Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Natural Acts

Our book today is “Natural Acts” by David Quammen, and it’s a peppy and heartening little masterpiece.

The field of natural history – a field this book adorns – is gratuitously freighted with literary masterpieces. This is understandable in a way, of course: great minds all start out as young people, and all right-thinking young people are fascinated with the natural world around them. Our young friend Elmo has the brain capacity of a Cray computer and the literary talent of a young Robert Silverberg (strange as it feels for those of us who are accustomed to thinking of Robert Silverberg as a ‘young’ Robert Silverberg … alas, hippy afros fade, and even wunderkinds grow older), but he has felt the sublime wonder of working back to stillness in a natural setting and simply watching as wild wonderful things resume their private activities all around him.

We here at Stevereads have also experienced this, and joyfully: swimming with whales off the coast of Hawaii, knowing the whole time that they were studying us out of simple curiosity; standing on an icebound ridge in Alberta, watching young timber wolves cavort in play under a dying sun; hearing the gorgeous melody of the ‘dawn chorus’ of birdsong on a beautiful chilly morning in the lovely countryside of Kent … the experience is the same, the wonderful rush of viscerally, visually understanding that nature, the wild world, happens without humans, happens all the time around them with no more notice of their bus and trains schedules than of their literary journals (or – gasp – their blogs).

Every naturalist knows these things (even the ones who learned them through the blast of a gun, although Elmo might be slow to allow for that), and quite a few of them have wanted nothing more than to write something that captured their experience. But precious few of them have had the literary ability to pull it off. This has resulted in a vast library of very dull books written about very fascinating things, a curious phenomenon found only in this particular branch of the sciences. Old little libraries dotted around the country have shelves filled with books titled something like “Sixty Years in the Yukon” or “Boating on the Danube” that were written by people who saw and experienced untold wonders (many of which have since vanished from a world increasingly bent on killing its wonders), and yet the books themselves are gaspingly dull. For every William Bartram, there are sixty prospectors with leaden prose styles. For every Theodore Roosevelt, there are eighty cowpokes who couldn’t write a compelling sentence if their lice-infested heads hung in the balance.

Still, there have been giants. Aristotle was one, and of course Darwin was another. William Beebe was one such, and in his own way so was the verbose Stephen Jay Gould. And surely one of the 20th century’s giants is David Quammen.

And Natural Acts is one of his peppiest essay collections (most of these first saw print while Outside magazine was lucky enough to have Quammen writing for it regularly). A collection as zestily written as this one tempts even our steely will here at Stevereads to simply quote its best bits for the next two hours, and we shall only partially resist. The urge anybody feels when they read this book (or, for that matter, most of Quammen’s other books) is to rush up to the next person they see and urge it upon them, and we see no reason to falsify that urge by substituting our own prose, brilliant though it is. Sometimes quoting an author is the best way to recommend him.

For instance, here’s Quammen on bats:

“Clearly the bat has captured human imaginations, and that may be because it seems triply oxymoronic: a flying mammal that sees in the dark by listening to its own silent screams. It is in truth an extraordinary animal, equipped with some startlingly sophisticated evolutionary adaptations, and represented around the world by a wild variety of different forms. If the bat is grotesquely improbable, so is Pablo Picasso.”

And here he is on the disturbing (to humans, anyway) personal presence of the octopus:

One of [Jacques] Cousteau’s assistants adds: ‘I have often had the impression that they are reflecting.’ Other divers and lab researchers make the same sort of comment, describing the same eerie sense of encounter, recognition, even mutuality. Lately I’ve had occasion to experience it myself, during three evenings of octopus-watching in a small university room filled with quietly gurgling tanks: the potent, expressive gaze of the octopus. These animals don’t just gape at you glossily, like a walleye. They make eye contact, as though they are someone you should know.”

And then there’s this, on the often sadistic playfulness exhibited by crows and ravens, a trait we’ve mentioned once or twice here at Stevereads:

“There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: ‘… this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.’ This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore’s favorite species amuses itself, she says, by ‘dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.’ What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.

For page after page, he’s like this: funny, insightful, and empathetic. His essays go by like the happiest of quick dreams, and his longer works wear their considerable learning so lightly they uniformly invite the reader, like having a happy, enthusiastic guest at dinner who just happens to know more than you do about komodo dragons, or coyotes, or jellyfish. Quammen’s writing approaches the natural world with the unembarrassed open-eyed wonder of the very young, and through his words, every reader is encouraged to do likewise.

So exit the computer for a moment, go outside, and look around for some leaping, living nonhuman thing. Once you’ve walked far enough to find one, stand still for a few minutes and just watch it, with no hurry in your head and no harm in your heart. Then when you’re done, come back inside and pull this book down off your shelves (or order it online, if you must). We here at Stevereads heartily recommend it.


Beepy said...

A review like this is what I live for. Give the staff at Stevereads a raise.

Sam said...

An intern at Stevereads bike-messengered this book to me a few months ago, with a distracted note from their overlord scribbled on the title page, and lo, I enjoyed it immensely.
Flight of the Iguana is great too, as is his short but potent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

Kevin Caron said...

Great post!

What I find fascinating about bats is their social development - there are vampire bats that not only have 'acquaintances'(bats they live in the same cave with) but 'friends' as well. A 'friend' a bat has made (through mutual grooming, etc.) will actually regurgitate blood for him/her if they have been unsuccessful in their nightly search for sustenance.


steve said...

The staff at Stevereads is, of course, unpaid. What kind of Commie Pinko do you take me for, Beepy? Remind me never to regurgitate blood for YOU again!