Book Review: “A Desert Calling”
When I picked up “A Desert Calling” by Michael A. Mares from the SLC library (my new favorite place – six floors of books and a coffee shop!) I had next to no idea what to expect from it. Since I recently moved to a state that’s more desert than not, I thought learning more about the ecology of deserts would be a nice place to start. Bu when I grabbed it I really didn’t know whether this book was a hard-hitting ecological text or a spiritual mediation on the desert landscape. In fact, I rather suspected the latter, given the title.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is instead part scientific memoir of 30+ years of field work on the small mammals of the world’s deserts, and part non-technical exploration of the greater principles of ecology and scientific study as they related to arid climates. The two components are woven together fairly skillfully to create a narrative that is both personal and overarching, and includes many fascinating case studies of individual species and associations that any nature geek will eat up with a spoon. From kangaroo rats that can go without free water their entire lives to pink fairy armadillos that swim through sand dunes, around every corner is another fascinating desert mammal (usually a rodent), that you probably have never heard of before.
On the personal front he talks unflinchingly about the challenges of field work in a wry, understated style. These adventures include a brush with death at the hands of a bat-borne virus, tents being shredded by the wind, getting nearly hopelessly lost in massive thorn forests, and the time their field site was declared an open shooting range during an Argentine war (“It made continuing to work there difficult,” he tells us). He also explains in detail the process and necessity of collecting rodent and mammal specimens for further study in museum collections.
Digression: Although I understand that we could not properly identify, describe, and study animals without comprehensive museum collections, study skins, and the data gleaned from dissections, I have to admit that personally I am rather squeamish about that part of field biology. I fully admit that this bias extends mainly to vertebrates and I will happily collect a bug any day of the week, and that this is probably hypocritical. I just have a hard time reconciling the fact that the first thing ecologists usually do when we discover a new or rare animal is kill it with our overall conservatory efforts. Although the author is correct when he points that there’s never just one rodent, I also find the argument that it would have died anyway rather a flimsy one. Basically, I know collections and type specimens are vital to science, but have personal misgivings which may or may not be valid. Although since many of the collected specimens the author mentions seem not to have just gone to a museum as skins but also into his stewpot as dinner when he had no money to buy food I can hardly begrudge him. Back to your regularly scheduled book review.
The author also talked about the less obvious problems with field work such as money, politics, and internal strife in the countries one wants to work in. He is equally candid about the scientific process and his personal experiences of bringing biases to his work and learning to overcome them. He is honest about being wrong, and what happens when scientists make assumptions about things that haven’t been properly studied. In the 70’s, when he was doing much of his field work, there was an overwhelming tendency in ecology to assume that similar habitats should contain nearly identical community structure and populations, and that these models could be applied around the world (models usually based only on North American ecology). He explains over the course of the book what parts of these ideas were correct and which were not – and how he discovered the difference. Along the way he includes narrow escapes from death, tales of how he and his crew discovered several new mammal genera, a hymn of praise to taxonomists, and a plea for desert conservation around the world.
In terms of science, his main focus is convergent evolution. He uses individual case studies to show how animals in different deserts solve the same problems in similar (or in some cases, radically different) ways despite being only distantly related. The takeaway lesson is that while you can’t expect similar habitats to always produce identical creatures, there are a limited number ways of solving the problems create by living in an area without much water, and we see these repeated again and again in nature – although sometimes with novel twists.
The explanations of the adaptations and broader ecological principles are easy to understand for a lay person, but not dumbed down at all to those who already have a basic foundation in ecology. He includes all scientific names but does not insist on referring to them only by their scientific nomenclature, and is diligent about going back and reminding the reader of pertinent facts instead of just assuming they completely absorbed a new concept from a brief mention earlier in the book. Overall, it was an easy and engaging book to read, and while long enough to provide an in-depth look at many topics, was not so long that it began to drag before the end. I highly recommend this to anyone even vaguely interested in deserts or small mammals – although be warned, if you want to learn about birds, lizards, or plants, look elsewhere. The man writes what he knows.