There are legions of bright people who find matrix algebra as inscrutable as cuneiform, who can stare at a Venn diagram for hours and never have an "a ha" experience, who recoil from a googolplex. But as the late C.P. Snow pointed out in "The Two Cultures no one ignorant of current science can profess to be educated.
Help has arrived in the persons of several first-rate writers -- some of them scientists (Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould), some not (Nigel Calder, Horace Freeland Judson) -- who cam make scientific arcana intelligible to the match-averse layman.
In its "New Explorer" series, Knopf is injecting some of this intellectual populism into wildlife biology. The modus operandi is to plunk an expert into a remote ecosystem and ask him to observe and tape-record all that he can of his surroundings. Earlier books centered on an Alaskan lake, a Costa Rican rain forest, and Enewetak Atoll, a former nuclear-test site in the Pacific Ocean.
The latest volume consists of the transcribed musings of Dwight Smith, 12,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies. Smith claims to be an ordinary man, and his book bears him out. His philosophizing, even on environmental issues, is pedestrian, his prose as flat as day-old tonic water. Yet this mental ordinariness is perfectly suited to Smith's assignment, the translation of complex biological concepts into lay talk.
One of his best renderings is an explanation of how land managers estimate the carrying capacity of their domain -- that is, its ability to feed a specified animal. The field biologist begins by installing a heterodyne vegetation meter, which receives radio waves from 15 probes planted thoughout an area measuring 1 foot-by-2. The waves transmit the amount of moisture in the probed plants.
The next step is to "establish a relationship between moisture readings and plant weight. This is done by a rather complicated process. First, you clip all the vegetation from the same 1-by-2 plot . . . Then you put it into a paper sack, dry it and weigh it. (the weight is calculated in 'pounds of air-dried herbage per acre.') By doing this for a dozen or so plots you arrive at a reliable moisture/plant ratio and can then rely on the meter readings alone."
All that remains is to apply the results of the readings to the known for age requirements of the animal. The figuring ultimately yields "a recommended grazing density, or number of animals per acre." Smith concludes it would take at least 10 acres of the land around his 12,000-foot vantage point "to support one elk throughout the short summer grazing season."
Smith skillfully profiles one of the world's most primitive ecosystems, the alpine snowbank. It harbors a number of cryophilic (cold-loving) creatures, the most arresting of which are the algae that appear as red streaks on the snow. They grow in "pocket and drops of water [that] are melted by the sun."
The ways the algae obtain nourishment illustrate "the ingenuity of life forms to adapt to extreme conditions. Oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air dissolve in the meltwater, where they are easily absorbed. The snow itself contains minute amounts of nutrients, including nitrates, phosphates, sodium and potassium. Some of these come from the adjacent soil or from windblown debris; others originate as atmospheric dust brought to earth by falling snow. Tiny amounts to sea salts may drift airborne from the Pacific Ocean; slight remnants of a dust storm in Utah may settle here a speck at a time."
Smith adds a bit of practical information about red snow. Despite their attractiveness -- the look of paprika sprinkled over snow, the smell and taste of watermelon -- the algae are not to be eaten: they have a "very strong laxative effect."
Smith's ordinariness also serves to underscore one of the peradoxes of the wilderness movement: the desire to have enormous stretches of terrain all to oneself (and perhaps a few carefully chosen companions). Far from minding his exile from family and friends, plain Smith found himself resenting the arrival of visitors to his aerie (a small cabin). Over the five months that he spent above timberline, he changed from an earnest academic to an alpine old cuss. The impulse toward hermitage bespeaks a primordial and single minded need in many Americans to reacquaint themselves with the naked surface of their planet.