The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder

David Quammen, Author Scribner Book Company $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-684-83728-4
Rippling with verve, this fourth collection of essays culled from the latter half of Quammen's tenure as a columnist at Outside magazine (1981-1996) displays yet again how dexterously he fulfilled his monthly mandate ""to demonstrate that evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology, and the incisive contemplation of nature can provide piquant entertainment for people in dental waiting rooms."" Among his obsessions this time around are spiders and snakes, sperm and (somewhat more equivocally) eggs; reflections of nature in the eyes of artists and writers (the title alludes to Albrecht D rer's woodcut of a rhino armored like a feudal German knight, one of the world's first mass-produced images); and durian, a thorny yellow-green fruit the size of a rugby ball, which ""smells like a jockstrap"" but yields a pulp that's ""creamy and slightly fibrous, like a raw oyster that's been force-fed vanilla ice cream"" and that envelops another recurring motif: the nutmeg. As ever, it's a delight to watch Quammen (Song of the Dodo) take off in pointy-headed pursuit of the answer to a question that he has just twisted his brain to produce, such as why owls don't have penises or what is the terminal velocity of a plummeting cat. Nor is he above sticking his neck out and turning his meticulous gaze on his own foibles (why, Quammen wonders, is he a cringing arachnophobe, when he is also an avid snake fancier?). While one occasionally catches a glimpse of the ""pinched worried ruthless countenance"" of a man on a relentless monthly deadline, that sight only humanizes his formidable eye, ear and intellect. Agent, Ren e Golden. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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