Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pg. 69: "Tigers in Red Weather"

Tigers in Red Weather "is a story about tigers, greed and the dignified tragedy of the human heart," Sara Wheeler wrote in the Guardian last year, adding: "The poet Ruth Padel has chosen to tell it in prose, but only a poetic imagination could have whipped together disparate dollops of literature, science, autobiography and metaphysical musing to confect such a lyrical and deeply impressive book."

I wanted to know more about this book, so I asked Ruth to subject her book to the "page 69 test." Here's what she reported, first reproducing the text of page 69:
He had 38 tigers now. But what about protecting them from poachers?

Ageing, underpaid, a hundred forest guards die or are mutilated by poachers every year in India.

“They told me their biggest problem in the forest is not getting rations on time.”

He smiled sadly. “They were shy. Their real problem is not being with their wives and families”.

When I looked back, he was pinning Kipling’s poem “If” back on his notice-board.


India has the most wild tigers of the world. My page 69 goes to the heart of why India is failing to protect them.

Since I finished the book, India’s lost all tigers from one reserve; and half from several others, including Ranthambhore, where p. 69 is set. I am talking to its last good director.

P. 69 is not representative of the exciting bits, tracking tigers in mangrove swamps and finding their banqueting table, getting stalked by a tiger on a Sumatran volcano, radio-tracking a tigress with young cubs in taiga of Far East Russia; a three-day kayak up a river in Laos.

What it’s got is the nitty gritty: how hard it is to protect forest anywhere. The Ranthambhore Director is talking about his forest guards. After we talked, he crossed swords with his boss, the state’s Forest Minister, who wanted (I wasn’t allowed to imply he’d been bribed) to let shopkeepers operate inside the park which was against the law: it disturbs wildlife and encourages poachers.

For standing up for law, this Director got clobbered with 18 false allegations of wrongdoing which wasted the rest of his time there. Once he’d gone, Ranthambhore started losing its tigers. In November 2005, the poachers were arrested. They said they’d taken tigers from under the noses of those very guards. Their fresh skins are currently sold openly in China and China-controlled Tibet. Tiger poaching everywhere is driven by Chinese appetite for illegal tigerskin and (for Chinese medicine) tiger bone. The Dalai Lama has condemned this, so Tibetans are trying to suppress it. But not China. Last month, at a Geneva conference of the Convention on International Trade in Flora and Fauna, the Chinese delegate was photographed dumping piles of the Environmental Investigation Agency’s new report on the tigerskin trade* in a skip.

We’re not great at protecting our own forest in Britain. On p. 287 I recall Network Rail flattening illegally a triangle of protected woodland. And p 69 also reminds you there are wonderful people putting their lives on the line to protect tiger forests - which themselves protect Asia’s precious water sources.

The tiger is the soul of Asia. It is emblem of the wild; and guardian of wilderness everyone needs still to be there, whether we see it or not. In wilderness, said Thoreau, is the preservation of the world.

*Skinning the Cat: Crime and Politics of the Big Cat Skin Trade is published by the Environmental Investigation Agency, 62 Upper St, London N1 ONY 0207 354 7960,
Thanks to Ruth for the input.

Nicola Smyth opened her rave review of Tigers in Red Weather for the Independent with a question:
Learning to ride an elephant, bareback, in the forests of Nepal; kayaking 100 miles in a boat that resembles a turkey baster; trekking through leech-infested landscapes; collecting animal faeces in Sumatra while singing to scare off the cobras: do any of these strike you as a good cure for a broken heart? [click here to read the rest of the review, including the part about feeding cannabis to pigs in Bhutan]
Anthony Sattin was similarly effusive in his review for the London Times:
If you care no more about tigers than to smile at Tigger’s stutter, hiss at Shere Khan or be roused by Blake’s “Tyger, tyger, burning bright”, be prepared have your thoughts overturned by Ruth Padel’s beautiful book.
[Padel] walks, drives or rides tiger trails, talks to people working to ensure tigers’ survival, seeks to understand the threats and, above all, strives to see the bigger picture.

The result of her searching, unsurprisingly, is to realise that tigers face an unequal struggle. Threatened by population pressure, loggers and poachers, they have become victims of their own image. As icons of strength, their body parts are reduced to pills or powders and are taken by one fifth of the world’s population, who believe these concoctions can heal or protect them. (Fired by the same belief, people in the ancient Mediterranean wore lion skins, though of course in antiquity wildlife wasn’t threatened as it is today.) But Padel is not all gloom. Although the threats are formidable and have huge political muscle behind them, the same goes for the moves to save tigers. Above all, she delivers one compelling reason why we must ensure these creatures live on: like us, they are at the top of their food chain. When they cannot survive, the world — our world — is in ruins.

Click here to read many more positive reviews.

If this travel-memoir sounds interesting, you should read Ruth Padel's biography. (A brief version is here.) She is the great great grand-daughter of Charles Darwin; has won Britain's National Poetry Competition and published six collections of poems; taught Greek at Oxford, opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton and horse-riding in Berlin; excavated Minoan tombs on Crete, presented a Radio 4 series on Hans Andersen, sung in an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache, Paris; and much more. Extraordinary.

Click here for a list of her books; here to read several of her essays; and here to read some of her poetry.

Previous "page 69 tests":
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue