One side effect of the concern about the environment that has swept America in recent years has been the proliferation of guidebooks to what used to be called "the wonders of nature." The three dozen field guides on my shelves deal, briskly and authoritatively, with everything from amphibians to animal tracks and from weeds to the weather, with stops among snakes, birds, fish, rocks, mushrooms, insects, seashells and even edible wild plants.
What they all lack, sadly but necessarily, is the childlike sense of awe and mystery that suffused their distant ancestors, the medieval bestiaries. Those naive compendiums of hearsay, myth, religious homily and mistranslated Greek and Roman texts could make your head spin wonderfully with manticores and phoenixes, griffins, monoceroses, camelopards and two-headed amphisbaenas. More recently, Hilaire Belloc's The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and Ogden Nash's animal verse—doggerel, if you will—gave equal delight: "Hippety-hoppity, there goes the wapiti. Hoppity-hippity, it's serendipity."
A new book that puts wonder back into the beast is Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mammals ($10.95), edited by Sydney Anderson, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. After all, the world's 4,000-odd mammalian species are the most complex and diversified class of creatures, ranging in size from 286,000-pound blue whales to feathery Thailand bats weighing less than [3/10] of an ounce.
Mammals occupy every zoological niche—flying, swimming, burrowing, hopping, slouching, pouncing, swinging, creeping and soaring—from pole to pole and even into the depths of the sea. They care tenderly for their young and will eat nearly everything, one another included. They can be as beautiful as the shy, arboreal clouded leopard of Sumatra or as ugly as the naked sand rat of northern Kenya. Covering 426 of these species, and illustrated with more than 500 often astounding color photographs (along with some 1,200 maps, symbols or line drawings showing classification, distribution, habitat needs and degree of rarity), Simon & Schuster's Guide works best as an omnium-gatherum of mammalian oddities. It's like flipping through a latter-day bestiary updated by Luke Skywalker. Consider:
•The noolbenger (or honey possum), a tiny marsupial found only in the southwest corner of Australia, whose snout has evolved into a strawlike tube ending in flanged lips through which it sucks nectar, pollen and insects and whose agile tongue—which can extend to a third of the animal's length of three inches—has a sticky tuft at the tip.
•Raffle's moonrat, largest of the insectivores, a cat-sized resident of foothill forests from Burma to Borneo that looks like an American opossum and, when alarmed, emits a smell like that of rotten garlic.
•The red uakari, a short-tailed monkey of the upper Amazon's flooded forests, whose naked vermilion face, shaggy reddish-brown pelt and serious demeanor make it resemble, in the photograph in the book, at least, John Houseman advertising the wares of a Brazilian furrier.
•The fisherman (or bulldog) bat, a graceful Chiropteran found from Mexico to Argentina that gaffs small fish with its long, curved claws and can swim like an Olympian, using its wings as "arms."
•The babirusa, a 200-pound wild pig of the Celebes whose tusks curve up and backward, giving it the look of a streamlined triceratops.
•The maned wolf, or aguara guazu, of the Brazilian and Argentinian pampas, perhaps the most beautiful member of the wild-dog family, with its huge ears, dark-furred legs and the long dark hair along its neck and back that forms an erectile mane. It feeds at night on eggs, plants and small game, which it pounces on like a cat.
Odd as these creatures sound in short, isolated description, they all fit into a coherent web of survival and success. That becomes especially clear when you read the Guide's excellent introduction. It traces the rise of the mammals from the ancien régime of reptiles with clarity and fresh insight. I had never known, for instance, that those protuberances which give the mammalian class its name are, in fact, modified sweat glands. Ah, the wonders of nature.