When the rains came at last to the parched, panting African savanna that Franklin Russell was investigating, and he stepped out of his tent to test the "deliciously fresh" air and note the instantly greening earth, he observed, "A cool white wine had gone down the throat of the drought."
When describing the terrifying ubiquity of the tiger while on a hunt in India, alluding to the Englishman who returned to his home one day and found a tiger in his bathtub, Russell sets the scene for an anecdote about his host by placing him in the living room of his Jubbulpore bungalow. He is seated by "the big windows, really French doors, leading out to the verandah," reading Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd while smoking a pipe. A gin and tonic is by his side. And he starts that story with this Spartan sentence: "The tiger came through the French doors at nine o'clock."
You may conclude from just these two examples that Russell is not your everyday "nature writer." Russell has been studying and writing about the natural world for four decades now, his published observations include such celebrated originals as Watchers at the Pond, The Secret Islands and Searchers at the Gulf. He has pursued his game and his interests to, literally, both poles, around the equator and in dozens of obvious and unlikely places in between. And he has now written a kind of summing-up of one aspect of what he has seen, thought and felt: The Hunting Animal (Harper & Row, $13.95).
Russell has long been moved by the relentless struggle of creatures to stay alive, to kill before being killed, to reproduce. Existence in the natural world is an endless hunt. And in The Hunting Animal Russell has distilled and illuminated his judgments and observations by tracking the emperor penguin in Antarctica, the wolf and the lemming in the Arctic and the kangaroo in Australia—though because he is a sensitive and catholic reporter, he cannot and does not fail to see the wine coursing down the throat of droughts, and other natural wonders.
In a powerful series of chapters, he mingles the strategies of three simultaneous hunts: the physical and psychological assault of a leopard on a troop of baboons, the apparently languid but meticulously devious attack by a cheetah on a herd of hartebeests and the unbelievably complex tactics of the raid and rape of a termite tower by army ants. Over many days and nights, Russell watches the unfolding of the leopard's campaign of terror and his uncertainty about his next step, which produces a kind of mass paralysis before the final confrontation with the baboon leader. That meeting, nevertheless, brings a surprise for the reader and the leopard—and, perhaps, the baboon itself. The cheetah's hunt, by contrast, ends in the mute acquiescence to the inevitable, while the fate of the termite horde is merely slaughter and oblivion.
Nearly all of the book's chapters are similar triumphs of observation and writing skill, though with one puzzlement—at least, to me. Russell has chosen to begin the book with an account of the decades-long slaughter that reduced to near extinction the uncounted millions of buffalo in the American West. It is only partly successful, and wholly familiar, and it is no coincidence that this is the one hunt for which Russell has, perforce, relied on the reports of others. My own favorite is the chapter about a hunt for red deer in Russell's native New Zealand, that gloriously different land he understands so well and loves so dearly. He hunts with a memorable companion, Horace Henry Sebastian Rangiatikaweko..."half pakeha, or white man, and half Maori, or Polynesian; a hybrid dynamo." Together they serve as a unique sampling of their country. To the earliest explorers, this was "a paradise of birds, a place that birds had reached but which, apparently, their enemies had not." Long familiarity with the bird life of New Zealand's forests has sharpened Russell's appreciation of it: "Whatever the purpose of bird song, there must have been some profound reason for such symphonic variety in this far land.... There must have been an extraordinary purpose in giving every individual tui a different song, as if the wealth of melody created the need for infinite improvisation, in the manner of Handel at the harpsichord or Charlie Parker on the saxophone."