Confessions of a Rainforest Biologist

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Confessions of a Rainforest Biologist
From: Laurie&Leanne Knight <>
Date: Thu, 28 Mar 2002 17:57:40 +1000
I came across this book review today, and while you may not wish to buy the
book, you may find the review interesting.


Environmental Conservation 28(4)  p380

Stinging Trees and Wait-a-whiles. Confessions of a Rainforest Biologist
.. ....... ........
x 193 pp., 53 figs., 23.5 15.7 1.5 cm, ISBN 0 226 46896 8
hardcover, US$ 25.00 /GB£ 16.00, Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago 
Press, 2000

This book is more a personal journal and adventure story than a scientific 
treatise. It is a book you will pick up one evening, get absorbed by, and 
finish in one or two sittings. In a warm, open, narrative style, Laurance 
describes the mixed frustrations and celebrations of a year spent in 
tropical Australia conducting his graduate research on how fragmentation of 
tropical rain forest affects the diversity of forest-dwelling mammals. He 
warns in the preface that his book ?is not a typical account about 
scientific research  at least I hope not, for my colleagues? sake.? Readers 
whose past includes field expeditions of any length will feel a touch of 
familiarity with many of the situations Laurance describes, however, and a 
likely response is ?Oh, yeah, I?ve got a story like that.? When 
inexperienced, but adventurous students ask about what it is like to be a 
field biologist, dreaming of travelling to far away places, working with 
exotic animals, meeting interesting people, and doing something meaningful 
to protect biodiversity, I think I will refer them to this book for a 
reality check.
The account may not be typical, but the types of problems Laurance had to 
face are not all rare, either. Included are lessons that field work often 
consists of mundane repetitive hard work conducted under rough conditions, 
illustrated by photos of mud-covered field crews. Laurance describes the 
travails of operating on a tight budget, organizing enthusiastic, but 
occasionally unruly crews of untrained volunteers, and maintaining quality 
control and scientific rigour without becoming authoritative or oppressive. 
Bits of interesting natural history are scattered among the chapters, 
although these often seem to be about blood-sucking parasites, poisonous 
snakes, misanthropic vegetation, and other colourful nemeses of the field 

I could have skipped descriptions of leeches in private places.
Importantly, Laurance accurately conveys the message that the graduate 
experience of many field biologists is not an easy apprenticeship or 
tutelage. Rather, you might be cast upon unfamiliar shores, connected to 
your major professor by a monthly phone call.

You will need to learn on your feet, be adaptive, respond to crises (always 
new) as they arise, all while the clock and the money are running down. 
Sometimes a story emphasizes the value of perseverance or fortitude, as 
when facing severe weather or a vehicle breaking down in the middle of 
nowhere. But parts of the book also raise more philosophical issues that a 
prospective field biologist should consider.

How much should you mix advocacy for a cause you strongly believe in with 
scientific detachment? How would you react if confronted with 
intransigence, hostility, or racism? These are lessons not typically 
learned in classes or seminars. Laurance may not come through every 
predicament with elegance and grace, but shows that intelligence, a big 
heart, and a stubborn streak can take you far.

I would have liked more discussion of the creative scientific process.
Some chapters include anecdotes that describe interesting side projects or 
?mysteries?, or summarize the main findings of the study. A map of the 
study sites and controls is provided, but the research is generally 
described in broad strokes. It would have been informative, particularly 
for graduate students, to delve deeper into how the project was developed, 
how the study sites were chosen, the logic of the design, the need for 
replication, and the overall genesis of the project.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it chronicles the 
early environmental movement in tropical Queensland, particularly the 
controversy associated with nomination of parts of the region for World 
Heritage status. Not only are national politics reviewed, first-hand 
accounts of local reactions are described as well. Laurance shows how 
research can motivate conservation, and how a scientist can act both as a 
generator of data and an advocate for change. Equally important are the 
lessons that enlightenment from an enthusiastic stranger is not always 
welcome, consideration and honesty should be standard protocol, and the 
most dangerous and unpredictable animal in the woods walks upright.

I think this book will provide an excellent introduction to the daily grind 
and sociology of conservation research for a prospective field biologist. 
It is also an engaging story about politics, science, and personal growth, 
related with spunk and humour. As conservation research continues to place 
field biologists in the middle of potential conflicts between opposing 
environmental perspectives with increasing frequency, the scenes in this 
book will become less atypical and more exemplary. The amazing thing is, 
after all Laurance struggled through, he finished his dissertation and went 
back for more.

Edward J Heske
Illinois Natural History Survey
607 East Peabody Drive
Champaign, IL 61820, USA

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