A Book About Many Things
This book is about . . . ah . . . well, it’s about a lot of things. It is, foremost, a travel book with most of the action taking place in Patagonia and the Canadian High Plains. The focus of that travel is dinosaurs, and for that reason alone, it demands comparison with Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler, which was recently reviewed in PopMatters.
Both books are about passion—a passion for grasping the history of life. Novacek’s passion led him to science, Grady’s to writing. But Grady won’t be confined to a typewriter. Though an amateur, he enthusiastically busies himself with fieldwork, those chain gangs in the service of science.
Both authors know and love the history of science, the ideas that have shaped the object of their passion. This love takes Grady into one of his book’s major themes, our understanding of bird evolution. Birds are evolved from dinosaurs, by now an established fact. Watch a cardinal at the birdfeeder and you are watching the behavior of many extinct big lizards, some of them very big. The ink was hardly dry on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species when this was realized. Science, being what it is, however, considered and eventually dismissed several competing hypotheses. Crocodiles, for example, or a yet-to-be discovered common ancestor. Accepting as fact the reptilian origin of birds, though, says very little about the how and why of that evolution. There is a lot yet to be learned. Which dinosaurs led to birds, why and how? Did it happen more than once? Why did birds, and birds alone, survive the mass extinction of all other dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous?
His inclination to pursue ideas about bird and dinosaur evolution takes Grady deeply into the literature and the history of ideas. Grady explores why the Victorian mind, believing that God created the physical world whole and complete, was as disturbed about the idea of extinction as the idea of evolution. It is possibly a sign of the times—our complacency about the damage we are doing to our world—that no modern creationist, no matter how ardent, would question the reality of extinction. In these discussions, Grady relies on literature, both scientific and creative, that is almost painfully obscure. Grady is a serious antiquarian bibliophile, Novacek is not.
Grady is also a museum rat, drifting aimlessly but with an open mind through collections, the more inconspicuous and disorderly, the better. Much of his museum perusing is in search of long forgotten dinosaurs bits and pieces but some of it is simply a compassionate inquiry into people, how they lived, behaved and thought. Sometimes, his museum musings are like “walking down a quiet street and gazing into softly lit windows”, and sometimes they are like reading the memoirs of someone obsessed with a garage sale. Grady, more so than Novacek, is also a geographical wanderer, a tramp. The long essay about his drive across the wilds of Ontario is charming and humorous but without purpose in the thematic structure of the book. It is simply a good essay.
You don’t have to be a mystic to read Grady’s last chapter, “Ghost Birds”, but it wouldn’t hurt. It is a gorgeous, if difficult, essay, and herein lies the major difference between Novacek and Grady. Novacek is, like most scientists, a teacher and like most teachers, he draws on a full arsenal to create images. His book reflects this. It is chock-full of maps and charts, diagrams and drawings, and the text is supplemented by notes, bibliographies and even references to web pages. The reader has no problem imagining him leaping on a desktop to shout the lesson at a dull class.
Grady will have none of that. He is an essayist, pure and simple. He knows what the pluperfect subjunctive is and isn’t afraid to use it. His only tool is words used precisely and lovingly to produce a wonderful blend of science and literature that often seems to roll along on its own, as it will.
A novice to the genre of popular science might wish it were otherwise. Grady mentions many places and their locations are described, but if you need a map, you have to dig it out yourself. There are hundreds of dinosaurs mentioned, the important ones described precisely. You need to take notes or have a good memory because he won’t give it to you a second time. If it’s further reading you want, you’d best be taking notes, too, because there is no bibliography. And you’d better have access to a good library because the stuff he uses won?t be found at the corner newsstand. Novacek prepares you for the quiz. Grady makes you want to write incomprehensible lyric poetry.
Ideally, science doesn?t know about national boundaries. Realistically, however, science is awash with nationalism. Competition is rife whether the topic is dinosaurs, space exploration, or a cure for AIDS. God help us if the Chinese win the bug classification race! North America’s pop science literature, consequently, tends to be dominated by Americans if only because there are so many of us and so few of the rest of them. So, this is one of the many things this book is about, Canadian scientists doing Canadian science whether in Saskatchewan or Patagonia. It is a pleasantly new conversation carried on without chauvinism or rancor.
The two books taken together are a dandy contribution to science’s popular literature about the evolution—the life and death—of life. But between the two of them, Grady’s is the more literary and difficult. Readers new to the genre of pop science would do well to read Grady’s book second.