Review: Vivien Horler
Beat about the Bush – exploring the wild, by Trevor Carnaby (Jacana)
When my son was a small boy I explained to him that my Cape Argus colleague John Yeld was the environment reporter, which meant he knew all about the world.
A few days later I was puzzling over a problem. Thomas said: “Ask John Yeld.” Huh? Tom said: “Mom, you said John knows everything in the world”.
John is retired now, so if you need someone like him, Beat About the Bush is probably the book for you and anyone of a curious turn of mind, including small children.
Have you ever wondered whether praying mantid females really eat the males? Can all lizards lose their tails? Can birds fly upside down? Why do they lay eggs? Why do baboons have such big teeth? Why is the sky blue and why do sunsets turn red?
Trevor Carnaby has answers to all these questions and a thousand more. He is the author of a series of Beat About the Bush guides, one on mammals, one on birds and then one on mammals and birds. Now comes this hefty 600-odd page volume subtitled The Comprehensive Guide.
Carnaby became a professional field guide in the early 1990s, working in wildlife areas in South Africa and Botswana. Later he started his own company leading private safaris through East and Southern Africa, and now also leads tours into South-East Asia. He’s also an avid photographer and collector of facts.
The book is divided into sections: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, plants, field signs, and then a more general part on the environment, which includes climate, geology, astronomy and animal diseases.
The amount of information it contains is phenomenal, and all provided in the form of answers to questions. Each section begins with general questions and then moves on to the specific. So the section on mammals starts with whether all animals have homes or dens (no), why do animals need camouflage, what do animals do in bad weather, and why we should not feed animals in the wild.
Some of the questions are pretty basic, as in: what is the reason for fur? But others are more interesting, like why prey animals will approach predators once they have seen them. This is apparently to confirm that danger threatens, and to indicate to the predator that it has been seen and therefore surprise will not be an element of any attack.
Another interesting question is whether snakes can become pets. Carnaby says not; they lack a frontal lobe in the brain that is responsible for learning and memory. He does point out that some snakes are easier to keep, however, as they are naturally more relaxed around humans. But mood can change, depending on circumstances.
“A snake that is cornered or harassed or one that is eating or has just eaten is likely to have less of a sense of humour when confronted…”
There is a fascinating section on where animals get their names, such as bat, which comes from the old Scandinavian work bakka, meaning a flying mouse, or gnu, from the Khoikhoi word for the sound of the animal’s call. And then there is rhinoceros, from the Greek rhis meaning nose and keras meaning horn, so literally “nose horn”.
Carnaby has also helpfully listed collective nouns for mammals, not all of which are found in Southern Africa, such as a “surfeit of skunks”, “a blessing of unicorns” and the delightful “a dazzle of zebras”.
Who knew that every zebra’s stripes are different and as distinctive as our fingerprints, and that the pattern on the left side of the body is not the same as on the right? They tend to look fat because they are hind-gut fermenters, digesting their food and absorbing nutrients in the intestines after the food has passed through the stomach, making it proportionately larger than in other animals.
This not a field guide, unless you are a hefty hiker: the book weighs a ton. But it’s copiously illustrated and full of some amazing facts, just about everything in the world, really. Eat your heart out, John Yeld.
- This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on April 8, 2018