Journeys to the Other Side of the World

Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist

David Attenborough

Unknown-1.jpegIt 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).

Unknown.jpegThe 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.

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image:art.pacific.com

 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.

 upperhall-ltd-silhouette-of-diver-land-diving-pentecost-island-vanuatu-pacific-islands-pacific.jpgAnother 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.

FrumPoster-683x1024.jpgFor 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’.

 images.jpegNot 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.

 Unknown-2.jpegOn 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.

 Unknown.jpegThen 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.

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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.

imageproxy.php.jpegSearching 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.

Works cited

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.

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The Inner Life of Animals

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The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World.

Peter Wohlleben

Translated by Jane Billinghurst

A highlight of Christmas 2017 was the video of a crow tobogganing on a snow-covered shed in Russia. Chris Packham , the English naturalist, showed it on his BBC2 programme Winter’s Weirdest Events. Repeatedly the crow dragged a mayonnaise lid to the apex of the roof before stepping onto it and sliding down to the gutter. Having interviewed a corvid specialist Packham explains that the crow was ‘growing its brain by playing’.

In his book The Inner Life of Animals, German writer, Peter Wohlleben aims to explain scientific research on animal behaviour.

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To the mix he adds his own observations, made during a career in forestry, and incidents with the family pets.   Wohlleben’s earlier book, The Hidden Life of Trees, talks about how trees parent their offspring and communicate with each other.

In a review the Financial Times compared Wohlleben to Paulo Coelho, implying that his approach to ethology (the science of animal behaviour) is similar to Coelho’s brand of cod philosophy. Everyone knows people who seem to love searching for signs that animals are displaying humanlike behaviour. Anthropomorphism is a seductive activity and is popularised by films, TV programmes and You Tube uploads.

Even David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth series foreground family activities which remind viewers of their own home lives. It was strangely moving to see the paterfamilias of a sandgrouse family making daily 120 mile round trips to bring water to his chicks. But these birds have evolved feathers which can soak up and retain water so that the young can drink without endangering themselves at a water hole. It’s called survival of the fittest.

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Wohlleben’s examples generally consist of an unscientific sample of one. His interpretations are projected, in most cases, from the mind of the observer, himself. He places the example of the Russian crow in a chapter titled Just for Fun. In Wohlleben’s words the crow ‘clearly’ has ‘mindless fun, and can ‘conjure up happy feelings’ whenever it wants to.

This sort of idea would be fine in Watership Down or Winnie the Pooh but it is utter nonsense in a book that purports to be factual. The words ‘clearly’, ‘mindless fun’,‘conjure’, ‘happy’ and ‘feelings’ are all out of place. It certainly is not clear that the crow is having fun. Even if it were how would anyone know whether the fun was mindless? Crows can no more manipulate their thoughts by conjuring up a memory than they can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Can a crow feel happy? Most scientists do not think that animals can feel emotions.

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When Packham talks about play he means the sort of antics that baby stoats undertake when they are fighting in order to practise being an adult. It’s a subtly different definition of the word, play. Words are weaselly things that must be used precisely in texts that hope to translate academic or scientific language into lay terms.

Wohlleben follows up his section on the crow by writing about his dog Maxi. She would ‘play’ tag with her master but often allowed him almost to catch her, before darting away ‘delighted’. He fesses up saying that the game may not be ‘pointless’ as Maxi may have used it to strengthen her relationship with him. If she were to do this, it would be instinctual behaviour rather than a reasoned choice.

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Image: Reto Klar

The book includes anecdotes which bring a smile of delight to the face of a reader but beyond that the work has no value as ethology.

Works cited

Wohlleben, P. The Inner Life of Animals. Vintage. 2017. Print.

Wohlleben, P.  The Secret Life of Trees. Greystone Books.  2015. Print.

A version of this review was first published on 23rd June 2018 on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions

David Attenborough

Unknown.jpegIf there was ever an English treasure who is not Mary Berry, it is David Attenborough. He even saw off Boaty MacBoatface to get his name on a polar science vessel. We all love his dulcet tones as he strides, slightly unsteadily now, over tundra and desert. We chat excitedly around the water cooler about the best or the funniest moments. He seems not to have put a foot wrong in his 91 years.

But, have we been snoozing in the last five decades? Attenborough used to be an animal trapper. He used to ship creatures back to Regent’s Park in unsuitable travelling crates and with inadequate diets. He once had to dig for worms in a tulip bed at Amsterdam airport to feed a starving coatimundi kitten. Hours later he handed it over to London Zoo for lifelong incarceration. He smuggled a bag of scorpions, spiders and snakes into the passenger cabin of an international flight. These activities would not be acceptable in 2017 but in the 1950s they were seen as charming and exciting.

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Filming and recording egrets.  Image: BBC.

Up to 1954 animal programmes on TV consisted of zookeepers bringing more or less vicious animals into brightly lit studios in which they would crouch in a paralysis of fear or try to injure their captors with teeth and claws. So Attenborough and his peers persuaded the BBC and London Zoo to collaborate in funding expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in order to capture and kidnap living creatures. This was the birth of Zoo Quest.

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Attenborough chases a giant anteater.  Image: BBC.

In Guyana carnivores and omnivores were in worse peril than herbivores since the latter often consume only one specific plant, one that cannot easily be supplied in the UK. These species, mercifully, had to be filmed in situ and then released back into their natural habitat.

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Thus the three-toed sloth, with a baby in her left armpit, escaped with nothing worse than the humiliation of being unwrapped from her branch and filmed using her evolutionarily adapted limbs, not for hanging, but instead for hauling herself clumsily along the ground, like a fish out of water. Hilarious footage.

Less fortunate was a manatee. This enormous sea mammal was slung into a water lorry before being immersed in a ‘canvas swimming bath on one of the decks of the ship’. She ended up all alone in a ‘crystal clear pool’ in a London aquarium far, far away from the muddy Guyanese river estuary whence she came.

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But it would be unfair to criticise the youthful Attenborough. He was of his time. The three Zoo Quest books included in this volume have been out of print for many years and it is only now that they are republished, presumably in time for Christmas sales as well as to run alongside the Blue Planet II series.

It is honourable that Attenborough does not attempt to whitewash or rewrite what was done in the quest for knowledge and understanding. In spite of the terror and suffering undergone by some of his specimens it cannot be doubted that curators at London Zoo learnt more about conservation. And the television-viewing public began to appreciate how wildlife interacts with humans and habitat. It was the dawn of the Attenborough franchise.

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Attenborough and his tiny team of peers were brave and indefatigable. They dealt with endless and frustrating bureaucracy as they sought permission and permits for their antics. Struggling with tiny budgets and skeleton numbers they endured extreme discomfort and sometimes danger. Their equipment was almost always inadequate and often broken. They lived on their wits.

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Attenborough holds a 12′ python. Image: BBC.

In Indonesia, determined to capture a large python, Attenborough explained to a group of Javanese volunteers how to manage its head, tail and intervening coils. At the end of the lesson everyone melted into the forest except a boy and an old man. On arrival at the location Attenborough leapt into a tree, sawed off the branch around which the snake curled and gave the order for immediate capture. As snake and branch crashed to the ground his companions froze in horror leaving our hero to manage both ends of the 12ft snake and stuff them into a bag.

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The context for these adventures is provided by summaries of the political, economic and geographical qualities of the regions visited.

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Attenborough records and plays back local colour.  Image: BBC.

Film and sound tapes were used to record the routines and rituals of the indigenous peoples. Some villagers donated their own pets to Attenborough’s itinerant menagerie whilst others mounted expeditions to collect desirable specimens. One such received four cigarettes for a gourd full of common or garden millipedes. These were later released back into the forest.  But transactions in coloured glass beads or salt cakes resulted in an ever-growing pile of inhabited cages destined for base camp and onwards across the ocean.

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On the gun-runner’s boat to Komodo. Image: BBC.

The search for the Komodo dragon was challenging. The beasts themselves were easily tempted by the smell of rotting goat. They were filmed and one was lured into a cage. But in the run-up Attenborough and two friends were becalmed at sea with a gunrunner. Later whilst the expeditionaries were away from camp this man tried to recruit Komodans to travel onwards with the party and relieve Attenborough et al of their worldly goods and the BBC of its equipment.

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At sea with a baby orang-utan. Image: BBC.

The episode does not end happily. Although the Indonesian authorities allow the export of a baby bear, a young orang-utan, pythons, civets, birds and so on, the dragon itself is interned. His fate is left unexplained but it seems unlikely that he was returned to his natural home. Attenborough acknowledges that even had the large lizard reached a haven in London he would ‘never have appeared to anyone else as he did to us that day on Komodo when we turned round to see him a few feet away, majestic and magnificent in his own forest’. Exactly so.

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The third and final destination is Paraguay. South America, like Australia, retains some surviving species from past geological ages because at one point they became detached from other continents. Although South America is currently reattached to the north it still retains the armadillos, anteaters, sloths and opossum of the age of the Edentates.

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Attenborough displays an armadillo in the Zoo Quest studio.  Image: BBC.

Attenborough brought 14 armadillos back to England including four different species. But the Giant Armadillo eluded him in spite of herculean efforts. The first one he ever saw had reached London Zoo by way of a Birmingham rare animal dealer who had bought him in Guyana. According to his keeper and Attenborough the antediluvian creature, ‘ambling up and down his den’ is ‘nice’.

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Attenborough with an armadillo in the wild.  Image: BBC.

The colour film negatives were never shown on TV as it was then a black and white medium but extracts, including the python hunt, have recently been shown on BBC4. Some clips are available on the network’s webpage interspersed with commentary by Sir David himself. It’s moving to watch the 26 year old cavorting about whilst the nonagenarian knight of the realm amusedly critiques his younger self.

Works cited

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03ttl3p/player

Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. Two Roads. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend supplement of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.