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Absent Friends: Our Jolly Round Whirling Earth

By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

Devotees of American natural history writing practically need hip-waders for the gore. Until only comparatively recently, exploration by gun was the standard order of the day, and the principal difference between naturalist and hunter was where all the dead animals ended up. Mount them on your den wall and you’re a rapacious despoiler of the pristine natural world; tag them and send them along to be mounted in a diorama at your favorite natural history museum and you’re a beloved conservator of all creatures great and small. Needless to say, from the viewpoint of the countless animals involved the difference was immaterial—indeed, the many thousands captured alive and sent by torturous routes to linger in carnivals and squalid small-town zoos might have preferred the quick simplicity of the hunter’s rifle. It must be said: the debt of sheer slaughter owed to the fauna of America is unlikely to be repaid by even a hundred generations of more peaceful-minded practitioners.

The irony is that some of the most peaceful-minded were also some of the crackest shots. To see Theodore Roosevelt smilingly posing with one boot triumphantly placed on the lifeless head of a slain African elephant matriarch—to know that in her sixty years she was every bit the undaunted leader, conscious role model, and even spiritual advisor (and, for all we know, just as charismatic) that he himself had been as President (only he lacked the daily threats of starvation and lion attack she had to deal with)—well, to see these things, to know them as true, makes it very hard not to hate Roosevelt and every gun-toting so-called naturalist like him.

And yet … and yet, these men—Roosevelt foremost among them—did more for the conservation of wilderness, especially at the turn of the 20th century, when it was in real danger of not being conserved at all, than anybody. They represented the eternal urge some people have always felt to engage with nature directly, to lay hands on it; Roosevelt and his ilk used guns and nets and porters to do this, (in Roosevelt’s case to assemble one of founding collections of the American Museum of Natural History) but the urge itself is of course alive and well, expressed these days by failed actors and male models wielding live-feed cameras, leaping on top of bewildered boa constrictors (or, more tragically, providing a hungry bear with an irresistible alternative to arduous, tedious hunting) and spouting pre-digested little info-packets written at a strictly 6th-grade level of complexity. Both cases are guided by the same childish misconceptions: that the natural world is mankind’s plaything, to be used as mankind sees fit, and that the natural world is physically inexhaustible.

(There’s a third assumption at work here, running underneath the first two, but it cannot be laid exclusively at the door of those who shoot and trap, since those who look and record very often labor under it too—it being the bedrock assumption that there is an unbridgeable gap between humans and every other species of animal on Earth, a qualitative difference that renders the former more meaningful than all of the latter. Virtually no naturalist who’s ever put pen to paper has been free of this bedrock assumption, but we can always hope).

In the 20th century, there can be little argument that the greatest of these Roosevelt-style gun-and-net-toting naturalists was William Beebe, grand poobah ornithologist with the New York Zoological Society long, long ago, world-traveler, intrepid explorer (in a relatively timid, eyeglasses-adjusting ornithological way), dinner partner to the stars, intimate with celebrities like Katharine Hepburn, A.A. Milne, and Theodore Roosevelt, and always-entertaining radio personality. Beebe studied wildlife all over the world, wrote the definitive, massive monograph on the natural history of the pheasant, and explored the bottom of the ocean with one of the inventors of the bathysphere. He was a tireless observer of the natural world, and he set his observations down in some forty books, many of which became bestsellers—a rather rare feat for ornithologists, then or now.    

Much of his research was novel and groundbreaking, and even on the basis of that alone, he might merit a mention in some older edition of Chambers Biographical Dictionary. But it’s those books that constitute Beebe’s true gift to posterity. In them the reader will find dispatches from every hidey-hole of what Beebe called “our jolly, round, whirling earth,” and equally importantly will be found Beebe himself, a keenly intelligent man who never forgot how little he knew about the vastness of nature (in one book he comments, “…in my own estimation my chief profession is ignorance, yet I sign my passport applications and my jury evasions as ornithologist”), an accomplished man who never lost his humility in the face of a world bustling with creatures too concerned with survival to care about ornithology departments (in another book, his dedication reads, “To the birds and butterflies, the ants and tree-frogs who have tolerated me in their jungle antechambers, I offer this volume of friendly words”). Beebe, like Roosevelt, retained throughout his entire life the child’s sense of wonder that most adults voluntarily jettison in their early 20s.

It served him well in his journeys, and the books record it all. In “Galapagos: World’s End” and “Jungle Peace” and “Jungle Days” and dozens of others, he is constantly encountering the rare, the never-before-seen, the unknown, and always these things are greeted with that same good-natured, inquisitive, impressionable mind.

That mind and, it must be repeated, lots of ammunition (the reader will notice that the animals mentioned in the above charming dedication are all too small to shoot with a rifle—even Beebe must have sensed the hypocrisy of dedicating his work to anything bigger). Beebe personified the conception of nature as the limitless property of mankind. When he sees an animal that fascinates him, two things tend to happen: he kills the animal, and then he writes charmingly about what it was like while it was alive. Five minutes with Beebe’s prose will convince even the most righteous reader that his motivation isn’t mere bloodthirst (one must, somewhat grudgingly, say the same about Roosevelt)—he knew hunters animated by this kind of lust for blood, and it sickened him. He acted always with a desire to help the reading public better understand the natural world—and in his time, and acting with his time’s preconceptions, there was no way to understand the inner workings of a bear or a buffalo or a shark unless those animals were dead. Even while we grimace, we must excuse Beebe and his fellow naturalists of any intentional evil.

Nevertheless, these books contain plenty of carnage. When an enormous whale shark surfaces near his boat, Beebe marvels at its size and white-speckled back. But where David Attenborough would follow that up with an informative discussion, Beebe and his crew are busy with something altogether different:

When we came alongside, the fish was only about three feet below the surface. We waited until he was almost awash, when both men made a beautiful pole-vaulting dive, with the harpoon between them. They struck hard and then leaped into the air and let their whole weight bear down driving the harpoon home. At the same moment I fired a revolver straight down into the creature’s head, making at least two direct hits.

It’s perhaps inevitable that this kind of slaughter would take place mostly among various species of bird, and this is borne out in Beebe’s books, in which birds of all sorts are killed in an offhand way now reserved for houseflies. Hoatzin, terns, vultures, owls – all are dispatched first and examined second. Despite the many literary allusions sprinkled throughout Beebe’s work, he doesn’t make an exception even on grounds of poetry, much less superstition:

A second albatross now appeared and soared twice over the sitting [and previously wounded] bird and vanished. The ZACA made a quick revolution on its course. As we approached, the bird rose without difficulty and started off, but turned about almost at once and flew directly toward us. A second shot, well within range, killed it instantly. Again we steered toward it and gathered it up …

Fortunately, all this destruction is leavened – as much as it ever can be – by the keenness of Beebe’s observations and by the at times almost poetical tint of his prose. “Theodore Roosevelt once said to me,” he relates at one point, “that he would rather perceive things from the point of view of a field-mouse, than be a human being and merely see them,” and time and again in his books, we see that Beebe embraces his friend’s distinction. Here he is describing a patch of Amazon rainforest:

The jungle was bright with flowers, but it was a sinister brightness – a flash of pigment, set off by the blackness of the shadows. Heliconia spikes gleamed like fixed scarlet lightning, zigzagging through the pungent air. Now and then a bunch of pleasing warm-hued berries reminded one of innocuous currants, but a second glance showed them ripening into swollen liver-hued globes which offered no temptation to taste. One tree dangled hideous purple cups filled with vermilion fruits, and not far away the color sequence reversed. A low-growing, pleasant-leaved plant lifted bursting masses of purple-black, all dripping like wounds upon the foliage below.

Indeed, growing things in general seem to elicit his best prose, and the reader can’t help wondering if some part of the reason for this might not derive from the fact that Beebe was free to simply appreciate them for what they were. Here he is on flowers:

At twelve thousand feet I have seen one of my own Tibetans, with nothing but a few shreds of straw between his bare feet and the snow, probe around to the south edge of melting drifts until he found brilliant little primroses to stick behind his ears. I have been ushered into the little-used, musty best-parlor of a New England farmhouse, and seen fresh vases of homely, old-fashioned flowers—so recently placed for my edification that drops of water still glistened like dewdrops on the dusty plush mat beneath. I have sat in the seat of honor of a Dyak communal house, looked up at the circle of all-too-recent heads, and seen a gay flower in each hollow eye socket, placed there for my approval. With a cluster of colored petals swaying in the breeze, one may at times bridge centuries and span the earth.

The passage contains the best of Beebe—the keen watcher’s eye, the naturalist concerned with making sure his chairbound readers back home can see what he describes (only some of his many books have photos, and they are all black and white), and it also contains hints of the worst—not of Beebe specifically, but of paternal, vaguely colonial (‘my own Tibetans’) sense of entitlement that fills the natural history writing of the time.

  The late 20th century saw a slow, gradual change in the way natural history was conducted in the West. As tracking and imaging technology improved, enterprising scientists were freed from the need to kill the animals they were studying. The discipline of ethology, taking as its foundation the inherent validity of animals quite apart from their connection with mankind, gained ground and continues to do so, albeit with maddening slowness. And perhaps most telling of all, for the first time young naturalists began to look around them and realize that their predecessors had been mistaken, that the bounties of the wild world weren’t, in fact, limitless. There is little doubt that the generation of young scientists taking to the field today will see the extinction of bears, rhinos, tigers, elephants, and bears from the wild. This would have been unthinkable to naturalists of Beebe’s generation.

Those new naturalists will face their own challenges and write their own books, and although they may with some reason deplore Beebe for his rifles and drag-lines, they’d do well to venerate him for his prose, and for the wide-eyed eagerness with which he confronted the world around him. At the moment, they can only encounter Beebe’s books on neglected library shelves, which is a shame: a voice so humane, at once so charming and so self-effacing, and throughout so charged with quiet passion, is much needed in our current time of ecological devastation.

At one point Beebe captures a moment, a sensation, that’s intimately familiar to anybody who’s gone out and immersed himself in the natural world, whether in the wilds of the Amazon or in the manicured folds of a local park. It’s a largely wordless sensation (although Beebe comes closer to putting it in words than anybody else), but it’s the humble little epiphany at the heart of all true conservation, the chance nature gives to shed humanity:

The tallest of the bamboos lean over our low lazy spread of bungalows, and late this very night, in the full moonlight, I leave my cot and walk down to the beach over a shadow carpet of Japanese filigree. The air over the white sand is as quiet and feelingless to my skin as complete, comfortable clothing. On one side is the dark river; on the other, the darker jungle full of gentle rustlings, low velvety breaths of sound; and I slip into the water and swim out, out, out … and I ground gently and sit in the silvered shadows with little bewildered shrimps flickering against me, and unlanguaged thoughts come and go – impossible similes, too poignant phrases to be stopped and fettered with words, and I am neither scientist nor man nor naked organism, but just mind.

That is a William Beebe far, far removed from guns and harpoons, and it’s the Beebe we should remember. It’s certainly the Beebe we so badly need.

Steve Donoghue trained as a fighter pilot during the Great War, though, unfortunately, the Armistice was proclaimed before he could fly in any sorties. Under the impression that there would be no more world wars, he turned to writing and today hosts the literary blog www.stevereads.blogspot.com