The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen (New York: Scribner, 1996)

This is a long and extremely meaty book, about which I'd heard much, and which I chanced to spy at the library in Montpelier, and impulse-borrowed, and renewed and renewed until I'd read every last drop. Then I took down some notes, which only now, at least a season later, I'm going to try to flesh out. This is a wise habit to form, I think-trying to capture the feeling one has right after reading a book for the first time. I'm a little late on this one, but hopefully the habit will henceforth take hold more timelily...

Summary: David Quammen, a world-travelin' science-writin' man, creates a vivid popular treatise on the field of island biogeography.

The underlying question is, "What have biologists learned from islands?" The answer starts with Darwin and Wallace, and moves forward through time to modern scientists, including Robert May and E. O. Wilson, all toward the dark epiphany: We're fragmenting the mainlands so thoroughly that all the world is become an unraveling patchwork of islands. Ecological disaster and species loss aren't just rampant on islands any more.

To research this story and speak it from personal experience, Quammen gets to travel to Madagascar, the Amazon (twice), Aru, Komodo and Flores, Bali and Lombok, Mauritius, Galapagos, Tasmania, and possibly a couple of other phenomenal places I've neglected to list. In short, writing this big, long book demands traveling to some of the most biologically exciting places on the planet, delving into mountains of scientific literature, interviewing an array of idiosyncratic scientists (including Wilson in the 4th Floor MCZ Labs' seminar room), soaking up the writings of Wallace et al., and spinning all of this into a landmark book that will transport lots and lots of people. Doesn't that sound remarkably arduous, enthralling, and worthwhile?

Here's the question: Would you rather be the guy in the academy engaged in the actual process of scientific toil and discovery, or would you rather be the writer on the outside who interprets the science and amplifies its message? Of course, you might say, why not be both? (Wilson! Dawkins! You dawgs!) Hmm...both. That honestly didn't occur to me until just now, I think. A goal you can't really amble toward, I don't imagine. So back to the choice: Inside or outside?

First, some thoughts on the Inside that this book cooked up in me: Of course, Quammen zeroes in on the scientists who have made the most impact on their field: Wilson, May, Simberloff, Diamond-those kinda guys. Guys generally described as Very Smart Guys. Which, let's face it, also means Very Ambitious Guys, and, increasingly, Very Mathematically Proficient Guys. I think I regret that I do not feel more like such a person. Because it often sounds rewarding. But then, so does being a movie star to most people, and witness the masses waiting tables in fizzling pursuit of this improbable dream.

I have science anxiety. I don't often feel the ambition or electricity (or, let's be brutal, smartness) to have a real go at it.

On the more positive side, I found myself very jazzed by at least one of the research projects Quammen narrated: There was this guy in grad school, and he got into island biogeography, and at some point he realized hey, the U.S. National Park system is much like a group of habitat islands surrounded by development, and these are very well-studied habitats. So he got in a car and drove from park to park, Zion to Waterville-Glacier to North Cascades and so forth, and dredged up each park's records on animal sightings. In this way, he could rather accurately ascertain when a given species disappeared from a given park, and he could seek correlations between park ("island") size and species loss.

Now that's the kind of project that makes the heart pound faster, isn't it?

So is the ending of this book (to get back to the Outside writer's angle-and hey, come to think of it, Quammen actually was a writer for the magazine Outside)... As I was saying, the book comes to a very daring conclusion. Quammen has come all the way to Aru, fateful stomping ground of his clear hero Wallace, which is a rather difficult journey to make, and a guide is bringing him closer and closer to a roost of elusive birds-of-paradise. He hears the song of the bird just up the trail-and that's it; the book is over; you're already at the glossary; that's all he wrote. Disappointing at first flush, but then rather satisfying upon reflection. The book ends not with description, but with anticipation.

Question One: I'd heard Quammen does a great job of telling the famous Darwin/Wallace story, and indeed he does-all of his story-telling is very beautifully researched and engaging, in fact. This particular story is of particular interest to me, so I read it over twice, and I found myself asking: What exactly was so "shabby" about the way Darwin and his friends treated Wallace? Quammen cites several of the crabbier anti-Darwin researchers, none of whom go so far as to say that Darwin stole his ideas from Wallace, but all of whom feel that Wallace was seriously wronged. And Quammen clearly shares some of this indignation. Quammen's own main criticism appears to be that Darwin and friends concocted and executed the plan to read Wallace's and Darwin's papers together without ever consulting Wallace. I find this somewhat understandable given Wallace's extreme remoteness at the time, and given that the reading itself didn't have such a huge impact, and given that Wallace's paper wasn't squelched or anything. I'll have to think about this further; what foul play could have really been at play?

Question Two: Must the author insert all the little asides along the lines of, "Hey reader, I know this sounds unfathomably complicated and boring, but work with me!" I guess it's a harmless and possibly effective narrative technique for science writers.

Question Three: Throughout this whole intimately detailed, passionately written book, there's very little devoted explicitly to the question of so what? The book makes a powerful implicit argument for conservation of the rare and miraculous in the face of runaway destruction-but what is to be done? That could and has filled lots of other books, of course. In the epilogue, Quammen cites some books and projects for further exploration (without URLs, as this book must have been published right on the cusp of the web revolution):

And he ventures to say:
"If you really want to do something, a healthy first step might be to prepare yourself for the cold shock of sacrifice. The number of children you produce, the number of miles you drive, and your yearning for a home in the country (wilderness getaways for Thoreau wanna-bes represent a severe cause of habitat loss and fragmentation in affluent temperate-zone nations) all have their impacts on jeopardized populations of other species and on the cohesiveness of ecosystems.

To despair of the entire situation is another reasonable alternative. But the unsatisfactory thing about despair in my view, is that besides being fruitless it's far less exciting than hope, however slim."

And now, just a few of the unfamiliar words I encountered in this book, which I've just now looked up:

  • orotund: adj. 1. marked by fullness, strength, and clarity of sound; sonorous. 2. Pompous, bombastic.
  • surd: adj. lacking sense; irrational.
  • bathetic: adj. characterized by bathos...
  • bathos: n. 1. the sudden appearance of the commonplace in otherwise elevated matter or style; anticlimax. 2. exceptional commonplaceness; triteness. 3. insincere or overdone pathos; sentimentalism.
  • pacernose: ? (p. 82)
  • scumbled: v. 1. to make (as color or painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color; to apply (a color) in this manner. 2. to soften the lines or colors of (a drawing) by rubbing lightly.
  • pince-nez: [pan-SNAE] n. eyeglasses clipped to the nose by a spring.
  • calvity: n. baldness
  • lapidary: adj. 1. having the elegance and precision associated with inscriptions on monumental stone. 2. sculptured in or engraved on stone; of or relating to precious stones or the art of cutting them. n. 1. a cutter, polisher, or engraver of precious stones usually other than diamonds. 2. the art of cutting gems.

Fed to drand's brain | February 17, 2003