November 7, 2011 | 4
Piotr Naskrecki’s new book Relics is not easy to read. Physically, I mean.
I have wanted to review this book for some time. After all, Piotr Naskrecki is a leading conservation photographer & katydid biologist, and I loved Naskrecki’s last book The Smaller Majority.
But I had to concentrate hard to stay focused on the text. The trouble is Relics comprises page after page of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular nature photography you’ve ever seen. No matter how compelling Naskrecki’s prose, no matter how insightful his observations or unexpectedly charming his facts, his words reluctantly share pages with his starkly beautiful images of life with all its teeth and colors and scales and spiny legs. Spiders that look like floppy muppets. Crickets with edible wings. Expectant frog fathers. Killer katydids. Oh, and something called a “Dinospider”. Yeah.
Eventually I gave up on reading cover to cover. Forgetting the text, I decided instead to gape at the pictures until the wow factor wore off.
Boring myself with Naskrecki’s images took longer than expected, but when I finally did get around to giving the text a sober read, what emerges is forlorn frustration.
The modern naturalist inhabits a dying planet. Forests dwindle, grasslands are plowed under, beaches are coated in concrete. The world that was here before us is cut into fragments and strangled. For people like Naskrecki, being a naturalist is like being an art historian in a world where a major art museum burns to the ground every year. Environmental destruction is emotionally devastating for those who find wonder in living things, and even though Naskrecki tries to find an uplifting tale here or there- a small population of tuataras is reintroduced to an old haunt in New Zealand, for example- it’s hard to escape the obvious. The magical world of floppy muppet spiders is doomed.
Relics is structured around an odd topic for a professional biologist. The book centers on a selection of so-called “living fossils”- organisms that are little-changed from ancient times, or are perched on a lonely evolutionary branch, or some combination of the two. Some chapters cover particular species (like tuataras, horseshoe crabs, and cycads), others cover entire habitats (like the Guiana Shield or the South African Fynbos). But living fossils are a tricky topic philosophically. None of the organisms are the same species as their ancient counterparts. They are only similar, in some ways. What about a group like cycads that looks like extinct species but actually contains many recent radiations? What about ones whose DNA is a radical divergence, but the morphology remains trapped in time? Why does stasis in some traits, but not others, lead us to call these organisms ancient? These are ill-defined concepts, but ones that persist because something about perceived antiquity resonates with human imagination.
The trouble with living fossils is exactly that tension: because living fossils fire our imagination, they are also partly a product of our imagination. We see in them what we want to see, rather than what they actually are, and the stories we tell ourselves becomes them. To his credit, Naskrecki devotes several pages grappling with this problem. I suppose he is as successful as anyone might be. Mostly, the relic theme serves as a thread to bind together disparate stories about strange, poorly known, or endangered places. And really, what do I care about philosophical consistency if Naskrecki’s penchant for living fossils results in renewed conservation efforts, however meager?
The bottom line, though, is that Relics is beautiful. You’ll love it even if you never read a word.