The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on earth, by Richard Conniff, is a delightful natural history story that toes the line of an adventure book. The theme of the text explores various historical characters — their personalities and their deeds — who discovered a wide variety of nature’s bounty across the globe and across time. Conniff expertly weaves personality traits and anecdotes about the people who seek new species — the species seekers — so that readers learn not only who discovered what, but why they were driven to wander in new countries and trek through jungles and mountains to find new natural treasures. But it’s the way in which Conniff presents these characters, their travels and discoveries, that injects a fast-paced adventurous feel to the book.
He leads with a French colonel in Napolean’s army who spots an unusual beetle as he was about to lead his men to attack a Spanish line during the Battle of Alcaniz in 1809. The colonel dismounts, collects the beetle and pins it to a prepared piece of cork attached to the inside of his helmet. The cork was there for just this purpose, and the colonel had trained his men to collect interesting insects for him. His love for describing new species was so was so great that even his enemies sent him unusual specimens.
From this departure point, the narrative’s pace skips along like a light-hearted summer trip; the kind where you explore a multi-country itinerary in a condensed time period. The 1800s were, as Conniff dubs, a “species-besotted era,” and so he has a rich tapestry of characters to draw from. Many of the historical characters he writes about were completely new to me, and they came across as lively real people. Although the content itself was fascinating in and of itself, Conniff expertly avoids the historical aspects feeling dry or dull. Rather, his clever turns of phrase and quick pace make the anecdotes interesting. Great Britain was experiencing a sort of fad for natural objects, which people liked to display in their homes, and so many men (and some women) would collect flowers, plants, insects, shells and such while traveling abroad and sell them through brokers back home. Others travelled specifically to collect and sell objects, such as Alfred Russell Wallace.
Conniff recreates the frenetic fervor of the environment and mindset these species seekers lived within. For the most part, the book is organized as a series of anecdotes that cluster around different themes or time periods. He analyzes what drove these seekers to the ends of the earth, and what forces compelled them to give up the hunt and stay home. He scrutinizes which ones got the scientific understanding of creatures right, and which ones compulsively hoarded specimens simply to have them. He looks at the beginnings of scientific attempts to not only name species, but to unify the naming conventions and to link provenance data with individual specimens to study geographic variation and, in time, evolution.
But the most interesting chapter for me to read focused less on the expeditions of the species seekers, and more on the methods they employed to preserve their bounty. Chapter Ten, Arsenic and Immortality, is a fascinating tale of how species seekers and collectors attempted to take the dead corpses of specimens and make them look alive again. Shipping specimens from the Amazon or Indonesia back to England was one thing — the objects had to survive weeks or months locked up in boxes to prevent rats and moths from defiling them — but if they did survive the journey, then it was another thing entirely to manipulate them into looking alive once more. The chapter also explores the contributions of Charles Waterton to modern taxidermy. (As someone who used to work in a natural history museum, I found this back-story of learning to preserve specimens to be a real gem.)
This was the first book I’ve read by Conniff, and I’ll definitely (ahem) seek stories by him in the future.
(Spot an error in the text? Let the author know by July 6 so he can capture corrections for the paperback release: http://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/howlers-amid-the-howler-monkeys-errata/)