Monday, July 09, 2007

In Search of Pandas

Thoughts on:

Croke, Vicki Constantine. The Lady and the Panda. New York: Random House, 2005.
This was the third book for my 2007 Nonfiction Five Challenge.

Whenever I pick up a book like this one and begin to read, my first reaction usually runs along such lines as, “Man, all these people lead such exciting lives, and here’s boring old me, barely able to muster the courage to move 200 miles south.” I read a little further, become completely infatuated with a character such as Ruth Harkness, am right there with her as she boards her ship to China, and think, “That’s it. No more boring living for me. I’m going to take advantage of the brief amount of time I have on this exciting planet of ours. It’s high time I sold everything to finance an expedition to China to bring back a panda.” (Disclaimer: I would never dream of kidnapping a baby panda from its poor mother, but maybe if some special herb that only grows on mountain peaks were needed to save lives all over the world, and someone were to be offering monetary rewards to those who would bring it back, I could go collect that. Don’t point out to me that maybe the herb has a family, too.) But then I read passages like this:

The terrain was as formidable as most adventurers would face in a lifetime. Not
only were they climbing steeply at high altitude, but every step held another
obstacle: dense stands of head-high bamboo, great dead logs covered in slippery
moss, fields of knee-deep sphagnum moss engorged with icy water, and snow
slipping off branches onto cheeks and down into coat collars. The constant fog
kept everything wet, conspiring with the moss to make the footing as slippery as
if it were oiled. (p. 121)

I don’t know. I think it’s all that treacherous moss, and my tendency to slip even on dry ground that gets me, but suddenly I find I’m perfectly content to sit in my own home, surrounded by piles of books and merely reading about the Ruth Harknesses of the world rather than trying to become them. I know many might be inspired by such a passage, feel some sort of “conquering the wilds” urge or something, but I’m perfectly content to let them do all the hard work while I sip my tea.

What a remarkable woman Harkness must have been, someone I would have liked to have known. I love the way Croke traces her evolution from witty, life-of-the-party New York socialite and dress designer to a person who was transformed by a country and its people, who wanted to do everything she could to help them, as well as to help the plight of the giant panda. She’s admirable in all kinds of ways, but one is that she made her first panda expedition in 1936, not exactly a period in which most women went trekking around the world on their own (although one soon discovers “on their own” had a very different meaning in those days, when explorers had great “teams” of people, completely ignored in all accounts of the expeditions, they led with them. But, you know, all those Chinese men carrying all the Westerners' supplies and setting up the camps weren’t really people).

One of the things I loved about this book is that it has everything: biography, zoology, travel and adventure, history, romance, psychology, cultural differences. Really, you name a field or genre that interests you, and it’s probably somewhere in this book, which is extraordinarily well-written. (Oh, yes, and the pictures of the pandas are wonderful. There’s one in particular I love in which the baby panda is posed such that he looks like nothing but one big, black and white, fuzzy head.) Croke could win some sort of painstaking research medal with all her fascinating details and 60 pages of endnotes.

Reading is an occupation that rarely fails to keep me constantly amazed by my own “uh-DUH-ness factor.” When I found this book on the sale shelf at Borders last Christmas (shopping for others, of course, and rewarding myself for doing so) and then chose to read it for the nonfiction challenge, I honestly didn’t expect to learn much about pandas. I thought it was really going to be a “tales-of-remarkable-women” type book, all biography and adventure with very little about the animal Ruth Harkness was pursuing, even though my love of pandas is what drew me to pick it up in the first place.

Well, of course there would have to be details about Pandas, especially with someone like Croke writing the book. Did you know that pandas' bodies are those of carnivores, built to eat meat (their teeth have evolved to better chew plants, but their stomachs have not evolved to be better-suited to eating plants rather than meat), and yet they’re herbivores who’ve managed to survive millions of years, while other species, seemingly better built for survival, have not (pp. 73-74)? This information set me off on a tangent, wondering if humans are headed in the direction of becoming herbivores one day, since many already are, and since we haven't been around as long as they have and thus haven't had as much time to evolve. My completely unscientific study of my own friends leads me to believe that some humans have already evolved to be able to live extremely healthy vegetarian lifestyles. I, on the other hand, having a voracious appetite that only seems to be appeased by daily doses of animal fat in my diet, would end up being like the poor panda, who has to spend almost all her time eating, were I to try to live off nothing more than bamboo.

(Okay, tangent over.) On some levels, this book was difficult for me to read. I loved Harkness and her spunk and spirit, as well as her sense of humor, which comes out in many wonderful quotes, well-chosen by Croke, mostly in the letters she wrote to her friend Hazel Perkins, but I was appalled by the panda carnage. Ruth eventually becomes someone who is appalled by it, too (my guess is that she was pretty appalled by it from the beginning), but I couldn’t understand how her companion Quentin Young (isn’t that a great name?) could help her nurse and care for Su-Lin, their first baby panda, grow so attached to this one, and still go out and shoot others. And, as noted earlier, my first reaction to their snatching the baby from the nest while the mother had most likely gone off on that arduous task to get those bamboo stalks she constantly needed in order to keep going and keep her baby alive, was to feel so sorry for the mother panda. Imagine going to work one day, thinking you’ve left your baby safe and sound, only to come back to find he’s been kidnapped by aliens.

To read this book is to realize what damage can be done in the name of science. Once this rare animal was “discovered” and the quest to learn more about it was embarked on by so many zoos, teams of adventurers and explorers contributed to the demise of the species (and I’m sure did irreparable damage to other plant and animal species in that remote region of the world). As much as I was rooting for Ruth (because she was much better than some of her rivals, many seeking their own fame and fortune through the misfortune of pandas), I found myself rooting for the pandas, hoping they’d all stay hidden, hoping the mothers could keep their babies safe. Harkness’s expeditions added to the problem of endangering the species, but she eventually recognized what she was doing. The ending is marvelous, and she definitely did her part to raise awareness in the public eye, both in China and the West, about the need to protect the giant panda.

One added bonus was reading this book so soon after reading M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. Fisher and Harkness were both independent American women, traveling during the same era. They were both wildly imaginative, determined characters who suffered from bouts of depression and who lost their husbands to untimely diseases and death. Fisher’s life continued, and I know (even though I haven’t yet read those books) that she went on to re-marry and have children. Harkness never re-married. Her pandas were her surrogate children. She died at the age of 47, shortly after one suicide attempt, in what may have been a successful second suicide attempt (no one knows for sure, just that it was some sort of alcohol poisoning).

Litlove asked me, as I complete this challenge, to think about perfect nonfiction reads and what makes them such. This one definitely fits that category, mainly for being so many different types of books rolled into one, while also being so readable. I would highly recommend it to anyone.


Rebecca H. said...

Many different books rolled into one -- that's a great definition of what makes a good nonfiction read (one type of good nonfiction read -- I don't need them all that way). It reminds me of Rory Stewart's book and Geoff Dyer's Yoga book -- and Rebecca Solnit's book on walking, I could go on ...

IM said...

This sounds like a really good book and it sounds like you enjoyed it a great deal. It also seems like you haven't lost your love for pandas.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, yes, you're right "one type of good nonfiction read." Many good nonfiction reads don't fit into this category.

Ian, yes, I still love pandas, but luckily, am no longer dragging the whole family back and forth to the panda exhibit in the London zoo to check and see if the panda has woken up yet. And I think you might like this book.

Anonymous said...

But you still have your panda bear, don't you? Very much faded and mended many times? I'd be heartbroken if you didn't. Okay, well not heartbroken, but definitely sad.

Emily Barton said...

Linser, no need to worry. Yes, I definitely still have him (but he, alas, no longer shares my bed with me).

Froshty said...

Of course she still has her panda. She still has the frog we bought her at Woolworth's at Thruway when she was 5 or 6. Of course, I still have the white china cat I bought that same day and "Beth," my Madame Alexander baby doll.