If it’s true that a good nonfiction book is like an all-expenses-paid trip to somewhere, or some-when, then David Quammen’s The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder (Essays) is a memorable tour of practically the entire globe – including the depths of the oceans and our neighbor-planet Mars.
This book contains twenty-five essays, each on a different subject, each provoking amusement and bemusement in varying measure. Quammen takes us to Guam, where we learn why “no grocer wants to get stuck with five thousand dollars’ worth of unpopular frozen bats.” He takes us along on his mission to get Tyrannosaurus rex named the official state bird of Montana. Traipsing through an island rain forest, we are helpless to assist when Guammen – an arachnophobe – trods carelessly into a giant spider’s spinnings. Fortunately, “she made no move to attack. She didn’t even growl and wiggle her fangs. She simply waited, forbearingly, for me to get my mug out of her web.”
Boilerplate Rhino isn’t all snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails, however (although it does start out with an excursion to a Texas rattlesnake farm). This book examines beetles, biophobia, birds, bumblebees, cancer, cats, chimpanzees, dark matter, dolphins, durian fruit, eggs, “flying fox” bats, food poisoning, lawns, Martians, nutmeg, octopi, penises, poets, rattlesnakes, rhinoceroses, side-blotched lizards, slime molds, Thoreau, trilobites, tuna and, as mentioned, Tyrannosaurus rex.
Those things are not the sum of this book’s contents, however. More than a list of flora and fauna, Boilerplate Rhino is about humanity and its interaction with itself and the natural world. Quammen writes about family, intuition, mortality, consumption, sexuality, integrity, and cruelty. He writes about television and the media, and he writes about poetry and illusion. One essay, “Half-Blinded Poets and Birds,” is a heartbreakingly lovely piece about writing and priorities and vision and (I daresay) faith. It would make a great offering for an advanced English class.
It is a funny book – not, perhaps “laugh out loud” funny, as advertised on the cover – but it’s also a moving book, and an intriguing one. In one moment Quammen mentions, almost in passing, that 60% of the water available on the West Coast is used on lawn irrigation. In the next moment, he touchingly and persuasively compares Alan Turing to a slime mold. (Those links won’t tell you why. You’ll have to read the essay.) On one page he mulls over problems of human consumption, and on the next you read that “such runaway selection is a theoretical postulate, not an experimentally documented process, but it does seem like a plausible explanation for the panoply of ridiculous spatulas.” (You’ve really got to read that essay.)
The Boilerplate Rhino is, on the surface, a “nature writing” book. Quammen is married to a biologist and is scarcely a scientific neophyte himself – but it’s important to know, before picking up this book, that it isn’t a book about science or even nature. It’s a book about the sort of odd mammals who read books. It’s a book of philosophy, scattered here and there among the coral and banana leaves.
“You might say that a good poem is a shard of mirror reflecting the Milky
Way, a cameo locket containing the face of God. I wouldn’t say any such thing,
because in my prosaic soul I’d be embarrassed. But I’d say this: A good poem is
a one-eyed glimpse of a bird in flight.”