Drawing paradise

Jordi Sabater Pi al llindar de la selva guineana

Every day, Dr. Jordi Sabater Pi (1922-2009) remembered the rainforest in Equatorial Guinea, ever since he had to leave the country, forced by circumstances and accompanied by his family, on 27 February 1969. Back home, he left behind a series of life experiences that he successfully turned into an outstanding intellectual legacy. An undeniably novelesque memoir of Africa that Toni Pou has managed to encapsulate in this biography written in meticulous prose, rich in lexicon, narratively nimble, but not lacking in deep lyricism.

Nothing says more about the promise of a journey than a colonial map from the early 20th century, adorned with colourful prints of exotic tribes, rushing rivers, birds of paradise and elephants. All this and biographies of explorers fuelled Dr. Sabater’s travel fantasies when he was a boy studying at the École Française on Barcelona’s Gran Via. This book could just as easily have acted – or perhaps still acts – to stimulate a longing for travel and adventure, but the Africa it conjures up has disappeared or is vanishing. “Inda outra muita terra se te esconde” goes a verse from Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Camões, which Dr. Sabater read as a young man because he wanted to learn the language of the Portuguese who lived on the island of Fernando Poo, the first leg of his African voyage. “Much more land is hidden from you”. This conviction made him return to the Spanish colony after completing his military service in Barcelona, as Toni Pou’s book recounts; his destination was mainland Guinea, wilder and more rugged than the island. Once he settled there, a combination of skills, such as a keen eye for observation, an aptitude for drawing, a taste for reading and learning, and a love of nature, all combined with a breathtaking, paradisiacal environment, shaped the scientist. A chance event steered his talent towards zoological research. Chance, as well as being the driving force behind biological evolution, is also the architect of many lives, and it is so in the life of this world-renowned researcher, as this book reflects.

Llibre: Toni Pou, Jordi Sabater Pi. L’últim naturalista. Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2023.

And it was fate that led him to the only known albino gorilla, christened Snowflake. The author of the biography describes this event as an anecdote, highlighting the contrasts between this occurrence and the scientific figure of Dr. Sabater Pi, whom he thoroughly praises throughout the book.

The volume features reproductions of numerous original scientific drawings by Dr. Sabater. In fact, it was thanks to his drawing skills that he was able to make up for his lack of academic training, as well as his rigorous and painstaking fieldwork. All this allowed him to describe species which, albeit already known, one could say that until then, in many respects, they had literally occupied the vague realm of cryptofauna: the goliath frog, which sounds like a literary invention; the lyre-tailed honeyguide, a bird he discovered after twelve years of research; the gentle and peaceful behaviour of gorillas, despite having thought they were fearsome beasts; and the breakthrough discovery, chimpanzee material culture.

All this information, which led to a large number of scientific articles and erudite books, was previously recorded in his notebooks, which have, in the words of the biography’s author, “the feeling of an antique object that connects our time with the era of the great naturalists”, some of whom were also illustrators, such as Audubon, the first American ornithologist; Humboldt, a pioneer of ecological thinking; his contemporary Eugeni Sierra, an excellent botanical illustrator; and his contemporary José Antonio Valverde, the creator of Doñana National Park.

The settings are African rainforests, which, perhaps with the exception of protected areas, are and have been constantly exploited. It is therefore only natural that most of the species studied by Dr. Sabater are currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered or critically endangered species. “Beauty is always doomed”, the legendary Captain Mission bemoans in William Burroughs’ novel Ghost of Chance, and this doom was perhaps discerned by Dr. Sabater in the look of sheer human expressiveness of the gorillas and chimpanzees he drew, studied and loved.

Jordi Sabater Pi. L’últim naturalista [The Last Naturalist].

Toni Pou

Barcelona City Council, 2023.

328 pages

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