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Kate Jackson – Mean and Lowly Things

July 16, 2012

72. Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo by Kate Jackson (2008)

Length: 328 pages
Genre: Memoir, Science

Started: 27 June 2012
Finished: 30 June 2012

Where did it come from? Christmas present.
Why do I have it? Saw it at a publisher’s table at a conference several years ago and immediately added it to my wishlist.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2011.

Chasing deadly snakes
around the Congo: rough job,
but Jackson’s on it.

Summary: Kate Jackson is a herpetologist – a zoologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles – who did her early work conducting two surveys of the wildlife of the flooded forests in northern Congo. She had plenty of experience studying specimens in jars, but nothing could have prepared her for the experience of doing fieldwork in a remote part of Africa. What she expected was several months of living in primitive conditions while collecting her samples. What she found was swarming insects, reactions from local villagers that ranged from curiousity to hostility, problems with the government’s various levels of bueracracy, issues with her hired guides and students, and the perils of working with venomous snakes in a part of the world where the favorite treatment is a visit to the local witch doctor.

Review: Memoir is not typically my favorite genre, but I think I’m going to have to add another category of exceptions: the fieldwork memoir. (The other category is chef memoir.) Mean and Lowly Things is only the second one I’ve read, but it’s very much in the vein of Marty Crump’s In Search of the Golden Frog, and I really enjoyed both of them. Is my reaction swayed by the fact that I’m a biologist? Almost certainly. I can identify with a lot of the particular hassles that Jackson describes, even though my own fieldwork has been conducted in places that are exceptionally cushy in comparison to what she’s gone through. But there’s something familiar in the ups and downs of the process of doing science in the field, out where the species you study actually live, that I think is universal no matter where that place is.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to be a biologist to enjoy this book. Jackson’s clearly passionate about her work, and the pictures of the various frogs, lizards, and snakes that she describes take up more than half of the color plates in the middle section of this book. But the book itself is less about the science, and more about the process of doing the science, of living and working in a remote part of Africa, and of the practical and cultural difficulties she had to face to do so. It made an interesting counterpoint to several books I read last year, in particular The Species Seekers, which was about the process of exploration and finding, collecting, and naming new species – something that we typically associate most with the Victorian era but clearly an ongoing process, and one that Jackson is very much involved with. This book is also made accessible to a wide audience by Jackson’s clear and direct prose style; about as scientific as she gets is using the Latin name for the species she describes, but that’s primarily because most of these organisms don’t have English common names. Otherwise, this book reads more like a funny and engaging adventure story.

While I did, on the whole, really enjoy this book, there were a few things that hit somewhat of a sour note for me. While I can only begin to imagine the frustration of long term fieldwork in those conditions, Jackson occasionally comes across as short-tempered and a little imperious, and she doesn’t seem particularly given to self-reflection about these incidents. There were also a few times when I thought she stuck too closely to her own story, where some broader background about the Congo’s history or culture or geography – a broadening of the scope from straight-up memoir into a little bit of non-fiction – would have been helpful. Overall, though, this book did a great job of drawing me in and bringing the atmosphere of Jackson’s field camps to life… I’ll never again take an established fieldwork station and its lack of swarming army ants for granted. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The obvious audience is people interested in the process of science, and particularly science in the field: how do new species get found, named, and brought back to museum collections? But the meat of the book is really about what it’s like to live and work in Africa, and it definitely brought to mind Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, so fans of that novel that also enjoy memoirs may be interested as well, even if they’re not particularly attracted by the science aspect.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

In answering the questions I’m trying to figure out whether they’re going to give me trouble for possibly carrying endangered species, or for carrying dangerous chemicals (formalin-soaked and ethanol-preserved specimens), but it seems they are afraid of some kind of biohazard. Ridiculous. Everything is in preservative. But the documentation seems not to reassure them – rather the reverse. The DGRST permit mentions tissue samples preserved for DNA extraction. “Is it true that this box contains DNA?” They think I’m carrying some kind of contagious disease.

I tell them that of course the box contains DNA. Its whole outer surface is covered with the DNA of the baggage handlers. “A molecule is not a microbe!” I am speaking more loudly than is probably wise.


The news is the worst it could possibly be. The officials have an e-mail from Paris confirming that nothing containing DNA may be carried on a passenger plane. That’s it. There is absolutely no question of my specimens being allowed on board. –p. 168-169

Other Reviews: Vulpes Libris
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: It is my fifth day in the Republic of Congo.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2012 2:53 pm

    I do love memoirs but not reptiles, so I wonder if this is for me.

    • July 20, 2012 9:48 am

      Kathy – Did you like The Poisonwood Bible? Personally, I thought the “living and working in Africa” aspect of this book was more prominent than the “scientific study of reptiles” aspect.

  2. July 16, 2012 6:22 pm

    I have never heard of this book before. It sounds interesting, but a bit out of my norm.

    • July 20, 2012 9:49 am

      Kailana – Stepping outside your norm is good every now and again! I probably wouldn’t have discovered my love for chef memoirs if I hadn’t branched out enough for Kitchen Confidential.

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