I were with his family on the night they watched nighthawks flying at eye level back and forth across their outdoor fire, catching the moths attracted by the firelight.

In another section, he describes his family's friendship with squirrels - until it got a cat for the children. The cat chased only one squirrel, but from that time forth, the squirrels steered clear. Then, during an incredibly cold winter, a squirrel showed up begging for food. Unharassed by the cat, who was wisely staying indoors, the squirrel and its mate came daily until the severe cold spell was over.

Horwood notes elsewhere that ``it is not uncommon for wild animals, when they find themselves in extremis, to seek out humans on the chance of receiving help.'' And he takes comfort from his own experiences of this behavior, saying that despite humans' tendency to kill, they have evidently extended help often enough for animals to have learned ``that man sometimes holds in his hands the gift of healing....''

This book is not, however, solely an account of Horwood's encounters with wildlife. It is also a discourse on his view of creation and man's relationship to it. You may not agree with all his philosophy, which is influenced by his studies of Hindu and Buddhist thinkers, among others, as well as his 24 years of observing nature. But he is raising some important philosophical questions.

For example, Horwood explores the theory of evolution and its inability to explain how some developments have happened so quickly. He feels that Darwin's view that evolution occurred as a series of random ``accidents'' was naive because it doesn't take into account how many chance events would need to occur. Instead, he relates these quick changes to ``rushes'' that sometimes come in gambling when the rules of chance seem suspended and it seems as though one can do no wrong.

Quoting Einstein's statement in relation to quantum theory, ``God doesn't play dice with the universe,'' Horwood goes on to say a bit later, ``Maybe god [sic.] doesn't play dice with the universe, but I'm willing to bet that he plays poker.'' Thus, he says, instead of needing millions of years for a species to change, an adjustment may take place relatively quickly.

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Then there is the theory that all life began in the sea and that our ancestors migrated onto the land from the world's oceans. But instead of a one-time occurrence, Horwood suggests that perhaps there were successive migrations of this sort. He ponders the place of man in nature and asks whether man and mammals really are the highest living forms. Or has our mammalian bias made us look at life that way?

He does not deny that human beings have done much harm. And he is particularly hard on ``sport'' hunters who in earlier times killed so many birds that some species have become extinct. He is asking us to be less egocentric in looking at the changes in our environment. He emphasizes the need for us to see humans as an integral part of the environment rather than as alien beings, bent on destroying it.

Almost as though the reader is sitting with him in his living room or walking beside him in a sunlit meadow, Horwood illustrates his thoughts with anecdotes, images from the natural world, portions of conversations with his family. As in the very best nature writing, his colorful imagery leavens the more serious portions. And there is ample reward in wonderful sections on the plants and wildlife of Annapolis Basin.

Always, he returns to the question of what life is. He points out that rocks that grow crystals could also be alive, though not in the same sense that humans are. He wonders, too, if humanity is simply one step before the development of a higher being, possibly an electronic intelligence that has evolved the capacity for feelings and understanding.

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