Book world: 'Wild Snail Eating' 'Goodbye to the Cuckoo' 'Bumper Book of Nature'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 9:58 PM

In the natural world, size matters. Elephants, tigers, the Grand Canyon - if you want to get the prime Discovery Channel screen time, you've got to be one of the big boys. But hey, the little guys can be pretty enchanting, too. Consider the garden snail, with its shimmering mucus trail and thousands of tiny teeth. Listen closely and hear the mockingbird sing its sweet "chup-cheep-cheep." Climb a tree or turn over some rocks. Here are three books on the myriad tiny wonders that nature holds for those who are patient enough to behold them.

1) During a European vacation when she was 34 years old, Elisabeth Tova Bailey picked up a mysterious, debilitating disease that left her bedridden for several years. To help the author whittle away the hours, a friend dropped off a pet snail. You may wonder, why not a few "Mad Men" DVDs instead? But the mollusk proved the perfect gift. In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin, $18.95), Bailey explains how she became fascinated with the creature, studying its habits, taking comfort in its routines and poring over gastropod literature for snail-related arcana. Eventually, the snail became something of an inspiration. "I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere," Bailey writes. "The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me."

2) At the beginning of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (Ivan R. Dee, $26.95), Michael McCarthy sounds an alarm: The birds of the world are in trouble. Each year, fewer and fewer winged creatures return from their cold-weather retreats in the Southern hemisphere. Rampant deforestation probably has something to do with it. But McCarthy, the environmental editor of the Independent, quickly sets panic aside to do some good, old-fashioned bird-watching. He travels to Gibraltar and the District and throughout Britain in pursuit of swallows, nightingales and warblers. The book is not so much a warning of impending ecological doom as a paean to the joys of birding - a plea to pay attention to winged creatures before it's too late. "Forests perhaps we can regrow; tigers perhaps we can save in captivity; but how will we mend the loss of the spring-bringers?" McCarthy asks. "They are going, now."

3) There's a lot of competition for a child's leisure time. Outgunned by movies, TV and WiFi-ready electronics, the simple act of going wild in the backyard could pass out of fashion. Such is the fear of Stephen Moss, author of The Bumper Book of Nature (Harmony, $29.99). This big, durable and elegantly illustrated tome provides easy-to-follow instructions for simple outdoor play. Moss, a television producer for the BBC, lays out the natural history of tree-climbing, stone-skipping and butterfly-chasing. The prose is friendly but erudite, just right for contemplative parents and their young Henry David Thoreaus to read together before strolling outside. The stakes are higher than you might think. "In the past couple of decades, we have raised generations of children who are scared to walk in the park on their own," warns the author. "If we're not careful, when these children grow up, they will have no interest in, or passion for, the natural world - and if you don't care about something, what incentive is there to protect it?" Leitko is an editor of The Post's Reliable Source column.

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