In Other Words
Wild Things, Wild Places by Jane Alexander
Wild Things, Wild Places: Adventurous Tales of Wildlife and Conservation on Planet Earth by Jane Alexander, Knopf, 300 pages When Mabel Dodge Luhan took in the New Mexico landscape on her first trip to Taos, she had an epiphany: “And New York! Why, when I remembered that clamor and movement out here beside this river, listening to the inner sound of these mountains and this flow, the rumble of New York came back to me like the impotent and despairing protest of a race that has gone wrong and is caught in a trap.”
Jane Alexander, author of Wild Things, Wild Places: Adventurous Tales of Wildlife and Conservation on Planet Earth, has by any measure found a way out of the trap. In addition to a career as an actress
(Kramer vs. Kramer), she has traveled the globe in search of wild animals and rare birds. She has more on her agenda, however, than fattening her life list. As a board member of organizations such as the National Audubon Society and past chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, she can be found, in the pages of this book, delivering tree saplings to a remote village in South America and observing field biologist Alan Rabinowitz as he tracks a jaguar in Belize or explores whether a Thai wildlife sanctuary can be expanded in the face of political obstacles.
That said, Alexander’s book is in large part an assortment of personal reminiscences. Essentially, she is trying to understand how we can coexist with the other animals on our planet. While this conversation is crucial to our collective well-being, the focus here is sometimes lost in a miasma of details. The second part of the book, which begins with her childhood, is more compelling than the first, in which her writing is filtered through the lens of Rabinowitz’s experiences. Alexander met Rabinowitz in Belize City while researching a screenplay about a female field biologist. While he recovered from a plane crash, he introduced her to Belize’s jungle and cracked her world open.
Alexander’s writing is mostly matter-of-fact, but there are surprises and delights, as when she listens to a wood thrush, whom she calls “the grand old man,” outside her house in Putnam County, New York. “He sang gloriously for about five minutes and then suddenly was joined by not one but two others who must have been sitting about ten or twenty feet on either side of him. He would begin and then the second one would come in softly and then the third, almost as if singing a round, but then they deviated. They would truncate phrases, pull a note out of a high register, take off from one another, undercut with a low note, one doing a percussive rat-a-tat chip-chip as counterpoint and then they would end with a flourish before starting again.” Alexander not only looks closely at her birds, but she also takes in their music with the same relish as a season ticket holder to the New York Philharmonic.
Some of her reflections are prescient, as when she considers how getting access to cell phones changes the daily rituals and rhythms of people living in a remote village in Papua New Guinea. She is all too aware that her granddaughters wear their thumbs out on their iPhones. When, on occasion, Alexander connects her experiences as an actress to her wildlife journeying — as when an active volcano in Hawaii reminds her of the time a long, dusty rehearsal skirt she wore as Ophelia caught fire — the result is enriching, and we wish she had done more of this.
This is a book best not read cover-to-cover. Just open it at random, or go directly to the country of your choice to experience this collection of micronarratives. Twenty-three days after 9/11, Alexander finds herself in the Amazon, standing by the mighty river. “This world is smaller and coming together through technology and an understanding that we all affect each other,” she writes. “Everywhere children are playing, even when the situation is desperately poor or war-torn.” As she watches children play with baby monkeys, she notes: “The laughter of children is a balm like no other.”
One thread that emerges is that, in addition to habitat destruction, humans disrupt the lives of animals in exasperating ways. Elephants are still poached for ivory, birds for feathers, and jaguars for Chinese medicines. In India, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cows, caused the vulture population to plummet. Vultures are valuable scavengers in India, and the government has since invested in an attempt to bring them back. Alexander observes all this as a visitor, though on one occasion her personal life intersects with an area she visits: Her stepson Geoff married Sikkim’s Princess Hope Leezum, and though that alliance didn’t last, Alexander’s love affair with neighboring Bhutan endures — as does her affection for the rest of our planet.