Ever since a scorpion he kept in a matchbox terrorized his novelist-brother, Lawrence, critters of every shape, size, temperament, description and location have been Gerald Durrell's life. From creepy-crawlies mucking about on the bottom of a pond to a pair of giraffes kissing in the French manner, no creature great or small is beneath or beyond his passionate attention.
Over the past 35 years, that devotion has spilled out of him into the pages of 25 -- now 26 -- books, each of them enhanced by the gift of wonder that he is eager to share and by a wit that is purely British, which is to say arcane, orotund and utterly charming.
After all that, what could be left but a television series? By the BBC, of course; if you're British and you've written a couple of books, the BBC is likely to haul you around and make a personality out of you. That, in fine, is what "How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist" is all about (the "shooting" in the title is of the filmic variety -- the perils, pitfalls and peregrinations involved in the production of 13 episodes of "The Amateur Naturalist." (Sadly, PBS apparently has no immediate plans to air it in this country.)
The pitfalls were considerable and various. At the very beginning, one of his directors ("he bore a vivid resemblance to the Hanged Man on a Tarot Card") browbeat Durrell into climbing down a 600-foot cliff on the island of Unst at the northernmost tip of the British Isles, this in order to film the naturalist consorting with the gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars, shags, razorbills, gulls, skuas and puffins that layered the face of the cliff and the rocks below it. It should be understood that the white-bearded Durrell was in his late fifties when this was filmed and is not built along the proper lines for this sort of thing in any case (he is, let us say, portly); what is more, he suffers from vertigo. Nevertheless, he did it pluckily enough, unashamedly crawling down the wretched path incised into the face of the cliff on his hands and knees.
At other times and other places, Durrell found himself forced to crash-land in a hot air balloon, turn his back on a white rhino, walk on the water, break into one of his boyhood homes, and share his bath with a gaggle of pond terrapins. One particularly uproarious vignette has to do with an encounter with the most dangerous and unpredictable of all known species: the New Yorker (this involved shooting the "wildlife" in a vacant lot on West 87th Street and must be read to be appreciated; I must warn the reader, however, that, like all British writers, Durrell attempts to reproduce the American vernacular in this episode, and like all such attempts, it is a hilarious failure).
With great good cheer, Durrell spins out these and other anecdotes from a year of filming in England, France, the Canadian Rockies, the American Southwest, a Long Island cemetery (read the book), Panama, the Caribbean, South Africa and Corfu, where he spent much of his eccentric childhood.
But his best writing, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the creatures of his enchantment -- a water spider providing air conditioning to her submarine nest, a golden mole ("a furry ingot, scuttling about in its box of earth"), a chuckwalla that refused to take direction, badgers with a passion for peanut butter sandwiches, leaf-cutting ants with homicidal tendencies, avocets ("that paragon of all wading birds . . . moving elegantly on stormcloud-blue legs in a black and white suit"), weasels rippling like serpents through the grass, Rocky Mountain goats ("like a flock of vicars in white fur coats"), the osculating giraffes mentioned earlier (really quite extraordinary, as the author describes them), and dozens more, affectionately rendered with style and precision.
This is natural history writing at its graceful and entertaining best, and if I had to rummage around for a substantive criticism of the book, it would be that there might have been a little more of this and a little less about the human animals -- whose didoes, however interesting, even amusing, usually pale by comparison. To kissing giraffes, for example. My goodness.