Thursday, January 29, 2004

book review: song of the dodo

ecology has been a favorite subject of mine since the 9th grade. the name of my teacher then -alas- escapes me, but i remember being excited whenever i was on my way to class. more clearly I remember being scolded by her when I brought in a plant from my neighborhood woods I'd never seen. "Jack in the pulpit" she said. "you shouldn't have picked it."

my love for it deepened under the sten tutelage of my 10th grade biology teacher Mr. Goss. He would stride around the room, a long ruler held behind his back. Whenever he came upon a student dozing he would strike the back of the chair to give him or her a nice jolt back into the classroom. "What the hand writes, the mind tends to remember," he would say, as we scribbled madly about the ins and outs of the ATP cycle. "Moderation in all things," he would say lecturing us on life and other tangents.

I remember peering into pond water and sketching what we saw, trying to emulate the great Carl Linnaeus and his ability to observe.

Alas for the Chemistry and Physics teachers who followed and crippled my interest in science.

What does this have to do with David Quammen's Song of the Dodo? Little perhaps, except that the author has done much to reawaken my desire to know more about ecology.

It is a great book that works on several levels. One it is a great peice of scientific history, tracing the roots of evolutionary theory, telling the story of alfred wallace, who came up with a theory similar to Darwin's independently, and from there unravelling a great train of thought and ideas, in particular, ideas concerning island biogeography, and how those ideas impact us and the planet.

Secondly, the author has a great eye for human quirks, his own as well as the quirks of the scientists he has interviewed and studied. It makes for good little travel stories that pepper the books, and it gives you a good sense of the people who are out in the field and universities arguing these issues.

Thirdly, he is good at explicating those ideas that have come and why they are important to us and our planet.

Taken all together it makes for a really well paced read, with a larger story that unfolds before you. What unfolds isn't entirely comforting -- we humans have hacked up the planet into little plots, transported all sorts of animals all over the world, and that is having a vast and dramatic effect on the flora and fuana worldwide.

He does provide hope, if only a little.


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