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Book Review: Among the Islands

Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific

by Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012

For those who haven’t seen it, the sheer vastness of the Pacific Ocean is impossible to grasp. Flying over it conveys a fraction of the impression – airplane passengers get caught up in their distractions, or in sleeping, and fail to connect two vital factors: that they’re travelling at enormous speed, and that even so, they’ve seen nothing at all below them but water, for hours. The fleeting impression glimpsed through a tiny plane window becomes a life-engulfing sensorium if you travel the same expanses down on the water – it’s only at then that the reality of Earth being a water-world really penetrates. On the water, especially in wind-driven vessels, you can travel for weeks without seeing anything but water in all directions from morning until night – it’s far more disorienting (at least at first) than any trek across broad ice or desert sands.

Then, after those weeks, you start to raise the scattering of islands that heralds the distant nearness of Australia – the Solomons, Santa Cruz Islands, Fiji. Maps tend to show these islands in relative isolation, but in reality they begin to litter the sea, and each of them contains its own beauties and mysteries.

At the beginning of his career, scientist and popular science-writer Tim Flannery had what he calls “the best job in the world,” exploring those islands in search of unknown species of bat and rat and marsupials. Among the Islands, his dozenth or so book (after such modern-day classics as The Eternal Frontier and Throwim Way Leg), is the story of those explorations – a story told with Flannery’s signature clarity and lively readability. Our author has been credited with the discovery of more new animal species than Charles Darwin, and like Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, Flannery writes with unpretentious immediacy about the people, places, and things he sees. It’s exhilarating reading.

Some of those places are just about as remote as remote gets, little specks of land in distant orbit of the Vanuatu chain, or the D’Entrecasteaux Group. Flannery goes to them in search of small furry animals that have eluded the spotlight of science, and he finds plenty of such animals – but also people (the book contains eight pages of color photos, tantalizing glimpses of these adventures that will make every reader wish there were twenty or thirty pages more – too much to hope that an extensively annotated color picture-book of these voyages is in the works?); even the islands themselves benefit from Flannery’s vivid descriptive flair:

Alcester Island is high, so it’s visible from a long way off. When first spotted, the green speck on the horizon seems delightful, but the closer you get the less inviting it looks. The island’s basalt core is all that remains of an ancient volcano. It resembles a gigantic, angular stone, flat on top with sheer sides crusted at the base with limestone cliffs. With no fringing reef to hold them back, waves beat fiercely against the cliffs, carving them into caverns and spires. They reminded me of the redoubts of the cartoon wizards of my childhood.

Even for the moment just sticking with the godforsakenly inadmissible rock that is Alcester, Flannery moves easily from cartoon wizards to hard science – and makes each equally interesting:

Alcester’s geology is revealing of its history. The island formed when a volcano rose from the sea. Presumably, it was initially cone-shaped, like Japan’s Mount Fuji, but then erosion by waves steepened its sides, giving it a more block-like shape. As the magma chamber that fed the volcano cooled, it became very heavy and began to sink into the sea, until it lay at sea level. The volcano’s summit was then off by the waves, forming the plateau that exist today. Then, awesome geological forces gathered strength, thrusting the island skyward once again. This would have happened in stages. The limestone cliffs were clearly once fringing coral reefs that formed as the island paused in its ascent, but which have now been elevated high above the sea. In all probability Alcester is still on the rise.

In fact, everything encountered in these pages comes in for the same lovingly detailed description, from Flannery’s colleagues and crewmates to his flare-ups of malaria (always at the very worst times, as malaria sufferers can attest) – and of course to the unwitting stars of the show, all those previously undocumented little creatures. There are giant rats and goannas and cuscus and wallabies to be chased down and identified (as well as a couple of encounters with deadly serpents in these far-distant Edens), although the center stage is almost always reserved for bats in their near-infinite variety – and the often grotesquely hilarious lengths to which our intrepid author will go in order to get close to them, as when he’s in a cave on the island of New Ireland and encounters landscape obstacles not charted on any map:

As sick at heart as I felt at the sight, my choices were limited: having come all the way from Australia there was no way I could just turn around and leave without knowing what those smaller bats were. So it was either Bat Shit Mountain or Bat Piss Lagoon, and I chose the mountain. I tentatively edged into it and a foul, living broth slopped over the tops of my boots. The hard legs of beetles scratched at my toes, and maggots squirmed at my ankles, as my footwear filled with shit. Higher and higher up my legs the muck crept, and as it rose above my knees I debated turning back. Then a slight firmness underfoot signalled that the worst was over. I was mistaken, however, and soon the vile, squirming mass reached my thighs and an acrid, ammonia-like stench began to suffocate me. Yet I was still only halfway to the cave’s rear wall.

Readers won’t require nearly so much determination to press on in Among the Islands – this is scientific adventure-writing at its finest.