Probably few people—even among those who relish watching the Philadelphia Flyers—think they want to see a vivid full-color closeup of a raccoon eating frog's legs right off the frog. Or of ants crawling all over a narrow-mouthed toad that has squeezed itself into a rotting log in search of food that the ants found first. Or of the "grim but gaily colored fruiting body" of a "killer fungus" whose mycelium has riddled an insect "deep in the galleries" of another rotting log. Or of a "little red wafter" parasite crawling about a Passalus beetle's underside, "probably tapping the great beetle's plumbing at leisure." Or a praying mantis taking a long and apparently gratifying swig from the abdomen of a fly. Or of a paper wasp biting into a tent caterpillar, causing the latter's green blood to spurt.
But I—who flinch at the Flyers—have seen all these closeups, and I recommend them. All these and other intimate views of creatures usually glimpsed flitting or scurrying, if at all, are provided by the photographs and prose of A Closer Look (Sierra Club Books, $14.95). Michael A. Godfrey, the non-academic naturalist who took the pictures and also wrote the text, has pried right into the thick of what he calls the "gustatory melee" that goes on ceaselessly in the average suburban backyard or wooded lot.
I knew there were strange things outside that I could see if I took the time, but I was not prepared for Godfrey's portrait of the "hot dog-sized" royal walnut caterpillar glaring out from somewhere beneath its false eyespots and its "antlers," which look to be nearly as big as McDonald's French fries. Then there is his study of a brown bat, which seems to be sitting for him the way Churchill sat for Karsh. The bat looks downright cuddly—furry head, cute ears, a twinkle in its small black eye—except for that pink open mouth and those small pointed incisors, with that gap between them.
I don't know how Godfrey got such great shots. I do know he has spent a lot of time lying around in the near outdoors seeing far juicier collisions and richer interweavings than the rest of us have been seeing, lying about watching contact sports on TV. You can't bet, of course, on the ferment going on atop a bull thistle, among the long grasses or inside deadwood. You can't even root. But you can see wild action, organisms really going at it, and also webs shining with bright round jewels of dew.