Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist
It is not even a full year since my review of Adventures of a Young Naturalist appeared on these pages. At that time I suggested that the book was being published to coincide with the BBC’s Blue Planet programmes and the Christmas market.
Here is part two of David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest series comprising the final three of his six original books, Quest in Paradise (1960), Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961) and Quest Under Capricorn (1963).
The amalgamation was first published in 1981 and now, with a new introduction and minimal revisions, it is in the shops well before Christmas.
In this volume Attenborough shows how he and his crew grew as interested in the tribes as in the fauna. These peoples and their ways of life were, of course, equally endangered. Many animal species have been saved – partly by the intervention of zoos – whilst several mores of human life have been eradicated. The BBC reels provide a record of rituals never previously filmed and now no longer enacted in their original form.
In the early 1960s Attenborough attends a stone axe carving session in New Guinea. He sees boulders taken from the river, cracked open and large flakes of stone selected for carving. He knows that he might be the last European to look upon the task as one craftsman already has a metal knife for fashioning and honing the blade. Even then most of the other tribes in the region had already gone over to factory-made imported axes. The traditional weapons were being used only for ceremonies.
Ironically, even before filming, the land divers of Pentecostal Island had already forgotten the reason for their extraordinary practice of falling headfirst from wooden towers secured only by lianas at their ankles. At first Attenborough was told a story about an adulterous woman leaping from a palm tree and saved by strong vines that she had tied round her legs. The cuckold died from his simultaneous fall, as he had no ropes. She was thus free to continue her liaison.
Another theory was that the dive was a rite to mark entry into manhood. A woman spectator was holding what appeared to be a swaddled baby in her arms. When her adolescent son landed safely she threw a log into the undergrowth and folded the wrapping to take home. Maybe this symbolised the end of her maternal duties? But apparently many of the men had jumped several times over the years. So that was the rite of passage suggestion out of the window.
At the beginning of the day the first man jumped from 20 feet or so. By the evening the show climaxed as, after divers had launched from ascending platforms on the structure, the last man swooped down more than a hundred feet. Attenborough was told merely, ‘custom belong dis place’. Another film for the archives.
One of Attenborough’s most fascinating quests was into Cargo Culture. This religion spread throughout the Pacific or, more precisely, sprung up independently on many islands.
For example in Tanna, New Hebrides, the indigenous people have a messiah named John Frum who will, at an unspecified date, deliver more cargo than anyone could need. Everyone would have everything that they desire.
Meanwhile red crosses are erected and at one shrine there is a trinity of carvings: a propeller plane, a figure of John Frum in white belt and scarlet suit and a ‘strange rat-like creature with wings sprouting from its shoulders’. Sadly Attenborough does not attempt an analysis of the rodent but he does conclude that the ‘figures were pathetically childish, yet deeply sinister’.
Not an anthropologist himself, Attenborough does quote scholars as having identified nearly 70 different forms of cargo cult. One wonders if an anthropologist would prefer a word like ‘primitive’ or even ‘naïve’ to Attenborough’s derogatory ‘childish’.
Missionaries had been hoping to expunge the practices by educating any youngsters, arguing that if children learn to read, write and add up they will, as adults, have a better idea of the concept of trade and therefore what cargo they could legitimately expect. But attendance at schools was almost non-existent.
On the other hand Attenborough himself considers that the transition from what was, in fact, a Stone Age culture to ‘advanced material civilisation’ has been psychologically traumatic. He thinks that this experience could very likely lead to ‘complete moral disorientation and mental dislocation’. In 2018 tourist trips to Tanna advertise luxury hotels, free WiFi and visits to Cargo Cult villages to see the customs of those who worship John Frum and, it seems, Prince Phillip.
Later, in his section on Madagascar, Attenborough is able to combine his anthropological interests with his naturalist inclinations. In many tribes it is thought that boa constrictors are reincarnations of ancestors. A snake meandering near a village is scrutinised for identifying characteristics. If any mark can be recognised the living call out the name of the dead person. If it is the deceased the snake shakes its head to confirm. Apparently, according to Attenborough, snakes are always shaking their heads.
Then the constrictor can resume residence in its earthly home and receive delicious gifts of food such as chicken blood. Sometimes it is incarcerated in a cage and fed but other times, after a hearty repast, it is free to slither back to the wild. The problem was that Attenborough wanted to catch a few boas for London Zoo but, clearly, it would be inappropriate to bag someone’s granny. Eventually he came to a region where no one considered live snakes and dead people to be in any way related. He grabbed three and put them in sacks. One proved herself a great success when, almost as soon as she arrived in London, she gave birth to four little baby snakes. The zoo was now up to capacity with this breed of Malasgasy reptile.
The final section of Journeys to the Other Side of the World is located in the Northern Territories of Australia. Here Attenborough is well away from the fecundity of the rainforests – except of course for water fowl which populate the salt lakes near Nourlangie. At the time water buffalo, introduced over a hundred years previously to provide milk, meat and pulling power for military garrisons, were rampaging in enormous herds.
Attenborough and his entourage, only two in those days: one cameraman and a sound recordist, were given lessons on how to avoid death if venturing out with no gun. Best chance is to climb a tree. Second best is to lie down and hope they jump over you. Third… well there is no third. These alien beasts have now been completely exterminated in the name of the conservation of indigenous mammals. And Nourlangie itself, instead of being a big-game shooting centre, is now part of the National Park of Kakadu.
Searching out, as he always did, the traditional ways of living, Attenborough goes walkabout with an aboriginal, Charlie, of the Walbiri peope. On a ridge Charlie chooses a boulder and flakes it with a pebble. He proceeds to turn this blade into a knife by cooking up some spinifex grass dust in a bonfire and moulding a handle. It is reminiscent of the making of the stone axe in New Guinea.
This is an example of how Attenborough tells a story. Neatly, he both opens and closes with Stone Age tool fabrication. In between these bookends each chapter is itself a quest: a search for something or someone rare. With his usual charm and generosity Attenborough allows us along for a ride in the Land Rover.
Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. 2017. Two Roads.
—. Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist. 2018. Two Roads.
A version of this review was first published on page 41 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on November 10th 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.