In a rare blend of scientific fact and poetic truth, the acclaimed author of A Natural History of the Senses explores the activities of whales, penguins, bats, and crocodilians, plunging headlong into nature and coming up with highly entertaining treasures.
I like bats a lot because they eat enormous amounts of insects like mosquitoes. I also lived for a few years in a place where there was a bat colony living in the attic of the garage. It was a beautiful sight to see them emerging at twilight. Ackerman likes bats too. In Praise of Bats takes her to several places in the US, following Merlin D. Tuttle, a respected authority on bats and founder of Bat Conservation International. Ackerman goes to some remote places following Tuttle and others as they research bats, but the startling part is about how much the careless acts of people are causing the bat populations to decline and how vital bats are to the environment.
In The Eyelids of Morning Ackerman is willing to help researchers grab wild alligators in order to tag and weigh them, as well as help removing crocs from populated areas. It takes a certain kind of person to be passionate about crocodilians:
A tall, slender man with long white hair, translucent skin, and a gentle manner, he'd loved crocodilians for most of his seventy years and at one point had had the largest collection of crocodilians in the United States--in fact, a collection second only to that at the Berlin Zoo. What had made this so unusual was that he'd had it in the basement of his house in Detroit. His son tells a wonderful story about his mother during those years. The family swore not to talk about their collection of crocodilians and other reptiles, as it was illegal to keep them in suburban Detroit. One day, when his mother had her sewing group over, the ladies all plugged in their portable sewing machines and suddenly thirty male crocodilians began to bellow from the basement. Nonplussed his mother quickly collected herself and explained that the plumbing had been acting up for days, and to pay it no mind.
From there, Ackerman proceeds to the windy shores of a Patagonian bay where, in The Moon by Whale Light she watches right whales gather near a field station built by the New York Zoological Society. Here she meets other researchers including Tom Ford, who was studying the bacteria in the exhalation of whales. This meant attaching a petri dish to a fishing pole and dangling it over a whale's blowhole just as it was exhaling. She also gets into the water with the whales, who she describes as the size of "reclining buildings".
Finally, in White Lanterns, Ackerman visits the penguin nursery at Sea World, where she falls in love with a chick. And who wouldn't? I now would like a penguin chick of my own to cuddle. She also travels to the wild islands surrounding Antarctica in search of penguins where she discovers that fur seals are vicious and the chance of a penguin reaching maturity are fairly slim.
Ackerman is a good guide through the natural world. Cheerful, curious and always willing to do anything the researchers and conservationists are doing, her essays make for compelling reading.
The book has 4 main sections focusing on 4 different animals: bats, crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles), whales, and penguins. I was really looking forward to the whale chapter, especially since part of it took place in Hawaii - and I really enjoyed it. But the surprise for me was the bat chapter. It was really informative and interesting, and I learned a lot.
The one thing that's missing, which I think I mentioned in Rarest of the Rare as well, is photography. I'm not sure if she just never takes photos on her expeditions, but I really wish I could see some of the stuff she saw.
Because to be honest, and I thought this throughout much of the book - I don't think I'll/we'll ever again see the scenes that Ackerman was lucky enough to experience. Just the sheer number of animals, often in rural or uninhabited places. I think that experience is gone, depressingly. For example, during the bats chapter, in my notes I wrote: 20 million bats all in one location? That would be quite a sight to see though I imagine you can't find something like that anymore. That makes me really sad.
Even during the 80s, when Ackerman did most of the travel presented in the book, Merlin Tuttle, ecologist and bat researcher, says, "I personally know of caves where people have wiped out millions of bats in one day." Sigh. That being said, Dr. Tuttle is such an awesome scientist. And his words really resonated with me. A couple of choice quotes from him:
"I never had any ambition to be anything but a good scientist. I was content to be a member of other conservation organizations and support their efforts. But for years the traditional organizations just ignored bats as too hopeless. If you couldn't raise money for an animal, it couldn't be helped. That's unfortunate. Part of our problems today come from the fact that even scientists and conservationists tend to take the easy ride and find an animal that's very popular with the public. They raise funds to help that animal, but often that's so easy and tempting that other animals that are just as valuable, and sometimes much *more* valuable, remain completely ignored." (p44)
"It's a shame that people want to view animals as either good or bad. But as Emerson pointed out, a weed is just a flower out of place." (p44)
"But this is often the case when it comes to animals – by the time you eliminate them down to the point when everyone can agree that the species is officially endangered, it's already too late." (p47)
One thing I really liked was reading about these scientists and researchers that Ackerman presented. I kept interrupting myself while reading to look up the names, and added books and articles to my reading lists. It was really informative. When I googled Dr. Tuttle, I found his Facebook page and did a bit of stalking. It's amazing the access the Internet has given us. Even just 10 years ago I wouldn't have been able to do this!
I loved Ackerman's enthusiasm, which is always present in her books: "But a carnival of bats inhabits the world!"
And her writing is so lyrical and expressive. She paints a picture of the world for you that I really love:
There was nothing to do but wait. It is always like this for naturalists, and for poets - the long hours of travel and preparation, and then the longer hours of waiting. All for that one electric, pulse–revving vision when the universe suddenly declares itself. A ravishing tug on the sleeve of our mortality. A view of life so astonishing as to make all of life newly astonishing: a spotted bat. (p33)
On each side, sandstone cliffs, striped like sherbet, revealed layer after compressed layer of time. How can time be so rigid in rock and so molten as we live it? Underfoot, sheets of rock swirled red, yellow, white, blue. Life blooms in such unlikely places: tufts of grass jutting out from a rock; slabs of cactus sprouting from sheer cliffside high above us, where you'd think no dirt could have settled. (p51)
I loved her description of the past: "the pious fiction we call history." (p141)
I didn't gather any quotes from the whale chapter, maybe because I was engrossed. But I really enjoyed reading about the right whales in Patagonia. That was amazing - I wonder if they are still there? Further research is required! I love books that get me excited to find out more.
Each chapter reads like a short book which I really liked. As each ended I would take a few minutes to pause and soak it in.
The one thing that was a bit odd to me were the sections in the crocodilian and penguins chapters that focused on the non-wild places: namely, the alligator parks/farms and Sea World. I guess these were the best places to see those animals at the time? I know it's a can of worms, but that was off to me, because they weren't exactly zoos so it wasn't for conservation per se. Also it was the 80s so I don't know how the sentiment towards places like these was at the time. It was kind of weird to me that she chose to end the book - or technically the penguin essay, since I just said each chapter was like a short book - focusing on the baby penguin at Sea World who, while it would never see the wild place that its parents and family came from, would always be safe because it was in captivity. That just didn't sit well with me.
Other than that gripe, yes, I'm totally jealous of all these adventures in which she's been able to participate - it's all a bunch of stuff I will never get to see, or at least not in the same way she has, what with the declines in wildlife and wild places. At least I get to read about it in these wonderful books. If Ackerman comes out with any more animal-related books, I'm there!
A couple more of my favorite quotes:
Kent Vliet, biologist, crocodilian researcher: "You see, their whole philosophy is that a wild animal is being wasted if it has economic potential that isn't being used. That's a rather mercenary way to think about wild animals." (p93)
Vliet: "Alligators are big crocodilians, but they're shy and retiring, very passive creatures, even the largest males. Crocodiles, on the other hand, are agile and mean and fast, superpredators that consider humans prey items. Alligators just aren't like that. They're real pussycats." (p95)
Roger Payne, biologist, whale researcher: "I had a grandfather, a lumberman, who cut nothing but walnut trees, sometimes for whole years at a time, and that excess on his part, and on the part of his contemporaries, ensured that I would never have walnut except as the most exotic of woods. He was shortsighted. Was anyone warning him? I bet there was. Going on with the destruction of a species until it's brought to the point of extinction is madness - not just a little mad or slightly mad. It's authentic madness." (p163)
As far as I could see in any direction, icebergs meandered against a backdrop of tall, crumbly Antarctic glaciers, which were still pure and unexplored. Human feet had not touched the glaciers I saw; nor had many pairs of eyes beheld them. In many ways, the Antarctic is a world of suspended animation. Suspended between outer space and the fertile continents. Suspended in time - without a local civilization to make history. Civilization has been brought to it; it has never sustained any of its own. It sits suspended in a hanging nest of world politics. When things die in the Antarctic, they decay slowly. What has been is still there and will always be, unless we interfere. (p209)
"Tenacity," I said, thinking out loud - and not meaning the macaroni penguin's tenacity, exactly, but life's. Life hangs on in such out-of-the-way places, pushes on with such ingenuity and bravado. Turning over a mother-of-pearl-lined limpet shell on Elephant Island a few days earlier, I had seen a hundred squirming wingless flies. Life just seemed to keep reinventing itself - inside a limpet shell, or hundreds of feet up on a rocky cliff above a roaring ocean. (p336)
There are four sections: bats, crocodilian species, whales and penguins. And although I would not have picked up a book on crocodiles, Ackerman’s writing made this family of beasties fascinating and entertaining.
I enjoyed the science, but especially enjoyed her flights into philosophy and poetry.
The section about whales is the longest, and for me, the most interesting. She tells of whale songs which have all the complexities of human songs: including repetitions and even the equivalent of human ‘rhyme schemes.’
When talking of whale songs:
“Suppose human beings evolved two forms of communication, “ I said, “one that is direct emotional communication -- music – and one that’s analytical and verbal, which we call language”. P 122
And this quote:
“…a mind is such an odd predicament for matter to get into. I often marvel how something like hydrogen, the simplest atom, forged in some early chaos of the universe, could lead to us and the gorgeous fever we call consciousness. If I mind is just a few pounds of blood, dream and electric, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the hear What is mind, that one can be out of one’s? How can a neuron feel compassion? What is a self? Why did automatic, hand-me-down mammals like our ancestors somehow evolve brains with the ability to consider, imagine, project, compare, abstract, think of the future? If our experience of mind is really just the simmering of an easily alterable chemical stew, then what does it mean to know something, to want something, to be? How do you begin with hydrogen and end up with prom dresses, jealousy, chamber music? What is the music that it can satisfy such a mind, and even perhaps function as language?” p 131
Fascinating and highly readable 4 stars.