Searching for Pekpek is a moving story about a rainforest biologist who pioneered studies in parts of Papua New Guinea which were too remote and rugged for most biologists to bother visiting. But Andrew Mack’s risks paid off in big rewards: not only in the research he produced, but in the vision of conservation he came to embrace and inspire.
Pekpek is a term the semi-nomadic Pawai’ia people use to describe the substance scientists refer to as “scat,” (more commonly known as feces). Go ahead, giggle. It’s okay, really. But if you’re unfamiliar with scatology, know this: these little packets of biological refuse are rife with revelatory information. They can help uncover things like an animal’s diet composition, the role of animals in dispersing seeds, and even hormone profiles and health conditions — and for this reason, biologists often go to great lengths to collect freshly deposited scats.
But let’s get back the Pawai’ia of Papua New Guinea… this people group occupies tribal lands within the area Mack focused his studies, which was largely centered on Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This conserved area is located roughly south of Goroka in central Papua New Guinea (which is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea — notably, the world’s second largest island). It’s an area of mature rainforest characterized by rivers, waterfalls, gorges, and rugged slopes coated in mud the likes of which most North Americans have never experienced. Mack wished to study cassowary scat in particular because these large forest birds, tall as a person, eat the fruits of rainforest trees and then disperse the tree’s seeds elsewhere. But where? And to what advantage to the tree? By studying where cassowaries ate individual fruits, which he painstakingly tagged with uniqie identifiers, where the birds eventually expelled the seeds, and where seedlings eventually grew Mack planned to answer questions about the evolutionary advantage to rainforest trees of producing fruits which depend upon these lumbering birds — seemingly left over from the age of dinosaurs — for dispersal.
While his line of research is interesting, the subject matter alone likely would not have been compelling enough to carry a general reader through the story. But Mack showcases his story-telling side by focusing on the backstory of how his research was performed and the challenges encountered. And this makes a good book indeed. Mack transports the layperson into the forests with him where they learn all about the trials and tribulations of being a rainforest biologist, how to establish and maintain connections with local tribes, and the how to navigate the often counter-intuitive labyrinth of international conservation efforts. This is a book that is every bit as much about the Pawai’ia people as it is about the cassowaries who share their forest. (It’s telling, for example, that instead of displaying an illustration of a cassowary of the book’s cover, Mack instead choose a colorful picture of the Pawai’ia in tribal regalia.)
Searching for Pekpek falls into a category of nonfiction books that I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to: career memoirs of field biologists and naturalists. There are many similarities in approach between this book and Wolfer: A Memoir, by Carter Niemyer, which I enjoyed immensely and reviewed here. While Niemyer’s work draws more heavily on his personal life than does Mack’s, it details important behind-the-scenes aspects of the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf reintroduction and it imparts a realistic portrait of what day-to-day wolf recovery looked like. And this is how Mack’s book is similar: it recounts his conservation career in Papua New Guinea in a touching narrative, filled with laugh-aloud comical scenes. While I’m not sure that I ordinarily would have been drawn to the content per se (cassowaries), Mack’s writing style drew me in.
Mack began studying cassowaries for their role in dispersing seeds when he was a PhD student. Some of the challenges he overcame include incredibly rough terrain, bouts with malaria, and more parasitic infections than I could keep track of. He also learned to navigate the complex social structures of the indigenous clans living in the forests where he wished to work, and he absorbed a vital lesson about community relations when he was found guilty in a tribal trial for a theft in which he’d been the victim — he was found to be at fault because he had not made the locals rich by his presence as a white man.
While the bulk of the story rests on Mack and his team trying to elicit answers about how cassowaries dispersed seeds and the benefit to the trees which produce the seeds, sub-themes detail his role — and that of his first wife, Deb — in establishing a permanent research station in the rainforest, as well as the cadre of graduate students, interns and scientific colleagues which the station attracted. Mack and Deb also became involved in conservation education and training at the PNG university, and later with two large international conservation groups. Working with the international conservation groups honed Mack’s unique vision of conservation in PNG: one in which foreginers trained and educated PNG people so that they could eventually manage their resources themselves, with no permanent presence from outside influences. The book contains a few lovely pictures of the seeds he found in the pekpek, and numerous color photographs of his living conditions, study sites, and local helpers in the rainforest.
Mack’s book is self-published and although it’s very well done overall there were a few areas that led me to wonder if it would have benefited from a skilled traditional book editor who could have smoothed out some organizational issues, eliminated the few anecdotal redundancies that occur, and incorporated some material into other chapters which seemed out of place. Searching for Pekpek is organized, for the most part, semi-chronologically. Mack’s voice is equal parts engaging, entertaining, and informing, and for the most part the narrative progresses logically and fluidly. However, there were a few issues that gave me pause at times; I’ll discuss just two of them here. In the first example, the opening chapter leads with Mack’s first visit to Haia, an area he was scouting for a pilot study site. However, it’s easy to have the impression in this chapter that it’s his very first to Papua New Guinea. For me, this created a slight cognitive dissonance later in the book when he recounts his actual very first contact with indigenous peoples in PNG, also while scouring remote rainforest for the perfect study site. In a second example, a chapter mid-book on “Hardships and Danger” chronicles the various difficulties of working in the rainforest, and the inherent dangers that come along with small plane travel and bad weather. This chapter was a rare instance where Mack slipped from a style of showing the reader into telling the reader. The material here could have easily been folded into other chapters, and doing so may have made the overall narrative more fluid while still impressing upon the reader the many dangers in this type of field work.
These critiques reveal me being truly nitpicky and I don’t wish to overfocus on the few areas which I felt detracted from the vibrancy and humanity of Mack’s overall work. On the whole, I enjoyed the book and learned quite a bit from it. I’d definitely reccommend this work to students and professionals working in biological conservation, or anyone interested in the real lives and work of field biologists.