Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo

Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo

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by Kate Jackson
     
 

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In 2005 Kate Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. Her camping equipment was rudimentary, her knowledge of Congolese customs even more so. She knew how to string a net and set a pitfall trap, but she never imagined the physical and cultural difficulties that awaited her.

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Overview

In 2005 Kate Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. Her camping equipment was rudimentary, her knowledge of Congolese customs even more so. She knew how to string a net and set a pitfall trap, but she never imagined the physical and cultural difficulties that awaited her.

Culled from the mud-spattered pages of her journals, Mean and Lowly Things reads like a fast-paced adventure story. It is Jackson’s unvarnished account of her research on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis—coping with interminable delays in obtaining permits, learning to outrun advancing army ants, subsisting on a diet of Spam and manioc, and ultimately falling in love with the strangely beautiful flooded forest.

The reptile fauna of the Republic of Congo was all but undescribed, and Jackson’s mission was to carry out the most basic study of the amphibians and reptiles of the swamp forest: to create a simple list of the species that exist there—a crucial first step toward efforts to protect them. When the snakes evaded her carefully set traps, Jackson enlisted people from the villages to bring her specimens. She trained her guide to tag frogs and skinks and to fix them in formalin. As her expensive camera rusted and her Western soap melted, Jackson learned what it took to swim with the snakes—and that there’s a right way and a wrong way to get a baby cobra out of a bottle.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

It is always exciting to read about remote, natural places in the world and even more so when the story is told by a field researcher. In the tradition of Jane Goodall and more recently Margaret Lowman (Life in the Treetops) and Marty Crump (In Search of the Golden Frog), Jackson (biology, Whitman Coll.) has written a fascinating, adventure-filled memoir, describing how her love of snakes led her to become a herpetologist. She was eventually able to raise money for a survey of reptiles and amphibians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically in the flooded forest habitat around Lac Télé. Drawing from her journal entries, Jackson takes us through the planning, permits, and travel, as well as her actual time in the field catching animals. Jackson learns to work with her native field staff during her two collecting trips and shows appreciation for all the local people she meets and employs. Her memoir is recommended for academic and public libraries and specialty science high schools.
—Margaret Henderson

Kirkus Reviews
A Harvard post-doc goes snake hunting in Africa. Jackson's scientific report on her survey of amphibians and reptiles in the Republic of Congo appeared last year in the online journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology. This delightful and informative book tells the rest of her story: the bureaucratic delays, insect infestations, difficulties with local people and other unexpected events during the two rainy seasons she spent collecting specimens in the little-studied swamp forest of the northern Congo. With funding from the Smithsonian, Jackson (Biology/Whitman Coll.) arrived in Brazzaville, obtained supplies and guides and set up camp outside the Lac Tele Reserve (permits to work inside the reserve never arrived) with an elderly cook and a moody 24-year-old guide. Waist-deep at times in the flooded forest, surrounded by large ants and tsetse flies, Jackson grew desperate when she was unable to find many frogs and snakes; happily, she was able to purchase more than enough specimens from the villagers, who bring them to her camp. Drawing on her journal, the author recreates the flow of her days: nocturnal frog searches, encounters with cobras, the preservation of specimens and overlong visits from curious neighbors. She also offers glimpses of the many ways-most of them ineffective-that villagers treat snakebites. (Some 20,000 Africans die each year from the bites of venomous snakes.) Just as she was planning her return home to Toronto, looking forward to some privacy in which to nurse her blistered feet and swollen ankles, Jackson found she had to leave behind more than 100 preserved animals; nothing containing DNA was permitted on a passenger plane. (The specimens flew later by DHLcourier.) It took a year to prepare for her second expedition, which took her into the reserve for a month. This visit ended spectacularly-a cobra bit Jackson just days before she was scheduled to break camp. A colorful account of field biology and essential reading for aspiring herpetologists. Agent: Robert Preskill/Preskill Media Rights Management
Booklist

Herpetologist Jackson is candid, funny, and precise as she chronicles her demanding and illuminating experiences collecting snakes, frogs, and toads in the flooded forests of the Congo... Sharply observant, considerate, and rough, Jackson is immensely entertaining in her exuberantly detailed descriptions of swarms of termites, ants, and mosquitoes; unpalatable food; and painfully rugged campsites. Add to that nearly surreal negotiations with officials, confounding relationships with guides and assistants, medical misadventures, and moments ludicrous and dramatic as she chases down poisonous snakes, handles animal remains, and snuggles to preserve and identify priceless specimens and forge cross-cultural scientific partnerships. Jackson is a dynamo, and her riveting, amusing, and revealing tales from the biodiversity front line awaken fresh appreciation for hands-on scientific inquiry and the wonders of nature.
— Donna Seaman

BBC Wildlife

In our age of Google Maps, it's comforting to learn that a few places remain relatively impenetrable to the outside world. Nowhere is this more true than the Congo, which has long held a fascination for explorers and scientists and continues to guard its secrets...Descriptions of ant invasions, maggots under the skin, sleepless nights, bad food and even the odd venomous snake bite all keep the pages turning. Against the odds, Jackson's efforts in the Congo eventually pay off—not only does she discover a new species, she also finds romance. This intriguing blend of science and human interest, related in a matter-of-fact style, brings to life a little-known part of the world.
— Dan Eatherley

Choice

This book will serve as an inspiration to future field biologists. It is also an exciting adventure story for those who would rather avoid the ants, termites, wasps, and the fly maggots that burrow into the biologists' skin and grow larger there.
— M. P. Gustafson

Times Literary Supplement

Fieldwork is very important but unsung. Jackson deserves respect for her drive, ability to organize and manage her fieldwork alone, train local students, and to learn the local language without losing sight of the scientific aims...She is refreshingly honest about the failures, mistakes and difficulties of her fieldwork as well as the successes...Mean and Lowly Things is full of incident and cultural as well as scientific insight that should carry non-scientific readers right to the end.
— David J. Gower

Natural History

As a travel book, Kate Jackson's account of snake collecting in the tropics is both humorous and dramatic...As an account of biological fieldwork under trying conditions, however, Jackson's book is both elegant and appealing...There are probably only a few specialists who can fully appreciate the professional journal articles on the biodiversity of the Congo forest that resulted from Jackson's expeditions. And only a few adventurous readers may share her "irrational longing to return" to the Lac Télé forest, which, judging from her online blog, she did in the summer of 2008. But we can all hope that she will continue writing, and that we won't have to wait too long for the next installment of Kate Jackson's Excellent Adventures, wherever they may lead.
— Laurence A. Marschall

Meg Lowman
Indiana Jones, step aside! Kate Jackson is an intrepid adventurer and explorer, and her passion for research, discovery, and snakes resonates from every page of this gripping account of a woman in science.
Mark W. Moffett
This is the sort of book that makes hardcore field biologists cry out, "take me to the rainforest." For the rest of you, enjoying the sanity and comforts of the armchair adventurer, I suggest you hang on and enjoy the ride.
Marty Crump
Kate Jackson's field memoir detailing her experiences in the Republic of Congo is a delight that thrills and informs the reader. In relating her adventures conducting a herpetological survey and collecting venomous snakes, she brings to vivid life the harsh realities of fieldwork with its frustrations and disappointments. We're with her as she battles loneliness, parasites, and uncertainties and adapts to a foreign culture. And we share her personal highs and the swamp forest's allure. Bravo to this intrepid herpetologist!
Harry W. Greene
This is what exploratory natural history in a remote place, embedded in a very different culture, is really like--frustrating, confusing, scary, and fraught with prospects for failure. Jackson tells the truth even when it doesn't necessarily reflect well on her, and did I mention she's a small woman working in places where, I'm not kidding, most male herpetologists wouldn't dare to go? Mean and Lowly Things is genuine adventure, without the swashbuckling!
Booklist - Donna Seaman
Herpetologist Jackson is candid, funny, and precise as she chronicles her demanding and illuminating experiences collecting snakes, frogs, and toads in the flooded forests of the Congo... Sharply observant, considerate, and rough, Jackson is immensely entertaining in her exuberantly detailed descriptions of swarms of termites, ants, and mosquitoes; unpalatable food; and painfully rugged campsites. Add to that nearly surreal negotiations with officials, confounding relationships with guides and assistants, medical misadventures, and moments ludicrous and dramatic as she chases down poisonous snakes, handles animal remains, and snuggles to preserve and identify priceless specimens and forge cross-cultural scientific partnerships. Jackson is a dynamo, and her riveting, amusing, and revealing tales from the biodiversity front line awaken fresh appreciation for hands-on scientific inquiry and the wonders of nature.
BBC Wildlife - Dan Eatherley
In our age of Google Maps, it's comforting to learn that a few places remain relatively impenetrable to the outside world. Nowhere is this more true than the Congo, which has long held a fascination for explorers and scientists and continues to guard its secrets...Descriptions of ant invasions, maggots under the skin, sleepless nights, bad food and even the odd venomous snake bite all keep the pages turning. Against the odds, Jackson's efforts in the Congo eventually pay off--not only does she discover a new species, she also finds romance. This intriguing blend of science and human interest, related in a matter-of-fact style, brings to life a little-known part of the world.
Choice - M. P. Gustafson
This book will serve as an inspiration to future field biologists. It is also an exciting adventure story for those who would rather avoid the ants, termites, wasps, and the fly maggots that burrow into the biologists' skin and grow larger there.
Times Literary Supplement - David J. Gower
Fieldwork is very important but unsung. Jackson deserves respect for her drive, ability to organize and manage her fieldwork alone, train local students, and to learn the local language without losing sight of the scientific aims...She is refreshingly honest about the failures, mistakes and difficulties of her fieldwork as well as the successes...Mean and Lowly Things is full of incident and cultural as well as scientific insight that should carry non-scientific readers right to the end.
Natural History - Laurence A. Marschall
As a travel book, Kate Jackson's account of snake collecting in the tropics is both humorous and dramatic...As an account of biological fieldwork under trying conditions, however, Jackson's book is both elegant and appealing...There are probably only a few specialists who can fully appreciate the professional journal articles on the biodiversity of the Congo forest that resulted from Jackson's expeditions. And only a few adventurous readers may share her "irrational longing to return" to the Lac Télé forest, which, judging from her online blog, she did in the summer of 2008. But we can all hope that she will continue writing, and that we won't have to wait too long for the next installment of Kate Jackson's Excellent Adventures, wherever they may lead.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674029743
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
04/28/2008
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 10.88(h) x 1.13(d)

What People are saying about this

This is what exploratory natural history in a remote place, embedded in a very different culture, is really like--frustrating, confusing, scary, and fraught with prospects for failure. Jackson tells the truth even when it doesn't necessarily reflect well on her, and did I mention she's a small woman working in places where, I'm not kidding, most male herpetologists wouldn't dare to go? Mean and Lowly Things is genuine adventure, without the swashbuckling!
Harry W. Greene
This is what exploratory natural history in a remote place, embedded in a very different culture, is really like--frustrating, confusing, scary, and fraught with prospects for failure. Jackson tells the truth even when it doesn't necessarily reflect well on her, and did I mention she's a small woman working in places where, I'm not kidding, most male herpetologists wouldn't dare to go? Mean and Lowly Things is genuine adventure, without the swashbuckling!
Harry W. Greene, Cornell University Professor and author of Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature
Mark W. Moffett
This is the sort of book that makes hardcore field biologists cry out, "take me to the rainforest." For the rest of you, enjoying the sanity and comforts of the armchair adventurer, I suggest you hang on and enjoy the ride.
Mark W. Moffett, Research Scientist, Smithsonian Institution and recipient of the Lowell Thomas Medal of the Explorer's Club
Meg Lowman
Indiana Jones, step aside! Kate Jackson is an intrepid adventurer and explorer, and her passion for research, discovery, and snakes resonates from every page of this gripping account of a woman in science. --(Meg Lowman, author of Life in the Treetops and It's a Jungle Up There)
Marty Crump
Kate Jackson's field memoir detailing her experiences in the Republic of Congo is a delight that thrills and informs the reader. In relating her adventures conducting a herpetological survey and collecting venomous snakes, she brings to vivid life the harsh realities of fieldwork with its frustrations and disappointments. We're with her as she battles loneliness, parasites, and uncertainties and adapts to a foreign culture. And we share her personal highs and the swamp forest's allure. Bravo to this intrepid herpetologist! --(Marty Crump, author of Headless Males Make Great Lovers and Other Unusual Natural Histories)
Marty Crump
Kate Jackson's field memoir detailing her experiences in the Republic of Congo is a delight that thrills and informs the reader. In relating her adventures conducting a herpetological survey and collecting venomous snakes, she brings to vivid life the harsh realities of fieldwork with its frustrations and disappointments. We're with her as she battles loneliness, parasites, and uncertainties and adapts to a foreign culture. And we share her personal highs and the swamp forest's allure. Bravo to this intrepid herpetologist!

Marty Crump, author of Headless Males Make Great Lovers and Other Unusual Natural Histories

Meet the Author

Kate Jackson is Assistant Professor of Biology at Whitman College.

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Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And written in a style that pulls the reader in, a remarkable book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
very interesting
Anonymous More than 1 year ago