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Mean and lowly things: snakes, science, and survival in the Congo (2008)

by Kate Jackson

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702324,538 (4.17)2
"In 2005 Kate Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. Her camping equipment was rudimentary, her knowledge of Congolese customs even more so. She knew how to string a net and set a pitfall trap, but she never imagined the physical and cultural difficulties that awaited her."--Jacket.… (more)
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I enjoyed this account of two collecting trips to Congo very much. Right up to the botflies. *shudder* I'm freshly convinced that I never ever need to go there.

The writing was accessible, and I got a real feel for Jackson's prickly but vulnerable person as well as her intense love of herps. The gold standard of zoology collection memoirs for me is Gerald Durrell and though Jackson is neither as polished nor as hilarious, she holds up well in comparison.

Recommended for herp-heads and armchair travelers with strong constitutions. ( )
1 vote satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
Summary: Kate Jackson is a herpetologist - a zoologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles - who did her early work conducting two surveys of the wildlife of the flooded forests in northern Congo. She had plenty of experience studying specimens in jars, but nothing could have prepared her for the experience of doing fieldwork in a remote part of Africa. What she expected was several months of living in primitive conditions while collecting her samples. What she found was swarming insects, reactions from local villagers that ranged from curiousity to hostility, problems with the government's various levels of bueracracy, issues with her hired guides and students, and the perils of working with venomous snakes in a part of the world where the favorite treatment is a visit to the local witch doctor.

Review: Memoir is not typically my favorite genre, but I think I'm going to have to add another category of exceptions: the fieldwork memoir. (The other category is chef memoir.) Mean and Lowly Things is only the second one I've read, but it's very much in the vein of Marty Crump's In Search of the Golden Frog, and I really enjoyed both of them. Is my reaction swayed by the fact that I'm a biologist? Almost certainly. I can identify with a lot of the particular hassles that Jackson describes, even though my own fieldwork has been conducted in places that are exceptionally cushy in comparison to what she's gone through. But there's something familiar in the ups and downs of the process of doing science in the field, out where the species you study actually live, that I think is universal no matter where that place is.

But that doesn't mean that you need to be a biologist to enjoy this book. Jackson's clearly passionate about her work, and the pictures of the various frogs, lizards, and snakes that she describes take up more than half of the color plates in the middle section of this book. But the book itself is less about the science, and more about the process of doing the science, of living and working in a remote part of Africa, and of the practical and cultural difficulties she had to face to do so. It made an interesting counterpoint to several books I read last year, in particular The Species Seekers, which was about the process of exploration and finding, collecting, and naming new species - something that we typically associate most with the Victorian era but clearly an ongoing process, and one that Jackson is very much involved with. This book is also made accessible to a wide audience by Jackson's clear and direct prose style; about as scientific as she gets is using the Latin name for the species she describes, but that's primarily because most of these organisms don't have English common names. Otherwise, this book reads more like a funny and engaging adventure story.

While I did, on the whole, really enjoy this book, there were a few things that hit somewhat of a sour note for me. While I can only begin to imagine the frustration of long term fieldwork in those conditions, Jackson occasionally comes across as short-tempered and a little imperious, and she doesn't seem particularly given to self-reflection about these incidents. There were also a few times when I thought she stuck too closely to her own story, where some broader background about the Congo's history or culture or geography - a broadening of the scope from straight-up memoir into a little bit of non-fiction - would have been helpful. Overall, though, this book did a great job of drawing me in and bringing the atmosphere of Jackson's field camps to life... I'll never again take an established fieldwork station and its lack of swarming army ants for granted. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The obvious audience is people interested in the process of science, and particularly science in the field: how do new species get found, named, and brought back to museum collections? But the meat of the book is really about what it's like to live and work in Africa, and it definitely brought to mind Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, so fans of that novel that also enjoy memoirs may be interested as well, even if they're not particularly attracted by the science aspect. ( )
2 vote fyrefly98 | Jul 15, 2012 |
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To understand the world, we must understand mean and lowly things. [Aristotle]
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It is my fifth day in the Republic of Congo.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"In 2005 Kate Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. Her camping equipment was rudimentary, her knowledge of Congolese customs even more so. She knew how to string a net and set a pitfall trap, but she never imagined the physical and cultural difficulties that awaited her."--Jacket.

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