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Posts Tagged ‘South America’

The Cactus Handbook (Der Kakteen Führer), Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)

This book reminds me of the Philip’s Guide to Seashells, because it carries the same important themes: cacti can look very different, but they descend from a single common ancestor and their shape and color are governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables.

But there is one big difference between shells and cacti: the shells are dead and don’t change any more; the cacti are living and do. That means that there can be a startling contrast between the vicious spikes or blistering hairs of a cactus, intended to permanently deter, and its beautiful flowers, intended to periodically attract. Notocactus ottonis, for example, is a ridged ball of tough green flesh set with dozens of spikes; its flowers are a beautiful little fountain of yellow petals. Parodia sanguiniflora has even more spikes and even more beautiful flowers: a spray of scarlet petals around a golden heart of anthers and stigma. If the book was scratch’n’sniff, the contrast would because even sharper, because the flowers often smell attractive too.

All of that is adventitious from the human point of view, because the flowers and scent aren’t intended to attract us. But they do, and so do the strangeness and toughness of cacti, which is why a German author has written a highly detailed guide to plants from South and Central America. Some could probably never be grown in Germany, being far too large and demanding even for a specialist greenhouse; others can be grown anywhere with simple equipment.

And once again, as with any sufficiently detailed book about plants or animals, the scientific names have an appeal of their own: Mitrocereus fulviceps isn’t properly illustrated and perhaps could never live up to its name, which means something like “wax-cap tawny-head”, while the name Gymnocalycium horridospinum combines beauty and threat in the way the plant itself does. Its spines are indeed “horrid”, but beautiful violet-pink flowers sprout between them.

The cone-shells provide a similar contrast between beauty and deadliness, but you don’t actually see the deadliness of a cone-shell. However, you need a specialist vocabulary to describe both cone-shells and cacti properly, and both these books will help you acquire one. Being dilettantish, I haven’t put the effort in, but I know I should do, because it would help me to a deeper and richer appreciation of what I’m looking at.

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Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

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She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Language is like architecture and art: the more modern it is, the uglier it tends to be. So it’s interesting to ask what the world would be like if the United States of America didn’t exist. What if North America were like South America: a patchwork of Spanish-speaking states? Or what if the US had been founded by Germans or Scandinavians?

I think the English language would be in a better state if any of that were true. English would be much less important, but also much less polluted. There would be less hype, bombast and pretension in it. The United States is the great engine of modernity, pulling the world into an ever brighter, ever drearier, ever less enchanted future. The engine would be running less powerfully, or even running in reverse, if America didn’t exist or didn’t speak English.

So I think, anyway. And there’s a lot of evidence in this short but entertaining book. A lot of bad British English comes from America. A lot comes from the Guardian too, but that’s partly the same thing. The Guardian is the main British outlet for the gas generated by the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But the whole of the British media is Guardianized now. Ironically, that includes the Telegraph:

Ironically Used as if it meant “oddly enough”.

The modern Telegraph is full of feminists, ethnicists and other narcissists, but the authors of this book, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, are evil white males and represent the dying tradition of Peter Simple:

Iconic The iconic Mulberry handbag. Anything vaguely recognizable.

Short and simple. But I didn’t like the entry for the Guardianista über-phrase:

In terms of Misused as though it meant “with respect to”. We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.

“With respect to” is bad too. “About” is the right word in that context. Often you can replace “in terms of” simply with “in”. It’s a linguistic parasite, riding in English like viral DNA in the human genome. The more often someone uses it, the deeper they are inside the Hive Mind. And this phrase is even worse:

Issues around We’re facing issues around MRSA targets. There are unresolved issues around health and safety compliance. A favourite of health workers and bossy officials.

It’s core Guardianese, in other words. If I ruled the world, using the phrase “in terms of issues around” would carry a mandatory jail sentence. So would using the words “mandatory” and “core” (as an adjective). But neither is in this book. Nor is “über-” or “vulnerable”. But many other irritants are:

Passionate about I’m passionate about salsa / stamp collecting / equal rights.

We’re bombarded by bad English and it’s hard to keep alert to all of it. If you’re not alert, you might start using it yourself. But I can’t remember ever noticing or using this:

Is is The thing is is that postal services need to diversify. The repetition of the verb is would be almost incredible if it was not heard daily on the wireless. It is sometimes introduced by the problem. The construction is probably an unconscious echoing of grammatically correct forms such as what the problem is is that.

Interesting. And endearing rather than endrearing. It’s something that might have occurred in English at any time. “Thing” is a very old word, even if “problem” isn’t. So “is is” doesn’t belong with “in terms of” or “passionate about”. (If I have heard it, I think I’ll have assumed it was a kind of stutter as the speaker paused and sorted his thoughts out.)

Fowler didn’t write about any of those, but it’s good that some of the bad English of his day is now gone. Alas, worse English has often replaced it, but some of the horrors here will pass in their turn. And maybe the Guardian will pass with them. I live in hope.

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Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

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Front cover of The Lost World by Arthur Conan DoyleThe Lost World and Other Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (various dates)

Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, “When the World Screamed” (1928), in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia theory suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of later science is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):

A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see… many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.

There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both ways. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World” (1912), notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:

“Filthy vermin!” I cried.

Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.

“You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”

Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.

Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humours: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. This makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog” but not very intelligent. Doyle also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European race, which does seem to be the case.

But Doyle’s prescience has failed so far in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical interest than literary merit. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout the story. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of spiritualist propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, Challenger opposes the supernatural and has to be brought round against his will. He champions materialism as his daughter Enid and his friend Malone, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts materialism as an intellectual proposition:

“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

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