Atlas Obscura Book Club Discussion 2/20: Last Chance to See, Week 1

Welcome to the first meeting of the Atlas Obscura Book Club!

For our inaugural thread, we’re beginning our discussion of Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Today we’re looking at the first couple of chapters, “Twig Technology” and “Here Be Chickens,” a couple of short, funny, and moving travelogues that manage to say a lot about travel, conservation, and tourism in the modern age!


(Image: anmede/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here’s how we’re gonna do it: We’ll post some discussion topics in a short series of comments below. If you’d like to comment on a specific discussion topic, click the greyed-out “replies” button near the bottom of the discussion post. You can then comment on that discussion post specifically. There will likely be a number of people commenting on multiple discussions, so any time you feel like you may have lost the thread, you can always check the replies from the original discussion topic. This is our first attempt at this type of discussion, so we’re working out the kinks as we go along. Please let us know here, if you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to structure this!

And with that, let’s talk about Last Chance to See! Below are some supplementary materials related to the reading that we thought might be interesting, and the discussion topics can be found in the comments below.

  • A lot has changed since Mark and Douglas set out to find the creatures featured in the original Last Chance to See, and updates on all of them can be found on Carwardine’s personal site.
  • There is also a (increasingly infrequently updated) blog called, Another Chance to See, that has shared news about the species covered in the book down the years.
  • The 2009 BBC TV series, Last Chance to See, which features the always delightful Stephen Fry in the place of the late Adams, is available on Netflix!
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What were your general thoughts? Favorite lines or reflections?

In the first chapter, Adams describes his realization that he is a “monkey’s descendant” going to witness another of his ancient relatives. Have you ever had an experience that shifted the way you look at your own humanity/animalness?

Adams and Carwardine’s experiences with the tour groups in Komodo making their experience seem less “intrepid,” mirror a lot of modern discussions of overtourism. How do you deal with times where you end up visiting places that are wondrous, but are also popular tourist sites?

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We loved the mention of the mysterious cricket bat that Adams and Carwardine ended up bringing with them, but that no one would fess up to owning. What is the inessential object that you always take with you on your travels?

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading the Komodo Dragon chapter was that despite Adams bemoaning the effects of anthropomorphism, he then wrote about the mudskippers in the trees. He was struck by how in 350 million years, their ancestors might be there watching something with cameras around their necks.

This sort of seems to go right along with the anthropomorphism he was decrying earlier. A common problem with the understanding of evolution that I see is that it’s moving toward a goal of some kind, namely us. Nothing could be further from the truth, naturally. We are not the end-all-be-all of life on earth, we are just another species.

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This is a very interesting question — how does one define “essential”? (Food, water, clothing, shelter?) I think my answer would either be (1) more magazines and books than I can realistically read and (2) my journal, though personally I would consider the latter very essential.

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First off, I just loved how funny Adams is about their disastrous travels, without ever seeming cynical or jaded. A very Atlas Obscura world view.

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Indeed. I read The Hitchiker’s Guide series back in the early 80s and it’s always been a favorite of mine. For whatever reason I’d never read this book, and it’s a pleasure to get back to it. He’s a scream.

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I think of my ever present deck of playing cards as the kind of inessential (but totally essential) travel item that I can’t do without.

I think we try to enjoy the people as much as we enjoy the thing we’re going to see. Meeting folks is a great reason to travel.

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The entire conversation with the Australian snake venom specialist was delightful and so very Adams-y.

“Is there anything you do like?”

“Yes,” he said. “Hydroponics.”

:slight_smile:

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I was nearly in a laugh panic reading that. I was sitting in our office common area at lunch and people were staring at me. It was sort of awesome.

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Yes! Adams’ understanding of humans as just one link in this endless natural chain seems to be what enables him see the damaging effects of our presence while still celebrating the wonder of these creatures.

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I am avidly reading the replies in this thread. (Vicarious reading at its best.)

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But even he can’t help seeing humans as an end product of evolution at times. Is that indicative of our getting too far away from seeing ourselves as part of nature? Other cultures with less technology and modern comforts don’t have this issue.

My stomach hurt from laughing so much while reading these chapters. I read Last Chance to See for the first time a few years ago, but had forgotten just how funny it is. There are so many good one-liners in there it’s hard to pick. I did particularly love “with hardly a change of beat, they moved smoothly from assuring me that all our luggage was on board the plane to helping me actually get it on board.”

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Journal is totally essential. I bring my slippers everywhere I go, even if I’m going somewhere warm. They take up way too much space but I can’t help it. I need my cozy feets.

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