Backyard naturalist sees splendor in the grass; Idle Weeds: The Life of a Sandstone Ridge, by David Rains Wallace. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (distributed by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York).
When one of the main characters of a book is a homely shrew with matted fur and yellow teeth who dies in the last chapter, the book had better have a lot else going for it. Fortunately, "Idle Weeds" does.
Without resorting to an environmental bullhorn or righteous plea, author David Rains Wallace shows us that there is much to appreciate in unglamorous wilderness. In his intimate, diary like accounts of life in the beech woods just beyond the town dump, earthworms get a sympathetic moment in the sun, and even the vultures are worthy of respect.
Wallace has spent a good number of years on a forested sandstone ridge in rural Ohio, documenting its disruptions, watching its inhabitants, and taking meticulous notes. Like so many other parcels of what economists call "marginal land," Chestnut Ridge now teeters between development as a housing tract and recreational park. But if its future is cause for concern, its present is full of fascination.
Take that yellow-billed cuckoo in yon tree. Four days of nest-building, three days of egg-laying, and what's her reward? An extra egg to incubate, deposited b a passing blackm -billed cuckoo.
Then there's the big purple toad who sits contentedly beside an ant hill, snapping up delicacies as they emerge, one by one.
Still, the deer, mice, and beetles that congregate on Chestnut Ridge are an unpretentious lot. There are no sentimental favorites, no Disney-like casting of goodies and baddies. Instead, when the going gets grim, and hatched spiderlings spend the winter feeding in each other, it's nature's remarkable resiliency that takes stage center.
A former documentary filmmaker, Wallace has a cameraman's eye for detail, as when he describes the horizontal webs of sheetweb weaver spiders "misted over with strings of infinitesimal prisms." His hearing is likewise turned to the extraordinary: "From bushes around the hay meadow came insect sounds that heralded high summer on the ridge -- the long buzz of lanky, brown, coneheaded grasshoppers (which sounded as though tiny men were crouched in the bushes making Bronx cheers. . . )."
Adding to the texture of these intrigue outdoors are Jennifer Dewey's attractive line drawings.
Despite some occasional use of multisyllable, impressive-sounding words and a few detours into the too cute (his toad says "Dreeee-, eeeeeeeeeeeeeemmmmm") Wallace succeeds in taking us deep into the underbrush.
Stopping by one nest, we watch an unsightly fledgling unfurl black feather-quills and preen its new feathers proudly. Diving into a musty tunnel, we seek cover from a thunderstom with a family of trembling baby shrews. The shrew mother, as mentioned above, is caught in an early autumn snowstorm and dies in the last chapter. But several pages later we find her offspring safe underground, sleeping soundly after a satisfying meal of ants, woodlice, and beetles.
After all, that's what "Idle Weeds" is about -- survival. We need each Chestbut Ridge, Wallace argues, as breathing space and breeding ground.
"Even if the ridge becomes the only green spot in a hundred square miles of skyscrapers," he writes, "its fundamental value will not be in rarity, in diversion from the human world, but in commonness, in union with the biosphere on which the human world depends."