- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Environmental journalist Elizabeth Royte spent the better part of a year tramping across Barro Colorado, a lush island inside the Panama Canal, with some of the field biologists who live and work there. Her entertaining account is equally concerned with the scientific work and the scientists themselves, who form a peculiar assemblage of odd appearances and habits.
Barro Colorado has been a field station since the 1920s; the Smithsonian Institution now administers it. The island has drawn all sorts of researchers interested in its rich variety of plant, insect, and mammal species. As a result, Barro Colorado has been thoroughly investigated and mapped. This sometimes frustrates Royte, who obviously yearns for a taste of a more wild and untouched subject: "I liked a little mystery in nature, a little unruliness." But it provides a practical working environment for the scientists. They still have to deal with bad weather, freak injuries, loneliness, and depression -- so having a permanent field station with a few creature comforts doesn't seem like too much to ask.
While she admires the single-minded devotion of field biologists, Royte struggles with the question of whether their arcane investigations provide insight into larger ecological problems. Are these scientists in adequate touch with a "real world" confronted by environmental disaster? Helping young graduate students collect monkey scat or count bats, she gets caught up in the work. "But at the end of the day, alone in my room, I'd have to ask myself what it all meant." She returns to this question frequently, sometimes feeling that the scientists are more interested in getting tenure and recognition than in making an impact as conservationists. But despite suspecting that scientists might be "examining the life out of the island," she eventually agrees that pure research -- like nature -- is worthy in itself, and that it need not always be tied to concerns about its utility.
Whether she describes rowing a boat back to camp in pouring rain or drinking bourbon with Bert, an eccentric old-timer at the field station, Royte is a humorous and graceful narrator with a keen interest in both wild and human landscapes. The Tapir's Morning Bath gives us a close-up look at the flora and fauna of the Central American tropics -- and the curious creatures who study them. (Jonathan Cook)