Book Review: The Ragged Edge of the World, by Eugene Linden

The Ragged Edge of the World, by Eugene Linden. Plume paperback. Penguin Books. © 2011. $16.

An interesting travelogue by a frequent contributor to Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, and a few other magazines and publishers, Linden’s book seems dated. Most the experiences he relates are from two to three decades ago, some going back to the early 1970s. In Chapter 4, for instance, Eugene relates a 1990 adventure from New Guinea, when he returned to the island to work on a story for Time magazine. He then returned for a third time in 2004. Chapter 5 relates a series of experiences the author had in Polynesia, first in 1971, then in 1976, then most recently, in 1995. For a book published in 2011, I expect more recent travel experiences.

I enjoy reading travelers tales. Read some Tim Cahill (Outside Magazine) sometime. His books have great names, like “A Wolverine is Eating My Leg,” “Jaguars Ripped My Flesh,” and “Pecked to Death by Ducks” and he can weave a story like few others, really. He exhibits a great combination of wit, sarcasm, irony with a generous side of near-death experiences. I’ve read only one Paul Theroux travelogue, “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar,” and found Theroux’s writing to be witty, thought-provoking, though at times he can leave one wondering why he bothers traveling at all. I’ve also read a hodge-podge of  essays by a few other writers. Eugene Linden does a write a compelling story – my only complaint is the timeliness of his material.

If Eugene Linden were only writing a travelogue, I would say “pass.” Linden has a more focused theme. While some writers travel and journal their experiences to share, Eugene has an agenda and goals to accomplish. I mention the dates of the material in the book only to prepare the reader for dated experiences, not to undermine the experiences themselves. I thought I was going to sit down to read a book of essays based on experiences less than 5 years old, certainly no older than a decade. Not the case, however. The truest measure of a writer’s writing, though, is this: Would you read another book written by the author? Absolutely; I would certainly read another of Eugene’s books simply because of the richness and variety of his travels and encounters.

The Chapter 4 tale I note above concerns Linden’s travel to New Guinea for a story about the loss of indigenous knowledge. Remote areas are becoming less remote as populations grow, as industries locate to avail themselves to natural resources, and as government allow commercial enterprises into remote areas to harvest trees or mine minerals. As the indigenous people are exposed to modernizing influences, some people are coaxed into adapting to modernity, others retreat into the remaining wilderness, and some exist on the fringe, like deer or coyote living near people but remaining wild. Linden provides several anecdotal tales, ranging from Polynesian “cargo cults,” to indigenous people who were given tours of manufacturing facilities for common products, only to synthesize a new creation tale upon returning home, incorporating their experience as if the result of an elaborate dream-state induced by the gods.

The “modernizing” influences are technically modernizing, though in mostly negative ways. These people represent corporate interests, hired or contracted by corporations, to extract whatever the resource is, gold, timber, copper, and really represent the most callous of people, mercenaries, thieves, and misfits. Other modernizing influences include tourists, who visit Southeast Asia and Oceania to see “traditional ways of life,” and examine people as if they are museum pieces. And, then, last but not least, are academics who insert themselves into environments, typically for good reasons, yet can also have deleterious effect on local populations. Eugene tells of researchers who seem to treat their local environment with little more regard than those who seek to exploit the natural resources. Biologist, ecologists, and botanists may have no compassion or interest in learning about or respecting local people, they are simply present to gather data for gibbons / clownfish / chimpanzees not realizing the impact their expedition has on the local economy of culture.

Linden relates a story of some enterprising villagers. Tourists like to hire boats to take them upriver to visit the wilderness, maybe catch sight of wildlife or indigenous people eking out a life from fishing. On occasion, these tour boats swamp canoes and villager have drown. The families then sue the boat companies, or their government. Few episodes of drowned family members or lost equipment had to occur before the opportunistic locals picked up on the notion of simply positioning themselves in their canoes, wait for the tour boats to cruise by, swamp their boats, and sue.

The effects of modernity on indigenous people is the crux of Eugene’s writing, and he does put together some interesting episodes detailing the clash between simple, unsophisticated cultures, and us – people with simple and unsophisticated cultures but with the technology and prowess to take advantage of these indigenous people who live in remote areas and subsist mostly by their own wiles. Coverage of topics do move back and forth in time; he has extensive travel experience going back decades. He uses these older travels as reflections upon his more recent visits, noting changes, both positive and negative.

Humans have a disproportionate ability to affect changes in the global environment above and beyond the capability of all other animals, combined.

I fully support the reintroduction of wolves into the West, Yellowstone, Montana, and elsewhere, in full disclosure. The elements of Linden’s book covering the Yellowstone wolves controversy I found interesting and troubling. People often make decisions based on irrational fears and incomplete knowledge resulting in tragic consequences. The killing of wolves, for instance, increases deer, rabbit, and coyote populations, resulting in other management issues for ranchers, mainly. Exploding deer populations brings exploding deer tick populations, and with deer ticks comes Lyme disease, which is easily transmissible to people.

I’m not a big fan of protests like “the natural balance is upset when people are involved,” simply because people are part of the global ecosystem. The problem really being protested should be more accurately described as, “Humans have a disproportionate ability to affect changes in the global environment above and beyond the capability of all other animals, combined.” Because Humankind has this unique ability, we must recognize we have some responsibility to be ecologically sound in our decision-making. The chapter, “Wolves on the Brink,” certainly addresses the elementary battle of Man versus Nature, as ranchers vehemently protest the introduction of wolves despite the rare case of wolves killing cattle.

Chapters 7 through 9 are plenty riveting. Chapter 7 finds the author visiting Central African Republic (CAR) and central Africa, in general. His visits are assignment-based, to provide media coverage for interesting topics ranging from returning a chimp back into the wild, the poaching of elephants, and the study of the lowland gorilla. No coverage of humanitarian or scientific endeavors in central Africa would be complete without detailing of the travails of traveling in Africa. Even today, travel is rife with corruption, graft, with regional or local “bosses” requiring special permission, i.e. a bribe, in order to progress further towards one’s destination. The recognition of a centralized federal government authority is non-existent once one leaves the city and one must be prepared for unscrupulous people, banditry, graft, and corruption, plus horrible roads. In Zaire, Linden recounts standing in a sweltering office of a pissant bureaucrat awaiting the final negotiations of travel details. The office was also that of the local law enforcement, the walls of which were decorated with hand-painted murals of women being beaten with clubs.

However, if Linden’s experiences were limited to mere humans availing themselves to other humans, his tales would simply be further evidence of human corruption which occurs pretty much everywhere. Humankind’s moral turpitude extends to nearly every species. Chimps are found missing hands and limbs after losing them in snare traps. Chimps and gorillas are essentially murdered for food. Political party members of the Central African Republic and of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and already been caught over 10 times contributing to poaching of chimps, gorillas, and elephants. People who think humans are born “moral” are biased by religious influences. People are born “programmable;” meaning our culture and environment contributes enormously to who we are. We might think there are “absolutes,” as in “everyone knows rape is wrong,” and “everyone knows killing a child is wrong.” Nope. There are people and cultures today who rationalize killing of people and living creatures towards their whim.

“Travels with Jane,” Goodall was another favorite chapter. Eugene revisits his time spent with Jane Goodall, witnessing her interactions with gorillas. The weight of evidence and research supports the idea gorillas and chimpanzees are quite capable of thought, language or some form of communication, feelings and emotions, plus tool use. Any person suggesting otherwise is simply delusional. I cannot find the mark I made in my book, perhaps because my book is heavily marked at this point, but an interesting notion was communicated in Linden’s writings.

I can only imagine St. Peter greeting  people at the Gates of Heaven: “You killed all the elephants and gorillas? Dude, God is going to be so pissed-off when he finds out. He told you precisely, “Take care of the Earth!” Show me the place in the Old, New, or the Qur’an where He says, “Grind rhino testicles into a paste and spread on your sandwich for virility?!”

Humans protest vehemently about abortion, infanticide, and go to extreme measures to support the Pro-Life movement. Speciesism, the assignment of different values based on an individuals species (wikipedia), with humans being the ultimate arbiter in deciding behaviors appropriate and inappropriate. Some people believe speciesism is a form of bigotry, as speciesism can easily roll-over into cultural bigotry and prejudice. To the point, people will generate legislation to govern pregnancies of humans, yet have no problem killing animals whose intelligence is equal to or greater than any human toddler or preschooler. Elephants, porpoises, whales, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, perhaps even the octopus, have well-documented intelligence. Somehow, people find the protection of non-human lifeforms unimportant, in what I can only assume is some ill-conceived Biblical ideology. I can only imagine St. Peter greeting  people at the Gates of Heaven: “You killed all the elephants and gorillas? Dude, God is going to be so pissed-off when he finds out. He told you precisely, “Take care of the Earth!” Show me the place in the Old, New, or the Qur’an where he says, “Grind rhino testicles into a paste and spread on your sandwich for virility?!””

The Noauabale-Ndoki National Park, Congo.

Don’t get too upset over the latency in Linden’s writing. Eugene’s writing is captivating, his stories interesting, and his message troubling. People seem to reach for the lowest common denominator in his accounts. The reality is, this is not the complete picture of the Human Race, merely one facet. Losing site of the goodness, like the recognition of Jane Goodall by the chimps she studies is easily lost in the stories of misbegotten people, agencies, and politics. Many African countries have thousands of square miles of protected wilderness, though this positive effort also has the effect of concentrating highly prized animals for poachers and providing hiding places for rebel militias. The influence of outsiders provides access to drugs and alcohol; Pygmies who would rather smoke pot than work. Or, corporate investment in exotic places providing extra local income also is responsible for the deforestation of Sumatra and Madagascar, and the overall loss of knowledge contained within ever-shrinking populations of indigenous people around the world.

Other similar books by Eugene Linden include:

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