Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Books on Tortoises

Timothy; or; Notes of an Abject Reptile: a novel – Verlyn Klinkenborg
Lonesome George: The Life and Times of a Conservation Icon – Henry Nichols
Timothy the Tortoise: The Remarkable Story of the Nation’s Oldest Pet

It all started with Klinkenborg’s book: I must have bought it some two years back and started reading it some five times. Each time I gave up in the very first pages. Then one day I started it and read the whole thing. Oh, it’s a difficult book all right. It doesn’t give you an inch. You have to pry it open, re-read passages constantly, use the glossary (which I only noticed was there half-way through) and even gasp! use the dictionary, only to not find what you were looking for.

But, it’s a beautiful book. Ethereal, a philosophical dissertation, a study of Man and its incomprehensible ways by an animal considered by most unthinking, slow, stupid.

Our guide is a tortoise named Timothy, an actual, historical character (his shell is kept in London’s Natural History Museum). Gilbert White, British naturalist of the XVIII Century famous for his “The Natural History of Selborne” in which he chronicles the natural cycles of his home county, adopted the Greek tortoise Timothy after his owner passed away. A man so in tune with every bird migration and sprouting bud, seems to have been less loving and observant of his unusual pet - his is the expression “abject reptile”.

Here, however, Klinkenborg decides to give voice to Timothy and allow him to write his own “Natural History of Selbourne”. More an anthropologist than a natural historian, for he is a foreigner and both weather and custom feel out of place to him. Well, actually, more of an alien creature, for he is condemned to a life a solitude without ever meeting one of his kind. Condemned also, because of his longevity, to witness death often.

For Timothy the frailty of human skin which must be clothed and then housed is a source of wonder, maybe even some scorn: we are beings naturally unfit to live in Nature and must make up for it by our wits: “No creature excels the human in matters of nidification”.

“Notes…” is a very rewarding book, but I think you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. It is very contemplative in tone with a lot of XVIII century rural vocabulary, and I believe most readers will probably have to make an initial effort to pierce its outer carapace. However, inside lies a very wise, friendly beast whose company will almost certainly improve our condition.

“Lonesome George” is the kind of book I love. Centered in the creature that has been labeled “the rarest animal in the world” it digresses into conservation, cloning, the politics of tourism vs conservation vs local economy and of course, Darwin, for George lives in the Galápagos Islands.

He is the last known Geochelone nigra abingdoni or Pinta Island Tortoise, first discovered in 1971, and the book traces both efforts to find out for sure if George really is lonesome, (he may not be) as well as various strategies to attempt procreation (with turtles of nearby islands of similar genetic make-up) which have not yielded results until now.

How did turtles even get to the Galápagos? And why are there so many different species? Did they arrive at different times or spread later through the islands? How has human hand influenced the distribution and extermination of turtles in the islands? Can individual animals like Lonesome George really make a difference in conservation efforts by influencing public opinion? What are some near-extinct species that have come back from the brink of annihilation and what were the techniques used by scientists to accomplish this? And can havens of biodiversity like the Galápagos really find balance between being scientific stations for (mostly) foreign scientists, tourist destinations for (let’s face it) the wealthy and a place where economic survival is possible for native inhabitants?

These are some of the questions Henry Nicholls explores and really, how can you not be interested in finding out the answers?

I got “Timothy the Tortoise” because it was cheap and well, I was in a tortoise kind of place. While it doesn’t really focus solely on its protagonist, I did find the book an enjoyable read. Timothy (so named after Gilbert White’s Timothy) serves as the guide to the British aristocratic Courtenay family as the author follows the genealogical tree using Timothy’s keeper’s and recounts of important family events and memories of the tortoise.

Because it actually chronicles an epoch when British aristocracy and its way of life became redundant I found it quite interesting, though really, there isn’t much turtle lore here.

On a quirky end note, both Timothy’s were actually found out to be females…

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