An understanding of nature
by Mary Margaret. Posted on July 1, 2012, Sunday
LAST week’s article on Robert WC Shelford led me on a search for his influential book, ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’, which was first published in 1916 and most recently in 1999 by Natural History Publications in Kota Kinabalu.
This book, one of Shelford’s many legacies, laid some of the groundwork that led to the development of the understanding of the complexities of the natural world. His friend and mentor, Edward B Poulton, actually completed the book as Shelford passed away from tuberculosis at the young age of 39.
Poulton, in addition to editing and painstakingly adding the professional touches, included some biographical information about the author, who as a sickly child in Singapore developed an interest in natural history.
Shelford’s passion for all that composes the natural world – in particular animals – are at the very core of this ground-breaking book. In the first chapter on mammals, Shelford delights readers with accounts of his personal encounters and those of his peers with the exotic apes and monkeys of Sarawak. He starts with the majestic, now endangered, orangutans working his way through the orders.
Detailed descriptions are prevalent through fluid writing. His description of the Bornean lemur – including habitat, feeding habitats and skeletal descriptions – are in depth. In addition, he pulls from personal accounts to draw in readers. Descriptions and accounts lead us through chapters on birds, snakes and other reptiles, which include crocodiles, turtles and tortoises.
The next chapters focus on the insect world starting with despised cockroaches. The readers, us, are gently reminded that cockroaches, sometimes called black beetles, are ecologically important and most species are not found in our kitchens. He delves into the mysteries of praying mantises and other stick insects, all of which are members of the Dictyoptera family. The clear and precise observations enable readers to fully appreciate this group. The following chapters deal with beetles and ants and plants. He sets out a hypothesis on evolution and the benefits of the relationship between plants and ants, including shelter and nutrition.
Observation within the insect world was central to Shelford’s study on mimicry with an entire chapter devoted to animals, mostly insects, which attempt to escape from predators by pretending to be something else that is dangerous and poisonous. This tactic scares away predators, which may remember the bad taste. Shelford discusses this phenomenon across a range of species before next inviting us to join the journeys he made.
Despite health issues during the seven years he spent as curator of the Sarawak Museum, Shelford made several expeditions to what are now nearby places, but at the turn of the 20th century involved arduous journeys by boat and walking. Now we get into our cars and arrive at Santubong Mountain, or the Penrissen Highlands or Matang Mountain in less than an hour.
During these trips, he spent extensive periods collecting specimens with the assistance of helpers from the surrounding villages. It would be fascinating to hear the stories that must have sprung up around him and the reactions to those who lent a hand.
This book is written in the style of an earlier time with longish sentences containing huge amounts of information. In addition, beyond chapter titles there are no other headings within. As readers of 21st century reference books, we are probably conditioned to having eye-catching titles so that we only need to read the sections of direct interest. Instead we need to read and scan the text to locate sections of interest.
The value of the book, which is available in bookshops in Kuching, despite a writing style that reaches back to an earlier time, remains. Shelford’s ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’ is a starting point for understanding the natural world and when we read current reference books, I am sure we can see a touch of Shelford.