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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Best Book Ever. Period.

I have tried really hard not to write a blog post about this book for awhile now, but I had to move recently, and in packing and unpacking I happened to run across my copy of it at least a dozen times. I can't resist it any longer. For those of you who have read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you probably think you've read the best book that has ever been written. Well, you're close, but not quite there (if you haven't read Hitchhiker's, I don't really know what to tell you - you can't even imagine the best book). The best book ever written is by Douglas Adams, but it's not his Hitchhiker's series - it's Last Chance To See.

In the biography/essay collection published after his death, Adams describes Last Chance to See as his favorite work. The book was originally published in 1990 to go with a BBC radio series featuring animal species which were endangered or threatened with extinction. Adams writes, "My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise." The book details Adam's time spent with Mark Carwardine, a zoologist, on several journeys to find some of the rarest animals in the world, including Komodo Dragons, White Rhinoceroses, Kakapos and Yangtze River Dolphins (now feared extinct). The Voyager Company also published a CD-ROM set in 1992, containing over 800 still photographs, Adams reading the complete book, Carwardine reading fact files on the species and extracts from the radio series (just for the record, I will give my kidney or hand in marriage to the person who buys it for me).

This book is fantastically written, witty and truly the best book you will ever read. What could be better than combining Adam's humor with ridiculous ventures to find fascinating animals on the brink of extinction? Oh, how about ON TOP OF THAT, there will be a follow-up television series by BBC, with Stephen Fry joining Mark Carwardine. Steven and Mark will be presenting on the show, and Douglas Adams will be contributing via audio recordings. Filming is going on now, so it will be released in late 2009 - and you should watch it. Apparently there will also be a second book, just in case you were wondering.

If you aren't convinced to go buy this book and read it now, here's a quote to sway you. I should warn you that it's a long quote, and I even edited out a few paragraphs, but it's just so flippin' awesome I have to put most of it in there (Allie, stop laughing at me! It's my favorite quote!):
Of all the creatures we were searching for this year it was probably the strangest and most intriguing, and also one of the rarest and most hard to find. Once, before New Zealand was inhabited by humans, there were hundreds of thousands of kakapos. Then there were thousands, then hundreds. Then there were just forty . . . and counting. Here in Fiordland, which for many thousands of years was the bird's main stronghold, there are now thought to be none left at all...

Until relatively recently - in the evolutionary scale of things - the wildlife of New Zealand consisted of almost nothing but birds. Only birds could reach the place. The ancestors of many of the birds that are now natives of New Zealand originally flew there. There was also a couple of species of bats, which are mammals, but - and this is the point - there were no predators. No dogs, no cats, no ferrets or weasels, nothing that the birds needed to escape from particularly.

And flight, of course, is a means of escape. It's a survival mechanism, and one that the birds of New Zealand found they didn't especially need. Flying is hard work and consumes a lot of energy...

So when eventually European settlers arrived and brought cats and dogs and stoats and possums with them, a lot of New Zealand's flightless birds were suddenly waddling for their lives. The kiwis, the takahes - and the old night parrots, the kakapos.

Of these the kakapo is the strangest... The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.

It is an extremely fat bird. A good-sized adult will weigh about six or seven pounds, and its wings are just about good for waggling a bit if it thinks it's about to trip over something - but flying is completely out of the question. Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.

By and large, though, the kakapo has never learnt to worry. It's never had anything much to worry about.

Most birds, faced with a predator, will at least realize that something's up and make a bolt for safety, even if it means abandoning any eggs or chicks in its nest - but not the kakapo. Its reaction when confronted with a predator is that it simply doesn't know what the form is. It has no conception of the idea that anything could possibly want to hurt it, so it tends just to sit on its nest in a state of complete confusion and leaves the other animal to make the next move - which is usually a fairly swift and final one...

The trouble is that this predator business has all happened rather suddenly in New Zealand, and by the time nature starts to select in favour of slightly more nervous and fleet-footed kakapos, there won't be any left at all, unless deliberate human intervention can protect them from what they can't deal with themselves. It would help if there were plenty of them being born, but this brings us on to more problems. The kakapo is a solitary creature: it doesn't like other animals. It doesn't even like the company of other kakapos. One conservation worker we met said he sometimes wondered if the mating call of the male didn't actively repel the female, which is the sort of biological absurdity you otherwise only find in discotheques. The ways in which it goes about mating are wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out and almost totally ineffective.

Here's what they do:

The male kakapo builds himself a track and bowl system, which is simply a roughly dug shallow depression in the earth, with one or two pathways leading through the undergrowth towards it. The only thing that distinguishes the tracks from those that would be made by any other animal blundering its way about is that the vegetation on either side of them is rather precisely clipped.

The kakapo is looking for good acoustics when he does this, so the track and bowl system will often be sited against a rock facing out across a valley, and when the mating season arrives he sits in his bowl and booms.

This is an extraordinary performance. He puffs out two enormous air sacs on either side of his chest, sinks his head down into them and starts to make what he feels are sexy grunting noises. These noises gradually descend in pitch, resonate in his two air sacs and reverberate through the night air, filling the valleys for miles around with the eerie sound of an immense heart beating in the night.

The booming noise is deep, very deep, just on. the threshold of what you can actually hear and what you can feel. This means that it carries for a very great distances, but that you can't tell where it's coming from. If you're familiar with certain types of stereo set-up, you'll know that you can get an additional speaker called a sub-woofer which carries only the bass frequencies and which you can, in theory, stick anywhere in the room, even behind the sofa. The principle is the same - you can't tell where the bass sound is coming from.

The female kakapo can't tell where the booming is coming from either, which is something of a shortcoming in a mating call. `Come and get me!' `Where are you?? 'Come and get me!' 'Where the hell are you?' `Come and get me!' `Look, do you want me to come or not?' `Come and get me!' 'Oh, for heaven's sake.' `Come and get me!' 'Go and stuff yourself,' is roughly how it would go in human terms...

It's not that they're not willing. When they are in breeding condition, their sex drive is extremely strong. One female kakapo is known to have walked twenty miles in one night to visit a mate, and then walked back again in the morning. Unfortunately, however, the period during which the female is prepared to behave like this is rather short. As if things aren't difficult enough already, the female can only come into breeding condition when a particular plant, the podocarp for instance, is bearing fruit. This only happens every two years. Until it does, the male can boom all he likes, it won't do him any good. The kakapo's pernickety dietary requirements are a whole other area of exasperating difficulty. It makes me tired just to think of them, so I think we'll pass quickly over all that. Imagine being an airline steward trying to serve meals to a plane full of Moslems, Jews, vegetarians, vegans and diabetics when all you've got is turkey because it's Christmas time, and that will give you the idea.

The males therefore get extremely overwrought sitting in their bowls making noises for months on end, waiting for their mates who are waiting for a particular type of tree to fruit. When one of the rangers who was working in an area where kakapos were booming happened to leave his hat on the ground, he came back later to find a kakapo attempting to ravish it. On another occasion the discovery of some ruffled possum fur in the mating area suggested that a kakapo had made another alarming mistake, an experience which is unlikely to have been satisfying to either party.

The net result of all these months of excavating and booming and walking and scrarking and being fussy about fruit is that once every three or four years the female kakapo lays one single egg which promptly gets eaten by a stoat.

So the big question is: How on earth has the kakapo managed to last this long?


Also, check out the blog Another Chance To See for news on the show/species featured in Last Chance to See or Quote Geek for some other good quotes.

2 comments:

Becki said...

I agree with you 100%! It is my favourite book ever and the kakapo chapter is the cutest thing I ever read - the look of "serenely innocent incomprehension" gets me every time :)

Thank you for the link to the Last Chance to See website, I knew they were making a follow-up series but didn't realise that there was a website already.

Allie said...

Of course you snatch people's interest with the kakapo chapter! Thats how you got me....and now it is one of my favorite books as well. Without a doubt the best, funniest, easiest-to read science book I've ever encountered. Gotta love some of those komodo quotes too!