BOOKS: Wildwoods Wisdom: Encounters With the Natural World

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1992:

Wildwoods Wisdom: Encounters With the
Natural World, by Doug Elliott. Paragon House
(90 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011), 1992. 196
pages. $22.95 cloth.
In this curious mixture of scientific fact and folk
tradition, Doug Elliott distills a lifetime’s curiosity about
the myriad ways in which humans interact with other crea-
tures. Throughout, he combines the self-taught herbalist’s
keen attention to detail, the wildlife artist’s regard for har-
mony, and the folklorist’s appreciation for traditional coun-
try beliefs.

He visits Pentecostal groups who routinely “take
up serpents.” He discovers a secret World War II project to
equip bats with minature incendiary devices. And he fol-
lows the spiritual quest of a New Age student who discovers
his personal totem is a skunk.
From time to time Elliott recounts native
American legends with their characteristic earthy humor.
At other times his stories become “a personal existential
metaphor” with overtones of New Age sensibility. He can
move comfortably from communicating with owls to shar-
ing a neighbor’s recipe for roast woodchuck or turtle soup.
Of all rural traditions, only hunting evokes an
ambivalent response. Coon hunting, he writes, “is about
the music of the hounds, the adventure of getting out into
the woods at night, and…fellowship with other hunters.”
He lauds “the hunting spirit…a deep, primal, instinctive
behavior.” Yet when his neighbor’s dogs tree an opossum,
he exults that “the best part was no one wanted to shoot it.
This was my kind of hunt!”
His concern for the opossum no doubt derives
from the months he spent raising an orphaned opossum
called Blossom. And while he eats the game his neighbors
bring him, he nowhere recounts any personal experience
killing wild animals. Rather, he identifies with people who
relocate skunks or who raise a clutch of reptiles from eggs.
His own experiences include feeding half-starved marsupi-
als and rescuing hapless rat snakes.
One tale typifies his common-sense approach to
wild creatures. On a camping trip he chases a young rac-
coon up a tree, scaring the animal witless to discourage
future contact with humans. “All I wanted to do,” he
writes, “was comfort the little rascal and stroke its lush
lovely fur. But I knew that the best thing I could do for this
beautiful, wild, free-spirited animal was to teach it to asso-
ciate humans with fear, pain, and danger.”
Doug Elliott has a unique ability to present his
experiences and variously acquired knowledge without
passing judgement on the people he meets in the “wild-
woods.” He uses New Age metaphors, but his conclusions
reflect a more traditional respect for nature and life.
––Cathy Young Czapla
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