Vibrant, diverse nature and its surprising connections with humanity (Book Review)
Title: Natural Histories – 25 Extraordinary Species that Have Changed Our World; Authors: Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss; Publisher: John Murray/Hachette India; Pages: 448; Price: Rs 599
When did lions start being considered the epitome of royalty and courage, and do they deserve their reputation? Which unlikely animal was once used in literature to depict sexual desire and stars in a most unusual love poem? Which plant family comprises deadly poisons, strong narcotics but also food staples and played a key role in a Harry Potter story? If you find these questions interesting, then read on.
We humans truly live in an Anthropocene Age where we no longer adapt to our world but change it, even to the brink of ruin, and can cause wholesale extinctions of species that have lived with us for many millenia. Equally worse, many of us ensconced in concrete jungles and glued to our technological devices, have lost our connection to the natural world, which not only sustains us but permeates our culture too.
Reminding us of the “two sometimes disparate but closely linked strands” of nature and culture, and nature’s “profound impact” on human society in history are producer, presenter and naturalist Brett Westwood and TV producer and wildlife author Stephen Moss in this book.
Based on “Natural Histories”, a six-month programme on BBC’s Radio 4 for which the BBC Natural History Unit closely collaborated with the Natural History Museum, it presents “the often surprising stories of twenty-five astonishing species that have managed to get under the skin of our society and change the way we see the world”.
While the programme’s aim was “to illuminate the often surprising connections that still bind us to the natural world”, the authors say the book offered the “opportunity to chase up even more of the stories and research some of the fascinating links that the radio programmes weren’t simply long enough to include”.
The book – the duo’s second after “Tweet of the Day” (which had nothing to do with micro-blogging but deals with sounds of birds, the original meaning), has an unusual mix from the plant and animal kingdom (the balance heavily towards the latter), while one non-living object also figures.
The selection is most unexpected. Almost none of the plant and animal species we depend on food occur save a few species of a family of flowering plants, nor do domesticated animals including man’s closest friend.
Only a few of the species featured here are liable to be freely found in our environs without harm, some more can be seen in zoos but would be bad news if free, being fierce predators. Some we might never see, for they are too small, occur far from the beaten track (or currents) or can never see for they have already disappeared from the world. But in the last case, even being extinct, doesn’t save one animal from being its parts trafficked.
In a broad expanse spanning apes to oaks, cockroaches to crocodiles and dinosaurs to daffodils, the authors, in each chapter, take a single species or group and “explore its complex connections with our own, human world”. Apart from the biology (or chemistry) of each plant or animal, the focus is on “its cultural history, featuring people whose stories are inextricably intertwined” with it.
In the process, the focus is not only on the species or family in question, but also on how it impinged on us, or those who spent their much time trying to study them including David Attenborough and Dian Fossey with great apes, or were connected – William Wordsworth and daffodils, novelist Peter Benchley and director Steven Spielberg and sharks, and may more.
Then there are no shortages of fascinating facts such as the origin of the board game “Snakes and Ladders” (hint: think Indian religions), the earliest animal to be made a pet and how the craze for aquariums developed, the flower that could cure dementia, and the sea animal that could hold the secret of immortality.
An engaging mix of biology and cultural history, enlivened by an easy and witty style, the book will not only be of interest to all readers but is an eloquent depiction of the world outside we frequently ignore – maybe to our own loss or peril. .in )
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)