Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo

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Are you familiar with the aphorism, "Do what you love and the money will follow"? Well, the money part of that equation is probably questionable, but I think you will be convinced that a person who pursues her passions will never live a boring life, especially after you've finished reading Kate Jackson's book, Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press; 2008). This book tells the amazing true story of two field seasons that the author spent in the mysterious flooded swamp forests in the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville.

This story begins after Jackson has finished her dissertation on snake anatomy and her postdoctoral fellowship on crocodile physiology, only to find herself unemployed. But fortunately, the author had previously done a little field work in Africa. Even though that ended abruptly when she was airlifted out of the Congo rainforests with a life-threatening infection from a scrape on her leg, she was left with "an altogether irrational longing to return."

So return she does. Jackson returns to conduct the most basic of all field work, to collect as many reptiles and amphibians as she can so she and other scientists can identify what is there and what needs to be conserved. Even though the author meticulously plans her expeditions and gathers the necessary equipment, materials and funding in advance, she finds that her work has only begun when she arrives in Brazzaville. She has to learn how to work within the maddening intricacies of third world governments and navigate the multitude of subtle linguistic and cultural differences as she seeks out the permits, supplies and field assistants that are essential to her field work.

After she sets up her field camp in the flooded swamp forests of the Congo, she discovers that even more challenges await her; invading termites and ants (which she has a phobia of), clothing that was constantly wet, disgusting food that was either in the early stages of decay or tasted like "a cross between a chunk of wood and an overcooked potato", and maggots that formed writhing lumps as they happily grew under her skin and that of her students. Oh, and snake bites. We also learn about the author's mistakes, both cultural and practical, and how they affected her work and her relations with the nearby villages upon whom she depended.

In addition to the author's many exciting adventures that keep you turning pages as fast as you can read, Jackson's description of the people she works with are frequently amusing and insightful. She also takes time to explain the purpose and scientific value of museum collections, the basic methodology used to identify snakes, how to humanely euthanize a frog and the practical difficulties of preparing an effective anti-venom. Oh, and how to inject anti-venom in an emergency. Reading that will make your intestines recoil.

This 328-page book, taken from Jackson's field journals, provides a feeling of authenticity and immediacy. It includes a six-page index and two beautifully rendered hand-drawn maps by ecologist Tuhin Giri depicting the region where the author spent her two field seasons. A special inset near the middle of the book includes 49 color images that were snapped by a variety of the author's colleagues, students and field assistants.

During the years that I have written book reviews for my blog, I have had the great pleasure of reading some astonishingly good books, especially about science. Mean and Lowly Things is certainly one of the best, and in fact, even though this book is newly published, I think it qualifies as the "classic field biology book" that helps to define and explain this sort of research to the public. In view of my own passion to continue researching the parrots of the remote islands in the south Pacific Ocean, I might be overly emotional regarding field work in distant lands, such as what is recounted in this book. However, by the time I finished reading this book, I experienced intense sadness because I felt as though I was closing the covers upon a beautiful world and a dear group of friends whom I had experienced so much with, and whom I wanted to continue working with.

In this day when ever-increasing gasoline prices make travel more expensive and less practical, this fast-paced, witty and personal narrative will provide a welcome escape into a beautiful and mysterious region of the earth that most people have never heard of. I highly recommend this fascinating tale to all travel and adventure buffs, snake afficionados, to those who enjoy memoirs, and to public and school libraries. Additionally, scientists (and even a few medical doctors) will find much of interest in this book, as will all those people out there who wonder what it is like to be a field biologist, especially a single female herpetologist who travels by herself to a remote area of Africa to do research with venomous snakes and other "mean and lowly things."

Kate Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. A native of Toronto, Canada, she studied the morphology and evolution of the venom-delivery apparatus of snakes, which earned her a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University in 2002. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto where she studied the sensory organs of three hungry crocodiles that lived in the department lab.

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