Friday, September 6, 2013

Last Chance To See

I know I haven't talked much about books I've read, and that's probably quite unfair of me.  There are a lot of times I'll simply curl up with a good book (or even a bad book) and read it, taking time to flip back and forth between pages and develop the world the author intended in my own mind.  I'll find a paragraph or two that excites my imagination and dwell on them, picking apart word usage and using vague details to create a large canvass that my mind can then fill in the details on.

In a fantasy world, a science fiction universe, or even an exotic location, this can use up a lot of my reading time, but there's something else that gets my mind racing just as much: a personal story, especially one with a touch of adventure.

Such is the case with Douglas Adams' book Last Chance To See, I book I think everybody should read and keep on them if they do any traveling.

Douglas Adams is, of course, most well known for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a series of science fiction books I hold in quite high esteem, but personally this is my favorite book he wrote, if only because no matter how ridiculous the situation gets you know it's real.

Recorded in 1989 as a BBC radio drama, the accompanying book details Douglas Adams and his travels around the world to try to see the most endangered creatures on the planet.  You have the Komodo dragon, the Aye-Aye from Madagascar, the Northern white rhinoceros of Zaire, the Amazonian manatee of Brazil, and others animals I had little clue still existed (or even know about in the first place!)  Each chapter discusses his arrival, his communication (or inability to communicate) with the locals, and the attempts of his guide to help him locate the exotic animal.  Sometimes he's able to spot them in the wild, sometimes he has to go to a preserve to see the few that still exist, and sometimes he doesn't get to see one at all, but simply sees signs that one must still exist.

There are pictures accompanying the chapters, showing Douglas Adams and the people and animals he sees, but they almost aren't necessary due to the richness of his writing, filling in the landscape for you and allowing your mind to reconstruct a once in a lifetime journey.  He picks up the simplest details and presents them plainly, but your mind crafts exotic locations, strange structures, and dangerous settings where a group of people might be desperate to get close to and document some of the most dangerous animals that live.

The animals themselves are fascinating when presented with Adams' uniquely English sense of humor.  Simple birds are personified, allowing us to laugh at how ridiculous their mating habits are, such as that of the kakapo.  A quote from his book states that, regarding the kakapo's having lost the ability to fly, "Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly.  Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground."

However, under every branch of humor you can find a genuine concern and caring about animals that are now so close to extinction that they require direct aid from humans just to continue existing.  His descriptions are gentle and comforting when able (not so much the Komodo dragon), and he presents each animal as best he can with a distinctive style and quality that cannot be found anywhere else.  You also get a feeling of frustration from Adams at the fact that a particular bird species or marine animal isn't able to do more to fight for its survival and might in fact seem completely oblivious to the danger it's in.  You also start to get the sensation that he starts to prefer some of the animals to the people who live in the region, such as when he explains the advances in China that allowed people to flourish but have brought the populations of dolphins in one of their rivers to catastrophic lows.  The fact that people didn't do more at an earlier time before it became so dangerous hits home several times, and though you might not personally be responsible for the fate of these creatures, the desperation of the situation sits heavy on your chest.

That's not to say that every chapter is a total downer, though.  In fact, several chapters discuss the advances in protecting the species and discuss how the numbers of some are improving every year.  Granted, these were numbers from 1989 and 1990, but there was a follow-up television series on the BBC that came out in 2009 where Steven Fry follows up with the animals (save for a few, including the Yangtze river dolphin which, sadly, "is probably all but extinct now.")

This is a book that remains by my bedside at all times, and when I'm really tired or even just restless I'll pull it down, flip to a random chapter, and read up on one man's journey through places in the world few people are able to travel to, but just how devastating its been for the local animal populations once man did arrive.  It leaves me feeling really humble and really aware of my own place in the world, and it will probably forever remain within my top ten favorite books of all time.

No comments: