My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is an appealing, attractively packaged collection of four essays on animal behavior, all of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. While the subject matter is interesting and entertaining, reading this book can be even more educational if attention is paid to what it reveals about current perceptions of scientists and issues of “animal rights” in the general media.
Ackerman sets herself up as a myth debunker, and does a good job where nature is concerned. When describing bats or icebergs, she shows both a sense of humor: “We don’t get excited about the fact that more people die of food poisoning at church picnics annually than have died in all history from contact with bats,” and a sense of wonder: “One day the water was so smooth that you could use it as a mirror, and four hours later the wind was howling at ninety knots. And was as beautiful at ninety knots as when crystal-calm. Huge ice caverns formed arches of pastel ice. Glare had so many moods that it seemed another pure color. The mountains, glaciers, and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling, sifting, cascading landscapes. There was such a liquefaction to its limbs. And yet it could also be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life-affirming things . . . ”
It is when Ackerman describes the humans that she gets into trouble. All of the scientists she profiles in detail, including a bat photographer, an alligator farmer, and an expert on whales, come across as miniature Indiana Jonses: driven loners who regularly risk life and limb for the sake of adventure and the glimpse of their favorite animal. The author’s sympathies lie with this macho stereotype of a scientist (according to her introduction, she herself is addicted to this type of behavior, which she refers to as “deep play”), yet at the same time, the first couple of essays are marred by a constant comparison of animals and humans, where the humans are always found wanting (unless the humans are also “exotic” in some way to her).
For example, in her description of bat houses, she begins with “. . . they look nothing like birdhouses. For one thing, they don’t have cutesy roofs a la Swiss chalets. I don’t know why, or when, people decided that birds preferred to live in humanesque houses shaped like Victorian mansions, red barns, Kon-Tiki huts, alpine ski lodges, or kelly-green shacks in the Black Forest. Just because desperate birds do lie in them doesn’t mean they like them or don’t feel as silly as some houses look . . . An official bat house is squarish, made of red cedar, and reminiscent of an old-fashioned mailbox hanging on someone’s door. On the front is an abstract drawing of the Chinese wu fu, a decorative emblem worn as a medallion or as a coin or as a panel on a robe. The wu fu shows the Tree of Life encircled by five bats whose wingtips touch or sometimes interlock.” Her reasoning here is mysterious at best. Apparently, in her opinion, certain types of decoration (here, Western/European) are bad and make the animals “feel silly,” but other types of decoration (here, East Asian) are good and appropriate. If Ackerman ever asked the birds’ or the bats’ opinion on the Swiss chalet or the wu fu, it is not documented in this book. Instead, she seems to be using the animals as an excuse to tell the reader which cultural icons she thinks are better.
The motive for the following observation (mentioned twice in two different essays) is even more difficult to puzzle out: “Perhaps they would find it strange, as I do, that we feed on dismembered animals no longer resembling what they are; and yet, paradoxically, we insist on cooking them to the warmth of fresh prey.” In spite of her reference to food poisoning at church picnics, it is not clear here if Ackerman has an understanding of the phenomenon, or of the role of cooking in preventing it.
Her refrain of “in contrast with humans, who can only do X, animals can do Y” is taken to an extreme in the essay on whales: “A human male cannot voluntarily move his penis by more than a few millimeters, but a right whale can move his all around like a long finger.” This device of human/animal contrasts is presumably meant to make the wonders of nature somehow more accessible while still giving the reader a sense of the alienness of other species, yet it is used so frequently that it becomes irritating human-bashing.
This book thereby restricts its sympathetic audience to those who already agree with it, and ends up preaching to the converted. This is unfortunate, because in other sections the book contains some powerful scientific and emotional arguments for preserving endangered species (even unpopular ones, like bats), and these arguments deserve to be widely read. And the last chapter (which, from the chronology in the introduction, also seems to be the last one written) is largely free of these intrusive value judgements (she even admits that getting developing countries to preserve their natural resources in the face of massive poverty is a “complicated issue”). When Ackerman leaves off moralizing and lets the landscape speak for itself, she is capable of beautiful prose. It makes you want to go out and sign up for an Antarctic cruise yourself.