Friday, December 14, 2007

Trivial matters

I revert again to talking of British books on wildlife. First, I must admit I have a weakness for off-beat publications – frivolous books that are about ‘nothing’ but for a nebulous central idea, quirky funny books with self-belief. Precisely one such is The Wildlife Companion. Edited by Malcolm Tait and Olive Tayler, this is an assortment of the most delightful trivia on wildlife you might wish to come across.

Nothing is too sacred, or too trivial for this book. Random notes by naturalists feature here: you can admire Peter Scott’s career in conservation or scoff at Aristotle for imagining that redstarts turned into robins in winter. Then there are myths and fables associated with flora and fauna, puzzles, quotes and of course trivia. You would learn for instance of Campsicnemius charliechaplini, a fly with a tendency to die in the bandy-legged position and that an owl has 14 neck vertebrae twice as many as most mammals and that swans have 25. Dead useful for all that necking they do.

Like I said, more trivia than you could possibly remember. To underline this, each page number gives you a little nugget: for instance, on Page 20 you will find ‘20 Time, in minutes that a grey seal can stay submerged’ or if advance to 32, you would discover that this was the ‘amount, in billions of dollars, spent on their hobby by us birdwatchers in 2001’. And the pages are sprinkled with a series of hilarious jokes on talking frogs.

With its broad, all-enveloping stance, The Wildlife Companion links Hannibal, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Pliny the Elder, cockatrice, Siegfried Sassoon and Shakespeare among a diverse number of other things… the writers evidently agreeing with John Muir when he says, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Sunday, December 09, 2007

This is How

With at least three wildlife channels on Indian television, it’s surprising I hadn’t watched anything of Bill Oddie before. But the British Library had a nice set of episodes called Bill Oddie’s How to Watch Wildlife and I borrowed it with great alacrity. Eight episodes later, I couldn’t bear to return the DVD.

In each episode, How to Watch Wildlife takes the viewer to a special location – most are geographic as with the Scottish Highlands or the Orkney Islands, and some are habitat-driven like the episode based on homes and gardens. In each, Oddie with infectious charm takes us through leisurely tours of his favourite haunts. He’s not the most glamorous of blokes, compared with… say for instance the charismatic David Attenborough. Short, podgy, wheezy and frequently off-balance, Oddie doesn’t quite match my mental image of the naturalist who is inexplicably tall, lithe and rangy. Still it took very little time to become thoroughly used to this man and very little more to become thoroughly fond of him.

How to Watch Wildlife isn’t an action packed series, with one thrilling visual after the other. It has long stretches of silence, of Oddie just walking past looking hither and thither, to the background of winds rustling and brooks gurgling. During most episodes, an expert is brought in – a coleopterist to tell us about the beetles in that area, or an arachnologist, to point us to a remarkable water skating spider, or an ornithologist to show us Golden Eagles in action.

It seemed to me that Oddie was showing us exactly how to watch wildlife: don’t rush it, savour every moment, don’t hesitate to ask others who know more and most importantly, by example, he shows us how never, ever to abandon the delight and the wonder. He says as much, walking past the nature-style silence of Dorset River: “It’s an important thing actually, when you’re out looking for wildlife, don’t get obsessed, ‘I must see wild creatures’. In a sense, this is all wildlife, this is all alive and it’s all wild… This is the Wild Life, put it that way.”

Most fascinating man, Bill Oddie. A glance at his Wiki page reveals a man of varied talents for music, television and entertainment apart from wildlife and conservation. Bit saddening to know that he has suffered nearly all his life from clinical depression, heartening at the very same time to see it hasn’t debilitated him.