West End’s Avid Reader is an exceptional bookshop; cosy, well stocked and staffed by people who care about reading. The shop holds regular literary events and, on Friday May 3, it hosted Dr Glen Chilton, a Canadian-Australian ornithologist and behavioural ecologist, who spoke about his recently published: The Last Place You’d Look for a Wallaby. Interviewed by Radio National’s Paul Barclay, Chilton was contagiously passionate and hypnotically articulate in that confident North American manner.The Last Place You'd Look for a Wallaby

Packed between bookshelves, the fifteen or so attendees – a mix of biology fans and book fans – were captivated by the evening’s conversation. Chilton, led by Barclay, recounted a series of tales, equally funny and fascinating, about his international adventures in pursuit of non-native species. The book aims for a genteel combination of humorous observation, historical exposition, exploratory travel and elucidatory science. The premise is a search for fourteen introduced species across fourteen countries divided into as many chapters, linked by the author’s expert knowledge, curiosity and joviality.

From Addis Ababa to Reykjavík to New Orleans, every expedition is treated as an opportunity to discover as much as possible about the city and its people. The book sits somewhere between accessible science and travel writing, not wholly one or the other. Bad restaurants, good beer and strange locals are described; most of the book is occupied with the joys and frustrations of the journey rather than the destination.

However, the hunt for scientific knowledge is at the book’s core. On arrival in Hawaii, searching for the nefarious banana poka vine, Chilton is bitten by a mosquito, so he dedicates a paragraph to the species and how it made the journey from Mexico in 1826. There are many such digressions and they comprise the book’s most fulfilling passages. Chilton’s great strengths are his ability to explain why the science matters, and communicating his limitless enthusiasm.

The presence of an introduced species is nearly always inextricably related to humanity’s well-meaning bumbling. The animal stories, therefore, again and again become human stories, and Chilton scatters these skillfully throughout the narrative. The implications of biology open up discussion of history, psychology and geography.

Fortunately, Chilton avoids buying into the trend of personality-focused books and documentaries that turn the presenter into a performing brand and artificially dramatise their subject. This is admirable, as those books sell but, in confusing the romance of individual adventure with the romance of scientific discovery, the science is diminished. While Chilton flirts with this variety of entertainment, frequent good-humoured self-deprecation and thorough knowledge ensure that the narrative largely sticks to the topic at hand, rather than foregrounding the author’s quirks. Most importantly, when it comes to the biology, Chilton knows what’s interesting and how to impart it, never getting tangled in confusing minutiae.

Writers like Konrad Lorenz, Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Bill Bryson became widely loved for approaching scientific or academic subjects with wit and candour, removing the perceived pretentions around a field to reveal the captivating bits. While Chilton broadly fits this mould, he doesn’t have the sharp brilliance of those listed. The book is fun, informative and funny, but lacks any great incisiveness.

The prose is conversational; consequently, passages are sometimes more awkward than accessible. Generally, the affable style is pleasantly readable but many of the stray remarks exclusively serve the style, and casual threads are often quickly abandoned, leaving the reader wondering why a topic was even brought up. The Last Place You’d Look for a Wallaby is best when dealing with its central questions: emphasising how wonderfully weird it is that wallabies persist on a small, wet Scottish Island or tracking the rise and fall of Vancouver’s Crested Myna.

After the event, Glen Chilton was kind enough to sign my copy of the book. Whenever in line for a signing, I dwell on the one or two sentences I’ll exchange with the author or musician or personality whose signature I’m after. I think about the praise they must usually hear or the self-serving, unwanted questions. I try to be original and memorable, while aware of the minimal importance the moment holds for the signer. This time, I made a fairly poor effort.

“I think it’s admirable to write about science in a compelling way,” I said, dully.

“I do it because it’s fun,” he replied.

Well of course he does.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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