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NY Press: J James's 'The Snake Charmer'

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Wed Jul 2 21:49:23 2008  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

THE SUN (New York, New York) 02 July 08 Snake-Bitten, Twice Shy: Jamie James's 'The Snake Charmer' (Eric Ormsby)
The ancient art of snake handling is a tricky business. First you have to catch the thing; for this, a quick eye and an even quicker hand are essential. Once caught and held by the back of its head, the snake will often whip its whole length around your arm. There's an unsettling intimacy to its fierce grip. To uncoil the critter and maneuver it into the safety of a collecting bag demands a certain practiced finesse. But all that's the easy part. The real skill of snake handling comes into play when you extract the thrashing captive, especially if it's a venomous species. But even non-venomous specimens can administer nasty bites. And few things in nature are angrier or more aggressive than a snake let out of a bag.
In "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge" (Hyperion, 260 pages, $24.95), journalist Jamie James tells the bizarre and compelling story of Joe Slowinski, curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences. Slowinski was a classic study in extremes, simultaneously reckless and meticulous. A disciplined scientist, credited with the discovery of several new species and widely respected for his published papers, he was also something of a maverick, much given to macho antics, especially in the field. Fascinated by snakes from boyhood on ó one of his favorite childhood pastimes was searching for rattlesnakes under rocks ó Slowinski drew on this almost obsessive fascination to produce painstaking research. His scientific brilliance grew out of a lifelong passion, which he himself could not fully account for ó and in the end it cost him his life. His research on snakes led him, step by step, into some of the central concerns in evolutionary biology; he was especially concerned with developing rigorous equations by which patterns of diversity within species might be explained. This research, first published in "The American Naturalist" three years before he earned his doctorate, is still widely cited in the literature.
Mr. James tells this odd story with great flair. His book is an affectionate ó though not uncritical ó biography of Slowinski that also offers a vivid glimpse into the practice of all science today. Unlike such 19th-century experts as Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who were concerned mainly with problems of taxonomy (and of whose bitter and lifelong rivalry Mr. James gives a dramatic account), Slowinski had to master a wide range of disciplines, from calculus to statistics. And there were turf wars to wage with rival colleagues. As Mr. James shows, not all venomous creatures are to be found in the remote jungles where Slowinski conducted his final research; the spitting cobra of Mandelay, which he discovered and first described for science in 2000, had its human counterpart in certain jealous competitors who more than once blocked him from grants and institutional support. Like other unconventional researchers, Slowinski suffered almost as much from professional backstabbing as from snakebites.
Academic infighting, as vicious in the obscure discipline of herpetology as in any other field of endeavor, is only part of Mr. James's account, however. His description of the little known and largely unexplored northern panhandle of Burma, with its muddy villages and snake-infested plateaus, is unforgettable. It was here, in the wretched hamlet of Rat Baw, near the foothills of the Himalayas, that Slowinski made a terrible miscalculation. While examining the day's catch of snakes, he stuck his hand into a bag, believing that it contained a harmless dinodon snake. When he pulled his hand out, a many-banded krait, one of the deadliest snakes on earth, hung by a fang from his finger. Slowinski had been bitten before by a cobra and had survived. But this time, within two hours, he felt the effects of the bite.
Mr. James structures his book around this fateful event. In the course of his story, each chapter of which is prefaced by a description (and lovely illustration) of a different venomous snake, he provides a great deal of lore on snakes and snake hunters, as well as much up-to-date scientific information on everything from reptile habitats to the composition of various venoms. The venom of the many-banded krait is second only to that of the Australian taipan in its toxicity; along with cobras and coral snakes, the krait possesses a neurotoxic venom that affects the central nervous system and causes death by respiratory failure. In Vietnam, it was known to American soldiers as the "two-step" snake, because its victims took only two steps before they died. In the event, it took Slowinski almost two days to succumb; all the while, until he finally lost consciousness, he coolly reported his symptoms to his distraught colleagues.
The account of Slowinski's death, and of the desperate rescue effort mounted to save him, forms the core of Mr. James's book, and is both gripping and horrifying to read. There was not only the remoteness of the location but the fickle weather to contend with; even when the intransigent Burmese authorities were persuaded (and bribed) to send a helicopter, it couldn't land. In a final twist, the fatal bite occurred almost at the same time as the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, and the American consular officials were thrown into a state of confusion and disorientation.
In the end, for all its high drama, this is a book about strangeness. In the exotic locales where rare snakes lurk, the scientists who study them come to seem even more exotic. They have their own lingo, their own customs, their private codes; they don't go hunting snakes, they go "herping." In Genesis, the serpent is described as the "subtlest" of the beasts; it hugs the ground, it knows the secrets of the earth. For scientists such as Joe Slowinski, the serpent embodies an elusive wisdom, as strange as it is precious. Unfortunately, it is a wisdom with fangs.
Snake-Bitten, Twice Shy: Jamie James's 'The Snake Charmer'


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