The Flight of the Iguana

Back in 2005, I read David Quammen’s superb book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. It is to this day one of the best pieces of science writing I’ve ever had the luck to read. It’s a riveting, engaging, lively account of the way evolution works in quirky ways on islands: animals become very large (Galapagos turtles and Komodo dragons) or very small (pygmy sloths and even miniature elephants); birds and insects become flightless and helpless to avoid colonizing predators; adaptations — and extinctions — work differently, and more quickly, than they do on the mainland. He adds a fascinating section about how we are “islandizing” our mainland, too, by cutting it up with highways and developments, and are therefore seeing some of the same adaptive and extinctive patterns even on the mainland now. (I’m telling you about this book because it’s so good, and because up to this point I haven’t been able to convince anyone else to read it. Read it! It’s wonderful! It’s satisfyingly technical but never dull! Treat yourself!)

After some time, then, I got a copy of some of Quammen’s essays, collected under the title The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. Most of these essays were originally columns Quammen wrote for Outside magazine, so they’re quite brief, and they range in subject from the noble cheetah to the humble spoonworm. His style is warm and engaging, and his topics are all interesting, even when you didn’t perhaps originally think you wanted to read an essay on a nautilus or on the problems posed by the African bedbug.

My problem with these essays was that they were too short. I know! I got a book of essays! What do I want? Well, I wanted longer essays, for one thing. Just as I was beginning to understand the plight of the cheetahs in “The Beautiful and Damned” (they have a serious problem with genetic diversity, probably caused by human beings), the essay came to a graceful close. But… but… I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear about efforts to breed them in captivity, or about their history, or about the details of the ways genetic diversity can benefit a given population. I wanted to immerse myself in cheetahdom, and I scarcely got to dip my toe in the pool. 

Still, even given the limitations of length, these essays were enjoyable. I found myself drawn in, interested, wanting to argue — the sign of any good nonfiction writer. I learned about birds, about apes and insects, about spiders and piranhas, about ways besides our own to live life. And Quammen draws conclusions other than those strictly dictated by the natural world, as well. He talks about the natural history of the nautilus, as well as the way memory can buoy you up or weigh you down, in “The Siphuncle”, and trout fishing gets tangled up with regrets in “The Same River Twice.”

My favorite essay was probably “Thinking About Earthworms”. In this essay, Quammen talks about Charles Darwin, who spent the last year of his life examining those apparently lowly creatures. Of course, by then, evolution was the in thing, the hot science. Everyone wanted to write papers on evolution, find new evidence for it or against it. But Darwin, who essentially started it all, studied earthworms. And thank goodness he did, says Quammen, and that not everyone did. He points out that it’s good for us, especially in this age of constant global information, to think about things that not everyone is thinking about. To break free from the television and the Twitter stream for a bit.

Just take a day or an hour each month to think carefully about something that nobody else deems worthy of contemplation. Break stride. Wander off mentally. Pick a subject so perversely obscure that it can’t help but have neglected significance. If everyone else is thinking about the sad and highly visible deaths of seven astronauts, think about the Scottsboro Boys. If everyone else is thinking about the Super Bowl, think about a quiet little story called “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” If everyone else is busy despising Ferdinand Marcos (as well they might), devote a few minutes of loathing to Fulgencio Batista. Or think about earthworms.

I think this could be the book-blogger’s credo. Read as many popular books as you like, of course. But for a day or an hour a month, read a poet no one’s ever heard of. Pick up an obscure play by an author from another country. Start working on your own translation of a work you’ve always loved. Think about earthworms.

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12 Responses to The Flight of the Iguana

  1. SFP says:

    I love this post. I wish that quotation could be the credo of all book bloggers.

    And inspired by your review, I just pulled Song of the Dodo and Monster of God off the shelf. I’ve had them for years; I ought to read them soon instead of continuing to ignore them.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve got Monster of God on my list, too. I’m sure you’ll love Song of the Dodo. It’s absolutely marvelous.

  2. Jeane says:

    Sounds like an author I’d love to read. I read somewhere recently that scientists discovered earthworms have a kind of social life- they follow each other around in groups. How interesting is that?

  3. Iris says:

    I had never heard of the author, but I instantly added The Song of the Dodo on my list. I think that might be a better place to start than this one, if the essays are a bit short to your liking. Thanks for the review and I love the quote!

    • Jenny says:

      I’d definitely start with Song of the Dodo if you like science or nature writing. I can’t even remember why I picked it up now, but it was a wonderful read.

  4. Fredegonde says:

    Well, you certainly convinced me! I never heard of David Quammen before, but both books sound like something I’d love. That is a great quote!

  5. Jenny says:

    What a great review! I often have this same problem with essays (and short stories too), which is why I often don’t want to read loads of them all in a row. But this sounds well worth it. Love the example of the earthworms!

    • Jenny says:

      Another good reason to give yourself permission to dip in and out of a collection like this! But if you have trouble with essays (and I don’t really blame you) you might try Song of the Dodo instead, as a more sustained effort…?

  6. Jeanne says:

    Good credo. I’m going to think about kale now.

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