As a wee tad the preeminent ecologist, Evelyn Hutchinson, commonly called the world's greatest living specimen of that specialized breed, pushed little Christina into a pond of the Cambridge Botanic Garden to see if she would float -- a very early interest, indeed, in the hydromechanics of organisms.

If you have the chance to dine with him in New Haven you fairly leap, having made sure there are no ponds in the neighborhood (for he is quite capable of duplicating an old experiment to instruct those who follow him) and perhaps I should say that I survived the evening with unwetted foot and also that little Christina, all those decades ago, did not drown but lived to forgive all.

Now Hutchinson is 82, the celebrated Sterling professor of zoology emeritus at Yale, his original English accent much abraded by decades of Yankee nasality,yet retaining much that is soft. His greatest distinction, in the opinion of those who admire him most, is that he gave ecology a firm scientific base. He was a leader among those who transformed the subject from a collection of naturalist's field notes to a system of theorems and formulas that could be checked and and applied widely.

When I arrived at Mory's (the train an hour and a half late as trains always are when you are counting on a rainbow at the end of the track) the conversation was already in full flow, and the ecologist, his wife, Anne, and Dr. T.E. Lovejoy, chief science authority of the World Wildlife Fund, were well along in the feast. I was allowed to eat superb roast beef, though others were finished. Hutchinson likes for journalistic organisms to survive along with the water beetles and other splendid genera.

But even as I entered I could gather from the laughter and animation that the conversation was not on the ecology of lakes and how they change through the eons, which is not particularly hilarious, but on some remark that I had arrived too late to enjoy. From earlier reading I knew that Hutchinson talked about everything under the sun and was not too surprised that he spoke that night of dogs and Neapolitan folklore, the cathedral of Ely and the costume of a Spanish madonna, the mosaics of Monreale (which he rather dislikes) and old days in Cambridge.

"Incredible," he said of that great university town early in this century. "In field after field great ferment and advancement. Russell and Whitehead, Frazer and G.E. Moore, Jane Harrison, Marshall and Keynes, Skeat and J. J. Thomson and Rutherford and F. Gowland Hopkins."

Great names, though we who are educated at random will not recognize all of them. Hutchinson did not start out a genius (apart from the Christina experiment) but a normal boy acquainted with inadequacy and terror. His father was the master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and young Hutchinson went off to a good school. He likes to tell you of a master there (expert at discipline and the withering of prepubertal souls) who announced that "on a certain day at a certain time a certain boy did a certain thing. I do not wish this to happen again."

Even at the age of 15 he had published his first scientific paper (on water beetles) and after finishing at Cambridge he went to Naples purportedly to study endocrine systems of the octopus, but was substantially seduced into the unrelated fields of folklore, architecture, painting and sculpture -- interests that have never left him.

Later he was the lecturer in zoology in South Africa and, like all his predecessors, fired. In 1932 he was the biologist with the great Yale North India Expedition, a tremendously busy time during which he nevertheless managed to court and win his first wife, Margaret, and as they settled in at Yale they were cited for decades as an ideal loving couple.

His father was a man of wit and humor. He explained to young Evelyn the chief difference between Oxford and Cambridge:

"The main advantage that Oxford has over us," the father said, "is that they do not have Trinity College, Cambridge." (The clout of Trinity was not lost on the master of Pembroke).

He also told young Hutchinson that when he ran into an interesting problem he should drop everything else and pursue it. Don't put it off while you complete some donkey work. In science, as in the marriage feast of the Bible, ye know not when the bridegroom cometh, and the crown of science does not go to foolish virgins.

Hutchinson said he grew up in the Church of England, and his speech is full of allusions to "the pearl of great price" and so on, having had the Bible and prayer book drummed into him as a boy. He remembers going to the great church at Ely, hearing Mozart's "Te decet hymnus Deus in Sion" with shattering effect. A beauty new to him. It has always been his view that scientific researchers, as well as archangels, sing their song to Zion.

He accepts new evidence, a thing not as common as it should be among those who are dedicated searchers for the truth. He now thinks the church at Durham is as wonderful as the one at Ely -- a great concession, since Ely was his first love. Ely, he said, is a hodgepodge of styles, but astonishing in the quality of its workmanship, and in the authority of taste that informed each generation of its builders over many centuries. But Durham is all of a piece, built quickly, all at once, and overwhelming in its unity and splendor. Still, you need not look there for the grace of the tacked-on west door of Ely. On the other hand --

You do not expect a scientist to analyze the essence of two architectural masterpieces. Still less do you expect to see him puttering to unlock a glass cabinet at home, after supper, to retrieve some ivory carvings from Goa to illustrate a point of sculptural style. We had left Mory's just before they threw us out, long after supper hour, and continued at his modest house jammed with accumulations.

"Don't think I want to give any of these to the Victoria and Albert," he said. "I think these would be for Yale."

His wife made coffee and sat on the floor and Hutchinson remarked he had never been able to visit Ravenna and the Byzantine treasures of its churches. Which led him to Monreale, where he once explored its monuments guided by a great authority.

"I learned many years later he was a notorious homosexual, and while he never made any advances, I suppose my youth appealed to him -- "

"Oh," cried his wife, "I do not like to hear you speak like that. There is so much prejudice against homosexuals that nobody should add to it. Surely they have a place, and we should not speak or think in this prejudiced way."

"I wasn't speaking in a prejudiced way. I have nothing against them, I was just mentioning that years later I learned this fact."

"Well," said Anne, "it sounded prejudicial to me. You know humans are so complex, you cannot take them apart as you can analyze things in a laboratory. Where is that book, I think it was Auden, we have it here somewhere, I want to read it to you. Here it is," and she read it, set it down and continued the sermon. "You can study all the influences on a person but still the essence eludes you. As the poem says, science cannot quite dissect these human things, any more than you can get the square root of a sonnet. I know it can be a hard thing to comprehend sometimes."

"It seems to me fairly easy to comprehend," said Lovejoy. "I mean the part about science not being able to take the square root."

"Of course you would understand it," she said, "and people with fine minds like yours, but I wonder if everybody would."

"Would the undergraduates at Cambridge understand it?" Lovejoy asked.

"Some would," said Hutchinson, "and some, as I recall, would not."

He turned to a large polychromed wooden madonna perched atop a bookcase.

"Not Yucatan, I think. Not Yucatan at all. I bought it on Orange Street. The great authority on Mexican art thinks it is not Mexican but Spanish, ah, not colonial, yes, Spanish provincial. I like it because it's unique. Notice her necklace comes to her knees, and the infant is beneath her cloak but coming out, very like springing from the shoulder of Zeus. And why does she have a triple crown? The Christ has only a double crown. Did the sculptor just think the bigger crown looked better on the larger figure? Or did he mean her crown to be the greater?"

"Show him the black madonna," said his wife. And he did and the coffee kept coming and it was soon midnight. The Hutchinson lap dogs had been busy all night with mock battles, ignoring commands to stop it this instant, especially Ashley, named for Ashley Montagu, the anthropologist. Cagney, the foundling chihuahua who looks like James Cagney, the film actor, kept barking, "You rat," on general principles. Hutchinson would say something worth thinking of and Cagney would add, "You rat," for the sake of balance.

Hutchinson's book "An Introduction to Population Ecology" begins with an intimidating formula of abstract symbols alarming to the general reader, but is so lucid in the writing that one can ignore the mathematics and still learn a great deal. You begin to see that in order to preserve bears in their habitat a great deal more is involved than feeding them Twinkies. Knowledge rather than sentiment (though Hutchinson's love of everything from water beetles on up keeps breaking through his texts) is the key to achieving a wholesome bal- ance in an industrial world. He does not dream backward to Utopia but tackles obstacles in the way of a green future.

Darwin once said (Hutchinson alluded to it) he could predict the amount of red clover in a neighborhood by noting the number of unmarried women in the place. The more such ladies, the more cats. The more cats, the fewer mice. The fewer mice, the more bumblebees, since mice are prime predators of the bees. The more bees, the more pollination of the red clover flowers, since they alone do the job, and the more seeds the more clover. Presumably, though Darwin did not think of it, if you have too much red clover you simply import a lot of hearty lads to the village.

Hutchinson has done great work in various insects, in the ecology of lakes (an infinitely more elaborate subject than one might suppose), important studies in biological geochemistry (the chemical taxonomy of certain plants related to various minerals), effects of phosphorus in guano, nitrogen from the Earth's core in geologic time, important concepts of the ecological niche, the coexistence of species as related to phytoplankton populations and, as auto salesmen say, much much more.

Besides, he has trained and stimulated a long line of postdoctoral fellows of some brilliance. In the Middle Ages church windows often showed a Tree of Jesse, springing from the body of the sleeping patriarch. On each level of the ascending branches sat his descendants, with Christ at the top. Somebody once drew such a tree for the scholarly descendants of Hutchinson, with dozens of doctors on the branches (plus attendant beetles, worms, bugs, according to their specialties in science) and Lovejoy at the top. Lovejoy (it was worth asking) did not draw it himself.

But we didn't talk much of science. If your guest is still marveling at the square of the hypotenuse there's no point baffling him with clever developments in science in recent centuries. With Hutchinson it's not an unwillingness to cast pearls before swine, since he has plenty to spare, but a host's delicacy to talk of things the whole company might conceivably understand.

"Well, now you have met a polymath," said Lovejoy after we left the house. Both Hutchinsons followed us to the car and talked till the motor drowned everybody out including Ashley and Cagney, both of them still hyper and unwilling to call it quits.

Many have commented on Hutchinson's interest in a million things far removed from hard science, and this is rare in men who are profoundly learned in one field.

Gordon A. Riley, one of his well-known former students, wrote that "Anecdotal accounts written by different people would hardly seem to be talking about the same man. He has angered some who feel that to have amusement with science is irreverent.

"He communicates with different people in many different ways," but always with an absence of extravagant emotion. "There were horrendous crashes of glassware in his laboratory," Riley added, "accompanied by great oaths: 'My word,' for a little crash and 'O blast' for a big one."

S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and an old friend of Hutchinson's, once wrote of their talks together:

"We talk of birds and beasts and rhinos and mediaeval illumination, of density-dependent relationships and heterogeneously diverse environments -- of freshwater pond preservation on Hawaiian islands and the symbiotic relationships of honey guides and honey badgers. We are devotees of singerie and the curiosa associated with alchemists. He is one of the most refreshing persons I have ever met. His life has been an enchanted voyage."

The novelist Rebecca West, a great friend for years before her death, used to say, "He is a descendant of Merlin." She loved the slow deep humor of his writings, as when Hutchinson recounted his mother's battles to win the vote for women. "When they rode through the town on bicycles it was difficult not to believe that men were responsible for all the evil in the world." Of course, Miss West may have been the last feminist to see any humor at all in this.

She paid him a handsome compliment: "If there are 20 people like this between here and China, civilization will not perish. The art historian, the classical scholar, the humorist, the wit, the liturgist, the kind friend to the perplexed -- they are all there, but of course it is the scientist which is the master self."

A widespread judgment of the man is summarized by the comment of a former student in one of two journals that devoted special issues to Hutchinson:

"He is a man whose professional life span has covered most of the period when ecology was transformed from a naturalist's fact-finding venture into a coherent branch of science. It is due in no small part to his efforts that this transformation took place."

When Hutchinson accepted the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1979, for the development of the scientific basis of ecology, he said:

"I wondered what I had done to be included with Einstein and Sir J. J. Thomson and Thomas Edison . . . It was not until I remembered Dr. Franklin's own 'Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind' published in Boston in 1775 that I began to find my place as a white dwarf in the galaxy. Franklin's little work influenced Malthus as he wrote just those passages in his 'Essay on Population' that in turn critically influenced Darwin."

His own work he considers to be a few stones among many in the foundation of a great modern structure of science, the field of ecology:

"Here the biologist and the technologist can and should meet. We have reached a point where we cannot help altering the biosphere on a global scale. Have we considered whether industrial processes cannot be devised in such a way that they are environmentally beneficial rather than harmful? Or, at least, that their undesirable consequences are mutually antagonistic and can be made to cancel out? Technological processes might be adjusted to leave inhabitants of the earth more or less as they are, so reducing the frightful decimation of much of the living world, including ourselves, that might otherwise occur."

Some of the ugliness of the modern environment angers him:

"Our cities tend to become hideous and some of their inhabitants naturally behave hideously. Even the best modern architecture is too stark to hold our attention . . . Cities should not generate problems but delights -- as Athens and Florence and Paris at their best have done. "Finding the right combination of learning of all sorts, technology, beauty and love, is surely the task of all of us for the forseeable future."

A lofty view, the beneficiaries of which (if his combination of technology and love can be made to work) will include not only men and women, and not only water bugs (his first love) but Ashley and Cagney (You Rat) in their alarmed yowps as well.