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The Enchanted Canopy: A JOURNEY OF THE LAST UNEXPLORED FRONTIER, THE ROOF OF THE WORLD'S RAINFOREST by Andrew W. Mitchell (Macmillan: $29.95; 288 pp., illustrated)

November 16, 1986|Catherine Caufield | Caufield is author of "In the Rainforest" (University of Chicago). and

The secrets of tropical rain forests are over our heads, not metaphorically but literally. Most rain forest creatures live in the trees, rarely, if ever, coming down to the forest floor. There are species of snakes and lizards with expandable membranes that enable them to "fly" through the trees; salamanders and frogs that spend their entire lives in the water that collects in the plants that grow on branches of tall rain forest trees. Even some lowly earthworms live an arboreal life.

Lacking wings, prehensile tails and claws, humans have been unable to penetrate this fascinating world. Without knowing what goes on up in the canopy, we will never understand the workings of the most complex natural community on our planet. Botanists often have no idea what the flowers of a particular tree look like, much less how they are pollinated or whether they might be useful as food or medicines. Using a machine that sprays insecticide high into the trees, Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution has recently estimated that literally millions of insect species live in the canopy. Hardly a single one has been intensively studied. What plants do they pollinate or protect or attack? What birds and animals do they feed? What diseases do they transmit?

Naturalists have employed various strategems to satisfy the urge to know this strange and secret world. With native help, some collectors succeeded in getting pigtailed macaques to retrieve specimens for them, though more went into the monkeys' stomachs than under the microscope. Others felled trees or shot down plants and animals to obtain canopy specimens. But what was really needed was a way to get scientists up to the canopy, rather than bringing the plants and animals down. How tropical ecologists are achieving this--with towers, catwalks, rope slings, and even hot-air balloons--and what they are learning is the story that Andrew Mitchell sets out to tell.

"The Enchanted Canopy" is an enjoyable book. The photographs, of which there are 100, are very fine; the design is elegant, and the thick paper is almost too good for a book that touches upon the accelerating loss of the world's great forests. The raw material for a good book is certainly here. Mitchell describes the terrifying contraptions naturalists have developed to get up into the trees. He tells of the fascinating ways in which certain plants and animals have evolved together, taking advantage of one another's strengths and weaknesses to survive in the competitive rain forest environment.

Where the book falls short is in its organization and its writing. Mitchell hops around, providing snippets of information without giving his readers a framework in which to arrange them. His wording is often, well, disconcerting. Take this sentence: "How these remarkable interactions could be brought about merely through the moulding of time seems to stretch Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to its very limits." Or this one: "Their families are diffuse and all members of the band regard each other with equal kinship." The index is not a meaty one; the book omits most Latin names, which is annoying in a work of natural history; and I would have liked to see citations for some of the more amazing claims. For example, the statement that "some 50% of the drugs we use are developed from natural derivatives" surprised me. A reference would have been useful.

This is a book that cries out to be made into a television program. Its literary shortcomings would be eliminated, and the stories Mitchell has collected would be breathtaking on film. In fact, since Mitchell is a television producer in Britain, I wonder whether what we have here is not actually the book for a TV series that has not yet made it across the Atlantic. I hope so. I can recommend it already.

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