September 2002

Jen Crispin


The Ghost with Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul

The Ghost with Trembling Wings is easily the most enjoyable science book I have read since The Botany of Desire. Tidbits from this book brought up in conversation have made me sound more intelligent and well-read at parties, and isn't that why we read non-fiction? The main topic of the book, the search for lost species, is something most of us have thought about. Although few people lose any sleep over the thought of an invertebrate species being lost to the void, I believe that most, when faced with the irrevocable loss of a more charismatic species, are at least temporarily saddened -- providing their personal property is not determined to be the final natural habitat of the endangered species in question. In this book, Scott Weidensaul wisely confines most of his attention to birds and mammals, straying only for terribly noteworthy amphibians and fish, like a brilliant gold toad, and the Loch Ness monster.

Yes, really, the Loch Ness monster. Along with the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker, and the disappearing and reappearing black-footed ferret, Weidensaul devotes quite a bit of inquiry to species that probably never existed. Like the Loch Ness monster, Yeti, and the Black Beast of Inkberrow. While he never seems to expect to actually locate these creatures, his hypotheses about how these creatures came to exist in our collective unconscious are enlightening.

Despite the attention given to myth, this book is far from frivolous. It covers all the bases. From attempts at reintroducing species that are extinct in the wild to attempts to locate a species that was only seen once, by one man, who didn't record where he saw it. He also documents attempts to recreate species that are completely extinct.

As interesting as all these searches are, it is again the author's speculations on why we go to such lengths to find them that really draw me into the book. Why would anyone want to spend millions of dollars trying to clone the DNA of an extinct marsupial? Why are there so many unconfirmed sightings of species long after they have been declared extinct? Why do so many people report seeing black panthers in places where it is nearly impossible that they should be? Why do so many cultures have myths of an abominable snowman, yeti, large hairy man with claws? What are we really losing when a species finally disappears forever? And what should we do if we suddenly discover ten of them living on some tiny island?

If any of the above questions interest you, I wholeheartedly recommend that you read this book.

The Ghost with Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul
Published by North Point Press
ISBN: 0374246645
352 Pages