“A genre-expanding account of knowledge and politics.” — Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast
“A provocative, sparklingly written hybrid work combining original historical scholarship with lively first-person narrative and natural historical observation.” — Anya Zilberstein, author of A Temperate Empire
Can corals build worlds? Do rattlesnakes enchant? What is a raccoon, and what might it know? Animals and the questions they raised thwarted human efforts to master nature during the so-called Enlightenment—a historical moment when rigid classification pervaded the study of natural history, people traded in people, and imperial avarice wrapped its tentacles around the globe. Whitney Barlow Robles makes animals the unruly protagonists of eighteenth-century science through journeys to four spaces and ecological zones: the ocean, the underground, the curiosity cabinet, and the field. Her forays reveal a forgotten lineage of empirical inquiry—one that forced researchers to embrace uncertainty. This tumultuous era in the history of human-animal encounters still haunts modern biologists and ecologists as they struggle to fathom animals today.
In an eclectic fusion of history and nature writing, Robles alternates between careful historical investigations and probing personal narratives. The quest for animals takes her to adventures across the globe: an underwater brush with the coral that almost killed Captain Cook in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a face-off with imperiled rattlesnakes during a pandemic pregnancy, a bungling attempt at the lost art of fish flattening, and a handshake with the world’s rarest raccoon. These excavations of the past and present of distinct nonhuman creatures reveal the animal foundations of human knowledge. And they show why tackling our current environmental crisis first requires looking back in time.