Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art, by Harry W. Greene

Jules Pretty on a combined autobiography of a field biologist and celebration of nature

October 24, 2013

This fiercely honest and fascinating book does something unusual for the work of a field scientist. It is about snakes and reptiles; it is also about the author. Objective science involves people with interests, passions and fears, yet so often these are written out of personal histories. Our choices matter, and our memories often shape these choices. One of my earliest childhood memories is of walking into a bathroom and coming face to face with a spitting cobra as it reared up in the bath. The nature of the predator is central to this book on snakes. Your approach to the world changes when you know something might bite you, or even eat you.

An important theme is threaded through this book: to be a good natural historian, you have to be attentive. The most profound lessons, writes Harry Greene, lurk in hard-won details. Being attentive increases the likelihood of caring, and caring might mean less destruction. The attentive among us are also, we know, likely to have higher life satisfaction. One observation, then: would our material over-consumption and desire for economic growth at any cost be tempered if everyone were more attentive? An Amish farmer friend, David Kline, once said to me that our great challenge was learning how to romance children into wanting to farm. Greene seeks to do something similar, romancing his students at Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley into being natural historians who are willing to be cold, hot, thirsty, put in danger, and then end up caring deeply for the world.

Even naturalists are prone to warped notions of risk, writes Greene. When he asks a Texas park ranger about the snake situation, she responds, ‘They’re bad this year.’ What does ‘bad’ mean - that there are none left, or too many? In this way, values creep into conservation decisions

We have a problem. What does it take to make people want to save something? Pandas and polar bears are easy, but what of timber rattlesnakes, which are vital in their ecosystems, rarely bite humans and yet suffer from a collision with human prejudice? Each year, 8,000 people are bitten by snakes in the US, and only five or six die. You are nine times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a venomous snake, and three times more likely to be killed by a domestic dog. Even naturalists are prone to warped notions of risk, writes Greene. When he asks a Texas park ranger about the snake situation, she responds, “They’re bad this year.” What does “bad” mean – that there are none left, or too many? In this way, values creep into conservation decisions.

One of the great benefits to field biology has been the invention of small and cheap tracking devices. Greene describes his research team’s breakthrough monitoring of 50 black-tailed rattlers in Arizona. They grew to relish the familiarity with individual snakes. One male was observed hunting on a squirrel trail, coiled and waiting. It then moved slowly to bend down a fern blocking the view along the path before returning to its position. Two chapters explore snake ecology in deserts and rainforests, again demonstrating surprising behaviours among both reptiles and humans. Every field trip is unique, just as our every journey on the land is, too.

Two quibbles. The autobiography feels too logically linear at times. Jean-Luc Godard wrote that “a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end…but not necessarily in that order”. And I may be old-fashioned, but the chatty use of “critters”, shortened verbs and frequent split infinitives left me wanting a harder edit.

The final chapter is called “Field biology and art”, and this is clever, for ancestral natural historians converted their knowledge into art as petroglyphs and rock paintings, some of which have survived for 40,000 years. Predators are important to ecosystems, whether we like them or not. For the UK with just the one venomous snake and no remaining big cats, wolves or bears, what would it be like if we brought them back?

Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art

By Harry W. Greene
University of California Press, 296pp, £19.95
ISBN 97805202354 and 0956735 (e-book)
Published 1 October 2013

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