Good Reading : July 2010
JULY 2010 ı goodreading 49 in Wisconsin, Max Allen Nickerson -- a scientist at the Milwaukee Public Museum whom I knew from the Wisconsin Herpetological Society -- invited me to join him on a month- long expedition to Costa Rica. I was in heaven, about to live the dream of a boy who grew up on stories of early tropical naturalists. Finally the gear I had gathered over the years could be put to use in the pursuit of science: magnifiers, nets, bug containers, plastic bags for frogs, cloth sacks for snakes and lizards, boots thick enough to stop a snake bite. Over the next two months I helped to catch everything from a Central American caiman to a deadly coral snake. One day as I wandered alone in the rainforest, lizards squir ming in the sack hooked over my belt, I heard a barely audible sound that was subtly different from that made by any creature I had met so far. For me, that sound would prove as portentous as the rumble of a herd of elephants: it was the noise of thousands of tiny feet on the move across the tropical litter. Looking around, I spied a flow across the ground in front of me -- a thick column of quickly moving orange-red ants car rying pieces of scorpions and centipedes, flanked by pale-headed soldiers equipped with recurved black mandibles that were almost impossible to remove after a bite.These were workers of the New World's most famous ar my ant, Eciton burchellii. Later that same day, I would be awestruck by an even more massive highway of ants, several inches wide, formed by the New World's most proficient vegetarians -- leafcutter ants hauling foliage home like a long parade of flag bearers. In the two years that followed I went on treks to study butterflies in Costa Rica and beetles across a wide swath of the Andes, where I spent six months marching over plateaus of treeless páramo habitat and scaling rocky cliffs at 15 500 feet. I began to get a taste for the life of the seasoned explorer. But I wanted more. I wanted to study the ant. On retur ning from the Andes, I steeled myself to write a letter to Edward O Wilson, whose Insect Societies was still my bible. I got back a warm, handwritten note encouraging me to dropbytoseehimonmywaytothe Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, where I was about to take a course in animal behaviour. Beloit is a small college. Its atmosphere is progressive and infor mal, and the students know their professors by their first names. So when Professor Wilson opened his office door, I greeted him with 'Hi, Ed!' and gave him a hearty, two-fisted handshake. If my presumptuously casual attitude offended him, he didn't show it. Within minutes, this world famous authority and recipient of dozens of top science prizes (he had already won the first of his two Pulitzers) was spreading pictures of ants across his desk and floor and exchanging stories with me as if we were boys. We talked for an hour, and I left with my head full of ideas for fresh adventures. When I was a child, my heart was with the early explorer naturalists. I studied the adventures of the insightful Henry Walter Bates and Richard Spruce, the brilliant Alexander von Humboldt, the groundbreaking Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, the wildly eccentric Charles Waterton, and the incomparable Mary Kingsley. I admired these brave field scientists for their appetite for adventure, and I envied them their era. In the 19th century, entire regions were still uncharted. Most of Borneo, New Guinea, the Congo, and the Amazon were still labelled unknown. By the time I started exploring, in contrast, most of the Earth had been mapped and claimed, although since then I have managed to set foot in a few places where no outsider -- and in the case of Venezuelan tepui mountaintops, no person -- had ever walked before. But I also read the books of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, George Schaller, and other living field scientists. I had lunch at Beloit with Margaret Mead, who banged her cane for emphasis as she recounted her experiences with exotic tribes. I recognised in these scientists a sense of adventure grounded, like that of the early naturalists, in a desire to know the unknown -- but not by conquering it, as some early naturalists had, but rather by understanding it.Their fervour was infectious. John Steinbeck captured the attitude perfectly in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a chronicle of his adventures in the Gulf of Califor nia with his longtime friend the biologist Ed Ricketts: 'We sat on a crate of oranges and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world -- temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud laughing, and healthy.' That's what I wanted to be. When I arrived at Harvard in 1981 to begin graduate school under Professor Wilson, my first priority was to find a species worth studying for a PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology. I knew where to search for ideas. Harvard is famous in scientific circles for its collection of preserved ants, the largest in the world. Located on the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where the profusion of mothball crystals was rumoured to keep the entomology professors alive to a ripe old age, it had been founded in the early 20th century by the legendary myrmecologist, or ant expert,William Morton Wheeler, and later expanded by the equally legendary William L Brown Jr and Edward O Wilson. (After finishing my degree, I was privileged to spend two years as curator of that collection.) One day I spent hours rummaging through hundreds of the naphthalene- scented cabinets searching for the least understood specimens. From childhood, I have had an eye for all that is quirky in the natural world. In those cabinets, Within minutes, this world famous authority ... was spreading pictures of ants across his desk and floor and exchanging stories with me as if we were boys.