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Nature Watch A fine collection of nature books for holiday giving

My problem each year in recommending natural history books for holiday gifts is the sheer number of new issues. This year is no exception, and their quality continues to be very high.

Publishers respond to current events, and the contemporary controversy over evolution has led three of them to issue very similar one-volume collections of Charles Darwin's four seminal works: "Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle," "The Origin of Species," "The Descent of Man" and "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals." (No matter what your position on evolution, you cannot go wrong reading the story of the five-year Beagle voyage; it remains among the finest travel books ever written.) It is tough to choose among these fine collections. Although Nobel Prize-winner James D. Watson has written the introductions to the Running Press edition, I would opt for the Norton volume, "From So Simple a Beginning," with E. O. Wilson's essays.

For those who remain undecided about intelligent design, I recommend David Rains Wallace's "Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution" (California) as well as an older book by Daniel C. Dennett, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" (Simon & Schuster).

Former Newsweek reporter and self-described pagophile (ice lover) Mariana Gosnell has written "Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance" (Knopf), a wonderful encyclopedic collection of information about this solid form of water. You name it, it's here, including passing reference to our Niagara River ice boom and the ice bridge at the falls.

For a collection of graceful essays about field work in exotic places, I recommend Eric Dinerstein's "Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations" (Island Press). The author is chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, and he is one of those people of whom we are all jealous: His responsibilities send him on these wonderful trips. But Dinerstein paid his dues, having started as a two- year Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal surveying tiger populations.

Today we should not only appreciate our park rangers, but we must admire them for their courage. Some of the problems they meet are described very well in Jordan Fisher Smith's "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra" (Houghton Mifflin). It is interesting that, having faced down gun-toting miners, dopers and dangerous animals, Smith is finally defeated by Lyme disease.

Bob Butz, author of "Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma" (Lyons Press) lives in Michigan, closer to the mountain lion's normal Western range, but his interesting analysis of current evidence is of interest to us in New York as well. The number of reports here of this elusive beast continue to mount.

Every year we get more and even better field guides. This year we have a diverse representation of increasing usefulness to identifiers. Perhaps these books will lead to new field specialties for amateurs just as the dragonfly books did a few years ago. First are two covering the same subject: Thomas H. Allen, James P. Brock and Jeffrey Glassburg, "Caterpillars in the Field and Garden" (Oxford) and David L. Wagner, "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" (Princeton).

Other guides include: John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott and Thomas J. Walker, "Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets of the United States" (Cornell); Roger Phillips, "Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America" (Firefly Books); Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison, "Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds," 2nd edition (Princeton). More technical is D. Ubick, P. Paquin, P. E. Cushing, V. Roth, editors, "Spiders of North America: an Identification Manual" (American Arachnological Society).

Among the many beautiful coffee table books my favorite is Piotr Naskrecki's "The Smaller Majority" (Harvard), a remarkable collection of close-up photos of tiny invertebrates from around the world.

On the ecological front is Daniel Imhoff's "Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions in an Overpackaged World" (Sierra Club), an important book, well worth our attention. It is not enough for us simply to separate our ever-increasing volume of refuse. We need to join other countries in reducing the amount of stuff we throw away before our landfills overflow and inundate us.


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