Standing ten feet from a mountain lion, his knife drawn, all Craig Childs could think was, “No, this is not supposed to happen. This is not how I die.” Stifling his fear, Childs was transfixed by the animal, captivated by the stillness of its gaze. “I remember just staring into the eyes of this lion as it’s pacing back and forth in front of me, looking for a way to get to my spine,” he recalls.

Though the encounter happened a decade ago, Childs paints it with the vivid detail of a day-old memory in his new book The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. A self-taught naturalist and author more at home in the volcanic mountains of Arizona than in any city, Childs has always written about his interactions with animals. Now 40, he still has steno pads from his childhood, filled with notes about red-winged blackbirds. Childs’ new book, written in easily digestible chapters, lets us eavesdrop on his conversations with the animal kingdom. 

Childs also recounts a brush he had with humans when hiking through the bombing ranges of Arizona, a landscape marred by the twisted metal of old military targets. An F-16 jet came upon him rapidly, flying just 30 feet above the ground and firing Childs’ own animal instincts as he fled the plane’s path to avoid its shock wave, which can knock a person unconscious. It’s telling that this particular passage highlights the scarring of the earth, since man’s impact on animals is always on the author’s mind. “I’d like for there to be an understanding of what is really out there, that the world is not just ours to consume,” he says.

If there’s one point Childs hopes to get across in The Animal Dialogues, it’s that humans occupy just one of many realms on the planet. “I spend a lot of time in the wilderness, and I’ve come to realize there are many worlds happening at once that I wanted to portray in this book.”

Most of his adventures take place in the American West, where Childs has spent a lifetime exploring deserts, canyons, and forests. He walked 1,100 miles following prehistoric migration routes from the four-corner junction of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah into Mexico, turning his trek into a book on southwestern archaeology called House of Rain.

Though he doesn’t go on as many treacherous rock climbing escapades as he once did, Childs has no plans to give up adventure. He just returned from a first descent down the Salween River in Tibet. “We never knew what was around the bend,” he says. “It turns out there’s a lot, a lot of big water. It was pretty dangerous.”

Story by Joshua Payne. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Beastie boy
Craig Childs, self-proclaimed wilderness enthusiast, and his new book, The Animal Dialogues.