Adventures of a Young Attenborough

Adventures of a Young Naturalist – the Zoo Quest Expeditions

David Attenborough

Two Roads, 2017

This substantial volume is a re-issue of Attenborough’s first three Zoo Quest books, recounting his expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in the late 1950s, “slightly abbreviated and updated from the originals,” as he says in the Introduction.

The Zoo Quests were joint projects of the London Zoo and the BBC in which minuscule expeditions set out to collect wildlife for the Zoo with a TV cameraman recording the process. Collecting expeditions were regular operations of all zoos at the time, and I for one grew up loving Gerald Durrell’s very funny books about similar expeditions, but making one into a TV show was a novelty since nearly all TV of that period was ‘live’ in the studio.

As a young BBC TV producer with “an unused zoology degree” in his recent past, Attenborough was well placed to pioneer the genre. A short initial trip to Africa was successful enough that a longer one to South America was approved, and the rest we know.

As Attenborough says, the world has changed considerably since then and what was then adventure writing now reads as history – a lively history, to be sure, but not an account of the world we live in. It’s no worse for that, since such a fresh, open-eyed description of that world can tell us much about our own, and it’s still entertaining. Two or three young blokes improvising their way through wild country with the help of chance-met (and often strange) guides could hardly be dull, and Attenborough’s love of nature’s oddities was as infectious then as later.

Reading these Adventures of a Young Naturalist reminded me of a whole epoch of pioneering nature writing which has almost been forgotten by those old enough to have read it when it was new and therefore unknown to younger readers. Should I jog the collective memory? I think so.

Most of these appeared in the 1950s and 60s and will appeal to Attenborough’s audience in one way or another. In no particular order:

  • The Quest of the Curly-Tailed Horses by Noel Monckton
  • The People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
  • The Bafut Beagles, A Zoo In My Luggage and others by Gerald Durrell
  • Seal Morning by Rowena Farre
  • The Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels by Gavin Maxwell
  • Pilgrims of the Wild by Grey Owl
  • Born Free and its sequels by Joy Adamson

Christmas approaches as I write, so I’m going to suggest Adventures of a Young Naturalist would make a suitable gift or holiday reading, both for baby-boomers with an interest in wildlife and for younger people who have enjoyed Attenborough’s TV work for years but missed its early stages.

Charlie Veron: A Life Underwater

veron life underwater coverCharlie Veron: A Life Underwater

Penguin Viking, 2017

As has happened with other books, particularly where I have some personal connection to their authors, I have come across a published review which says what I would have said (and says it at least as well as I could have said it) and decided that it was better for me to quote excerpts than to write my own review. The quotations below are drawn from the extended review by Tim Elliott for the SMH (you can read it in full here).

… Equal parts memoir, coral reef primer and requiem to a planet, [A Life Underwater] charts a career that could scarcely be imagined today, a love affair with science birthed from childhood wonderment, free-range academia and happy accidents.

… Veron’s achievements are, quite literally, unprecedented. He was the first to compile a global taxonomy of corals – a monumental task that effectively became the cornerstone for all later learning. He was the first to show that, contrary to received wisdom, the Indo-Philippines archipelago has the world’s greatest diversity of coral, not the Great Barrier Reef.

A Life Underwater is a very approachable introduction to reef science since it allows us to learn the science sequentially through Veron’s own journey of discovery. Most of us would benefit from that before tackling his masterly A Reef In Time.

… He also originated a whole new theory about how corals evolved – which is kind of a big thing. Reticulate evolution, as it’s known, was born in large part from coral’s taxonomic complexity, and … describes how the ocean environment has made the boundaries between marine species, such as coral, much more “fuzzy”. …

Just to enlarge upon that: the conventional model of evolutionary change has always been the ‘tree of life’, branching endlessly from primordial beginnings. That paradigm, however, depends crucially on an assumption that branches never recombine, an assumption which failed so spectacularly with corals as to force Veron to replace it with a model which looks more like a mesh.

The best natural analogy for the model I know of (though I’m not sure that Veron has used it) is the ‘braided’ watercourse of (e.g.) Western Queensland’s Channel Country: there is still a clear overall direction but cross-links are common. In the real world, of course, the braiding represents gene flow between species, which has long been known but discounted as exceptional and unworthy of serious attention.

While his rapture at the natural world remains intact, [Veron] has become fixated on climate change, the effects of which, he believes, are now irreversible. “It’s a catastrophe,” he says. “We are looking at a future that is barely comprehensible. There will be immense social disruption, mass starvation, resource wars, cyclones the likes of which we’ve never experienced. Mass extinctions. And it’s going to happen much sooner than people think.” …

A Life Underwater deserves a wide readership, documenting as it does both a fascinating career and an endangered ecosystem of unsurpassed beauty.

As for Veron’s warnings on climate change, we had better believe him and do our best to avert the looming catastrophe.

Selected dystopias

As I’ve said before, SF is valuable for its freedom to conduct thought-experiments, which often illuminate our present by showing us futures which may arise from it. Utopias beckon us along a particular path, while dystopias hold up warning signs saying, “Wrong way – go back.”

In recent weeks I have read three new SF novels which offer such warnings. Continue reading “Selected dystopias”

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

Cover of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia

Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson

CSIRO publishing, 2017
Paperback $49.95; e-books also available.

As regular readers will be aware, I like spiders as well as butterflies and birds. I was very pleased when I heard the first hints that a new guide to them might be on the way, the more so since the author-to-be was my regular mentor in all things arachnological through his site Arachne.org and the Spiders of Australia flickr group. When he asked whether he could use a couple of my photos Continue reading “A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia”

The Fruit that Changed the World

Banana the fruit that changed the world - cover imageFive years ago I wrote a post celebrating our backyard bananas and lamenting the vulnerability of the commercial crop. Several more posts since then have touched on the dangerous lack of genetic diversity of the endlessly-cloned Cavendish (especially Wild bananas) and a book I picked up in our Balinese guesthouse recently refocused my attention on the issue.

Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel (2007) does for our favourite fruit what Longitude and Krakatoa do for navigation and our favourite volcano Continue reading “The Fruit that Changed the World”