The book has 4 main sections focusing on 4 different animals: bats, crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles), whales, and penguins. I was really looking forward to the whale chapter, especially since part of it took place in Hawaii - and I really enjoyed it. But the surprise for me was the bat chapter. It was really informative and interesting, and I learned a lot.
The one thing that's missing, which I think I mentioned in Rarest of the Rare as well, is photography. I'm not sure if she just never takes photos on her expeditions, but I really wish I could see some of the stuff she saw.
Because to be honest, and I thought this throughout much of the book - I don't think I'll/we'll ever again see the scenes that Ackerman was lucky enough to experience. Just the sheer number of animals, often in rural or uninhabited places. I think that experience is gone, depressingly. For example, during the bats chapter, in my notes I wrote: 20 million bats all in one location? That would be quite a sight to see though I imagine you can't find something like that anymore. That makes me really sad.
Even during the 80s, when Ackerman did most of the travel presented in the book, Merlin Tuttle, ecologist and bat researcher, says, "I personally know of caves where people have wiped out millions of bats in one day." Sigh. That being said, Dr. Tuttle is such an awesome scientist. And his words really resonated with me. A couple of choice quotes from him:
"I never had any ambition to be anything but a good scientist. I was content to be a member of other conservation organizations and support their efforts. But for years the traditional organizations just ignored bats as too hopeless. If you couldn't raise money for an animal, it couldn't be helped. That's unfortunate. Part of our problems today come from the fact that even scientists and conservationists tend to take the easy ride and find an animal that's very popular with the public. They raise funds to help that animal, but often that's so easy and tempting that other animals that are just as valuable, and sometimes much *more* valuable, remain completely ignored." (p44)
"It's a shame that people want to view animals as either good or bad. But as Emerson pointed out, a weed is just a flower out of place." (p44)
"But this is often the case when it comes to animals – by the time you eliminate them down to the point when everyone can agree that the species is officially endangered, it's already too late." (p47)
One thing I really liked was reading about these scientists and researchers that Ackerman presented. I kept interrupting myself while reading to look up the names, and added books and articles to my reading lists. It was really informative. When I googled Dr. Tuttle, I found his Facebook page and did a bit of stalking. It's amazing the access the Internet has given us. Even just 10 years ago I wouldn't have been able to do this!
I loved Ackerman's enthusiasm, which is always present in her books: "But a carnival of bats inhabits the world!"
And her writing is so lyrical and expressive. She paints a picture of the world for you that I really love:
There was nothing to do but wait. It is always like this for naturalists, and for poets - the long hours of travel and preparation, and then the longer hours of waiting. All for that one electric, pulse–revving vision when the universe suddenly declares itself. A ravishing tug on the sleeve of our mortality. A view of life so astonishing as to make all of life newly astonishing: a spotted bat. (p33)
On each side, sandstone cliffs, striped like sherbet, revealed layer after compressed layer of time. How can time be so rigid in rock and so molten as we live it? Underfoot, sheets of rock swirled red, yellow, white, blue. Life blooms in such unlikely places: tufts of grass jutting out from a rock; slabs of cactus sprouting from sheer cliffside high above us, where you'd think no dirt could have settled. (p51)
I loved her description of the past: "the pious fiction we call history." (p141)
I didn't gather any quotes from the whale chapter, maybe because I was engrossed. But I really enjoyed reading about the right whales in Patagonia. That was amazing - I wonder if they are still there? Further research is required! I love books that get me excited to find out more.
Each chapter reads like a short book which I really liked. As each ended I would take a few minutes to pause and soak it in.
The one thing that was a bit odd to me were the sections in the crocodilian and penguins chapters that focused on the non-wild places: namely, the alligator parks/farms and Sea World. I guess these were the best places to see those animals at the time? I know it's a can of worms, but that was off to me, because they weren't exactly zoos so it wasn't for conservation per se. Also it was the 80s so I don't know how the sentiment towards places like these was at the time. It was kind of weird to me that she chose to end the book - or technically the penguin essay, since I just said each chapter was like a short book - focusing on the baby penguin at Sea World who, while it would never see the wild place that its parents and family came from, would always be safe because it was in captivity. That just didn't sit well with me.
Other than that gripe, yes, I'm totally jealous of all these adventures in which she's been able to participate - it's all a bunch of stuff I will never get to see, or at least not in the same way she has, what with the declines in wildlife and wild places. At least I get to read about it in these wonderful books. If Ackerman comes out with any more animal-related books, I'm there!
A couple more of my favorite quotes:
Kent Vliet, biologist, crocodilian researcher: "You see, their whole philosophy is that a wild animal is being wasted if it has economic potential that isn't being used. That's a rather mercenary way to think about wild animals." (p93)
Vliet: "Alligators are big crocodilians, but they're shy and retiring, very passive creatures, even the largest males. Crocodiles, on the other hand, are agile and mean and fast, superpredators that consider humans prey items. Alligators just aren't like that. They're real pussycats." (p95)
Roger Payne, biologist, whale researcher: "I had a grandfather, a lumberman, who cut nothing but walnut trees, sometimes for whole years at a time, and that excess on his part, and on the part of his contemporaries, ensured that I would never have walnut except as the most exotic of woods. He was shortsighted. Was anyone warning him? I bet there was. Going on with the destruction of a species until it's brought to the point of extinction is madness - not just a little mad or slightly mad. It's authentic madness." (p163)
As far as I could see in any direction, icebergs meandered against a backdrop of tall, crumbly Antarctic glaciers, which were still pure and unexplored. Human feet had not touched the glaciers I saw; nor had many pairs of eyes beheld them. In many ways, the Antarctic is a world of suspended animation. Suspended between outer space and the fertile continents. Suspended in time - without a local civilization to make history. Civilization has been brought to it; it has never sustained any of its own. It sits suspended in a hanging nest of world politics. When things die in the Antarctic, they decay slowly. What has been is still there and will always be, unless we interfere. (p209)
"Tenacity," I said, thinking out loud - and not meaning the macaroni penguin's tenacity, exactly, but life's. Life hangs on in such out-of-the-way places, pushes on with such ingenuity and bravado. Turning over a mother-of-pearl-lined limpet shell on Elephant Island a few days earlier, I had seen a hundred squirming wingless flies. Life just seemed to keep reinventing itself - inside a limpet shell, or hundreds of feet up on a rocky cliff above a roaring ocean. (p336)