Feeling Pretty Raw About My Own Species: Douglas Adams and "Last Chance to See"

03/10/2016

 

Like me, you may occasionally find yourself feeling a particular kind of listless ennui. A feeling of loss you can’t quite pin down. And then you realise what you’re missing: Douglas Adams. You miss Douglas Adams.

 

Whether or not you are already a fan of the lamentably late and much loved Douglas Adams, I implore you to reach for his 1989 book “Last Chance To See”. The book was originally written as a companion to the BBC radio programme (technically archived here – but be warned that the page is no longer updated and likely to be riddled with broken and non-functional links). Presented and written with zoologist Mark Carwardine, “Last Chance To See” follows the author in pursuit of animals on the verge of extinction: the Komodo dragon, the Kakapo, blind river dolphins, white rhinos, and rare birds living on Mauritius island.

 

 
 
 

The writing is the perfect combination of Adams’ humour and sharp insight into his surroundings – be they environmental, political, or social. Decades later, the text comes with the sharp sting of knowledge that some of the fights to save endangered species have been lost. Because of this, it is a call to arms that still resonates as new battles between poachers and sanctuaries continue every day.

 

For those who favour audiobooks (or who particularly miss Adams’ voice), a copy of the audio cassette (!) recording has been made available by a Youtube user.

 

In 2009, a new edition was released, to coincide with a new BBC TV series. In the absence of Adams, who died in 2001, Mark Carwardine paired up with Stephen Fry, to revisit the endangered species featured in the original book.

The "Last Chance to See" TV series is a good mix of knowledge (all of it Quite Interesting), exploration, and lunacy. It's not strictly a nature documentary in which people interact with fascinating natural creatures on the brink of extinction - it's primarily a documentary on what we intend to do about that brink. The people devoting their lives to these animals, and the methods which they employ, are just as central to this series as the (fantastic) creatures they work with. Since the animals are (or were) extremely endangered, many of the encounters are managed with the assistance of experts in the field - which stands to reason, since part of being endangered means being difficult to find in the wild. I also found it refreshing to see people embarking on these journeys who are not intimidatingly fit, and who do occasionally yearn for a hotel room.

 

The first episode does suffer from some choppy editing, which may give the sense of a lack of rapport, but it’s improved in the rest of the series: Mark Carwardine maintains his role of the very focused and quietly mad zoologist, and Stephen Fry is the one supplying all the metaphors and inexpert discovery. The two of them occasionally break out into infectious schoolboy giddiness. This series was originally planned by Carwardine and Adams. Fry, as a long-time friend of Douglas Adams, was asked to step in, so that the important promotion of this subject could carry on as Adams had hoped. Stephen Fry is no Douglas Adams, to be sure – but he does a fine job of playing himself. (In association with Adams’ work, it’s also fun to hear Fry’s narration, which immediately puts one in mind of his recent voicing of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself.) It’s worth noting the Carwardine and Fry have since done another "Last Chance To See" special together, and a programme about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Once you’ve read and watched everything this series has to offer, you might want to keep an eye on the blog “Another Chance To See”, which is dedicated to news updates about the species chosen for the spotlight.

 

You may also wish to set a little time aside for Adams' TED Talk, “Parrots, the Universe, and Everything”, recorded at the University of California shortly before his death.

 

Borrow “Last Chance To See” from the library and then, once you’ve been thoroughly convinced, buy a copy for yourself and for all your loved ones (I recommend the same 2009 edition with Richard Dawkins’ foreword). In fact, give a copy to people you don’t even like very much – you may find it improves their character.

 

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"None of us would admit to having brought the cricket bat. We couldn't understand what it was doing there. We phoned room service to bring us up some beers and also to take the cricket bat away but they didn't want it. The guy from room service said that if we were really going to look for man-eating lizards maybe the cricket bat would be a handy thing to have.

'If you find you've got a dragon charging towards you at thirty miles an hour snapping its teeth you can always drive it defensively through the covers,' he said, deposited the beers and left." (Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, "Last Chance to See")

 

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"For all my rational Western intellect and education, I was for the moment overwhelmed by a primitive sense of living in a world ordered by a malign and perverted god, and it coloured my view of everything that afternoon - even the coconuts. The villagers sold us some and split them open for us. They are almost perfectly designed. You first make a hole and drink the milk, then you split open the nut with a machete and slice off a segment of the shell, which forms a perfect implement for scooping out the coconut flesh inside. What makes you wonder about the nature of this god character is that he creates something that is so perfectly designed to be of benefit to human beings and then hangs it twenty feet above their heads on a tree with no branches.

Here's a good trick, let's see how they cope with this. Oh, look! They've managed to find a way of climbing the tree. I didn't think they'd be able to do that. All right, let's see them get the thing open. Hmmm, so they've found out how to temper steel now, have they? OK, no more Mr Nice Guy. Next time they go up that tree I'll have a dragon waiting for them at the bottom.

I can only think that the business with the apple must have upset him more than I realised.

I went and sat on the beach by a mangrove tree and gazed out at the quiet ripples of the sea. Some fish were jumping up the beach and into the tree, which struck me as an odd thing for a fish to do, but I tried not to be judgmental about it. I was feeling pretty raw about my own species, and not much inclined to raise a quizzical eyebrow at others. The fish could play about in trees as much as they liked if it gave them pleasure, so long as they didn't try to justify themselves or tell each other it was a malign god who made them want to play in trees." (Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, "Last Chance to See")

 

Image: Last Chance to See

Last Chance to See

Animals on the Verge of Extinction
Image: Last Chance to See

Last Chance to See

In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams
By Carwardine, Mark