by Hugh Gilmore
I recently read four books you might enjoy. All of them concern the mystifying intersections where humans and animals all too often collide.
- "The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World's Favorite Insect" (2020). Wendy Williams has enjoyed a long career as a nature writer of an especially adventurous kind, traveling the world, sometimes at great risk, to investigate off-beat stories. This time, she seeks tamer subjects as she reveals nearly all there is to know about butterflies, the form of animal life that has probably driven more humans batty than any other. She visits nearly every great scholar and every major butterfly rescue sanctuary at the frontier of butterfly research. Written in a breezy, and occasionally annoying manner, it's an enjoyable and informative book. It’s not an adventure book, though. More of an investigative documentary. Anyone seeking a deeper appreciation of these mysterious creatures would probably enjoy this lovely book.
- "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law" (2021). As usual with Mary Roach, she covers her subject with an ear for the absurd and an eye for weird. Ostensibly an investigation of the times when animal habits literally run up against human law, the book soon eases into a generalized reporting on animal vs. human interactions throughout the world. Roach, intrepid as always, tags along with bear managers, "danger tree" fall blasters, elephant wranglers, leopard thwarters, villages overrun by monkeys, and members of the Papal staff in St. Peter's whose job it is to keep gulls from destroying the Papacy's elaborate floral displays. By the end of her travels and research, it becomes clear that humans are as much a nuisance to animals as vice versa. It's written in Roach's customarily audacious style.
- Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa” (2021). Matthew Gavin Frank is an indefatigable reporter who goes where few dare to go, this time to the highly-secretive and dangerous De Beers diamond mines of the southeast coast of southern Africa. He reports accurately, thinks philosophically, and writes beautifully. The book originates in America where Frank and his wife Louisa are at a sad and exhausted point in their married lives, having suffered six consecutive miscarriages. She is from South Africa and wants to return there with him to heal and redefine their relationship and goals. Once there, he is irresistibly curious about the ominous small guarded roads, rusted fences and rotting bunkers that carry warning signs from the imperious De Beers diamond mining firm. An atmosphere of danger and fear permeate this part of the coast. Frank is nonetheless drawn to uncover the history and nature of this place.
He soon meets a few mine workers, many of them mere children. They work for pennies a day. Their lungs are corrupted by diamond dust by the time they are teens. The only way to balance the unjust economic scales, they have discovered, is to smuggle diamonds out of the huge pits that pock the landscape. They do this by tying tiny bags carrying diamonds to homing pigeons they smuggle in to work and then let loose when it seems safe to do so.
Frank is driven to learn how this practice evolved, the rewards when it succeeds, the mining company’s efforts to thwart it, and how life in such an unjust, unfairly-weighted world affects both black, white and "coloured" (multiracial) lives in this region of the earth. Imbuing the entire narrative with further mystery, we learn about the beauty and uncanny sensitivities of carrier pigeons.
- “In the Eye of the Wild” (2021). Life off the grid in the Russian Far East's Kamchatka Peninsula requires a specialized sensitivity to nature's mountains, streams, trees and creatures. The struggle for survival requires one to relinquish the distinctions between wild nature and human nature. One day, French anthropologist Natassja Martin, having momentarily lost awareness of her location, accidentally frightened a bear and was attacked on a small trail. The bear bit her head, breaking facial bones and severely raking her face with its claws. Her awful medical recovery and her attempt to understand what happened make up the majority of this story. During it, Martin undergoes a physical and spiritual transformation that forces her to confront the tenuous distinction between animal and human.
Her story is not so much a physical adventure story of life in the wilderness, but an attempt to understand the wildness of the cosmos - while questioning whether there are division lines between life forms. According to the myths, legends and beliefs of the people Martin studied, the "transaction” on the trail that day caused an exchange between her and the bear, during which each had subsumed part of the other's nature. Thus, it is an adventure of the mind, not just the body, and quite a philosophical book.
Hugh Gilmore is a former biological anthropologist who studied nonhuman primates in the West Indies and East Africa. He quotes here the old scientific adage: "Life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."