Armchair traveling is the only way to visit New Guinea
THROWIM WAY LEG:ON THE TRACK OF UNKNOWN MAMMALS IN WILDEST NEW GUINEA By Tim Flannery Atlantic Monthly Press 336 pp., $25
Readers of "Throwim Way Leg," a gripping tale about the most remote areas of New Guinea, will be grateful they're spared the discomforts and dangers the author describes in hair-raising detail. But they'll be catapulted into exhilarating adventures rarely chronicled in such vivid verbal pictures.
Australian scientist Tim Flannery, a world expert on the fauna of New Guinea and a writer who has been likened to Stephen Jay Gould, has an incredible ability to take the reader to the very sites of his confrontations with mammals, birds, and peoples. Incessantly hazardous hikes in search of unique animal species bring him into contact with a vast array of tribal natives and expose him to jarring cultural collisions.
While joining the author in traversing "the most difficult terrain on the planet," the reader is bombarded in rapid succession with cannibalism, polygamy, cult houses, python wrestling, unsavory feasts (decorated with "cockroach droppings"), insufferable mental and physical discomfort (hairy spiders in the outhouse), unpredictable violence, and the frequent threat of death from natives as well as disease. Yet Flannery rebounds from every near-disaster with curiosity, humor, and a deeper dedication to fulfill his mission.
In the midst of bizarre dress and decoration, pierced nose septums, and elaborate penis gourds, this intrepid communicator makes friends and cherishes the qualities of character that lie behind the unfamiliar customs and rituals.
Between devastating cultural awakenings, Flannery focuses on the beauty and value of the natural world. Whether gliding solo down a jungle-fringed river on an air mattress, exulting in the extraordinary variety of birds-of-paradise, or reveling in night views of luminescent fungi, he records nature's phenomena.
Undeterred by the risk of being permanently entombed between rocks in subterranean caves while in pursuit of fruit bats, or being bitten when sleeping with a silky cuscus, the author shows unflagging devotion to the search. His frequent returns to this area of the world during the past two decades have resulted in the discovery of 16 species of mammals and 14 subspecies.
Before 1990, no guide to any of New Guinea's extraordinary mammals even existed. Although hovering near disaster repeatedly, the author takes the time to ponder the effects of Western missionary interference on ancient cultures and to consider the growing impact of the outside world on village life. He describes the effects of mining and the logging of primeval forests in Irian Jaya, where the Indonesian government is currently and irreversibly altering the ecology and lives of people, thus threatening a unique and ancient way of living.
At the end of this wild and adventurous literary ride, readers will feel blessed that a writer of such insight has recorded this remote environment of animal and human cultures on the verge of possible extinction.
*Marjorie D. Hamlin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.