Atlas Obscura Book Club Discussion 2/27: Last Chance to See, Week 2

Welcome back to the second discussion of the Atlas Obscura Book Club!

In today’s thread, we’re continuing our discussion of Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Today we’re looking at the third and fourth chapters, “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” and “Heartbeats in the Night,” the longest chapters in the book, and some of the most fascinatingly lovely. Kakapos forever.


(Image: Allie_Caulfield/CC BY 2.0)

If you missed our first week’s discussion, feel free to check out the thread here! If you’re just joining us, here’s how the discussion works: 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 copy and paste questions into your new comment, or you can always check the replies from the original discussion topic. We’re still working out the kinks on these kinds of discussions, so if you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to improve our group discussions, please let us know here.

And with that, let’s talk rhinos and kakapos! 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.

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General thoughts and observations? Favorite passages? General kakapo love?

Throughout the book, Adams, Carwardine, and their crew encounter some truly Faustian bureaucracy in their attempts to get access to the animals they’re looking for. While Adams describes it all with his usual wit, what’s the most mind-boggling bit of bureaucracy you’ve ever encountered, and how did you get through it?

Upon coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla, Adams describes feeling something like vertigo. What travel experience was so awesome that it made you dizzy?

Much of the kakapo chapter is spent delightfully recounting how silly and counterintuitive their mating practices are, but their weird track-and-bowl booming is also sort of lovely and fascinating. What’s your favorite animal mating dance/call that you can hardly believe is real?

I suppose it’s a very canned response and well covered in documentaries, but that doesn’t make the mating rituals of the birds of paradise (many varieties with their own unique takes!) any less fascinating.

It might be interesting to try and draw additional parallels between the two groups of birds - isolated mountain populations, very dark conditions (one nocturnal one impenetrable rain forest canopy), clearing the area of litter to impress, etc.

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During my time at Rutgers University I encountered levels of bureaucracy normally reserved for three letter government agencies. I’m sure that a lot of universities have these issues and certainly the bigger they are the worse it is, but there seemed to be a particular brand there which permeated campus life. There was even a fun name for it, the RU-screw.

Some personal examples from my time there include transfer between colleges in the university requiring that I personally provide each class with a pre-requisite override form indicating that I’ve taken the required coursework to register for the class. As well as being accidentally de-registered for a class I was taking right before finals with no way to get credit for the course.

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To be honest, reading this part in each chapter makes me feel uncomfortable. For a book that’s supposedly about animal observations, Adams dedicated a huge chunk of it for recording their various interactions with the bureaucrats, especially in the Komodo and Gorilla chapters. I almost stopped reading the book because it felt like it was never going to end.
At the very least, Adams seemed to recognize that the bureaucracy found in most third world countries are relics left behind by their former colonizers. I just can’t help feeling that the overall tone to describe these bureaucrats and other locals they met along the way can be somewhat judgy and/or condescending, especially coming from the guys from “first world country/former colonizers.”
That’s not to say that the red tapes weren’t cumbersome/annoying, but more often than not, the governments of these countries (especially at the time, when they barely got out of colonization themselves) didn’t have enough resources and manpower to make any bureaucratic process easy for anyone.

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I’m from New Zealand and I took so much pleasure from the book’s description of the South Island.
On a fun note, the kākāpō came second in our country’s hotly contested Bird of the Year competition last year Kereru crowned Bird of the Year for 2018 | Forest and Bird

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I love the sad but lovable simplicity of the Kakapos. The lost the ability to fly because it was a costly form of transportation and they didn’t need too. They had no fear of predators because there weren’t any. They have a mating ritual that makes almost no sense: making big omni-directional noises in the dark. All of that works when there are a lot of birds in an unchanging environment. Nature seems to be slow at making corrections with regards to a lot of species in similar circumstances and it’s only through enormous human resource expenditure that saving a species like this is even possible.

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Love the dance of the blue footed boobie! Show off your awesome blue shoes, offer some twigs, bow and fall in love.

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I remember a 90-minute process checking into a hotel. The proprietor was interviewing us to collect all the answers on a multipage, triplicate-copy form. When it got to “occupation,” we couldn’t figure out a reasonable French description to help our interviewer grasp my dead-end hospital McJob, so we just went with “Hospital administrator” when she offered that as an option. After the exhaustive paperwork was completed, she gave us our copy and put her copy on the top of a stack in the corner that was almost as tall as she was. The copies at the bottom were curled and yellowed with age. I suspect nothing had ever been done with this paperwork and it was just a bit of holdover Belgian bureaucracy that had long since been divorced from its purpose.

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This is a really good point, and I’ll admit to feeling a bit uneasy regarding Adams’ somewhat judgmental worldview in regards to the red tape in clearly impoverished countries. I got the impression that on the one hand he seemed to have a pretty deep understanding of how such systems come into being, and the socio-economic difficulties that power them, he has no patience for it.

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I would have to echo Adams’ take on the matter. Spending an hour with a family of mountain gorillas was enough to make my head spin. It felt kind of invasive, like we showed up in their dining room and were staring at them for an hour. I imagine they look at it as kind of their job. “Oh, great, these things again. Well, it’s just an hour a day, and it pays the overhead.”

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It almost laughable in hindsight, but the memory is still fresh despite being from my childhood. My grandfather and I were liking up Mt. Craggy off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina - an easy 1.5 mile hike to an observation platform. Something about the way the path felt, damp and dark in the middle of summer hidden under a canopy of pines and rhododendron. The smells too were alien to my nose, crisp clean mountain air mixing with the steamy musty scents of rhododendron flowers and moss. I got distracted easily on the hike looking for interesting fungus and trying to spot the birds we heard all around us. Suddenly at the top of the hike we burst into the sunshine and wind and saw a beautiful view of the surrounding peaks and valleys in four directions. It still takes my breath away just thinking about it.

A more recent example that involves fear and awe in the same way that Adams might have experienced it with the gorilla was a trip to the Galapagos where I was lying down in a pontoon boat smaller than the orca I was attempting to photograph. They were under the boat and all around, feasting on turtles. One of the naturalists we were with even jumped in the water to try and film them! Talk about a hair-raising adventure!

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No offense to the keruru, but the kakapo is clearly the Best Bird.

giphy

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One of my college friends had a roommate, Skeeter, who pretty much managed to bring home a different woman every night. I tried the anthropology approach of accompanying him on one of his bar nights to learn the secrets of whatever on earth it was that he was doing, but it completely evaded me. A few years afterward, a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon entitled “Animals and their mating calls” captured it well. There’s a frog going “er-uća er-uća er-uća,” some sort of insect making an “iki-iki-iki-iki-iki” sound, a bird vocalizing “KEÉ-o KEÉ-o,” and a guy at a bar saying “hey, bay-BEÉ hey bay-BEÉ.” (Larson’s cartoons aren’t legally on the Internet so I’m not giving a link.)

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Not exactly a favorite, but I remembered reading about how a female sloth would scream to attract males when she’s in heat.

I like the sage grouse dance, though.

The peacock spider is also a very smooth dancer.

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