On the Wonder of Nature

Last night I watched the first episode in a 3 part series about  naturalists.  Yeah, I know that sounds as exciting as watching paint dry. But in fact, it was an extraordinary hour of television  – a story of heroism, wonder, beauty and amazing, adorable people.

The series is called Land of the Lost Volcano; you can watch episode 1 on iPlayer here, and watch the next episodes on BBC1 at 9pm for the next two Tuesdays.   It’s a filmed account of an expedition to Papua New Guinea which has been heavily covered in the press, actually getting to the front page of several broadsheets – because these scientists have actually discovered a ‘Lost World’, never before visited by humans, in which there are literally scores of new species, including fanged frogs, woolly rats, hairy caterpillars (VERY hairy) and  huge stick insects. It’s not exactly on a par with Conan Doyle’s Lost World – where the dinosaurs still roamed.  But it’s a still an astonishing discovery in this internet age.

And, as well as fascinating and beguiling me, this programme shattered forever my long held conviction that male scientists are all nerdy boffins in specs.  (If I were a scientist – that’s the kind of scientist I would be!)  But all of the guys on this New Guinea expedition are fit and charismatic and competent, and a couple are out and out hunks, with bulging biceps and triceps and rippling six-packs.  (For the female viewer, this show is better than Smallville, in terms of guys getting their shirts off).  The female scientists also looked highly dashing and attractive, I should note, and, indeed, did note.  And the camaraderie and excitement amongst the members of this expedition was utterly exhilarating to witness, and share in.

One guy – wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan – spent hours trapped in a hot hide with flies and bees dancing on his face, bored to tears but forced to keep concentrating, for a brief glimpse of a pygmy parrot.  (Two of them eventually appeared, tiny and colourful and very much in love.)  And in this episode, we saw Steve – a climber as well as a naturalist, as he left the main expedition to join a group of climbers on a nearby island.  Their job was to search inside a vast cave network under the lush tree-covered mountains for new species. And to do that – they had a climb a sheer rock face in order to clamber into a cave next to a vast waterfall. And once inside, they clambered through narrow tunnels,  soaked by the torrents running through, until Steve eventually free-climbed up ANOTHER sheer rock face next to a torrent of water in order to secure the ropes that would allow the rest of the climbers to (rather more safely) join him.

This was a cave! It was dark! Wet!  Steve had no rope – there was a rope, left by a previous expedition, but he disdained this as ‘not safe’.  The water was pounding down on his body as he climbed. The rock kept breaking away in his fingers. But he did it anyway, with delightful gusto and a complete absence of fear.  This is not science as I used to know it – observing whether the precipitation was observed, pounding dots on the body of an ameoba with a pencil, or dissecting a dead rat. Instead, this was the sort of science that Indiana Jones would call science; science for heroes.

In another scene, a deadly snake was picked up by a scientist who peered at its markings to decide which particular species of deadly snake it might be.  For pete’s sake – it’s a deadly snake! Throw it away!  Hit it with a brick! But no, with a whoop of joy, the scientist allowed the scary but beautiful creature to run loose into the wild again. Because this is not a hunting expedition, or a capturing-animals expedition - it’s a study of nature.  Each creature that is caught by the team (for they do use trap cages) is lovingly measured and recorded, then returned safely to its home, sometimes after being given a stroke, or a hug, or even a kiss. (The head of the expedition, Dr George McGavin, actually kissed a beetle.)

The infectious enthusiasm of these glorious pioneers is a joy.  And their zeal has an agenda – the loggers are already cutting down large swathes of rainforest on this island, and one of the aims of the expedition is to prove that this is a rich habitat full of creatures new to science which absolutely HAS to be conserved, and treasured.

Episode 1 mainly shows the team in the foothills of the extinct volcano Mount Bosavi; in later episodes they descend into the volcano itself – now a vast concave jungle.  And it’s the volcano that is the real ‘Lost World’ – it’s not accessible to climbers, and no natives have ever travelled to this legendary place.  The only way to get there is by helicopter, which is what our guys and gals will do next ep. 

I have a particular fascination in this programma, and this subject, because one of the major themes of my new novel Red Claw is the joy of discovering new species.  It’s an action thriller, I should stress - there’s a bad guy – there are frequent shoot-em-up action sequences – lots of people and robots die violent deaths – but at heart it’s a love song to Nature.  A group of xeno-biologists on an alien planet (which I call New Amazon) are tasked with recording and cataloguing all the alien species – from the vast monstrous dinosaur-like Godzillas to the tiny insects known as Six-Heads (which build huge walls out of their own excrement.)  All the scientists are obsessive, and filled with a passion and zeal for their work that consumes their every waking hour.  They may be the stooges of an evil empire (okay, okay, I mustn’t give away too much story here) but first and last they are scientists.

Much of my research for the book consisted of reading books written by naturalists and explorers who in the 19th century ventured into Africa and South America where they discovered – on a daily basis – new species of animals.  I’ve always felt that the exhilaration of that moment must be unsurpasssable – to be the first person ever to see this species of animal!  And I wanted to replicate that joy in a science fictional setting – for every time humans land on an alien planet, there will be so much wildlife, all of it unknown to man.

But the members of the expedition in Papua New Guinea are having this same experience, right now, on a planet which is still rich in undiscovered and unknown new creatures.

I’m tempted to join them. And if only I weren’t afraid of snakes, unable to fly a helicopter, incompetent at climbing sheer rock cliffs, susceptible to nasty rashes in bad weather, allergic to mosquitos and fly-bites,  appallingly bad at getting up in the morning, and sadly deficient in six-pack, then trust me – I would be there now!

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