Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Alison Richard's "The Sloth Lemur's Song"

Alison Richard is the Crosby Professor of the Human Environment emerita and senior research scientist at Yale University. She previously served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and in 2010, she was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her services to higher education.

Richard applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present, and reported the following:
From page 99:
…Thud went our feet, and sweat dripped off my chin. Then a crackle mixed with the thud, and I felt a whisper of dry wind. Ten more footsteps and we reached the top of the pass. The litter crackled noisily, a warm dry wind blew away sweat, and westward, down from the pass, a sunlit vista of silvery dry forest opened up. The climate and rainforest of the east had vanished behind us.

Where and when did the plants originate that compose today’s grand diversity of vegetation? Almost a century ago, Henri Perrier de la Bâthie pointed out how closely many of Madagascar’s plants resemble species found elsewhere and, based on these resemblances, he assigned them to groups according to their likely land of origin. These origins, he proposed, included not only nearby Africa and islands in the West Indian Ocean but also places much further away. Plants do not walk but, if he was right, they certainly move around a lot. The evidence was limited, however, and the matter remained one of intense speculation.

With acceptance of continental drift as a feature of Earth history, two possible explanations emerged for similarities between plants on the island and in different regions. One was that Madagascar was a kind of crossroads in Gondwana that incorporated species from all the lands around it. The other was that plants mostly made their way to Madagascar by sea or air after it became an island. But there was no way of knowing which or what combination of these scenarios best represented what actually happened.

Molecular and morphological approaches used today in tandem show that Perrier de la Bâthie’s conclusions, reached from morphology alone, turn out to be largely correct…
Would browsers opening The Sloth Lemur's Song to page 99 of get a good idea of the whole work?

Yes and no! On the ‘yes’ side: I frequently use my own experiences to illustrate general points – in this instance, the abruptness with which climate and vegetation sometimes change across this continent-like island. A second ‘yes’: the book recounts Madagascar’s long journey through space and time to the present, transformations in climate, vegetation and wildlife along the way, and how they happened – in this instance, how the island’s vegetation came to be. On the ‘no’ side, page 99 gives no hint that the book includes the origins of the Malagasy people, the voyages entailed in reaching the island, the timing of their arrival, and their subsequent environmental impact. A second ‘no’: reading page 99 made me smile, because elsewhere I emphasize Perrier de la Bâthie’s deep prejudices (glad I gave him his scientific due here!).

I enjoyed this test. I like my page 99 (she says shamelessly), but the test made me reflect anew on my ambitions for the whole book. A major thread, deeply important to me, is missing from page 99. It comes from the idea that we are a species of storytellers, and the first and last chapters reflect on the power of stories to shape, and distort, how we see and interpret the world. Perrier de la Bâthie’s century-old account of Madagascar is effectively a story of Paradise Lost, using evidence that is flawed at best and plain wrong at worst. Yet it still dominates public perceptions of Madagascar. I set out to tell a new and different story. But however well (or not) I have done that in scientific terms, it is only one way of conjuring the land and its history. Landscapes are culturally meaningful as well as subjects for scientific study and a tapestry of stories, not just one - even mine! – will have the best chance of sustaining Madagascar’s people and environments into the future.
Learn more about The Sloth Lemur’s Song at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue