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Jungle Days!

By (May 17, 2016) No Comment

jungle days coverOur book today is from an old friend of ours here at Stevereads, the great, garrulous naturalist William Beebe, the friendly world wanderer and author of, among many other books, Galapagos: World’s End. This book is a wonderful thing from 1925 called Jungle Days, a breezy, episodic account of various journeys the author took in Africa, and it’s enlivened on every page not only by Beebe’s companionable grace of expression but also by his infectious enthusiasm for the simple joys of life (a hard-won enthusiasm at times, since he often fought against pernicious black moods). At one point he writes, “The joy of climbing, of balance, of swaying limbs, of headlong leaps from self-earned lofty vistas, pass with boyhood for most of us,” and you just know he’s going to follow it up by telling us he hasn’t quite given up on those joys himself: “They are beebe1renewed for me sometimes when I mount the ratlines of a ship plunging through heavy seas, or in the first rush of a nose dive from high in air.”

His observations about the flora and fauna of the jungles he treks are so evergreen with wonder and enthusiasm that it’s easy to forget the book is almost a century old. In his chapter “The Jungle Sluggard,” for instance, we marvel right alongside him when he encounters true sloths:

Like a rainbow before breakfast, a sloth is a surprise, an unexpected fellow breather of the air of our planet. No one could prophesy a sloth. If you have an imaginative friend who has never seen a sloth and ask him to describe what he thinks it ought to be like, his uncontrolled phrases will fall far short of reality. If there were no sloths, Dunsany would hesitate to put such a creature in the forests of Mluna, Marco Polo would deny having seen one, and Munchausen would whistle as he listened to a friend’s description.

beebe3Beebe’s curiosity takes him everywhere, and it’s engaged by everything. In his travels through what was then called British Guiana, he stops to scrutinize plants, bugs, the local human inhabitants – anything that provokes his creative insights. The book’s narrative highlight is the chapter in which he patiently observes the successive waves of wild things that invade a massive tree that’s recently beebe2fallen; the process has happened countless times throughout the history of the jungle, but we as readers feel it entirely fresh because Beebe is there to see it.

And throughout the book, steadily but not pedantically, he keeps his readers aware of the larger picture of the natural world. It’s a common feature of all his books, never more simply or elegantly put than here:

Somewhere today a worm has given up its existence, a mouse has been slain, a spider snatched from the web, a jungle bird turn sleeping from its perch; else we should have no song of robin, no flash of reynard’s red, no humming flight of wasp, nor grace of crouching ocelot. In tropical jungles, in Northern home orchards, anywhere you will, unnumbered activities of bird and beast and insect require daily toll of life.

lucy's jungle days
A strange jungle creature

The wonderfully sturdy old green copy of Jungle Days that I found recently (my old copy, with the pretty dust jacket? Long, long gone, of course) carries the stamp of a country club in Brookline, Massachusetts that closed its doors many years ago. This copy belonged to the club’s library and was last checked out in 1951, when the book’s author was still alive. In situations like this (not uncommon, when you buy as many old used books as I do), I always write my name and the current year on the library slip, just to mess with the imagination of whoever gets the book next. But I’m going to try to hold onto this copy for a while.