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book review: the tapir’s morning bath

Time to catch you up on my reading.  Topping the list is The Tapir’s Morning Bath by Elizabeth Royte. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it also gave me some serious food for thought on the direction of my own career.

The  book:
I often find reading about a far-flung place is more interesting to me after I’ve been there. TTMB is about the Smithsonian’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, in the Panama Canal, which I visited this summer. Plenty has been written about it — creation of the island, establishment of the field station, the many famous scientists who have worked there, and more papers, monographs, articles, and books about research results than you can shake a stick at.  Royte weaves this information throughout TTMB, but brings BCI to life by spending months living at the field station and working with the wide variety of researchers (some long established, some green grad students) working on BCI.

It’s hard for me to actually tell you what this book is mostly “about,” which is to Royte’s credit. Engagingly, she accurately depicts the tedium, complexity, and discovery of field work (which, as a field ecologist, I love!) and the rich intellectual yet quirky world of scientists, all set against the backdrop of a tropical rainforest.  How the work of these researchers applies to conservation is a constant theme, skillfully explored by Royte, who inserts herself in the scene without forcing herself on the reader, as many authors are apt to do.  So, in turns, this book is about Barro Colorado and tropical forests, about the conservation of biodiversity, about how field work is done, about the world of science, scientists, and academia, and about people.  All without seeming preachy, dry, arcane, or scattershot.

Admittedly, I have a strong attraction to all these subjects, so perhaps I’m predisposed to liking a book like this.  But it would have been easy for an author to make a mess of it. I finished this book wishing I had written it.  And that’s one of my highest ratings.  It stays in the sidebar!

What made me think
One of the researchers on BCI was Bret Weinstein, and his philosophy (incredibly wise for a graduate student) was often highlighted by Royte.  Weinstein had a measure of disdain for the whole doctoral process, as do I.  Years ago, I saw one of my personal heroes, Paul Erhlich, give a talk in which he emphasized our urgent need to get out and DO conservation.  He indicated that our academic system needs revamping, that we spend too much time doing “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” rather than applied research, and that we jealously hoard our findings until we can publish them rather than share them and act collaboratively for the good of biodiversity. I heard this at a time when I was debating about entering a doctoral program, and it helped me decide to continue doing my field work rather than aborting it to spend several years jumping through hoops to get a PhD.  I felt I could do more continuing what I was doing than going back to school.

Of course, most scientists will say their research will aid in conservation.  Weinstein contends that really isn’t true.  “If they really wanted to conserve habitat, they’d work to redistribute the wealth and get slash-and-burn farmers,  ranchers, and loggers to stay out of the forest,” he says in TTMB. He goes on, adding another layer to Erhlich’s point, “Conservation is a political problem.  The powers that be won’t be dissuaded from destroying the forest by an explanation of its mechanisms.”  Ah, very true.  But what then?  Abandon research and a doctoral degree and become a politician?  No, Weinstein observes.  There is an advantage to having done research and having a PhD: you can talk about conservation and people will be more likely to listen.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. My overall goal is conservation.  Given my background, skills, accomplishments to date, (and age!), how can I be most effective?  I especially love a book that gives me a new perspective, and the stories of the researchers on BCI depicted in The Tapir’s Morning Bath provide new insights that I will use as I reconsider the trajectory of my career.

You can read more about The Tapir’s Morning Bath, Elizabeth Royte, and the scientists she worked with at the book’s excellent web site at Booknoise, a showcase for promoting noteworthy books.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Wisecrow October 24, 2005, 2:51 pm

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I've just ordered it, since direct conservation is what I'm mandated to do in my job. Sounds like a great read.

    Looks like we were thinking about the Cozumel Thrasher at about the same time. I still don't understand the hurricane connection – why not the other endemics?

  • Marie October 24, 2005, 7:33 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to blog. I always learn something when I drop by for a visit.

  • Mark October 25, 2005, 10:54 pm

    Brett was a former grad student at the UMMZ. Smart guy, funny, even if he was sometimes a pain in the butt. Still, we need more people like him.