It takes a special kind of man to brave bitter cold, blinding snow, and bloodsucking leeches -- all for the joy of studying a few obscure species of goats and sheep. His quest is strange, his story captivating.
Director of conservation for the New York Zoological Society, George B. Schaller is known worldwide for his work with lions,tigers, gorillas, and snow leopards. Author of "The Serengeti Lions," a National Book Award winner, Dr. Schaller is also a field biologist who has chosen for his laboratory the Himalayan Mountains. There, in remote valleys and on steep cliffsides, rare varieties of wildlife that perished long ago from the rest of the earth still cling to existence. They include the markhor, sure-footed, shaggy-coated creatures whose evolutionary grandchildren inhabit barnyards around the world.
Over a period of six years Dr. Schaller made several journeys into the wildest reaches of Nepal, to the snowy peaks of Kashmir, to the Hindu Kush of Pakistan. Sometimes he traveled with only a single companion; on other occasions he organized expeditions complete with native bearers and camp cook. The project was financed by the New York Zoological Society and the National Geographic Society.
For hours and days on end, Schaller peered patiently at his wild and rare animals through a telescope, notebook in hand. He observed how they fought, played, grazed, gave birth, and raised their young. Biological anomalies -- genetic survivors of the Pleistocene Era -- they often seemed uncertain whether to behave like goats, sheep, or something in between.
The first fruit of Schaller's labors was a scientific treatise, necessarily confined to cold facts. His most recent work, "Stones of Silence," is just the opposite: an unabashedly subjective chronicle of personal experiences and reflections during the course of his research. Schaller agrees with William Beebe, who believed in the need of "softening facts with quiet meditation, leavening science with thoughts of the pure joy of existence."
In this book, science is never separate from imagination and emotion. Instead of analyzing the animals he has traveled so far to study, Schaller tries to convey the excitement of his discoveries, as well as his reactions to the people and places he encounters along the way. He writes: "The character of a region has much to do with the character of the person describing it, for we see our own heart in a landscape."
In the regions he traverses, however, Schaller sees much more than his own heart. For him, the trails of forgotten explorers and intrigues of federal kings still mingle with the banalities of the present, and his narrative is filled with enthralling bits of history. Schaller also is acutely aware of ecological clues pointing to a troubled future. A recurring theme is that even in these "wildest" parts of the globe, the depredations of man are quickly leading to environmental disaster.
In one sense, this is not an adventure story; it does not involve much suspense or a dramatic plot. Nevertheless, as the ruminations of a literate man with an exotic career, "Stones of Silence" offers a kind of quiet delight.