THREE LEVELS OF TIME is an odd little book that aspires to a grand mission. Its author, former Esquire editor Harold T. P. Hayes, felt called to search on behalf of his readers for answers to the fundamental questions about man's life on earth. Drawn to measure "the full weight of human experience," Hayes wondered (as have many before him): Where did man come from? What will become of him? How will he survive? The answers Hayes gives are obscure, thorny and provocative but not really enlightening.

The "three levels" of the title can be variously explained. One interpretation is given in passage by Lewis Mumford which Hayes used as the book's epigraph. Says Mumford, "The past, the present, and the future are . . . almost one; and, if our minds were only capable of holding these three elements together in consciousness . . . we should deal with our problems in a more organic fashion."

Hayes also organizes his material into three different narrative strands which he alternates throughout the book. The most accessible is the story of an indomitable man named John Vihtelic, who was trapped in his car after he blacked out, lost control at the wheel, and rolled off the highway into a ravine in the Pacific Northwest's Cascade range. The other two narratives -- dense and allusive -- present Hayes' findings on the history of man and his planet. In one of these, which traces the history of the universe from "The Big Bang" that set it in motion, down through the Holocene, the recent epoch of geological time, Hayes skillfully translates very technical material into readable prose. He brings the distant world of science into the reach of readers who need to be told what the Big Bang has to do with them. Finally, Hayes provides a series of profiles drawn from his conversations with wise men (but rarely women) of science. Although Hayes does not make a serious attempt to place his subjects' ideas into the context of traditional scientific discovery, the profiles gvie Three Levels of Time a range of human dimension it would otherwise lack. They are distinguished by the author's close observation of these scientist/adventurers who share the findings of their far-flung researches and answer his urgent questions.

The questions are urgent to Hayes because he feels that man, isolated from nature, is now destroying the source of his sustenance. Of the many examples of this self-destructive impulse, the author prefers the rain forests, which grow in some of the earth's poorest nations, like Brazel, Malaysia and Zaire, but "represent a collective resource important to the survival of many species, including our own." They cover 3 to 4 percent of the world's surface, but they produce "from 20 to 35 percent of the world's oxygen and recycle roughly the same amount of its carbon dioxide." They cleanse the air, affect the weather, and maintain water tables, and they have been "stable for sixty million years." Yet man now cuts down the forests more quickly than they can grow back -- 50 acres a minute -- and the rain forests could be gone by the end of the century.

Man has trouble managing resources on a smaller scale, as well. Hayes compares man to the "bovine, dull-witted" wildebeest in a metaphor for his concern about man's fate. In an east African wilderness, the wildebeest depends for survival on the grass that it eats. The grass grows according to seasonal rainfalls, and and wildebeest population adjusts to the supply of grass, "to take enough but never too much." Just outside the wilderness, man feeds his cattle on the same sort of grass. But, in recent years, he has not been able to adjust like the wildebeest. Man has pushed the cattle to eat the grass "beyond its capacity to recover." The land turns to desert, cattle die, and man suffer the consequences of defying the natural order.

The quest that took Hayes around the world, to the East African wilderness, the A. N. Bakh Institute of Biochemistry in Moscow, and other uncommon places, started with an urge to know the dictates of the natural order for man. Thinking the issue too big to be settled in an ordinary forum, Hayes created his own -- "The occasion for this book." Moving from biochemist A. I. Oparin in Moscow to economist E. F. Schumacher in England, with a score of stops between, Hayes gathered evidence on the definition of life, the meaning of human intelligence, and the roots of civilization, and noted the quirks of men who gave testimony along the way. From conflicting accounts of history, Hayes drew one common lesson: man's survival depends on a mix of instinct and intelligence.

The story of John Vihtelic, which "had nothing to do with any of this," when Hayes set off on his odyssey, finally serves the author as a symbol of man the survivor -- a relief from the imponderables that Hayes pursues at other levels. Vihtelic provides "human responses" and the "components of an answer" to the questions that prompted the author's journey. Pinned between a car and a tree stump, Vihtelic lasted two weeks in the wilderness before he pried himself loose and climbed to safety. His story anchors a slim book that otherwise drifts in unsettled currents of thought about questions that have no satisfactory answers.