In Other Words

Wild Things, Wild Places by Jane Alexan­der

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

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.

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