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Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo

Biography / Memoir

By: Kate Jackson

328 pages, colour plates, maps

Harvard University Press

Paperback | May 2010 | #184541 | ISBN-13: 9780674048423
Availability: Usually dispatched within 3 days Details
NHBS Price: £15.95 $21/€18 approx
Hardback | May 2008 | #173883 | ISBN-13: 9780674029743
Out of Print Details

About this book

In 2005, Kate Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. Her camping equipment was rudimentary, her knowledge of Congolese customs even more so. She knew how to string a net and set a pitfall trap, but she never imagined the physical and cultural difficulties that awaited her.

Culled from the mud-spattered pages of her journals, "Mean and Lowly Things" reads like a fast-paced adventure story. It is Jackson's unvarnished account of her research on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis - coping with interminable delays in obtaining permits, learning to outrun advancing army ants, subsisting on a diet of Spam and manioc, and ultimately falling in love with the strangely beautiful flooded forest.

The reptile fauna of the Republic of Congo was all but undescribed, and Jackson's mission was to carry out the most basic study of the amphibians and reptiles of the swamp forest: to create a simple list of the species that exist there - a crucial first step toward efforts to protect them. When the snakes evaded her carefully set traps, Jackson enlisted people from the villages to bring her specimens. She trained her guide to tag frogs and skinks and to fix them in formalin. As her expensive camera rusted and her Western soap melted, Jackson learned what it took to swim with the snakes - and that there's a right way and a wrong way to get a baby cobra out of a bottle.

It is always exciting to read about remote, natural places in the world and even more so when the story is told by a field researcher. In the tradition of Jane Goodall...Jackson has written a fascinating, adventure-filled memoir, describing how her love of snakes led her to become a herpetologist. She was eventually able to raise money for a survey of reptiles and amphibians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically in the flooded forest habitat around Lac Tele. Drawing from her journal entries, Jackson takes us through the planning, permits, and travel, as well as her actual time in the field catching animals. Jackson learns to work with her native field staff during her two collecting trips and shows appreciation for all the local people she meets and employs. -- Margaret Henderson Library Journal 20080315 Herpetologist Jackson is candid, funny, and precise as she chronicles her demanding and illuminating experiences collecting snakes, frogs, and toads in the flooded forests of the Congo... Sharply observant, considerate, and rough, Jackson is immensely entertaining in her exuberantly detailed descriptions of swarms of termites, ants, and mosquitoes; unpalatable food; and painfully rugged campsites. Add to that nearly surreal negotiations with officials, confounding relationships with guides and assistants, medical misadventures, and moments ludicrous and dramatic as she chases down poisonous snakes, handles animal remains, and snuggles to preserve and identify priceless specimens and forge cross-cultural scientific partnerships. Jackson is a dynamo, and her riveting, amusing, and revealing tales from the biodiversity front line awaken fresh appreciation for hands-on scientific inquiry and the wonders of nature. -- Donna Seaman Booklist 20080415 In our age of Google Maps, it's comforting to learn that a few places remain relatively impenetrable to the outside world. Nowhere is this more true than the Congo, which has long held a fascination for explorers and scientists and continues to guard its secrets...Descriptions of ant invasions, maggots under the skin, sleepless nights, bad food and even the odd venomous snake bite all keep the pages turning. Against the odds, Jackson's efforts in the Congo eventually pay off--not only does she discover a new species, she also finds romance. This intriguing blend of science and human interest, related in a matter-of-fact style, brings to life a little-known part of the world. -- Dan Eatherley BBC Wildlife 20080701 This book will serve as an inspiration to future field biologists. It is also an exciting adventure story for those who would rather avoid the ants, termites, wasps, and the fly maggots that burrow into the biologists' skin and grow larger there. -- M. P. Gustafson Choice 20080901 Fieldwork is very important but unsung. Jackson deserves respect for her drive, ability to organize and manage her fieldwork alone, train local students, and to learn the local language without losing sight of the scientific aims...She is refreshingly honest about the failures, mistakes and difficulties of her fieldwork as well as the successes...Mean and Lowly Things is full of incident and cultural as well as scientific insight that should carry non-scientific readers right to the end. -- David J. Gower Times Literary Supplement 20081212 As a travel book, Kate Jackson's account of snake collecting in the tropics is both humorous and dramatic...As an account of biological fieldwork under trying conditions, however, Jackson's book is both elegant and appealing...There are probably only a few specialists who can fully appreciate the professional journal articles on the biodiversity of the Congo forest that resulted from Jackson's expeditions. And only a few adventurous readers may share her "irrational longing to return" to the Lac Tele forest, which, judging from her online blog, she did in the summer of 2008. But we can all hope that she will continue writing, and that we won't have to wait too long for the next installment of Kate Jackson's Excellent Adventures, wherever they may lead. -- Laurence A. Marschall Natural History 20081101


* Prologue * How It All Started * Back to the Congo * In Limbo * The Flooded Forest * Neighbors, Nets, and Nothing * The Red Snake * A Bottle of Snakes * A Day of Monsters * Time to Go * Red Tape Revisited * Planning My Return * Back to the Likouala * This Is Impongui * Snake Medicine * Making Herpetologists * The Home Stretch * A Stressful Day * Kende Malamu * Epilogue * Acknowledgments * Index

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Kate Jackson is Assistant Professor of Biology at Whitman College.

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