About a month ago, the resident bloggers here at Dispatches from the field (Catherine, Amanda, and Sarah) were asked to review a recently published book about fieldwork: Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, by Justin Fox. Naturally, being both field scientists and bloggers, we were all excited to see a copy of Unspotted arrive in the Dispatches inbox, and we thought we would share our thoughts on Fox’s book in this week’s blog post.
Unspotted tells the story of Quinton Martins, a scientist whose doctoral thesis focused on the “near mythical” Cape Mountain Leopard. While most field biologists catch, tag, or collect so many of their target species that they begin seeing them in their sleep, Martins spent the majority of his research time tramping around the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, simply trying to lay eyes on his elusive study subject. When he ran out of funding, he poured his personal funds into his quest – even selling his car and resorting to hitchhiking as his mode of field transportation. As Fox aptly puts it: “Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity.” Nor did his obsession end with his doctoral thesis: Martins is currently the project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust, an organization he founded with the goal of understanding and preserving the entire Cape Mountain ecosystem.
From the beginning, Fox effectively and realistically conveys the ups and downs of fieldwork. The story is told in first person; the reader accompanies Fox on his trip to the Cederberg to “meet Quinton…and, hopefully, one of this spotted friends”. By telling the story through his eyes – the eyes of a neophyte, learning about the challenges and triumphs of working with these large cats for the first time – Fox makes the story accessible to all readers, regardless of their own field experience.
Unsurprisingly, seeing things from Fox’s point of view also led to a number of the funnier moments in the book. Anyone who has ever turned up dressed inappropriately for the field will sympathize with his failure to bring a sweater on his first foray into the mountains, and his quiet desperation as he waits in the cold spring evening for Martins to finish setting a trap – eventually bursting out, “Um, I think I m-m-might need to head back to the ve-ve-vehicle before hypothermia sets in.”, only to be completely ignored by the fixated (and more appropriately dressed) Martins.
But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Fox’s extensive descriptions, which illuminate the pages of the book. He eloquently and vividly describes the landscape, the fieldwork, and the people he meets. He effectively uses figurative language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind, describing a local fish as “a cross between a leopard and a daisy”, and repeatedly comparing Martins himself to the leopards he tracks with such dedication. Fox’s use of metaphors and similes bring his experiences in the field to life: you feel your teeth rattling right along with his as he rides up a dirt track in a truck that “bounce[s] over boulders like an inebriated frog”. And he does a great job of describing some of the unique and somewhat eccentric characters he meets in the field in a way that allows the reader to connect to them.
If we have one criticism of Fox’s book, it would be that it left us wanting more. Offering a bit more background information – about the natural history of the leopards, the goals and results of Martins’ research, and the larger implications of his work – would provide a context that is somewhat lacking.
Overall, Unspotted is a quick and engaging read, and we would recommend it for both field biologists – who will see many of their own stories reflected in its pages – and for the general public, who may gain some insight into the unique “madness” that drives field biologists to do what they do.
You can find Justin Fox’s book Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard on Amazon.ca.