David Quammen, “The Song Of The Dodo” (1996, 1997) & Leslie Stein, “Bright-Eyed At Midnight” (2015)

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Amongst many things, The Song Of The Dodo is about a history of a scientific idea, its extrapolation, and its many permutations. The reason why the first section of the book (and, rather subtly, the later sections) focuses so heavily on Alfred Wallace is not just because Quammen feels he has been duly undervalued as one of the founders of evolutionary biology (at least compared to Darwin), but also because the evidence and experiences he alone had provide the basis for pretty much everything in biogeography. He investigated different island environments (and comparable continental ecosystems), and sought to answer how place changes different aspects of species – and following his ideas was a calvalcade of other scientists, in both field biology and statistics, who took them further and further, finding how consistent the “rules” of biogeography were, and that they could be applied even more broadly. Island biogeography isn’t just AN important idea, but one of THE most important ideas in modern evolutionary biology, helping illuminate the core phenomenon of organisms: evolution and extinction.

Of course, it’s the latter of those two that gets the bulk of the focus in the book, being the major biological issue of our times (even as far back as 1996!) As one would expect, humans have played a major part in the mass extinction of island species (just look at the titular animal), but what’s more interesting is what Quammen learns about the specificity of island extinction, and how isolation directly affects such things. Take the concept of ecological naivete, where particular animals have lived without natural predators (increasingly remote islands often leading to lower populations of carnivorous species who have greater needs) for so long that they are seemingly unable to identify anything as a threat – this was observed by Wallace and Darwin in their time, and Quammen finds it still among the birds and tortoises. Combine that with the smaller living space leading to smaller populations – even a stable island population might be considerably rarer than most mainland species – and it becomes painfully clear how even one change, especially the introduction of human or non-human hunters, can easily devastate island species.

But even so, there’s a surprising resilience in island species, and the information to replenish population numbers when some are eliminated is one of the most important aspects of their study – the destruction of Krakatoa and its reformation as Anak Krakatau providing a perfect example of how an island is repopulated. That an island can be reclaimed by various species so relatively quickly is why, as Quammen explains at the end of the book, the loss of species (usually balanced by gains through speciation) is growing at an alarming rate – through the microcosm of islands, we have become aware that (as is still being written about today) we are in a period of mass extinction, related to a number of changes mostly brought about by us. The latter parts of the book move into explaining this, and applying island concepts to mainland (especially in the area of conservation, where isolated ecosystems, separated by open land, are treated almost exactly the same way as islands) – the transition very subtle, though set-up by Quammen in the first section especially. This was not just about island biogeography; or, more accurately, island biogeography was never just about islands – its a field that has vitally important information for all of biology. Earth is, after all, just a series of islands of many different sizes.

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Although very different in format, Bright-Eyed At Midnight has many of the same qualities as Stein’s Eye Of The Majestic Creature comics: the way it portrays day-to-day living, drifting from events of varying significance, going back and forth in time. There are some things in the comics that seem like they’d be more important than others, like the bouts of insomnia early on or Stein quitting her job near the end, but the egalitarian outlook of the strips means that they become part of a broader context rather than as definitive events – all the things that are drawn here seem equally important to each other, even if they don’t obviously connect. The flow between the strips is less demarcated in the book than they there on the web – days seem subsumed by the cycle of events, which follows a very identifiable rhythm (see the number of pages that begin or end with her in bed, or drawing one the page that we are currently reading) – there are job stories, band stories, comics stories, ongoing internal monologues, bleeding into each other from page to page. The ritualistic/on-the-fly nature of the project kind of necessitates this – each page is a reaction to that specific day, and so the multitude of experiences constantly overlap each other, giving the book a natural non-progression.

There’s also a charming handmade quality to the comics here – again, being daily made Stein use an evolving minimalist style, but that allows her to experiment with her use of watercolours, collage, and text, giving each day a distinct feeling. The speed-and-ease-oriented drawings give the pages extra space and freedom for those elements to really shine through even more than in something like Eye of the Majestic Creature. Some pages, connected or disconnected from what came before them, become a splurge of scribbles, paint splotches, and disembodied forms – and some days, that is an exact representation of one’s outlook. Despite being originally posted online, every comic proudly wears its physicality, the use of whatever materials seemed to be nearby – the colours and layouts of the pages straddle the line between spur-of-the-moment and innately considered.

Which is probably the most interesting part of going through these strips again, in book form: being given the opportunity to see how those elements came together outside the scheduled production these comics had when they were being posted. They were not meant to be read together in this fashion when they were being produced (as we can tell just by seeing the context of Stein’s drawing in the comics themselves), but they (maybe only sort of) accidentally feel part of a continuum. That was probably one of the aims when compiling the strips, but it manages to do that without compromising the original aims of the daily comics.

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