The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist

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9781559638586: The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist

When William Beebe needed to know what was going on in the depths of the ocean, he had himself lowered a half-mile down in a four-foot steel sphere to see-five times deeper than anyone had ever gone in the 1930s. When he wanted to trace the evolution of pheasants in 1910, he trekked on foot through the mountains and jungles of the Far East to locate every species. To decipher the complex ecology of the tropics, he studied the interactions of every creature and plant in a small area from the top down, setting the emerging field of tropical ecology into dynamic motion.

William Beebe's curiosity about the natural world was insatiable, and he did nothing by halves. As the first biographer to see the letters and private journals Beebe kept from 1887 until his death in 1962, science writer Carol Grant Gould brings the life and times of this groundbreaking scientist and explorer compellingly to light.

From the Galapagos Islands to the jungles of British Guiana, from the Bronx Zoo to the deep seas, Beebe's biography is a riveting adventure. A best-selling author in his own time, Beebe was a fearless explorer and thoughtful scientist who put his life on the line in pursuit of knowledge. The unique glimpses he provided into the complex web of interactions that keeps the earth alive and breathing have inspired generations of conservationists and ecologists. This exciting biography of a great naturalist brings William Beebe at last to the recognition he deserves.

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About the Author:

CAROL GRANT GOULD has written for publications ranging from The New York Times to Psychology Today and Harpers. She is coauthor of three Scientific American Library books: The Honey Bee (1988), Sexual Selection (1989), and The Animal Mind (1994).

From The Washington Post:

One had to be brave indeed in 1930 to climb into a steel capsule and descend 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. That was much deeper than any living person had ever gone before, and William Beebe knew that the enormous pressure down there could crush him in an instant. Sure enough, the craft began to leak, and as it spun on the end of its tether, Beebe's companion became violently seasick.

Beebe was a brilliant writer, but this environment was so alien that words failed him; his pen and pad lay still. He did manage to record some of the grotesque, glowing creatures that swam in and out of his field of view, and some of them haven't been observed since. All he could do was marvel at the blueness of it all, "an indefinable translucent blue quite unlike anything I have ever seen in the upper world."

In his day (he was born in Brooklyn in 1877), William Beebe was quite famous as an explorer and naturalist. He was a bold character who feared nothing in nature: no bite, no sting, no slimy, wiggly beast. He was the kind of guy who, even as he tumbled toward the edge of a cliff, could look up at the clouds and be reminded of the pheasants that obsessed him.

In Guyana, he slept with his toes exposed in order to attract -- and study -- vampire bats. This was clearly a man at ease with his place in the food chain. "Never in city, house or room have I ever felt such a feeling of comfortable and complete habitation," he wrote in a wonderful 1921 book called Edge of the Jungle. "It seemed as if I was returning -- not venturing."

The aristocratically lean Beebe had a knack for charming wealthy socialites as well as creatures of the jungle. As a consequence, he never lacked funding for his ambitious expeditions. (He did once make the mistake of trying to run an expedition from his patron's yacht, which turned disastrous when the man proved to be an angry drunk.) He was a friend and protégé of Theodore Roosevelt, among others, and he moved easily between the laboratory and the cocktail party, the tropics and Manhattan. His life seemed a series of enviably romantic adventures to South American jungles, to the Himalayas, to the Galapagos and everywhere else his curiosity took him. One wealthy patron paid for him to travel all over Asia, researching his monumental Monograph of the Pheasants.

"William Beebe did not want his biography written," says Carol Grant Gould in the preface to her workmanlike biography, raising all sorts of hopes that the following 400-plus pages slowly extinguish.

In one sense, Beebe was a biographer's dream: a compulsive journal-keeper, prolific correspondent and socially prominent figure. Gould benefited from exclusive access to his journals and letters, especially those from his longtime mistress. The biographer's curse is that his published writings were rather more interesting than his life, at least as rendered here.

His existence seems to have been free of conflict, angst or struggle. His nasty divorce from his lovely and talented first wife, which occupied the New York tabloids for weeks, is dispatched in a few terse paragraphs. Even his love affairs are handled discreetly, almost passionlessly. The author clearly preferred to concentrate on Beebe's scientific work, and as a result Beebe never truly comes alive.

But perhaps this book will spur an overdue rediscovery of Beebe's own vivid and intimate writings about nature. Perhaps his best-known work, Half Mile Down tells the sensational story of his first bathysphere descents, but it pales beside his other books, such as Edge of the Jungle, Galapagos: World's End and especially the masterful High Jungle, maybe because he was a part of the ecosystem rather than a mere observer peering through a tiny round window.

Before Beebe came along, a "naturalist" was somebody who went out and shot something, brought it home and described it. Beebe undertook the study of entire natural systems, rather than single organisms. He could spend months cataloging a few square feet of jungle floor or an eight-mile-wide "cylinder" of the sea. He is, in short, the reason every fourth-grader knows what an "ecosystem" is.

But by the 1940s -- he continued working well into his seventies -- it was clear that his natural world was under siege. The coral reefs off Bermuda had been dredged and filled, while his favorite South American jungles fell victim to logging.

One of the many young naturalists Beebe encouraged was a writer named Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring came out in 1962, the year Beebe died. It was around then, too, that the naturalist's job changed, from documenting the profusion of nature to mourning what had disappeared.

Reviewed by Bill Gifford
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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