Book review:Journeys to the other side of the world, by Sir David Attenborough

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A version of this book review appeared in Issue 81 of Cosmos Magazine

Famed for his distinctive narration with hushed tones and restrained awe, David Attenborough is also an accomplished writer, publishing over twenty books since his career began in the 1950s.  The books are companion volumes to each series and fine examples of quality science writing, mostly focused on animal behaviour and the evolution of life on earth.

Attenborough spent each year from 1954-1964 going to ‘the tropics’ and making natural history films for the BBC.  In 2017, the first three books from these travels were published in a single volume, Adventures of a Young Naturalist. Attenborough’s latest release Journeys to the Other Side of the World; further adventures of a young naturalist comprises the remaining three travelogues.

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Adventures of a Young Naturalist contains swashbuckling tales of the capture of wild animals for the London Zoo collection, and filming of exotic creatures in the wild, with encounters with people as somewhat of a side note. Journeys to the other side of the world places the people Attenborough and his cameraman meet front and centre.

And herein lies some of the tension in reading this volume, as Attenborough must necessarily look through the anthropological lens of the times.  The modern reader may cringe as Attenborough shares his thoughtful reflections on ‘Stone Age man’, and his interpretation of various cultural practices of the pygmies of New Guinea, the land divers of Pentecost Island, followers of a cargo cult on Tanna Island, or the Aboriginals of northern Australia.

Like many of my generation, I grew up on David Attenborough’s books and films, and adore the man; however he may be a better science communicator than anthropologist!

The first volume, Quest in Paradise is notable as it details Attenborough’s first encounters with birds of paradise, one of his favourite groups of creatures, although it was quite possibly a bittersweet experience.  At a particularly large ‘sing-sing’ in New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), with over 500 dancers, Attenborough estimates that “they must have killed at least ten thousand birds of paradise to adorn themselves for this ceremony”.

 Zoo Quest to Madagascar was my favourite of the three books, as it focuses more on the fauna of this remarkable island.  Attenborough’s account of the difficulties involved in trying to persuade a determined chameleon off a stick and into a small enclosure is most amusing.  The search for the ‘dog-headed man’, a large lemur known as the indri, is  a great tale and a testament to how little was known about Madagascan fauna in the West during this period.

The staggering extent of change since the 1960s really hit home for me in the final book Quest under Capricorn, which details Attenborough’s visit to northern Australia. Back then, there was only one paved road. In the entire Northern Territory!  The Sturt Highway, affectionately known as ‘the bitumen’.

The colourful descriptions of pub interactions in perfect transcriptions of the vernacular of the time (marauding buffaloes or ‘buffs’ featured heavily) made me fear for a Wake in Fright type situation for Attenborough and his cameraman. Wake in Fright was a horror novel based in the Australian outback and published in 1961. Thankfully, Attenborough’s self-deprecating humour would have served him well and their time passed without incident!

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Once the small team depart from Darwin, the book centres upon the rock art and bark paintings and ceremonies of the people of Arnhem Land. Attenborough describes the process of getting to know painters Magani and Jarabili, and knowing something of the reticence some Aboriginal cultures have with sharing culture, I was gratified to read Attenborough repeatedly using the phrase “we did not press that inquiry further”.

Attenborough’s accounts of the challenges posed by filming in the early 1960s may be of interest. Just to capture decent footage of a large goanna took days of planning, as they wished to record both the visual footage and the sound simultaneously. Cameraman Charles had to encase the camera in a canvas padding known as a soft blimp to mask the whirring sound so that Bob could record the sounds of the goanna splashing in the lake; and Bob had to ensure that the various cables enabled later synchronisation of sound and picture. All before the animal took fright and ran off!

Miraculously, using this technique, the small team got their footage and the British public subsequently enjoyed watching an enormous lizard having a swim on the other side of the world.

Nowadays, of course, feature films may be created on a smartphone, and we have had such images like this on our screens for decades, due in the most part to Attenborough’s long and spirited career.

Journeys to the Other Side of the World is recommended for travel writing enthusiasts, and Attenborough fans that enjoy his wry humour and gentlemanly attitude to all those he encounters.

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Beef: a book review

When trying to educate and inspire people to act you can take two routes: fact-based: a litany of facts that any sane person would want to change and then key actions to take- eg to stop pollution, ban the bag. As a wildlife advocate, my writing could consist of listing habitat destruction, new diseases, death by cars, fences, dogs and cats – in the hope of galvanising the reader to act.

Alternatively, you can take the route that aims to first create a connection to the very thing you are trying to save. This second route is what I try to do as a nature writer in my newspaper column, and here on this blog – I aim to help people notice the nature world, and then tell a story about the plants and animals we share our world with. Edgar’s Mission is a grand example of creating this connection – beautiful photos of rescued farm animals living safe, warm and happy lives; lives where their personalities are allowed to thrive.

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Beef, by Mat Blackwell, also uses story to connect and capture the imagination. In this very probable near future, specially grown ‘vatmeat’ has enabled people to stop raising and killing animals. The idea of eating meat from a living animal is now culturally taboo, so much so that people get a kick out of watching ‘meatmovies’ which are old clips of people happily munching on the leg of a lamb, or a chicken’s wing!! To think!!

The invention of vatmeat has allowed people to continue to eat meat despite the known health effects. The author understands very well that people just want to keep doing what they have always been doing but without the slight, persistent guilt. So it is with a huge sigh of relief that the energy crisis is ‘solved’ by using the vatmeat byproducts as an endless energy source. Air conditioners, plasma TV’s: all still OK!

But Beef isn’t only a science fiction story exploring environment and ethics – it is a love story and a coming-of-age story for lead character Royston, the youngest of the Beef Corporation clan, the fantastically rich and powerful inventors of vatmeat and the subsequent energy crisis solution.

Royston is going through the motions of life in his eccentric family, and happy with his wife Lena and his daughter River. Until BAM! Gene enters his life. Royston falls head over heels for this luscious embodiment of womanhood and the two strike up a very close friendship that oozes with sexual tension and causes a fuckload of consternation for Royston. I say fuckload because if you don’t like swearing you are in for a challenging read. The language is colourful and expressive, perhaps borne from Mat’s years as a comedy writer for Good News Week and MANY other programs  ( The Glasshouse, The Sideshow, Room 101, Wednesday Night Fever).

Back to the story: there are deep secrets in the Beef dynasty, and there is also something going on with Royston’s best friend Luka. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say the climax of the book is simply devastating!!!

The denouement was rather quick but I have to say that I was so moved by the revelations that I had to go and cry so a short wrap up worked for me.

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Mixie, a dairy calf rescued from slaughter, now residing at Edgar’s Mission

The vegan worldview is really hard to understand until you give up all animals products for at least a month, and also research the realities of life for so many animals on the planet. Billions of them. We worry about our dogs and cats and horses being mistreated, but our modern civilisation’s dirty secret is the true cost of cheap meat. When an animal is simply an economic unit, its needs are irrelevant. Movies such as Earthlings explore these issues but they are usually so devastating that most people (me included) simply can’t watch them! They are like snuff films. In fact they are snuff films.

So being acutely aware of the suffering and the magnitude of this perfectly legal and socially acceptable suffering is extremely painful for vegans, and ever-present.

For example, most people look at a field of cows munching grass in the sunshine and they can’t see much wrong with the picture. A vegan sees a group of mothers, who are artificially impregnated year after year, through their stomachs without anaesthetic. Their terrified little calves are taken from them within days, trucked to slaughter and killed by a machine. The cow is then milked every day. This process is repeated every year until the cows are 4-6 years old and then they too are trucked to slaughter – instead of living until 14 or 15. I was a happy vegetarian for twenty years before I was made aware of this process – I still feel ripped off and lied to.

And now, as demand for meat and milk products rises worldwide, more intensive and more cruel methods are being trialled. One could write a very dark novel about this trend. One that would be very hard to read!

But Beef explores an alternate reality, the sort of world where the treatment of animals in this way is morally repugnant, and it reflects on the past in a very light-hearted and easy to read way. Without lecturing!

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I am passionate about animal rights and transitioning from vegetarian to vegan slowly. I am also a nature writer who cares about advocating behaviour change for a kinder and more nature loving world. So this book really resonated with me, and really moved me. I would love to hear what a happy meat eater thought about the story and its conclusion.

Beef is presently self-published, and I purchased it online without any fuss. I think it works equally well as a love story or as science fiction, or speculative fiction, indeed Beef reminds me very much of one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, just with more swearing! I recommend this book whole-heartedly to vegan, vegetarian and omnivore alike!

To read a non-spoiler interview with the author go here

And to buy a hard copy go  here

Flying Dinosaurs: a book review

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“As you read this, an estimated 400 billion individual feathered dinosaurs, of 10,000 species, can be found on earth, in almost every habitable environment. You need only step outside and look up into the trees and the wide blue skies to find them”

John Pickrell is the editor of Australian Geographic and an accomplished journalist who has followed the last exciting decade or two in paleaontology very closely. Flying Dinosaurs is a culmination of this passion.

Since the first dinosaurs with feathers started coming out of China in the late 90’s, I have been aware of the thrilling notion that there are virtually no differences between today’s birds and the feathered therapod dinosaurs of millions of years ago, but this immensely readable book painted a picture for me like never before. The author describes birds as “simply small, specialised, mostly flight-capable forms of dinosaur”. Small feathered flying dinosaurs ( birds) were around at the same time as the huge predators like Tyrannosaurus rex. And these large dinosaurs were covered in feathers.

Their co-existence was long – for a period of some 85 million years there was a diverse assemblage of dinosaurs and birds. There are some fantastic artworks in the centre of the book illustrating all the new advances in what we know about feathered dinosaurs – and one of these depicts a large feathered carnivorous dinosaur with small feathered dinosaurs perched on his head – much like oxpeckers on a giraffe today.

In a warm and conversational tone, “Flying dinosaurs” covers a wide range of topics such as the evolution of feathers for flight and display, dinosaur sounds ( very unlike any bird!),  dinosaur sex, and more.

For a long period of time, feathered dinosaurs tried out the four-winged method of flying – dinosaurs such as Microraptor, a small raven-sized dinosaur, had winged forearms and winged legs – capable of flapping flight. The wings on the feathers were true wings, with the feathers aerodynamically shaped asymmetrically like modern feathers to provide lift.

The book detailed discoveries of pigments that show that Microraptor was black, an iridescent  blue – black similar to ravens – and this was 130 million years ago!

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The four-winged Microraptor gui ( from Wikimedia Commons)

 

For a fantastic video from the American Museum of Natural History, explaining the discovery of black pigments ( and really realistic depictions!) See Microraptor gui .

The book is not all about the science and ecology of feathered dinosaurs – it also describes the burgeoning trade in fossils and fake fossils! Fossils can be faked in a number of ways: sometimes they are created by sticking together many disparate bones from separate individuals, or they may be combined from separate species to create what looks like a new species. Fossils are also manipulated or enhanced and sometimes even painstakingly created from scratch with excellent craftsmanship.

If you have any interest at all in dinosaurs or birds, this book is highly recommended – an easy read through a veritable tsunami of new discoveries; which still continue! In fact the Flying  Dinosaurs blog has a recent discovery which takes the cake for weirdness… Yi qi, meaning “strange wing” was discovered in 2015. Yi qi was a small pigeon-sized dinosaur with long tail feathers for display, a body covering of feathery fluff coupled with special long fingers and forearms covered with membraneous skin like a bat! And they believed it flew! Clearly dinosaur diversity is only just beginning to be grasped.

John Pickrell’s blog is at  http://flyingdinosaurs.net/blog/

A great review of the book can be found on Chris Watson’s fantastic blog The Grip http://www.chriswatson.com.au/blog/flying-dinosaurs

This book review was originally published in Wombat Forestcare’s wonderful newsletter. For a copy of the June 2016 issue:  Wombat Forestcare website