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Standup environmentalist delivers message with wit

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At first blush, it would seem this University of Manitoba graduate, who now resides and teaches in Australia, shouldn't be hamming it up in the serious world of environmental science.

Yet after the success of his first book, The Leacock Medal-nominated The Curse of the Labrador Duck (2009), Glen Chilton, an ornithologist and acclaimed behavioural ecologist, returns with more tongue-in-cheek revelations in Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons, this time about flora and fauna found in the most unlikely places.

Each of this book's 14 chapters is set in a different part of the globe and might best be described in Churchillian-speak as "a scientific report within a travelogue wrapped in humour."

Self-deprecating commentary and satirical wit compete with one-liners: "In our closest relatives there is a reminder that we are, after all, just reasonably sophisticated monkeys."

To add balance to his comedic observations, Chilton shows a deep knowledge of plant and animal species introduced into new surroundings accidentally or purposefully (think of rabbits into Australia or purple loosestrife into Canada).

One story comes from New Orleans where Chilton goes looking for wood-chomping Formosan termites believed to have contributed to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

While respecting the storm's tragic consequences, he humorously draws attention to the public relations nightmare that convention organizers and the Bush administration were left with: "Misery loves company. This may explain such gatherings as Star Trek conventions, Weight Watchers, and the Republican Party."

Tipped off that Scotland harbours marsupials native to Tasmania that are often mistaken for small kangaroos, Chilton assures the chagrined locals that these wallabies "claim that kangaroos are over-sized wallabies."

Seeing how the common rhododendron has become a "pushy, introduced monster," he soberly details how its "big, bold and beautiful flowers" mask a sinister threat to the survival of the great, ancient oak forests in northern U.K.

Invited to attend a wedding in Sri Lanka, the world's largest producer of tea, Chilton experiences an enlightening and knee-slapping visit while studying the popular beverage plant first introduced here in the 19th century.

He describes a hyper Sri Lankan acquaintance as having "enough personality for three people," while the crowded city's array of different smells are "spicy and pleasant; others less so."

At a tea plantation, spying barefoot women picking leaves while struggling with heavy back-mounted collection bags, Chilton is told by a straight-faced guide that "the men do even heavier work, like pruning the plants."

If wit and humour help raise awareness of the delicate balance that exists between an environment and its life forms, Chilton's revelations in The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons will trump all those naysayers who believe environmentalists should just go away and silently hug a tree.

Well-intentioned but pedantic attempts to raise awareness by other well-known activists like David Suzuki and Diana Beresford Kroeger often fail to resonate with a jaded public.

But Chilton's latest effort should have the same people rolling in the aisles. Hopefully, they will remember the subject matter that led to the laughter.

 

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 J8

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