Antipode

Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar

by Heather E. Heying

One of the first travels I took with my husband was to Madagascar. I still can hardly believe I went there! It was incredible and beautiful, but also a bit rough, and plenty frustrating. So I was instantly curious about this book when I found it at a library sale- how much would I find familiar, from my limited exposure? It’s about a young scientist’s work in the field, studying a rare species of poisonous frog. A bit disappointingly, not much in the book is actually about the frogs. They’re very small, difficult to find- even when she’s located a population, simply finding the individuals each day to observe is a trial. Much of the book is about the struggles. How difficult it is to simply get to the island in the first place. The impossibility of bringing all the right equipment, finding or making do or improvising once in the field (because most things are just not available). Dealing with rough living quarters, lack of variety in the food, suffocating heat and pervasive mold, illness, heavy weather, falling trees, and so on. (But there’s no poisonous snakes to worry about!) Everything seems to be hard to manage, from transportation to acquiring permits, to finding people to help with the work, to facing locals who can’t understand what she’s doing there, stare and point just because she’s foreign, steal her belongings because she has so much and they so little, and conservation workers on the island who don’t do anything to actually protect it. Of course, there’s also writing about all the amazing things about being there, and the discoveries she made, that made it all worth it. The gorgeous sky. The unique wildlife. The friendly, generous and overall helpful people she did meet, some who became partners in her research, as she taught them the skills. How her sense of time, urgency and pressure changed during her stay, until she came to fall in line with the Malagasy attitude of patiently waiting, when things did not occur as expected or scheduled. What happens, will happen, because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, seemed to be the prevailing mindset.

The last chapter does have more details about the actual frog study- this species was remarkable for being somewhat social, the males vying for small territories, not just breeding rights- and exhibiting some parental care. I would, as usual, liked to have read more about the animal behavior, but all the details of her trials and frustrations, her discoveries with the culture and what it was like to live in a place so very far away and lacking many conveniences and comforts we just take for granted, was plenty interesting in and of itself. One thing that stood out to me was how hard she found it to simply mark the individual frogs for identification. Apparently it’s common practice for field biologists to tag frogs by cutting off certain toes! She didn’t want to do that and tried other methods- including tying decorated waistbands around them, or sewing colored beads onto their skin, but finally (near the end of the book) found a way to tattoo the little amphibians.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 2002

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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