Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Orchid Fever - Eric Hansen

Orchids seem to bring out the wackiness within. Who knew? Not me. I thought they were pretty plants who usually die despite my best efforts, or whose flowers smell like carrion like a specimen I was once presented with (thanks.).

Turns out there’s a whole orchid “sub-culture” out there – where nurseries are patrolled by armed security and people get into fist-fights over bulbs. (Two things that are usually found in close proximity to orchids I found, both through reading “Orchid Fever” and a spot of internet research are guns and reptiles. Go figure.)

Now, I had already read “Tulipmania” which is often mentioned in reviews of Hansen’s book, but let me tell you those sixteenth-century tulip lovers didn’t have anything on these guys and gals.

However, Hansen delivers a double-whammy with “Orchid Fever”: it’s not just about the orchids and human eccentricity, the things we hold as valuable and what we’ll do to get them; Hansen also constructs here a very powerful condemnation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) policies which, in the best case scenario, are not doing much to protect endangered species, and in the worst case, are building a corrupt network of officials, lead by ignorant lawyers who as one character puts it “don’t know a blade of grass from an orchid” – with this ignorance extending to many other species, both animal and plant, one imagines.(And to think orchids are actually their logo. Crazy.)

It’s not the first criticism of CITES I’ve read, but certainly the most powerful because Hansen merely needs to tell his subject’s encounters with Convention officials for it to become apparent that this organization is a nest of rabid bureaucrats with little idea of what’s going on with the species they are ‘protecting’. Certainly CITES is only concerned with ‘trade’ which means that, if you witness deforestation in Borneo, for instance, and grab a couple of plants listed on Appendix I to save and/or try to take them across borders – you are getting fined, big time and maybe even arrested. Meanwhile does anyone care about the fate of the animals and plants, losing their habitats? Not CITES. They’ve got their officials making the rounds at every major airport/port. If that’s supposed to keep species from going extinct, God help us all.

“Orchid Fever” is a great book, filled with impossible characters (seriously, if you read about these people in a work of fiction, you’d be like ‘That’s soo far-fetched). It made my eyes pop in astonishment but it also got me angry. So c’mon people, who’s gonna write me a CITES exposé? I’ll be first in line to buy that sucker.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Amazonian Expeditions OR Why I could never be a biologist

Journey of the Pink Dolphins - Sy Montgomery
A Parrot without a Name - Don Stap

At one point in Sy Montgomery’s expedition in the Amazon it seems as if every other hut on the river is inhabited by a grad student. Scary. Some tag turtles, some count fish, some get bored out of their mind and others get sick (has a ring to it, doesn’t it?).

Montgomery’s journey to find the Amazonian pink dolphins was not ‘scientific’ but rather a voyage lead by the imagination and emotion. That’s what makes her book so appealing even though, the pink dolphin itself, is so often elusive. After all, as the author says in the book (in a passage, I can’t for the life of me find right now): “to follow” doesn’t only mean to pursue in a linear fashion; it also means “to be guided by”, “to grasp the meaning”, “to engage”, “to take as model”. Her pursuit of these primitive dolphins is more telepathic and poetic. When the author borrows radio antennae to track dolphins that have been tagged, she comes up with nothing. Almost as if the animals were trying to tell her “that’s not the way to get in touch with us”. Yet her dreams are filled with dolphins. When she finally gets a chance to swim with them – to engage them on their own terms, on their own realm, that’s when a real interspecies conversation takes place. This is a beautiful book for all who dream of following their own familiar – a journey mapped by little else than a humble intuition of an ancient bond.

“A Parrot without a Name” also speaks of something ancient: human obsession with naming, cataloguing and “understanding”. That which is unnamed is nonexistent. Surely some Greek philosopher said something along those lines. Just as the verb “to follow” has many meanings so too does “to understand”. In a biology dictionary, though, I’m afraid it mostly means “to take apart in order to catalogue and name” rather than the actual meaning of “to have sympathy or tolerance”.

For those of us ignorant of what goes on in an actual ornithological expedition (to Peru near the Brazilian border) these days, this will be something of a shocker. Yup, they kill birds. Loads of birds. Scientists will set up mist nets (the kind I grew up watching in nature documentaries as being the fare of evil bird smugglers) to catch birds, including many that may not be of interest in that particular case. If they are of interest, the scientist will perform a maneuver called “squeezing” where force is applied by the fingers to the bird’s thorax until he stops breathing. If the specimen is large a pentobarbital shot is given. They also shoot them right from the trees. Since the obvious purpose is to conserve plumage and shape (although sometimes also internal organs), ornithologists will have to kill numerous birds, since some are damaged by the bird shot.

Author Don Stap makes a proficient enunciation of all the reasons killing birds is important to science. Guess what? I didn’t think even one was reasonable. And the way he felt compelled to go through them, tells me he probably wasn’t either. Anyways, the holy grail of ornithologists today is to discover a new species (yup, that’ll really make you a superstar, apparently). But to get your discovery approved by the scientific establishment (who resemble Kang & Kodos, or so I’m told) you Must Bring Proof. Dead Proof. Many Dead.

Stap followed an expedition in 1985 that hit the mother load: on his last day on camp, someone shot a couple of small green birds, that didn’t exactly fit any of the described species of the area. They ended up shooting 18 birds. In 1991 the Amazonian Parrotlet (Nannopsittaca dachilleae) finally became a recognized species. It’s such a rare species that for awhile it was believed they had gone extinct. But what the hell – there are 18 specimens stacked up in a university somewhere.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief. Where would we be without Science after all?

My advice? Take a picture. Seeing as museum specimens are taken care of, it will definitely last longer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Murder & Flowers

Gilding the Lily - Inside the Cut Flower Industry - Amy Stewart
Oscar Wilde and the Candelight Murders - Gyles Brandreth

I'm done with faux-epoch mysteries. After "Crocodile on the Sandbank" and "An Expert in Murder" and now "Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight murders" it's plain to see this genre is not my cup of tea. Gyles Brandreth's book also has some of the most outrageously exaggerated blurbs I've ever seen: (my favourite "If Oscar Wilde himself had been asked to write this book he could not have done it any better" - Now, I don't know if Alexander McCall Smith owes Brandreth money or if the guy has kidnapped his pet, but those are the only two scenarios where I could excuse this absolutely unbelievable comment - Or, maybe he means that if Wilde had been asked to write a mediocre, mistery-that-forgets-it's-a-mystery-because-it's-too-busy-meandering-so-it-can-name-drop-not-so-obscure-period-references-and-implying-Wilde-was-never-an-homosexual he couldn't quite have achieved this massively uninspired and pedestrian book? If so, hats off Mr McCall Smith, you're probably quite right).

Phew. Thank heavens Amy Stewart's book on the flower business is something altogether different. Well-paced, readable, informative and interesting.
It's always difficult to think of flowers as part of an 'Industry' (same with chocolate, I guess) but they are. A massive one, at that. And as with any business some people involved are passionate about the product, others about profit. As a global industry the flower business does its share of wrecking natural resources and exploiting third world workers. But it also offers a way out from a life of poverty and a real opportunity for 'green' credentials and certificates that want to make a difference.
While most information on "Gilding the Lily" wasn't completely new to me (I saw a French TV documentary on the flower business a couple of years ago) I still really enjoyed having the facts more thoroughly explained (not that Stewart ever goes too deep into the boring, fact&figure stuff). She travels to big flower farms in the States and in Ecuador and of course, to the Netherlands and meets many interesting characters that make their living out of roses, chrysanthemums and lilies, in farms, airports, auction houses and flower shops. Stewart has a really sympathetic and friendly narrative tone and I just kept thinking what a nice person she must be. If you're into flowers (who isn't?) or just looking for an interesting, well written, non-fiction book, I'd recommend this one.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Daniel Kalder - "Strange Telescopes"

“Lost Cosmonaut”, Kalder’s first book, was already hovering close to genius with its whole “anti-tourism” schtick (travelling to “nowhere”, or more precisely, those unknown bits in the middle of Russia), but “Strange Telescopes” just raised the anti-travel-writing gambit further: this time he visits universes that only exist in his interviewees heads’.

But first, some infidel bashing: back in 2006 travel writer Rory MacLean (am I the only one who’s thinking conflict of interests?) reviewed “Lost Cosmonaut” and wrote the following:

“(…)as a traveller he has a problem. He doesn't 'much like talking to people'.

(…)He refuses to see that beyond the sterile heritage centres, the superficial cultural resemblances and the wastelands of our age, the world still remains diverse and full of wonders. But then to appreciate that diversity and to experience these wonders the traveller must do one thing first. Talk to people.”

Well, I have a couple of things to say about that for myself and everyone else that dislikes “talking to people”: it is obviously an idiotic notion to think that if you chat up a couple of locals you’ll be anywhere near understanding the place in question – more than likely these are the same people who hang around public squares and monuments trying to find an unsuspecting tourist (or travel writer) to feed the same old stories to. Anyone anxious to talk to a foreigner is probably not that interesting anyway (but try explaining that to tourists).

Second, I read MacLean’s book on the hippie trail “Magic Bus” and have to say that not only it managed to completely bore me on a subject that has interested me since adolescence; it is also completely forgettable (proof? I can’t remember anything about it and I read it last year).

So, with that out of the way, it must be stated that Kalder got over his (perfectly reasonable, if you ask me) dislike of engaging others in conversation, in a spectacular manner. In “Strange Telescopes” he talks to people most of us would avoid making eye-contact with. He enters their homes, travels with them, obeys their commandments, steps wholeheartedly into their worlds.

They are Sergei, leader of the “Diggers” who live on the tunnels beneath Moscow, Edward, hell-bent (excuse the pun) on proving to the world the real danger of demonic possession, Vissarion, the Siberian Jesus and Nikolai Sutyagin builder of a fairy-tale/ horror movie construction, a sky-scraper made entirely of wood.

Is Russia an especially fertile breeding ground for alternate realities? It’s hard to say, though there is definitely something intrinsically Russian about these characters, as they each make clear by their stories.

The best thing about “Strange Telescopes” is its tone. Now don’t get me wrong, Kalder can do dark and even risqué humor with the best, but with his subjects he never falls into the easy trap of condescension. Sure, sometimes they are incredibly frustrating, annoying or just plain boring, but there’s never that disgusting faux “understanding”, that wink-wink “aren’t they just the biggest wackos ever?” best epitomized in this ABC story on Vissarion.

Looking at the world through someone else’s eyes is a difficult feat at best – and when it involves going down a sewer drain, attending an exorcism in rural Ukraine, travelling to Siberia in the dead of winter and risk being mauled by Caucasian Shepherd dogs, who wants to try, anyway? Why, someone who doesn’t like talking to people, of course.

A small parenthesis here:

Travel writing is something I used to think I liked. Then I started getting one pompous, tedious book after the other. Most of the time the (British/American/Canadian) writer will talk a lot - but only to English-speaking expats or the feeble-minded who wait around for Anglo-Saxonic writers in order to bait them with “interesting” stories. It just might be the most masturbatorial genre out there (and let’s not even get into the I-moved-to-(Spain/France/Greece/Portugal/Marocco, etc)-with-(a cello/a parrot/my grandmother) gig). I finally figured that what bothers me about it is the same thing that bothered me about my once upon a time major, anthropology: like it or not, they both suffer from a Tarzan complex “Me-study” “You-subject”. There is always the unspoken fact that we are allowed to observe them, because we can make sense of them. And XX century tourism, of course, followed the same path.

And…end small parenthesis.

So, if I wanted to get all structuralist on your ass I’d tell you that what this Kalder fellow has got going on here, with his anti-tourism, anti-everyday thingy is nothing short of an epistemological revolution. Unfortunately I graduated before I could fully understand these (and other concepts).

Coming from a cold and depressing place to Russia is probably a good antidote against trying to romanticize/criticize every step of the way. Still, let’s give credit where it is due: Kalder avoided with all his might the western need to “make-sense-of”, whether looking for stuff he never got to see, seeing stuff he couldn’t quite believe or listening to people who make incomprehensible choices. Most of the time he didn’t even feel the need to ask “why?” – it was enough just being around them. That’s right folks – he didn’t even talk that much.

The ultimate act of surrender – deliver yourself to the natives.