William Warner may be only an occasional naturalist, but he is an enduring writer. He snagged a Pulitzer for his surprisingly popular Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, and was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle Award for Distant Water. Warner is in top form in his new book, Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys. In these nine literate outings, he records some highlights from a lifetime of adventures in the natural world. Warner writes glowingly of the howler monkeys of South America, of eye-to-eye encounters with whales, and of swimming among a rainbow of equatorial fish. He describes beautifully what it is like to find yourself at the very edge of a coral reef, where an underwater cliff fades away to a dark and forbidding infinity unlike any seen on land. That his first experiences in this magical world took place during World War II, prior to the invention of rubber-mounted face masks and scuba tanks, did not inhibit his enjoyment.
Part of the appeal of Warner's writing is its intimate informality. In A Short Journey to the Unknown, he begins with a ramble through some of the moments in modern nature writing when the authors experienced an epiphany of their place in nature. Modestly admitting to only a single near-epiphany, the typically cautious Warner proceeds to tell the fascinating, even hair-raising, story of an experience in the winter landscape of northern Canada when, if nature was speaking to him at all, it was commenting ironically upon his own momentary hubris. It's a lovely account, reminiscent of Loren Eiseley but without the melancholy theatrics. The essays vary from the meditative to the wildly adventurous and even humorous. Warner casts an ironic eye upon the foibles of nature, humanity, and himself. Modest but always competent, skeptical but still adventure-hungry, Warner seems to have kept his eyes wide-open wherever he went. He gives the impression of missing very little that goes on around him which makes him a surprising, articulate guide through the minefield that is the place (basically everywhere you turn) where the natural world refuses to obey our preconceptions about it.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).