Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Extremely Fat Birds and Nimble Young Tanks: Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Douglas Adams observes the countryside and remarks:

“If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because somebody’s already done it.”

The whimsical chapter that follows includes a dizzying helicopter ride and treacherous hike through the mountains in search of a rare species of overweight booming parrot. I didn’t know parrots could boom before reading Last Chance to See. But that’s what I love about the book: how the unexpected comes intertwined with understated humour. While I’m busy laughing, I don’t realize I’ve learned something – something even more bizarrely wonderful for being true.

Last Chance to See takes the British humourist Adams, along with his zoologist coauthor, Mark Carwardine, on a series of global misadventures in search of some of the world's nearly-extinct species. Ostensibly with the goal of recording a BBC radio series of the same name, the pair visits these animals in their natural habitat, hoping to raise public awareness – and action – before these creatures vanish for good.

While taking up this noble goal, the book never comes across as heavy-handed, and doesn’t stoop to beating the reader upside the head with guilt or kitten-eyed appeals. Those simply wouldn’t work for many of the animals Adams and Carwardine meet, from the maggot-spitting Komodo Dragon to the massive White Rhino. These creatures don’t need to be cuddly to be fascinating, as Adam’s rich language easily conveys. In one memorable example, Adams quips that “when the rhino moved a leg, just slightly, huge muscles moved easily under its heavy skin like Volkswagens parking.” From uncanny encounters with gorillas and lemurs to rare glimpses of the now likely-extinct Yangtze River dolphin, Adams and Carwardine provide a simple, frank account of the natural word, and the influence humanity has on the future of life on Earth.

A southern white rhino featured in the 2009 BBC TV series
Though perhaps more widely known for his remarkable, certainly more successful book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in Last Chance to See Adams targets a slightly different audience from his science fiction opus. This other readership is quite possibly also a broader one, as the book tackles Earthbound problems and adventures more pressing to the average reader. Yet it should still appeal to fans of Adams’ other works, as well as to anyone who likes their nature documentaries breathtaking or their travel literature snarky. Even those who wouldn’t normally enjoy these topics can appreciate the fresh, often hapless view the authors present, bound elegantly and effortlessly in colourful linguistic humour. The contrast between Adams and Carwardine’s perspectives helps to underscore one book’s most potent messages: whatever your interest in endangered species, professional or otherwise, anyone can find something worth preserving in the diversity of life on Earth.

Much has changed since book was written and the radio series was produced in 1989, not the least of which was the creation of an updated series for BBC television in 2009, featuring Stephen Fry. Douglas Adams passed away suddenly in 2001, and several of the animals he visited have since gone extinct, so the book truly is the last chance to learn about these birds and beasts through the eyes of a committed, if slightly bumbling naturalist. Last Chance to See made me laugh, made me think, and made me want to hug a fat New Zealand parrot. If you’re up for any of these, it’s well worth a look.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently interning in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. I am on my second copy of "Last chance to see...". I never get tired of it.