ROBINSON JEFFERS once remarked bitterly that, but for the consequences, he'd sooner kill a man than a hawk. So grim a choice would not occur, I think, to Faith McNulty; more likely, she would sit down with her notebook instead, to observe the endlessly fascinating behavior of both. Her observations, like this book of stories, would gently remind us that for all our knowledge, technology and power, we are animals, no more or less worthy in the scheme of life than hawk or mouse. We eat, sleep, reproduce, play, work, love and die subject to the same natural laws that govern all living things, and if our ingenuity has given us dominion over other creatures, it has burdened us also with responsibility for them. In neglecting the second half of that bargain we become as vulnerable as the linnet or the hare to our own reekless power.
The steady encroachment of human activities on the habitats and lives of wild animals has so decimated the world's animal populations that, as McNulty records in her epilogue, three-quarters of today's species of wild creatures could become extinct within 25 to 30 years. To a world preoccupied with the imminent threats of economic depression, unemployment, famine, war, and energy crises, the loss of the lion in the wilderness or leviathan in the sea is of small concern. Why should we care, after all, about a few birds too devoted to their home to abandon it when oil slicks and Air Force bombs threatem them? The loss of the falcon or eagle will not affect our supermarket shelves, our oil supply or job market, our defense budget, and we have bigger things to worry about than pupfish in a desert puddle. What is it to us if the lemur dies, if the whale disappears forever?
The answer shines like a fixed star through the graceful writing of Faith McNulty. This collection of her stories and articles is a celebration of what any child knows who has ever watched a lamb nurse or an egg hatch, or held a newt and marveled at its tiny, perfect hands. What the child recognizes intuitively, and Faith McNulty translates with such precision, is the tug of kinship that links all living things, the sudden glimpse of one's own place among them. Unfortunately, such experiences are available to fewer and fewer children anymore, and as McNulty says, "People who grow up ignorant of the 99 percent of creation that is nonhuman have, it seems to me, a sadly limited idea of where they are." To a civilization undermined by its own limited prospective, Faith McNulty's keen eye and informed love for animals are a priceless gift. Her writings, like those of Loren Eisely, Gerald Durrell, Farley Mowat or Rachel Carson, are to be cherished as dearly as any endangered species.
At the heart of Faith McNulty's passion for animals is not mawkish sentimentality, but a vital curiosity that dates from her childhood, "when I wanted so much to know what it is like to be an animal; how it would feel to be part of their world, to see our world through their eyes." Happily, it was a curiosity she never outgrew. In pursuit of it, she plunges with contagious exuberance into the dry domain of science, bringing her creatures to life on the page not just as endearing individuals but as vivid miracles of evolution, biochemistry, behavior and physiology. As many mysteries and discoveries await her in a mouse as in a whale, and an orphan starling is as worthy of interest and delight as the majestic whooping crane.
The extraordinary story of the whooping cranes, first published in The New Yorker and later as an award-winning book, occupies a large portion of this book. In 1941, the world's entire population of these beautiful water birds consisted of 15 cranes that spent their summers in unknown breeding grounds in Canada and wintered on the Gulf Coast of Texas, over 2,500 miles away; at that time, even the most optimistic observers had little hope for their survival. By 1978, after 37 years of persistent struggle by both birds and men, their number had increased to a total of 69. The history of the birds themselves, of the regulatory conflicts and betrayals and the complexities of economics, philosophy, politics and power involved in saving them is as compelling as an international spy novel. Elsewhere in the book, McNulty's personal encounters with whales, lemurs and other species threatened with extinction are haunted always by this chronicle of the interminable obstacles to saving a single flock of birds.
Faith McNulty's interest is by no means limited to nonhuman animals. The dedicated members of the British National Mouse Club, a Rhode Island hairdresser, the young surgeon prevailed upon to save an ailing mouse, the elderly couple keeping a 24-hour vigil over a falcon's nest, and the author herself as foster-mother to a starling or woodchuck, all emerge from her benevolent scrutiny on equal terms with their wild associates. "The Whooping Cranes" is in large part a tribute to Robert Porter Allen, who devoted much of his life to studying, defending and lobbying for the cranes. Through his writing alone, Allen became a childhood hero of mine, and McNulty's moving portrait of him renews and justifies that youthful admiration.
Most of these stories originally appeared in The New Yorker , their author often unacknowledged. Encountering them over the years, it has always seemed quite wonderful to find falcons, a gorilla, or a marooned Russian sea-bird nestled among urban gossip and advertisements for the ultimate in luxury consumer items. Like a spider on a 747 or a wren on Wall Street, they are a welcome breath of life from a world we have forsaken for comfort and efficiency, and it is a delight to meet them again in this lovely book. Most delightful of all, however, is the chance to meet at last the person who so generously introduced them to us.