Picture of children walking in Papua New Guinea

Tim Flannery encountered life in seldom-visited islands like Papua New Guinea in his new book, Among the Islands.

Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic Stock

By Don George

Book of the Month: Among the Islands, by Tim Flannery

I suspect there’s an Indiana Jones lurking inside many of us, a figure who scales unassailable peaks and hacks through impenetrable jungles to discover long-lost temples and treasures. Australian field zoologist Tim Flannery is the real-life equivalent of this figure, a scientist-adventurer who, as this new memoir attests, zestfully overcomes all manner of risks and rigors in a quest to discover new species.

In the 1980s and ’90s, in his role as curator of mammals at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Flannery undertook a series of forbidding expeditions in the South Pacific with the intent of doubling the museum’s collection. His travels spanned some 3,700 miles, from Sulawesi to Fiji, and included areas that had rarely if ever been visited by scientists—or, indeed, by Westerners.

Among the Islands recounts Flannery’s most memorable adventures in this undertaking. From summiting a 30-foot pile of bat dung to see a species of small bat (which turned out to be “a common species of insect eater”) on the island of New Ireland to traversing reef-ragged seas on treacherous ferries to ascending peaks dense with vegetation and spirits on Guadalcanal, Flannery’s challenges are intimidating.

And his spirit is exhilarating. In the best tradition of 19th-century explorer-naturalists, he confronts obstacle after obstacle with self-deprecating humor and unshakable aplomb, navigating uncharted terrain and hostile tribes to tirelessly set mist nets and rat traps. The result is a mind-expanding catalog of encounters with tree-climbing rats, flying foxes, monkey-faced bats and a trove of previously undiscovered species.

Flannery’s account pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of South Pacific geological, natural, and cultural history with well-grounded knowledge as well as respect and wonder for the natural world. We are lucky to have such an exuberant explorer to illuminate the intricate network of life in the South Pacific—and the perils and possibilities that life embodies on this precious planet we share.

Wild America

In River Notes National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis recounts the natural and human history of the Colorado River, from its carving of the Grand Canyon to the Native American societies that grew up on its shores to its eventual alteration by dams and use by many of the main cities in the West. In Nature Wars journalist Jim Sterba describes the increasing conflicts between wildlife and urban sprawl and explores the possible causes and solutions.

Ageless Exploration

Harvard history professor and award-winning writer Joyce E. Chaplin details the history of circumnavigation—from Magellan to space travel—and how it has changed the way we think about our planet in Round About the Earth. A hundred years ago five groups of explorers raced to be the first to plant their flag at the South Pole. Chris Turney tells the story of their icy ordeals in 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica.

Industrial Towns

In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere, the northern New York manufacturing town of Gloversville features prominently as the author’s hometown, the center of his turbulent relationship with his mother, and the inspiration for many of his fictional communities like Mohawk and Empire Falls. You Were Never in Chicago is journalist Neil Steinberg’s intimate portrait of the historical and contemporary Windy City, created from extensive research and his 25 years as a staff writer with the Chicago Sun-Times.

One Last Thing:

Greek Wisdom Now and Then

When I lived in Greece for a year, I was inspired by the conjunction of past and present in the deep-rooted life-passion of the people I met every day and the centuries-spanning wisdom that seemed embedded in the very stones of the Acropolis and other monuments. Philosopher Daniel Klein moved to the Greek island of Hydra in search of that same conjunction. His new book of meditations on the art of living well, Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, has richly revived for me Greece’s abiding lessons in how to slow down and celebrate the passage of time.

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