Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo
by Kate Jackson
Reviewed by Doug Brown
When Kate Jackson set out from Toronto to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles in the Republic of Congo, she didn't know what she was in for. Red tape, local guides who knew less about the local snakes than she did, ants, termites, and a local graduate student in herpetology who had a fear of live reptiles and amphibians -- this list goes on. Mean and Lowly Things is her account of two separate month-long expeditions to a flooded forest area of the Congo, collecting critters for the Smithsonian's collection. The title is from Aristotle, and is the book's epigraph: "To understand the world, we must understand mean and lowly things."
For her first expedition, Jackson intended to work in a field station in a national park. She already had the permits for collecting in the country, she just needed one more permit for collecting in the park. After a week spent being told the permit would be ready "tomorrow," she had to change plans and camp outside the park. This involved buying camping gear in a local market, haggling with the local chief, and eventually having to buy pretty much every specimen that was brought to her from the locals.
For the second expedition she was more prepared. Back home in Canada, she had learned some Lingala (the local language) so that she could understand conversations happening around her. The second expedition was to a different area, though, so new contacts had to be made. She was to be accompanied by two Congolese graduate students, but it turned out they had very little knowledge of biology -- and one of them, a girl, would scream stereotypically whenever a live reptile or amphibian was in sight. She was fine with keying out dead specimens, but refused to touch a live one. Negotiations with the local notable went better this time, so Jackson ended up not paying for most specimens the locals caught. Still, life was far from a pleasant vacation. Here's an account from near the end of the expedition of trying to prepare collected specimens one evening:
Around 6:00 p.m. is the worst time of day, the time of trade-off between heat and mosquitoes, but we have a lot of specimens still to prepare and they can't wait for tomorrow morning. My long-sleeved jacket is stifling and does nothing to protect me from the swarm of mosquitoes whining around my head. Squinting through the first of the muddy plastic bags by the light of my headlamp and a candle melted to the corner of the table, I see what appear to be three dead Trachylepis lizards and a squashed Ptychadena. But when I open the bag two lizards leap out. The first, a Trachylepis, lands on the ground and is gone in an instant. The other, a gecko, lands on the sheet covering the open end of the house and with a quick grab I have it again. I check the bag again to make sure the rest of the contents is really dead. Left hand occupied by the gecko, I manipulate the syringe of procaine one-handed, with the result that I stab myself with the needle. Blood drips all over the place, making everything slippery. The gecko bites me. A mosquito is stinging my neck, but I don't have a free hand to swat it. Then a moth flies into the candle flame and snuffs it out.
Ah, life in the field. Don't be put off by the use of scientific names. By this point in the book these names are familiar characters (Ptychadena is a frog). If you can follow the names of characters in a Russian novel, you can follow the names of a few lizards and snakes. There are color plates of all the local herps in the middle of the book if you ever need a refresher. Jackson has nicely captured the chaos and excitement of field biology. Just when the universe seems to be conspiring against you, you find or see something wonderful that reminds you why you're out there. Life wasn't nearly this hard when I was radiotracking rattlesnakes in Wyoming -- at least we had a trailer out in the middle of nowhere, and we could drive in to Rawlins if we needed supplies. Jackson had to buy what she thought she would need at the beginning of the trip, and hope for the best. Mean and Lowly Things covers what it is like to plan, set up, and carry out a collecting trip to Africa, as well as what it is like for a white woman to be in Africa. This isn't just a herp book, it is a good account of the unromanticized reality of doing field science. Think you've got a hard job? Read Mean and Lowly Things.