Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: Zoo Quest to Guiana

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Zoo Quest to Guiana
       
Author: David Attenborough
       
Date: 1957
       
Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell
       
ISBN: none, but here is its Amazon page
       
Length: 252 pages
       
Illustrations: photo inserts, a few in color
       
Quote: “Many of the South American animals inspire the fascination that comes from revulsion.”
       
Many, but not all. If you’re not sure how you feel about anacondas, anteaters, ants, arapaimas, bats, caymans, cannibal fish, capybaras, coatimundis, cocks-of-the-rocks, crested curassows, eels, egrets, grasshoppers, hoatzins, honey-creepers, hummingbirds, jabiru, jigger fleas, labbas, manatees, mantids, monkeys, opossums, peccaries, piranhas, porcupines, sloths, spiders, spoonbills, tamanduas, and turtles—or not quite sure what some of these creatures are—you’ll want to read Attenborough’s book and learn more about them. Zoo Quest to Guiana contains photos, a map, and several stories about people he met on his trip, as well.
       
If you’re familiar with Attenborough as the grandfatherly British narrator of PBS nature shows, this glimpse of him as a young man will delight you. He had a penchant for anecdotes, like the one about the missionary who found one of his converts roasting a labba, a rabbit-sized rodent. Knowing that the missionary wouldn’t eat a rodent, the convert said, “This is fish.”
       
“No fish has two big front teeth like that.”
       
“No, sir! You know how, when you first came to this village, you say my Indian name is bad name, and you sprinkled water over me and say my name is now John...I see labba and I shoot’im, and before he die, I throw water over him and I say, ‘Labba be bad name, you be fish.’ And so now I eat fish.”
       
Attenborough’s informant identified the missionary as a Seventh-Day Adventist, but he sounds like a Methodist to me. Adventists did not compulsively rechristen converts, and they always baptize by immersion.
       
At another stop, Attenborough tried collecting folk songs, but the singers demanded lots of “lubrication” with money and wine, then sang a selection of unprintably bawdy versions of songs whose clean versions were already familiar, and ended with a sort of forerunner of today’s Top 40: “Variants on the last line seemed endless.” Attenborough gave up and went to bed.
       
Then he acquired two of the pig-sized rodents called capybaras, “essentially amphibious animals.” Thoroughly tamed, the animals couldn’t even be chased into water until their owner called her children and ordered all four to swim. “From the beginning of their lives the four infants had always bathed together...now the capybara would not go into the river without the children.”
       
None of us will ever see Guyana the way Attenborough saw it...the local people’s first reaction to “western” movies, what it was like for Attenborough to see the first answer to the question of what leaf-cutter ants did with the leaves, why a certain rock attracted elaborate petroglyphs, how to catch and when to release a sloth... but at least he’s documented his memories.

According to Google, Sir David Attenborough is 88 years old, and doesn't sound as if he needs a dollar, but since he's still alive we can offer his books through the Fair Trade Book system. If you don't insist on a collector's edition, a copy of Zoo Quest to Guiana will cost $5 + $5 for shipping, out of which Attenborough or a charity of his choice receives $1.