Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Flamingos and Rhinos

The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the eye of the beholder - David Quammen
Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in modern America – Jennifer Price

I loved “The Song of the Dodo”. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. But the short article form doesn’t really give David Quammen the space to spread his wings. An author that jumps as deftly as he does through time, space and scientific and natural history writing a magazine column is like a macaw shut in a budgie cage: he sticks out all over the place.

“The Boilerplate Rhino” is a collection of articles written for the magazine Outside. In a lot of articles you can hear Quammen rant against deadlines, lack of inspiration and lack of space. The extreme sports/ hiking crowd that read the magazine are not necessarily Nature lovers as the author is painfully aware. Just because you want to climb, raft or cycle doesn’t exactly mean you listen to it – or its stories.

Quammen takes pleasure in finding new viewpoints for the reader – my favorite is: we have “cans of a product called dolphin-safe tuna. But no tuna-safe dolphin.”. I liked his ramble in T-Rex country (“Local bird makes good”) and loved his take on the American lawn (“Rethinking the lawn”, a subject Price also explores). In fact essays where Quammen haunts his home state of Montana, where he allows the reader to catch a glimpse of his home, where my favorite. But I was also moved by the amazing and sad stories he tells in “Palpating the tumor” (where a daughter struggles to share her mother with cancer) and “Half-blinded poets and birds” on the death of Robert Penn Warren.

For fans of the author’s writing this is, of course, a must. But be warned: it doesn’t quite sate the hunger.

“Flight Maps” is a very original book that takes a look at how Americans relate to nature. Sometimes that relationship doesn’t involve actual Nature. It might take the form of a plastic pink flamingo, a British lawn transplanted to arid soils, a shopping spree at a shop that features “nature” in its name, or a tv show like “Northern Exposure”. The more contemporary essays: (“Looking for Nature at the Mall: a field guide to the Nature Company”, “Roadrunners Can’t Read: the greening of television in the 1990s” and, to some extent “A Brief Natural History of the Pink Flamingo) set the book firmly in the nineties (gosh, they seem so quaint), even though the book came out in the last year of that decade.

The first two essays however, grounded in the late XIX and early XX century are both historical and timeless. The first “Missed Connections: the Passenger Pigeon extinction” tells of a well known episode that is by this time, almost a myth narrative on the way Americans relate to nature. The pigeons were in the millions and were extinct in a few decades of organized hunting (the last specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 . A shame, yes. But whose shame? As Price demonstrates, the upper classes, authors of the “shame” speech, who put the blame for the pigeon’s extinction squarely on the “greedy” hands of hunters (poor hunters), quietly expunged themselves from any responsibility. Meanwhile, East Coast gentlemen had made the sport of trap shooting (for which thousands of birds were captured in the Midwest every year and sent by rail to the east) popular, while ladies enjoyed pyramids of pigeons on their lunches at Delmonico’s (all trace of the birds origin disguised under the name Ballotines de Pigeon).

The hilariously titled “When women were women and birds were hats” concerns a little known (completely unknown to me) episode in which hats with not only birds plumes but also whole mounted birds became so fashionable they threatened to drive several species to extinction. How ironic then that women, in the shape of late XIX century womens’ clubs were the ones responsible for annihilating this trend, through fierce campaigning, letter-writing and public speaking. Ah, but how many had bird hats stuffed away in some dark corner of their closet? That is the question.

Somewhere along the line nature became something separate (and therefore timeless, pure, untouchable, etc), probably because those who engaged on building the society’s narrative on nature were indeed separate (or felt separate) from it. Nature ceased to be something you ate, transformed, built and needed, into something you are political about, without having to consider how much of your daily life is intertwined with it. Nature as “out there” Price explains is a mind set. One that isn’t necessarily good for us or nature.

Does it matter that Thoreau went to his mama’s home almost every other day while living “alone” at Walden Pond? Quammen thinks it doesn’t; I beg to differ. Price would probably want to know what he was doing at mom’s place – staring at her bird hats?

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