I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning In Natural History

by Stephen Jay Gould

Rating: halfstar.gif - 887 Bytes
Publisher: Harmony Books, Crown Publishing
Publication Date: May, 2002
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Page Count: 384 pgs. (hardcover)
ISBN: 0-609-60143-1
Reviewed: June 2002

        I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning In Natural History was published shortly before Stephen Jay Gould passed away. I had assumed, from the title, that Gould knew of his impending death, and addressed it in this book. But no, the title was chosen at least half a year before a routine checkup revealed cancer - lung cancer, apparently unrelated to the abdominal mesothelioma he had been diagnosed with twenty years earlier. The foreboding title referred only to his retirement from writing his long-running column in Natural History, "This View of Life." After twenty-seven years, he'd decided to move on to new challenges.

        The first and title essay is thus startlingly, even eerily, appropriate, with its theme of "Lives end, but life continues." It's comforting, but also sad, since it makes clear that Gould assumed that he had many more years of scholarly and literary work ahead of him.

        That he was wrong is our loss, as the rest of the book makes plain. I Have Landed is classic Gould. Like the previous nine books in this series, this one collects essays originally written for Natural History magazine. There are 27 of them, plus a special bonus: four short, poignant essays written after September 11, and added at the end of the book.

        He hits on many of his favorite subjects: Charles Darwin; the nature of science and its relation to other fields of human endeavor; the artificiality of the human concept called race; evolution and creationism; the way human understanding of the universe is inevitably colored by the way our brains are hard-wired. As usual, the sheer depth and breadth of Gould's intellect is astonishing. Though he names himself a "student of snails" (his zoological specialty), he writes knowledgeably and incisively about dizzying array of subjects: Gilbert and Sullivan, baseball, Freud, the Alamo, Dorothy Sayers. There seems to be no limit to his interests or his expertise. And, directly or obliquely, he ties them all into natural history, and to the underlying theme of all of his writing: what it means to be human. Gould's great talent is synthesis, seeing connections others don't, combining elements so that the sum is greater than the parts. It's a pleasure to watch him in action.

        The four September 11 essays deserve special mention. As detailed in the first essay, Gould's grandfather arrived in New York on September 11, 1901. Exactly one hundred years later, Gould and his wife were flying from Milan to New York. In "The Good People of Halifax," he expresses his gratitude toward the Canadians who opened their homes and their hearts to him and all the other Americans unexpectedly stranded there by the events of September 11. "Apple Brown Betty" describes a small but transcendent act of kindness, witnessed when he was volunteering at Ground Zero. "The Woolworth Building" is a symbol of the resilience of the human spirit. And "September 11, '01" brings the book full circle, back to his grandfather, and all the other ordinary, decent folk who made this country what it is.

        Gould's prose, always complex, is even more so here; a few of the essays are perhaps a bit longer than necessary. And it is, as he claims, a more personal book than the others in his series - most notably in the first essay, and in the last four. Overall, though, it's much in keeping with the previous books in the series; if you enjoyed them, this one is not to be missed. Get this book, and follow Gould down "the path of insinuation by small but fascinating tidbits" one last time.

        Goodbye, Stephen Jay Gould. The "tree of life" may indeed continue, but it won't be the same, now that your branch has fallen from it.