May 10th, 2005
|11:20 am - Carnivorous Nights by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, 2005|
We began to comb the ground for tiger shit and encouraged Alexis to assist us.
We're still about a year or two away from the book on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, but this will fulfill your extinct-or-is-it animal reading fix for the time being. Actually, Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger transcends that role and exceeds any expectations you could possibly have for it; it is probably the best book of the year, a bold claim for early May, but it will be hard to top.
Mittelbach and Crewdson were researching a follow-up article to the beloved Wild New York in the American Museum of Natural History when they stumbled through a portal of sorts. A dusty stuffed and mounted Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, in a secluded corner attracted their interest, and soon they were obsessed: "We imagined being in Tasmania and seeing a tiger gripping a dead kangaroo in its mouth." The two authors recruited their friend Alexis Rockman, an artist known for confrontational nature paintings such as scenes of the La Brea tar pits using the actual tar as a material, and self-portraits of himself being devoured by man-eating plants, to accompany them and provide illustrations for their text.
It is Rockman's presence that elevates this book to its status as an unquestionable classic of gonzo nature writing. He brings an edgy tension to the proceedings; he is temperamental and really weird, and the authors have enough trouble with him as it is, but then he decides to invite along his friends: Dorothy Spears, a wealthy and recently separated art critic, and Chris Vroom, retired (at 37) Wall Street wizard and extreme sports enthusiast. Understandable a little bitter that what they had envisioned as a working holiday for themselves and Rockman has been compromised, Mittelbach and Crewdson get their revenge by putting a lot of embarrassing information into the book, describing at length Alexis' pot-smoking habits, Dorothy's obnoxious wardrobe, and numerous ridiculous comments made by all three, but particularly by Alexis. At one point he remarks, "What if you picked (a platypus) up and it spurred you in the balls. That would be the ultimate blunder down under."
The authors themselves don't appear to be any easier to spend time with, judging from the scene where they pretend to be Tasmanian devils and do an elaborate dance on a hillside, growling and spinning and mock-devouring a wallaby carcass. It's also strange that they make themselves one indistinguishable and inseparable character: the entire book is narrated by "We", and there's never a moment where Mittelbach or Crewdson appears by themselves or emerges as an individual, except in the author photo on the jacket. They may have decided that having Alexis around caused enough friction to sustain the book, or maybe they were just too shy, but it does give the impression that they are possibly the most annoying couple ever to exist.
All of this extraneous material doesn't detract from the primary focus, which is the description of the natural life of Tasmania and the question of whether the Tasmanian tiger, last seen in the 1930s, could still exist. Rather, it makes it a lot more interesting and readable, and also, the eccentric personalities of the Americans match those of the Tasmanian nature lovers they meet as well as those of the animals themselves. There are bizarre and unique creatures all over the island: devils, pademelons, platypuses, quolls, wombats, kookaburras, giant lobsters, and land leeches; and the people they encounter are equally one-of-a-kind. Many of them enjoy inventing elaborate tiger sighting stories; the gullible authors are completely convinced until the story ends with a line like..."and the tiger I saw was about eighteen inches high," and the authors finally notice the devilish smirk. The Tasmanians don't do this out of any sort of enmity towards foreigners; they love the tiger, which is the emblem of their island, its "bald eagle, grizzly bear, and timber wolf, all rolled into one," but they have a sense of humor about it.
The book captures this spirit as well; it's funny and strange, but also reverent towards the tiger and other wildlife of Tasmania. When he's not hitting the reefer, Alexis Rockman can be found eloquently describing his intentions for the artwork that adorns this book, images of thylacines and other animals painted with pigment mixed from natural materials such as Tasmanian soil, wallaby fur, wombat scat, pulverised land leech, and eucalyptus bark: "The materials have a relationship to the history, geography, or direct interaction I have with particular organisms. They come out of the tradition of diaristic travel. They have a sense of intimacy."
"They also smelled," add Mittelbach and Crewdson.