Friday, September 27, 2013

Book review: "I've Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters"

For anyone who harbors romantic notions of scientific fieldwork say, camping in a wilderness Eden with little more to do than observe wildlife and join in cultural exchanges with friendly natives this book offers a bucket of cold water.

Researchers who have been there point out the less-known side of science in the wild: natives who threaten to kill you, poisonous snakes in inconvenient places, bureaucrats who block you from doing your work, bad food, animals that steal your food, animals that consider YOU food, and unreliable boats, cars and airplanes that have a habit of breaking down in the worst of situations.

And those are just some of the examples.

While "I've Been Gone Far Too Long" offers 21 different stories from different authors, it manages to maintain a remarkably even level of quality. Each of the stories are pleasantly, but not spectacularly, engaging. Each offers some folly, misadventure or misunderstanding, but usually these are mild rather than outrageously wild. There are plenty of chuckles, but few gut-busting laughs.

In particular, I liked Dorothy Cheney's story of a researcher trying figure out the puzzling behavior of Kenya's Maasai tribesmen (who are themselves puzzled by the researcher) and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder's story of taking some tribal elders to find an ancient grave site in Tanzania. The only story that I thought fell flat was A. Magdalena Hurtado's stiff description of her work in the Paraguayan jungle.

To be fair, this book may paint a picture of scientific fieldwork that overemphasizes the problems. Some of the authors do stress that even amid the difficulties there are rewards. One character says: "Fieldwork is an adventure that is filled with anxiety and despair, the routine broken only occasionally by moments of sheer exhiliration."

One final note: I'd suggest reading the afterword by Nigel Barley first, or at least not waiting until the end. It offers some observations that put the stories of the book in some context.


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