Natural Woman

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

DIANE ACKERMAN REMEMBERS THE moment she first began to suspect that she wasn't like other kids. She was passing through an orchard near her Waukegan, Ill., home, en route to first grade. "I looked up and saw plums hanging in the trees," Ackerman says, "and they looked like little bats. I explained that to the friends I was with, and they recoiled in horror—from me, not from the idea of bats. I had discovered metaphor, but afterward I learned to keep that side of my nature concealed. It wasn't until I was much older that I discovered there were other people like me."

Like her, that is, up to a point. In the course of her professional life, Diane Ackerman, poet and nature writer, has cavorted with whales in Argentina, studied bats in the deserts of Texas and scouted out rare albatrosses on Japan's Torishima island—a track record few artists can match. Says novelist Paul West, her longtime companion, with a laugh: "Sometimes I think, 'By God, you don't have to go to Latin America, you don't have to go to the Antarctic—just imagine the damn things!' " But imagination is only part of the story for Ackerman. "I try to bridge science and art," she says. "The world can't be known from just one perspective."

It is that blend of sensibilities that has made her a success. In her four nonfiction works, and to some extent in her five volumes of poetry as well, Ackerman specializes—as Washington Post reviewer Richard Restak put it—in capturing "in words and images insights usually bestowed only upon the trained scientist." A Natural History of the Senses, her meticulously researched celebration of hearing, vision, smell, taste and touch, succeeded so well in that regard that it became a best-seller last year. (Ackerman on smell: "When we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.") The Moon by Whale Light, a collection of four animal portraits originally published in The New Yorker and out this month in book form, is already receiving enthusiastic reviews, as is her latest volume of poems, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter.

Ackerman, 43, is driven to her subjects by love. In Whale Light she focuses on penguins ("the most anthropomorphic of animals"), whales ("they are quite, quite intelligent"), alligators ("a form of life radically different from ours") and bats ("because we're suspicious of things that live in the night"). The latter two, she knows, would not make most people's favorite fauna lists. But Ackerman even went so far as to place a bat in her curly mane while doing her research, to test the folk wisdom that a bat will become entangled in human hair. (It didn't, she was interested to discover, but it did "cough gently.") She has simply never met a species she didn't like. "I'm thinking all the way down to the smallpox virus," she says. "I find all forms of life fascinating."

And she's willing to endure danger to uncover their secrets. Three or four times each year she leaves the Ithaca, N.Y., ranch house she shares with West and embarks on voyages of discovery that have, in the past, left her with broken ribs (from climbing in albatross country) and intestinal parasites (from snorkeling in the Amazon). In 1988 she risked the wrath of a hissing six-foot Florida alligator when she reached inside the opening under its tail to try to determine its gender. (Held down by a colleague, the creature reluctantly put up with her probing.)

"Sometimes there will be a certain amount of risk to what I do," Ackerman says, "but I never take unnecessary chances, and I always work with experts. I go out as an informed innocent. Then I come back and try to allow readers to see the wonders that I have seen."

Delighting her public, she hopes, may do the planet a favor as well. "A lot of environmentalists are so solemn that they tend to put people off—no one likes to be preached at," she says. "My technique is to try to make readers fall in love with an animal or a landscape so thoroughly that it would break their hearts to lose it."

Ackerman has loved the natural world for as long as she can remember. She was fanatic about horses as a child, and "like all kids," she says, "I got down in the dirt and enjoyed nature." After her father, a shoe salesman turned McDonald's franchiser, moved his wife and two children from Illinois to Allentown, Pa., her interest in writing began to grow. "At age 9, I started a neighborhood newspaper," Ackerman says. "And I was always making up stories and poems." She inherited wanderlust from her mother. "Travel is my mother's form of learning," Ackerman says. "I went to Europe and the Mideast with her in the mid-'60s and sent back a report that was published in the local paper."

By the time she reached Penn State—where she majored in English and met West, who was then a professor and still sometimes teaches there—she had decided to make writing her career. She went on to receive a doctorate in English from Cornell, and her dissertation—a study of the mind in science and art—presaged the work to come. Her first book, a collection of poems called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, was published in 1976.

"I wanted to write about the planets because I was thinking how sad it is that human beings can really only enjoy nature when they humanize it—thinking of Mars as a war god, or Venus as the goddess of love," Ackerman says. "Knowing that the real Venus is a spinning cocoon of acids seemed to me equally fascinating."

Her next books explored other areas of personal obsession. Twilight of the Tenderfoot is about contemporary cowboy life in the Southwest. "I went out there to write an aesthetics of the horse, and then I was so enraptured by cowboying that I just signed on at the ranch," Ackerman says. On Extended Wings is about learning to fly "and not being a passenger in life." She decided to write A Natural History of the Senses, she says, "for myself, because I was fascinated by all the textures in life." She has been deluged with letters and gifts from readers who were equally captivated. (Though not wishing to sound ungrateful, she says, "If I never see another potpourri in my life, it will be fine with me.")

These days Ackerman, who has taught at various universities including Cornell but is now taking a break, is between projects. She has just finished writing a book about endangered species, The Rarest of the Rare, and is planning her next natural history book while waiting to host a PBS adaptation of Senses in 1993. There is time now for dinners with Ithaca friends and long talks with West, 61. And even in her own backyard, there is wonder.

"When the deer leap the fence behind my house and come up to eat the apples that are slightly fermented on the ground underneath a fresh layer of snow," Ackerman says, "that's magic."

SAM MEAD in Ithaca

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