Category Archives: Books

Went fishing wrote book

Among the most tragic of events in this world and our times are the deforestation and destruction of the world’s tropical rain forests, along with the conversion of the entire Amazon basin into temporary cattle ranching and soy bean plantations, South East Asia into margarine palms to tickle the well-being of health fanatics. And along with that cultures, languages, animals, and plants of immense significance for humanity and the well-being of the planet. It is an unbelievable erosion of capital, and a straight road to future devastation for the concerned countries. Just like we now also experience the demise of the oceans, and the loss of most natural biodiversity rich habitats already happened in North America, Europe, northern Asia, and much of Africa.

Fortunately, we have the stories of those who were there, and the future will be able to sense from their writings the irrational passion of fish collection and jungle exploration, and at the same time the close encounter with the meaning of life.

Iténez – River of Hope (English edition 2009) is the story of Amanda Bleher (1910-1991), a middle age, newly divorced woman in Frankfurt/Main, in the 1950s, running a pet business, earning her considerable reputation not least for importing snakes and crocodiles, a female Indiana Jones as e-jardim has it. The story focuses on her travel to Brazil in search of the discus fish (Symphysodon). Attempting to bring an American car from Germany, laden with four kids, pets, and all sorts of belongings, not least cosmetics, it is a road story with a lesser local vehicle of considerable inconvenience. Of course, there are no discus where she goes, heading for the Rio Iténez (Guaporé) on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Love, trust, money, belongings, and belief in humanity evaporate along the way. Reaching the old Jesuit mission Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade on the Iténez (Guaporé) River, there is considerable suffering in the tropical paradise, and with no money left, kids ill, and dubious friends failing, the dream of the Iténez has to be put back for realities for a while. Amanda eventually established a home and company near Rio, and travelled extensively afterwards, but this is the story you will want to read.

To a rational mind planning a field trip, these 277 pages of continuous impulsive re-planning on the way may be frustrating. Why is she taking the kids? Why this amount of cosmetics in the interior of Mato Grosso? Why not check out the taxonomic literature for Symphysodon localities (Amazon mainstream)? Why follow the one after the other jungle whacko so desperately? Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story of travelling in the rain forest in those days when there was forest in Mato Grosso. It is a woman’s story, and thus different from male itineraries. It does not obviously have a hero (or heroine), and it is very truthful of all those things that go wrong, all those decisions that were not so smart it turns out, that the other stories never tell. It is also a rare verdict of passion, for the animals, plants, the rain forest itself, and the search for a new existence far away from war-stricken Germany. Was Amanda Bleher a spy sent by the Germans to check out the almost-deserted Vila Bela as Brazilians at times seemed to think? Is this book her coded report back? Besides the elusive discus, Amanda Bleher was mainly interested in getting water plants for aquariums, and this book gives a vivid insight into the early days of exploration of the Amazon for aquarium fishes and plants.

Most of the history of exploration and travel is written by men. My bookshelves are laden with volumes by men discovering, exploring, and doing everything right. When I travel, it is never like that, it is always chaotic and frustrating all the time. The classical volumes of Ferreira, Humboldt and Bonpland, Castelnau, and Spix and von Martius, to mention the well-known, are faithful diaries, and there is much fact and information therein. But as literature they are boring.

There is one exceptional exception — Gordon MacCreagh’s (1886-1953) White Waters and Black (1926). It details about the Mulford Expedition 1921-1922, of six inexperienced scientists (Nathan E Pearson the ichthyologist) travelling from the highlands of Bolivia to Manaus and up the Rio Negro, with eight tons of luggage and no very clear mission. Well, the expeditioners as well as the luggage are reduced as the group proceeds, over two years’ time, and the bare truth and everything ridiculous and tragic is retold by the guide, MacCreagh, working under premises like this and worse:

The Minister of the Interior lays before me all his maps — wonderful charts showing a Yungas dotted with prosperous little towns. The Department of the Yungas, by the way, is the transandine sub-tropical and tropical jungle which, with the Department of the Beni, stretches away off to the far borders of Brazil.
“Who lives in these towns?” I ask the minister.
He is delightfully naïve about his ignorance. “Quien sabe? Perhaps Indians, perhaps fugitives from justice. At all events, they are people who pay no taxes.”
How, then, does he know that the towns are there?
He doesn’t. He shrugs with comical disgust and laughs.
“But, my good friend, I am not a maker of maps!”

I would not consider bringing 50 kg of oatmeal in glass jars on trail and river from La Paz to Manaus. But perhaps cooking pots, lanterns, if I bring an outboard motor I would make sure there were gasoline for it, and of course scientific equipment. In White Waters and Black, you can read more about what to take and not to take.

Women rarely go on expeditions, or they don’t write. Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (1822-1907) was an early exception, documenting the Thayer expedition to the Amazon (186-1867) led by her husband Louis Agassiz, but it is also a relatively dry itinerary interspersed with exclamative footnotes by Louis Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil (1868).

Much more I appreciated Lady with a Spear (1951) by Eugenie Clark, an autobiography full of passion for collecting fish, part of the story of the post war atom bomb testing in the Marianas, and also testimony to the importance of having an aquarium in every home with children.

A remarkable early explorer, the British Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), made two trips to West Africa in the late 19th Century, at a time when Europeans had less chances of surviving the diseases there. She came back to England, and came back with fishes as well, and wrote a book. In the introduction to Travels in West Africa (1897) she wrote:

To Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, I am deeply grateful for the kindness and interest he has always shown regarding all the specimens of natural history that I have been able to lay before him; the majority of which must have had very old tales to tell him. Yet his courtesy and attention gave me the thing a worker in any work most wants — the sense that the work was worth doing — and sent me back to work again with the knowledge that if these things interested a man like him, it was a more than sufficient reason for me to go on collecting them.

That is a very kind acknowledgment, and Mary must have been a very nice person, who also made headlines when defending Africans and African cultures against Christan demonisation. Mary collected fish in the Ogowe River, and has some species named after her in recognition of her contribution to ichthyology. She worked all alone and on her own expense. I find that remarkable, given the obvious hardships, the absence of cars, roads, airplanes, air-condition, and bottled water that present-day explorers make good use of. Travels in West Africa is old enough to be in the public domain and can be downloaded from various sources such as Google Books.

If you do not write down your story, it never happened.

All books here are available from Amazon and other Internet books shops, except Iténez – River of Hope, to be ordered from AquaPress. Image Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC.

Gould’s fishes

Innocent puffer in Sydney Aquarium. Photo S.O. Kullander CC-BY-NC

Flying a lot those days, I read a novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001, Pan McMillan Australia). Of course, the reason for picking it up in the Perth airport bookshop was the combination of title, cover image (fish) and some fish plates inside. The book cover also said “Masterpiece” and “A work of significant genius”.

Whereas the “Book of Fishes” illustrated by William Gould exists, as well as its artist existed, the fish painter in Flanagan’s fiction is somebody else, the narrator echoing Flanagan’s exposure of the violence, cruelty, terror, lack of morale, and inhumanity reigning in the early history of Australia. It is also a tale of two ways of apprehending fish, and a layman’s mockery of 19th century exploratory science.

Whereas today’s “evil/mad scientists” are the ones constructing nuclear and biological weapons, and consequently mostly being engineers in service of politicians rather than true scientists, in those days, collecting, taxonomy, and the misguided study of phenotypical variability within Homo sapiens, along with the invention of the steam engine, textile factories with mechanical weaving machines, and other premonitory of the industrial revolution, contained considerable fuel for contemporary and subsequent flaming as pure evil.

The ‘evil’ scientist, however, is rarely, if ever, a scientist as scientists understand science: explaining how the world and everything in it works, using methods of observation that are relevant and repeatable, and reporting conclusions that are falsifiable at least in principle. This science permits us to understand why we have seasons, how to fly to the moon, why fish have scales or not, and that humans trace their ancestry to fish. Unfortunately, science is not very good at creating peace on Earth, something that is assumed to be the wish of all people. Peace is also not the task of science, but could benefit from more studies into the processes involved in human interaction, and the rational mind is better equipped to work for a world free from war and suffering.

In Flanagan’s novel, corruption, the companion of power, is at the forefront. Among other figures in the novel, the evil scientist strives foremost for academic recognition, and becomes the slave of other evil academics striving in the same direction. What was membership in an illustrious academy in the 19th Century, today has become “high impact” publication. It is only more murderous and so many people are involved that none will go to history on publication alone. Thousands of high-impact papers are published annually, without anyone noticing the impossibility of this bibliometric tool, and thousands upon thousands of research papers are disseminated without this stamp. Apparently more research is produced without the stamp than with and there is absolutely no difference in quality. We have seen earlier how Darwinius massiliae managed to reach a one-week long fame without really contributing anything exceptional, and so the show goes on. It is not enough to do research. It also has to be packaged, marketed, and sprayed over the masses. This is problematic, because with most research laymen cannot consume it directly. I cannot read a physics paper, I need it explained to me, which makes the explanation a crucial component of research. I cannot trust the scientist because of my own ignorance;, can I trust the popularizer, the journalist? Who makes the choices what to report and what not? Why was never the “link between monkey and Man” corrected? Where is the science?

Bill Gould, in Flanagan’s book, is a bad guy painting fish in a penitential settlement in Tasmania, hired for a while by the evil scientist who resorts to anything in order to have his academic membership, including cultivating a to-be smart pig, fish paintings, mollusk collecting, and beheading natives, all in the name of science in capital letters. Himself he is cheated by the Europe-located member of the academy using the collections to compete with rival academicians. There is no science here. The mere use of yardsticks, thermometers, and other instruments, the mere assembling of measurements and other numbers is not science. The mere assembling of specimens is not science. The wicked idea of beheading a fellow human to obtain academic tributes is absurd and repenting irrespective of at what time in history it occurred or for whatever political, religious, or scientific justification attached to the act. Yet, the “evil scientists”, who are not scientists, come with every corrupt government, and the scandals effected by these individuals stay in memory.

It is definitely true that colonialism put an end to human innocence. In the local exhibit in Botany Bay, there is a cartoon depicting two native Australians watching from shelter the Cook party landing in 1770. One of them says “Look, international terrorists!” We cannot rewrite history, only admit that what is wrong in science today was wrong then, because our earlier colleagues also had choices. Scientists, including another Gould (Stephen Jay), have already exposed the ridiculosity of craniometry and phrenology as a source of knowledge about intellectual and other characteristics of individuals or groups of individuals, based on scientific criteria. In ridiculing his exiled scientist in Tasmania, Flanagan, for that reason certain to be correct, shots another arrow through the black heart of phrenology with his parody of the penitentiary scientist, while at the same time giving a colourful hint at how colonialism and in particular the overseas prison colonies could create an atmosphere permitting these crimes.

Nevertheless, Flanagan is not a historian, his novel is fiction, and his dream is Rousseauan from the forebrain to the fingertips. His world is ruled by the weedy sea dragon and its conception of the universe. His message is clouded by clouds and dressed by fumes, drenched in body fluids sprayed over all pages, and most of the time reading I long for the proper use of sentences rational to the mind and true to the history behind the story. Indeed, I want the real William Buelow Gould (1801-1853) and history, because no matter how long I look at fish, I will never be one, and instead of giving up on humanity, I will live part of it, hopefully to the better of it. I would suggest “Finding Nemo” as an alternative to “Gould’s Book of Fish” if you have time to spend. But maybe you have to read “Gould’s Book of Fish” to get the point of this essay? Or you can read the more detailed review by Frances Devling Glass, revealing all including the end.

Nostalgic Geography

One thing that ichthyology and biodiversity informatics have in common is an interest in and need for ephemeral names of places. Names that change from one map to another, names spelt differently on different maps, and names that come an go in history. For us working with Asian, African and South American freshwater fish it more of an adventure than any non-ichthyologist can imagine.

In the case of Myanmar and Burma, it is just not the name of the nation, but I still cannot figure out what became of the Irrawaddy River — is it now Ayeyarwaddy or Ayeyarwady; maps and official websites leave me unassisted. Sandoway has become Thandwe, Tenasserim is Thanintharyi, the Salween River is now Thanlwin, Bassein became Pathein, Tavoy Dawei, Pagan Bagan, and Akyab is Sittwe. But Mandalay is still Mandalay. Check out a modern map.

In India, Madras is now Chennai, and Bombay became Mumbai (but Bollywood is not Mumywood).

Anyone long enough into South American fishes knows Barra [do rio Negro] means Manaus, and type localities in Amazonian Ecuador in the 19th Century are now in Peru (like the famous Ambyiacu of Cope = Ampiyacu, a tributary to the río Amazonas in Peru, the one called Marañón a bit upstream today as the whole river was named by the early Spanish, until el río de las Amazonas as it was called by Cristóbal de Acuña caught on.

I have been fighting with Lake Tanganyika localities for a while, starting with and Stanley, moving on to Boulenger and all the more bewildered I am for good old Kinyamkolo is today Mpulungu, and Albertville of course is Kalemie. When I read in Humphry Greenwood’s foreword to George Coulter’s Lake Tanganyika and its life (1991) that the lake was known as Uniamesi Sea in 1855, long before it was “discovered” by Europeans, I am not surprised.

Whatever happened to Tanganyika? is a book for people who find the above interesting and worth remembering. It is written by Harry Campbell (unknown to me), with a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (The No 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency), who comes up with the term nostalgic geography. Maybe nostalgic for him. In biodiversity informatics name changes are for real and nothing to joke about. Author Campbell, however, is entertaining. When tired of being serious with name switching, this is the book that will amuse and enlight. There is 158 pages and 46 chapters, each one dedicated to a particular toponym. Your will find out about Tanganyika at the end, and you can read a little on Amazon (an online book etc. shop) to start with.