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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Book Review - NEW GUINEA, Nature and Culture of Earth's Grandest Island - Princeton University Press


     Once in a while a book comes along that really sets you back on your heels, and this is such a work. It is a formidable volume, by Bruce Beehler, a scientist who probably has greater familiarity with New Guinea than any other living academic, and forty plus years of knowledge and research are crystallized in this work.
     I think it is safe to say that most people have but a passing acquaintance with New Guinea, and even then only with that part of the island known as Papua New Guinea, and more specifically with its spectacular birds of paradise. This phenomenon has been fuelled by a succession of television documentaries, especially those by a renowned (and legendary) British naturalist, and additional coverage of birds of paradise in popular birding journals.
     There is a level of awareness that New Guinea suffers from a high rate of crime, often violent in nature, and that gang rivalry is an issue. Some even know that the peripatetic, fabled birder, Phoebe Snetsinger, was brutally raped there. Others have a passing knowledge of the early work by researchers such as Ernst Mayr, Jared Diamond and others; many will be familiar with the seminal, original insights of Alfred Russel Wallace. For most, these snippets of knowledge constitute but a meagre insight into the the nature of the island - as Beehler calls it, Earth's Grandest Island.
     Instead of referring to Papua, representing the Indonesian western part of the island and Papua New Guinea comprising the eastern half, Beehler uses the designations ENG (eastern New Guinea) and WNG (western New Guinea) throughout the book. This avoids any confusion brought about by incorrect usage of political terminology, which is rife, and the reader is at all times clear as to which zone the text refers. ENG has been far more widely explored due to the relative ease with which researchers may enter Papua New Guinea as contrasted with the difficulties encountered when seeking entry into WNG, beset by political barriers and mistrust of scientists and academics from the west.
     What Beehler has done with this book is to present a complete package involving all of the physical, faunal, floral, historical and cultural aspects of New Guinea. He starts with an excellent overview and then provides a detailed summary of the history of the island. In terms of history, I knew next to nothing, and I would be willing to wager that many others similarly lack such knowledge. Yet this is so critical a component to understanding modern conditions, political, societal, and environmental. 
     We then are treated to the hard science - geology, climatology, biogeography (so key on an island such as this), botany, invertebrate life, ichthyology (of this I knew literally nothing), herpetology, and ornithology, the largest single chapter, reflecting the fact that more study has been dedicated to birds than to any of the other organisms on New Guinea. The Pitohui, the first (and as yet the only) chemically-defended bird is found on New Guinea, and there is a fascinating account of how it was realized that the bird is poisonous.
     The section on mammalogy reveals that very few large mammals are ever encountered, even by scientists doing field work on other taxa, yet there is an incredible level of richness including monotremes, marsupials and placental mammals. Many fertile fields of research remain open for enterprising graduate students. 
     Sections on Paleontology and paleoanthropology follow, and coverage of the people of New Guinea is comprehensive and fascinating - so many tribes, so many languages.
     The coastal marine zone is important in the lives of many New Guineans and appropriate attention is paid to this critical ecosystem, replete with coral reefs, rich in diversity, but susceptible to destruction from coral bleaching.
     The chapter entitled  "In the Field" furnishes a fascinating insight into the conditions encountered by researchers. Field work on New Guinea is not for the faint of heart!
     Life in a traditional village is explored in some detail and the final chapter delves into what the future holds for this place of incredible riches, yet threatened nevertheless by the forces of globalization, unfettered capitalism, disdain for the environment, upheaval of ancestral life styles - all the familiar problems facing emerging nations around the world, and especially relevant to the future of indigenous peoples, and their languages and culture.
     I know of no other work covering New Guinea in anywhere near the detail provided by this book. It is impressive on so many levels, most of all because having read it one is left with a holistic view of "Earth's Grandest Island" and one is able to contextualize any field of research - social, scientific, biological or anthropological into the total context of 21st Century realities.
     Of one thing you can be sure, I will read it again!

New Guinea: Nature and Culture of the Earth's Grandest Island
Bruce M. Beehler, with photography by Tim Laman
Hardcover - US$29.95 - 9780691180304 - 376 pages - 152 colour photographs - 1 map - 9 1/4 in. x 11 in.
Publication date: 19 May 2020
     

    

43 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting and thoroughly researched book. My only contact with New Guinea was reading Margaret Mead's 'Growing up in New Guinea' that was one of the set books for my studies many years agao! Have a great day, stay safe, hugs, Valerie

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    1. I had forgotten that book by Margaret Mead. I will check and see whether it is in the references used.

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  2. Hello, it does sound like an interesting book. It is a shame such a wonderful place has so much crime. I am sure New Guinea would be an awesome place to see birds and the plant life.
    Thanks for sharing the book and review. Take care, have a happy day!

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    1. It is probably not any worse that in major US cities, and so far there have been no mass shootings,

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  3. And interesting book with a great variety of subjects about New Guinea.

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  4. Il doit y avoir de très belles photos!Un livre qui semble bien sympa!
    Bonne soirée

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    1. C'est vraiement formidable! Un oeuvre magnifique!

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  5. Buenas noches amigo David, hoy nos presentas un gran libro de unas islas maravillosas para visitar que de seguro tendrían mucha mayor afluencia si se dieran unas buenas condiciones de seguridad.
    El libro, por tu análisis y comentario amigo David debe ser uno libro extraordinario para cualquier amante de aves, como para cualquier persona que quiera tener otros conocimientos muchos más amplio de esas hermosas y paradisíacas islas.
    Recibe un fuerte abrazo de tu amigo y compadre Juan y seguir con mucho cuidado.

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  6. Hi David,
    What a magnificent book to have to read at this moment in time and you can dream of visiting in the future and my what a place to visit.
    You both keep safe,
    My best wishes
    John

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  7. It looks like an intresting book, David. I agree with Eileen, it's a shame that's so much crime there. It looks like a paradise there when you see it on tv.
    How many books do you have? :)

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    1. Ornithology - around six hundred; other aspects of natural history including geology and earth science - around three hundred - novels, poetry, essays, political science, commentary - around five hundred. a modest collection!

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  8. This book sounds like a rich and compelling treasure trove. Many, many thanks. I read a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger years ago. Yes, she was raped, but it didn't even slow her down. That was on determined (and possibly obsessed) woman.

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    1. Oh she was obsessed for sure. She didn't even return for one of her kid's weddings,

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    2. I kinw. I remember reading that and feeling for her daughter. All of their lives had to be squeezed in around her birding.

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  9. Great review of a fascinating book!
    From the little I know about New Guinea, I agree with your view that "Field work on New Guinea is not for the faint of heart!".

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  10. Oh, el Pithoui is poisonous, surprising! thanks for the interesting reading, i love birds. They are the glory of heaven.

    Best regards, que tengas un hermoso dia

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  11. Life is not easy there. A couple from our church 20 years ago were missionaries in Papua New Guinea. They were there for 5+ years. I do not know where they are, but they dedicated themselves to translating the Bible in a simple form.

    We are seeing lesser goldfinches and house finches at our plant feeder. Songbirds are amazing.

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    1. It would have been far better for Christian missionaries to have stayed home. There are many problems associated with their legacy. I guess we still have missionaries here in North America don't we? The Jehovah's Witnesses who knock on my door know that they have a better way for me, and of course it is self-evident that what they believe is right and what I believe (or don't believe) is wrong. Better they just mind their own business and leave me alone, which is what should have happened in New Guinea.

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  12. Sounds like a wonderful book to read.
    Colin who comments on my blog and a few others when the library is open worked in NG for several years.

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  13. Hi David - what a wonderful book ... with an excellent informative review by you. I'd never heard of Phoebe Snetsinger ... but was interested in EC's comment and knowledge about her - amazing lady. Then the Pitohui - an incredible bird ... and I certainly didn't know anything about the pitohui: really interesting about the poisonous aspect - albeit not the bird itself. Also the fact that ichthyology is studied ... I guess because New Guinea is part of the Sahul Shelf. I'd love to read it ... but thank you so much for this fascinating review ... all the best Hilary

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  14. I did not know that about Phoebe Snetsinger, how awful. The book sounds quite fascinating and not just from a bird point of view!

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    1. The bird section will knock your socks off, Pam, but from the first page to the last this book will grab your interest.

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  15. Many years ago I recall watching David Attenborough on his expedition through the unexplored forests of Papua New Guinea to discover an uncontacted tribe. I found it particularly exciting to see the great variety of bird life there, especially the birds of paradise and their remarkable courtship dances.
    It is a place I that I will never visit, I have decided that long haul travel is no longer something that I should have on my agenda, so this book would be a happy compromise.

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    1. I have seen that old documentary in black-and-white too, Rosemary. Fascinating stuff. What a life that man has lived. If there was one person on Earth I could have lunch with, it would be him.

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  16. That seems an awful lot of information to cram into under 400 pages and for such a reasonable price; I see lots of wonderful books whose price puts them out of the reach of many. I read a book about mountaineering on the island many years ago, though I can't remember the title and can't find it on my shelves. I looked online too, but all I discovered is that it's another place written about by Isabella Tree!

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  17. Sound like a good book to read!

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    1. Even for those who will never visit New Guinea I recommend it!

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  18. Buen libro y muy Interesante la descripción que haces.
    Cuidaros David.
    Desde casa os mando este abrazo 🙅

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  19. I know nothing of New Guinea but that would be the book for a naturalist, indeed, anyone seeking out flora or fauna, to be familiar with. I love the bird on the cover. What a wonderfully written review, David.

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    1. Thank you, Jeanie. As you might gather I liked this book!

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  20. New Guinea, and nature that is most wonderful. The Dutch who colonised Indonesia and New Guinea made a mess of it. Bringing back the wings of the birds making believe that these were from birds without legs. Woman had to have those feathers on their hats etc. We westerns brought desease to the local people. Used them and they are still miss used now by the covernment of Indonesia. It is a wonder there are stil birds to be seen. Oh my me again depressing words. Sorry David. Must be the Corona.
    Regards,
    Roos

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  21. Parece un libro muy interesante, una manera de aprender de la flora y fauna de Nueva Guinea.
    Muchos besos!

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  22. Fieldwork, even if difficult, makes the characters stronger.
    ps - the man in the water fishes with an improvised and forbidden net.

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  23. A look at this new book, it's perfect, the cover is a wonder.

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  24. Para conocer bien un país, hay que viajar hacia él o documentarse con unos buenos libros, como este que has leído .

    Besos

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  25. Beautiful cover of the book!I should like to read it.Thanx for sharing!

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  26. The birds of New Guinea have always fascinated me. This sounds like a comprehensive review of the nature in a unique place. I can certainly understand that you might want to read it again.

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  27. Me parece muy interesante, me encantaría tenerlo. Nos encantan las aves del paraíso. Abrazos y salud.

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  28. Hello David,
    I have never been in NEW GUINEA and probably never will :-) Very nice sat if you have plans to go there you can use this beautiful reference book very well. A very valuable asset for the birdwatcher.
    A big kiss from the Netherlands xo

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  29. Hola David, este libro parece muy interesante, un fuerte abrazo.

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