Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Last Chance...

Last Chance To See is probably one of the best books I have ever read. It's by Douglas Adams, who is famous amoung nerds for having written The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and for dying well before the disappointing movie of the same name was released. I'll say right now that I'm not a huge fan of his. The Hitchhiker books are pretty alright, but they never really got me going. But this book is utterly fantastic.

It's a travelog (which of course I love a priori) about Adams and a zoologist friend named Mark, as they travel around the world, visiting species on the verge of extinction (hence, the name of the book). Now we're not talking about bald eagle endangered here, we're talking 3 aging females left alive, quarantined on a tiny island, guarded over 24/7 to protect them from hungry weasels and Dutch sailors with clubs and too much free time.

The great thing about this book, and the thing that distinguishes it from just about every other book, article, or telegraph about endangered species or conservation, is that there is absolutely no preaching involved. There's no emotional exaggerations or evangelisms, and there's no guilt-tripping - there's just a crazy old british guy leaving airplane aftershave under bus seats in China, on the way to see the blind Yangztee River Dolphins.

Split into a series of stories (it was originally a BBC radio series), each chapter focuses on the travel to find the animal (most of the animals are in difficult to reach locations, like mountain gorillas in Zaire), the current state of the animal (almost gone forever), its history (killed by people and/or rats brought by people), and what people are (or aren't) doing to save it (creating island sanctuaries, or eating it for dinner on special occasions). That sounds terribly boring, but in practice it is awesome, due to Adams being British, hilarious, and completely out of place no matter where he goes.

The stories are always interesting, usually lol-worthy, and very frequently touching. Yes, touching, despite what I said earlier about the emotions thing. Believe it or not, it's possible to get someone to care about animals (and plants!) and the environment without being anti-humanity or calling for the destruction of mankind by way of an airborne ebola virus, like this guy. The lengths that people are going to to save some of these animals is amazing and heart-warming - on the other hand, the negligence toward and humiliation of some of the others is sobering and more than a bit sad.

I've always felt bad when species are extinctized. I think it stems from reading Lord of the Rings as a kid. I could never get over it when the elves and dwarves and hobbits had to leave Middle-Earth for the lame-ass "Age of Men." It always seemed so much more boring than the Age of Crazy Fantasy Adventures. It's the same sort of feeling here, when giant friendly flightless parrots, whose mating call sounds like a thunderous heartbeat in the night, half heard and half felt in your chest - when they are replaced by rats and common house cats. It's just kind of like: don't we have enough of those already?

Some additional links - here is Another Chance To See, which is a blog that gives updates on the status of the animals visited in the book (written in the 80s, so a lot has changed since then). And here is an NPR piece on the wild coffee plant mentioned briefly in the book.

Briefly, it was thought extinct, until a teacher was doing a lesson and mentioned it, and a student claimed to have one in his backyard. Turns out, that was the last one in existence, the others having been eaten by goats. Well this one was in pretty bad shape too, so they built a fence around it to keep the goats away. Which of course made the neighbors think it was special, or else why build a fence? So they started breaking branches off to cure hangovers and gonorrhea (yes, that's right). Well, 3 more barbed wire fences, a roof (people were scaling the fences), and a security guard later, and, well, you can listen and find out (about 8 minutes long and fairly lively).

Read this book!


At 4/05/2006 04:27:00 PM, Blogger i heart dorks said...

I can attest to the lol'ing and to this books apparent superiority to anything I might have been reading while Matt was reading this as he constantly interrupted Ken Kesey to read excerpts to me.

At 4/05/2006 04:36:00 PM, Anonymous MaxPower said...

Today in my "business meeting" the client talked about crazy airborn ebola guy. I haven't RTFA but wouldn't a counter argument to that guy be "so commit suicide" ?


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