So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, by David Quammen

I had no idea why I was in that circle of chairs in that airy room.

I was at grad school Orientation, a rather disorienting process, and my academic adviser was only the latest in a long series of people I’d met whose roles I didn’t fully understand and whose names I was almost certain to forget. There were a group of us meeting the same adviser, and since he coincidentally had all of us in class, he took the opportunity to tell us that he’d updated the online syllabus (there’s an online syllabus? Where? Help!), replacing the textbook with the book by Quammen—

“Song of the Dodo!” I said reflexively, as though I’d been squeezed, as though I were a squeeze-bottle of ketchup and the name of the book was that first splat that overshoots your lunch and lands on your napkin.

“Yes, that’s the book,” he acknowledged, looking rather nonplussed by the interruption. I’ll bet he was; I later asked him to be my thesis adviser, and he is a man of great authority and dignity. I wouldn’t interrupt him now, and I didn’t mean to do it then. But, disoriented as I was, at least there was one other person at my new school with good taste in books.

I’d read Song of the Dodo for pleasure the year before. A colleague of mine had a copy and had left it lying around. As you might guess, I read rather compulsively. I also have excellent recall, I don’t know why, but being able to remember that book saved me both time and money that semester. Time and money are always in short supply for grad students, or I would have happily read it again. It’s beautifully and entertainingly written, and—my teacher was right—it is an excellent introduction to many of the main concepts and people in conservation biology.

See, there is no reason whatever why science writing should be so dry as to kill cows at a hundred paces. No, science writing should be full of…fresh grass and sparkling water and cool, spreading shade trees. Or spiders. One of those fun and fascinating things.

Ecology is full of fun an interesting things. Environmental disaster is scary and sad, and it's actually much worse than most people realize, but you don't really get depressed about it. First, there isn't time, second, because there is so much awesome stuff to pay attention to. A nature geek is a kid in a candy-store all the time. Song of the Dodo is one of the few books that captures not just the content but the flavor of science. But that's not the primary reason why I have put it on my list. This is also another book that makes clear several basic, important ideas.

Here is an example; size matters. Say you isolated Lower Manhattan in some kind of impervious bubble so nothing but air and water could move in or out—no people and no money (this is my analogy—I won’t spoil Quammen’s for you). Would you then have protected this financial and cultural hub for all time? No, of course not; the place would very quickly fall to ruin, because Manhatten is an island only in the geographic sense. Culturally and economically, it is part of a system as big as the globe. As a species, investment bankers need access to a wide range of resources, and will die out from any isolated area. Granted, if some cataclysm were about to befall the world and you had a magic bubble that could protect a few square miles of human habitat, you might well decide to put it over Lower Manhattan (or the Bronx, or, say, my house, depending on your conservation priorities), especially if you thought the cataclysm might be temporary. The occupants of your little Manhattan park could save the world, if they could hold out till the coast was clear. Noah didn’t have to live on the Ark forever, after all. But the situation would be far from ideal.

Where this metaphor is going is probably too obvious by now to bear articulating. I don't mean nature preserves are bad, I mean they aren't enough. They aren't a place to stop and rest for long.

As Quammen points out, the actual song of the dodo is something lost not only to the world, but also to history. Dodos get a bad rap; often blamed for their own demise on account of their supposed stupidity, dodos were perfectly adapted to the world as they knew it. The world simply changed. After contact with humans (and egg-eating rats) they went so fast that no one who heard the sound actually took notes on their call. It is possible it was a sort of a coo, and that their name was onomatopoetic; “do-do, do-do.”

But, other songs still exist. As a therapist of mine used to say, the present is the future’s past.

Quammen, D. (1996). Song of the dodo: Island biogeography in an age of extinction. Touchstone: New York, NY.

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