Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist. Daniel B. Botkin. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2003. 272 pp. $24.95 (ISBN 1585422630 paper).
Most “good” science revolves around seeking answers to what so often appear to be fairly basic questions. Scientists are driven by the very questions that inspire their work, yet the answers lead more often to further questions than to satisfaction of the investigator's curiosity. Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist recounts the experiences of Daniel Botkin, a research scientist at the University of California in Santa Barbara and president of the Center for the Study of the Environment. In this delightful book, Botkin takes the reader on a journey through the elaborate process of discovery, drawing on nearly 30 years of fieldwork around the world.
Unlike many other tales spun by “renegade” naturalists, Strange Encounters is a down-to-earth and readable account of the author's lessons learned, from the dawn of modern ecology to the present. It takes readers from the precomputer era to the age of supercomputers, and from radioactive forests in Long Island to the heart of the Amazon Basin. Along the way, Botkin stops to reminisce and ruminate on a few pressing questions, which become the focus of the book. Each chapter presents a separate story with its own lessons, some of which change and some of which are developed further as the book progresses. The presentation of the story line resembles that of a fable: Each chapter carries a small message that can be applied to issues well beyond the scope of the story.
The sequence of the book is roughly chronological, beginning with the dawn of the new field of ecology (with some detail as to how people actually got along without computers). After briefly reflecting on how to arrive at a fair market value for a whorehouse in the wilderness of Idaho, Botkin begins his story in the radioactive forest of Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York. “This was my introduction to the world of post-Sputnik, highly funded, high-technology scientific research,” Botkin recalls. This later becomes a theme that informs the rest of the book. Another theme emerges while the author is repairing an old mill in New England, one that will be traced through nearly each chapter: old versus new. The author refers repeatedly to his awe of technological advances, and to the disparity between the functional beauty of 19th-century technology and the glamour of 20th-century technology.
The beauty of Strange Encounters lies in the simplicity and readability of the text. The content will be comprehensible to most readers and does not require a scientific background. Each chapter presents small lessons in physics, geology, and natural history, and each landscape is depicted in simple and definable terms. The would-be adventure stories of Africa, Amazonia, Costa Rica, and other locations around the planet will appeal to readers who are inquisitive but have little interest in travel guides. That is, the adventure lies more in the science lessons and take-away messages than in the author's journeys. In fact, the chapter entitled “Lost in an African Wilderness” has more to do with New England than it does the Serengeti, yet, as in most of the chapters, the take-home message is universal. In some cases, however, it seems as though content and story line are lost to plugs for physics and efforts to tie in each chapter with the sometimes-redundant underlying themes that trace and bind the stories into a more or less cohesive structure.
The morals of the stories—the lessons—are an essential element of the book, but at times those lessons overwhelm the plot. The story line of the book is at times confusing, and the facts and details often seem dilute and overly simplistic. I was often left craving more detail, more substance. I wanted to know what the author was thinking and feeling more than I wanted to know why, for example, “the search for the amazing triple-canopy rain forest” (in the chapter with that title) is about how policy and myth often conflict with each other. Having had some experience in the rain-forest canopy, I had hoped for more of the details that make this three-dimensional realm so fascinating; I found instead an unresolved search for definition.
On the other hand, I was delighted to find the answers to some of science's more elusive questions: How many leaves are on a tree? Is it okay to let your dog drink from the toilet? In addition, readers will be delighted to learn of attempts to answer other intriguing riddles, such as how many hours a whale sleeps, how much food an elephant eats, and how many bowhead whales ever lived on Earth. Each of these seemingly basic questions is its own chapter and, as one might expect, each tells the tale of how an inquisitive naturalist went about answering it—or failing to answer it. Each question also offers insight as to why anyone would care, and shows that the answers are seldom what one would expect.
Strange Encounters will interest a broad audience with a diversity of backgrounds. One need not be a scientist to follow the content and glean lessons from Botkin's book; instead, readers are treated to a simplified account of how one scientist pursued his calling, from the cold war era to the computer revolution, and what he discovered in the process. Sometimes humorous, witty, and weird, the stories allow opportunities for one to learn and to become engaged in the trials and tribulations of a renegade scientist. This very readable book offers a comforting perspective through its numerous lessons taught along the way.