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.

Negotiating Christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time for anyone wishing to live ethically without offending family and friends by appearing to reject their goodwill. The frenzy of gift-giving is a big issue. On the one hand, Christmas has been commercialised beyond belief, becoming yet another pretext for blatantly wasteful over-consumption; on the other, giving is always a good thing (and receiving can be nice, too). The religious aspect may also be problematic, since the endless barrage of sentimentalised carols and nativity scenes is irrelevant at best, and may be oppressive, for atheists or members of non-Christian faith communities. And then there’s the obligatory socialising with co-workers, members of your sporting club, or those members of your extended family whom you do your best to avoid during the year. It has its good side but enough is enough, surely?

We can’t do much, individually, about the superfluity of Christianity or conviviality but we can certainly do something about the material waste. This seasonal blog post has been slowly evolving for nearly ten years, with that objective in mind. An earlier version of it was called “Give Twice for Christmas,” my first strategy for getting as much good as possible out of the obligatory gift-giving.

Give twice with every gift by finding gifts which benefit as many people as possible, and especially those in need.
  • Buy from charity shops which handle third-world craft products (e.g. World Vision). Some of the money goes back to the maker, and the rest supports the charity’s other projects.
  • Buy Fairtrade goods if you can, rather than the standard commercial equivalents.
  • Make a donation in the recipient’s name to a charity whose aims they support. Kiva, which provides micro loans in poor countries with Western help, is worth considering here alongside Red Cross, WWF, the ACF and the rest.
  • Remember that Unicef, CARE and Oxfam sell gift certificates whereby the purchaser buys school books, a solar panel or a well for a third-world family. Buy one in the name of the recipient, who will receive a card with details of the donation.
  • Buy gifts from local art galleries to support struggling artists (and believe me, nearly all artists are struggling).
  • Buy cards, calendars, t-shirts, Christmas cakes, etc, from the Heart Foundation, BirdLife, the Wilderness Society or similar organisations. The goods may be mass produced but at least the profits are doing some good.
If you can’t give twice…
  • Make or grow something yourself: a cake, herb sachets, a framed photo, or a pot-plant in flower.
  • Maximise the benefit to your own community by buying from locally-owned independent shops and keep the profits in the community instead of sending them to the Cayman Islands.
  • Minimise waste, and still keep the money in the community, by giving services, subscriptions or memberships rather than goods – vouchers or gift certificates from theatres, restaurants, gardening services, yoga studios, the local cinema club, etc.
And always…
  • Give according to your own values, as well as the recipients’ wants. If you care about native birds, giving your friend a kitten may make you feel guilty for years, so find something which you have no doubts about instead – a bird-bath, perhaps.
  • Ask, suggest or hint that others do likewise. Use this article as a starting point if you like, and put it on Facebook or email it to people you know. You don’t have to say, “If you were thinking of giving me something, I would prefer,” which could be kind of awkward; just say, “I think this is a good way of thinking about Christmas.” You could bring a lot more happiness into the world by doing so – and isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to do?

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.

Do the finer details of climate science matter any more?

RealClimate is a long-running blog publishing, as its tagline says, “Climate science from climate scientists.” Its regular contributors are academics at the top of the field, working for NASA and the IPCC, etc, and many of their peers join the online discussion.

A recent post there by Stefan Rahmstorf, Is there really still a chance for staying below 1.5 °C global warming?,  is so relevant to our own local efforts to avert the impending climate melt-down that I wanted to share it here. Continue reading “Do the finer details of climate science matter any more?”

Eating for the planet

Our dietary choices affect our lives on several levels. The question which arises most often is probably, “What is best for our health?” After that, many of us want to minimise the pain and suffering we cause, to follow the dictates of our religion and to minimise our negative impact on the environment. Are these goals compatible? If so, to what extent? And what is the optimum diet for ourselves, for other living creatures, and for the planet?

To answer these questions, we might begin by defining the four broad categories of diet which most of us recognise, and mentioning some of their variants.

1. Vegan

Veganism is often considered a lifestyle strongly anchored in animal rights, rather than just a diet. The Vegan Society defines it as, “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose … In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” Continue reading “Eating for the planet”