The Tapir's Morning Bath by Elizabeth Royte

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Environmental journalist Elizabeth Royte spent the better part of a year tramping across Barro Colorado, a lush island inside the Panama Canal, with some of the field biologists who live and work there. Her entertaining account is equally concerned with the scientific work and the scientists themselves, who form a peculiar assemblage of odd appearances and habits.

Barro Colorado has been a field station since the 1920s; the Smithsonian Institution now administers it. The island has drawn all sorts of researchers interested in its rich variety of plant, insect, and mammal species. As a result, Barro Colorado has been thoroughly investigated and mapped. This sometimes frustrates Royte, who obviously yearns for a taste of a more wild and untouched subject: "I liked a little mystery in nature, a little unruliness." But it provides a practical working environment for the scientists. They still have to deal with bad weather, freak injuries, loneliness, and depression -- so having a permanent field station with a few creature comforts doesn't seem like too much to ask.

While she admires the single-minded devotion of field biologists, Royte struggles with the question of whether their arcane investigations provide insight into larger ecological problems. Are these scientists in adequate touch with a "real world" confronted by environmental disaster? Helping young graduate students collect monkey scat or count bats, she gets caught up in the work. "But at the end of the day, alone in my room, I'd have to ask myself what it all meant." She returns to this question frequently, sometimes feeling that the scientists are more interested in getting tenure and recognition than in making an impact as conservationists. But despite suspecting that scientists might be "examining the life out of the island," she eventually agrees that pure research -- like nature -- is worthy in itself, and that it need not always be tied to concerns about its utility.

Whether she describes rowing a boat back to camp in pouring rain or drinking bourbon with Bert, an eccentric old-timer at the field station, Royte is a humorous and graceful narrator with a keen interest in both wild and human landscapes. The Tapir's Morning Bath gives us a close-up look at the flora and fauna of the Central American tropics -- and the curious creatures who study them. (Jonathan Cook)


About Elizabeth Royte

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Elizabeth Royte is a contributing writer for Outside magazine. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.
Published September 26, 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages
Genres: Nature & Wildlife, Science & Math, History. Non-fiction

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Among them are old fashioned naturalists who observe, take notes, and draw conclusions, as well as thinkers of the big picture—of mutualism and the origin and persistence of species—but fewer and fewer are permitted such cerebrating: “Sadly, unorthodox thinking and broad studies are now neither e...

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The New York Times

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Without measurement, she quotes the Victorian physicist Lord Kelvin saying, ''your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.'' Researchers hope the tiny measurements will add up, Royte says, ''creating beautiful little puzzle pieces that fit into a shimmering whole.'' ...

Oct 07 2001 | Read Full Review of The Tapir's Morning Bath

Publishers Weekly

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By hiring herself out as a research assistant at large, Royte gains intimacy with the professors and students at the island's research station and gradually gains acceptance into their world.

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