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Birute Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, form the famed trio of “angels” Louis Leakey trained to study great apes in the wild. While Fossey studied the gorilla and Goodall the chimpanzee, Galdikas went to Borneo to study the orangutan and, decades later, emerged as a complicated figure, embroiled in scandal. Spalding’s quest to know this woman takes her from the offices of Galdikas’s foundation in Los Angeles to the Sekonyer River in Borneo, where she discovers a beguiling cast of characters. A ...
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Birute Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, form the famed trio of “angels” Louis Leakey trained to study great apes in the wild. While Fossey studied the gorilla and Goodall the chimpanzee, Galdikas went to Borneo to study the orangutan and, decades later, emerged as a complicated figure, embroiled in scandal. Spalding’s quest to know this woman takes her from the offices of Galdikas’s foundation in Los Angeles to the Sekonyer River in Borneo, where she discovers a beguiling cast of characters. A host of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, descendants of the Dayak headhunters, Javanese gold miners, and half-tame orangutans all vie for control of this despoiled Eden. Dark Place in the Jungle is an absorbing rumination on the failure of a woman trying desperately to mother a species to survival, the dangers and temptations of eco-tourism, and the arrogance of our inclination to alter the very things we set out to preserve. 30 black-and-white photographs are featured in this revealing and fascinating journey.
At four o'clock, it begins to be cool enough that movement is just bearable again. Between five and seven, the light gets longer and softer and there are shadows on surfaces. Greens deepen. The sky becomes opaque. That afternoon, as the hard heat began to lift, I stood, wet with sweat, on the porch and tried to throw off the oppression of the closed and silent rooms. As if the effort of bringing back her childhood had been physically exhausting, Riska was sound asleep. I took a deep breath. Yes, it was ever so slightly cooler and the sunlight didn't hurt my skin. A pair of kingfishers flew past! The smell of a distant cooking fire rose up from across the river and mixed with a nearer, marshier scent. My forest ancestors would have recognized every detail of those smells, would have absorbed them the way I absorb the particular flavors of a soup. This time of day would have furnished them special delights, which is why I had come, after all--to waken those senses and find my most elemental self. Locking the door against Gistok, I threw the key in over the transom, so that Riska would not be trapped inside.
Locked out, locked away from everything even faintly familiar--my books, clothes, comforts, my language, even my guide--I was staring at a river full of crocodiles. I was allergic to the grass. I had no boat. No phone. No mailbox. No one could contact me even if they tried. In a moment I would walk into the forest and if I didn't come back, no one would know where to look for my remains. I'd kicked off the traces; that's how I felt. For almost thirty years I'd been responsible for children. And to them. In fact, I'd been answerable to someone all my life. To be sensible, to be respectable, to stay within the law, within the bounds of etiquette, inside well-marked cultural lines. Like the orangutans, I was a creature of culture. And like Riska, only she'd gone a lot further from her origins than I. From the start, I'd been so closely monitored that when I jumped, I never knew whether it was a reaction to the lines I was crossing or a response to some part of my true self. I couldn't think of a single minute of my life that hadn't belonged to someone else. Even now, on the other side of the locked door, there was Riska. Maybe I should stay unattached, forget any personal feelings for her. I'd come from another world and I had no right, or duty even, to make her part of mine. Writing the truth, about herself or anything else, would permanently change her life. I had locked the door. Fine. And when I looked around for Gistok, he was out of sight.
I thought, If fear is connected to other people's claims, then being invisible I should be fearless. And being fearless, I'm free. "Out of here," as my kids would say. Four hours' walk away there was a piece of land held by Birute's husband, Pak Bohap. Anyway, it was ostensibly in his name. I'd heard about it from the rangers, from other visitors and from people in Pangkalan Bun and Kumai. Birute's secret forest. I'd heard that Birute kept a group of ex-captive orangutans on this land under the care of some very isolated workers who were extremely unfriendly. Even hostile. I'd been told that, denied access to Camp Leakey, she protected this secret place as vigilantly as we protect our secret selves. There were guards. It was "private property." Very dangerous to trespass.
There were stories from former volunteers and associates, and also locals. They were never denied.
I kept the river on my right and the trees on my left. The path was sandy and I searched it for fire ants. Nothing. Nobody. That was what I felt. Around me, beneath and above, nothingness. Even meeting up with a wild pig or a poisonous snake would have been less terrible than . . . And what if a snake did come slithering out of the grass? I was only wearing my Tevas and I hadn't told Alan I was going out of camp. I'd broken a cardinal rule: Never go out alone and always notify . . . If something happened, I would cause trouble for him. It was darkening, and that happens fast. If I went any farther, it would be too dark to find my way back. Trees on my left, gathering shadows like birds, river on my right, lungs out of breath, feet pounding the earth, I ran toward that hidden place in the woods. Passed the graveyard. Got to the old, wobbly tower. I was picking up speed, watching my feet grip my sandals, watching the ground move.
In front of me, Birute's secret place. Behind me, Riska's hidden life.
Birute says we are social animals. She says we've learned to give because of our greed. But maybe it's something else. If clambering taught us to think of ourselves as separate and unique, as causal agents, it made us aware of ourselves and our movements so that we could paint on the walls of caves when we came down to the ground. What we painted was stories and images made for another set of eyes, a spirit or god or fellow being. It's the awareness of ourselves that causes us to create. I'd argue against "greed" as the cause for the gifts of our deepest sensibilities. Surely there is generosity in writing . . .
I decided to ignore the secret forest and turn around. I wanted my lover, my children, the friends I've adopted for keeps. And my work. Words. Riska. The door to the cabin was still locked, so I turned toward the river, where I could sit on the dock and cool my feet. It was dusk. Riska would soon wake up and light our lamp. I neared the dock and saw something strange. Gistok was sitting in the river, quietly splashing himself with a meditative flick of his wrist. Slowly, as if absorbed in the deepest thought, he examined his fingers, trailing them through the current so he could study the drops that fell when he lifted them. Delighted by the sight of his toes underwater, he grinned at them and then looked up at me and grinned again.
Orangutans like sitting on docks and playing with soap, but they never swim. Still, Gistok sat in the river. He was alone. I got in with him. Companionably, we watched our hands waver under the surface, both of us wordless, made of the same sensibilities. Each of us with a brain that creates images and the senses that feed them joined in the realm of gestures, expressions and empathy, sweetly communicating. No tugging this time. No overpowering strength. The sky reddened briefly, and Gistok leaned over to peer at some passing fish. If I'd had a pair of goggles, I'd have given them to him.
That night Riska and I ate our meal and prepared ourselves for sleep. Mosquito coils, lanterns turned down, teeth brushed, dishes scraped.
"There's something I think I should tell you," she said in the wavering light. "Did you know I have a little daughter?"
I shook my head.
"I didn't think so. It was bothering me."
I do like you better, I wanted to say, but I couldn't find the words to explain. What draws us close is not just sharing the everyday things. There are also frightening and terrible truths. How much was I giving of myself? I couldn't even tell her how I felt.
I went to sleep and dreamed of my mother visiting me in a house that was tall and white. We walked around on its green lawn, and she told me the name of her favorite rose and gave me instructions about planting it. I tried to explain that I would never live long enough in that house to see a rose come to bloom, but suddenly she fell on the grass and I picked her up and carried her on around the white house, feeling such tenderness for her that all the next day, when my senses were again awake, the feeling persisted, the weight of my mother in my arms.
Excerpted from A Dark Place in the Jungle by Linda Spalding Copyright © 2003 by Linda Spalding. Excerpted by permission.
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