Dark Place in the Jungle

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Overview

In A Dark Place in the Jungle, writer Linda Spalding travels to Borneo's threatened jungles on the trail of orangutan researcher Birute galdikas. What she finds is an unholy mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, descendants of Dayak headhunters, Javanese gold miners, and half-tame orangutans.

Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Formed the famed trio of "angels" Louis Leakey encouraged to study great apes in the wild In 1971, she went ...

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Overview

In A Dark Place in the Jungle, writer Linda Spalding travels to Borneo's threatened jungles on the trail of orangutan researcher Birute galdikas. What she finds is an unholy mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, descendants of Dayak headhunters, Javanese gold miners, and half-tame orangutans.

Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Formed the famed trio of "angels" Louis Leakey encouraged to study great apes in the wild In 1971, she went into the jungle to study orangutans and decades later emerged with a rundown empire crumbling around her. Along the way, as poachers and timber barons slaughtered orangutans by the hundreds, Galdikas evolved into Ibu, the great mother of orphan orangutans, blurring the line between ape and human, tourist and scientist, Eden and everything else. To the orangutans, this was perhaps the cruelest blow of all.

Spalding's quest takes her from the offices of Galdika's foundation in Los Angeles to the crocodile-infested Sekonyer River in Borneo, where she confronts the sad, corrupting failure of a woman trying desperately to mother a species to survival; the dangers and temptations of ecotourism; and the arrogance of the human inclination to alter the things we set out to save.

Here is a book that shows us no paradise is safe from the machinations of man, and no one immune to temptation.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
The lives of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are modern-day myths: Western women who valiantly studied and saved great apes in the wild jungles. PBS-style darlings, these two women have been the subject of popular books and movies and are clearly celebrated by the culture as treasured heroines. So I expected Linda Spalding's new book on the Canadian anthropologist and orangutan researcher Biruté Galdikas — a woman who, along with Fossey and Goodall, formed the trio known as Louis Leakey's "three angels" — to be another story of a feisty heroine. I foresaw a familiar tale offering familiar anecdotes of a noble white woman's dedication and heartwarming bonding with primates. But this was not what I found.A Dark Place in the Jungle is a brave and honest look at a truly flawed and — dare I say it — despicable woman.

We first meet Biruté in Los Angeles. She is a celebrated college lecturer there, and the city is also home to the main headquarters of her organization, OFI — Orangutan Foundation International (an organization that charges volunteers $2,000 for their assistance on studies in Borneo). The elusive Biruté is shielded by an agent and publicist. ("If you wish to visit her in Borneo, you could call her at 1-800-Orangutan. Also, in this month's Cosmopolitan there's a marvelous article on Dr. Galdikas and her new book.") Finally, after several brush-offs, Spalding dines with Biruté, and the revered naturalist is rather cold and curt, perking up only when Spalding mentions that her husband Michael Ondaatje's novel,TheEnglish Patient, has won the Booker Prize and is being made into a Hollywood movie. "What prize?" Birutééasks. "Would my book be eligible?" She mentions her hope that Sharon Stone will star in the movie adaptation of her life story.

Soon after, despite a lack of encouragement from her subject, Spalding travels to Borneo. There, the picture of Biruté only becomes darker. Galdikas has been effectively banned from the jungle by park administrators, a fact she neglects to mention in her lucrative fund-raising appeals. Rumors that Galdikas has circumvented this ban by smuggling orangutans out of their natural habitat turn out to be true. Where does she keep the apes? In the palatial mansion she owns.

Most disturbing of all is the account of a volunteer who tells Spalding that, suffering from starvation and pneumonia, she was held under house arrest by an extremely uncompassionate Galdikas. She was threatened to never reveal what she had witnessed — the death and mistreatment of the very animals Biruté boasted of saving. The reality, as the volunteer tells it, was that "she had orangutan babies dropping like flies."

Thankfully, the story of this distressing travesty runs parallel to a far more genuine, hopeful narrative. Spalding brought her two daughters with her on her first trek to Borneo, and as they travel through a lush, fascinating region, Spalding experiences a renewed admiration for these two appealing young women. Sparked by the nature-versus-nurture issue inherent in anthropology, she reflects on the mother-daughter relationship, drawing on the love and struggles she had experienced as a single mother before her marriage to Ondaatje.

Recounting her three trips to Borneo, Spalding also offers a thoughtful and non-pedantic look at tourism, logging practices, and development. Unlike many "experts" on these controversial subjects, she refuses to offer solutions and sound bites. Instead, she asks us to consider: "What should be saved?" "What should be destroyed?" And these questions are brought to the reader in the same powerful way as the darkness in the jungle, with the language of a poet and the grace of a philosopher.

Margot Towne

Library Journal
Novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, Ecco, 1996) describes how a suggestion from a publisher sent her off on an adventure, ostensively to discover the truth about a mysterious woman studying orangutans in Borneo but in reality to explore truths about herself. The Canadian title of this book, The Follow, more accurately captures the spirit of a book in which the supposed subject, primatologist Birute Galdikas, virtually never appears. After a semi-comic attempt to interview an indifferent Galdikas in California, Spalding and her daughters traveled to Kalimantan to visit Camp Leakey. Through meetings with local officials and associates of Galdikas, she gained some impression of the problems of deforestation, pollution, and the trade in captive orangutans. The book succeeds as a haunting account of a despoiled "Eden" but not as a journalistic account of Galdikas's activities in Borneo. Everyone seems to have an opinion about her, but none of it seems to add up. This is an important issue, given allegations that Galdikas has attempted to raise and rehabilitate orphaned orangutans in substandard conditions. Galdikas's own autobiography, Reflections of Eden (LJ 12/94), presumably doesn't tell the whole story, but neither does this book. Recommended primarily for travel/natural history collections. [The finished book will include an epilog, not seen by reviewer, containing excerpts of Indonesian government reports alleging the mistreatment of orangutans and the misuse of funds by Galdikas.--Ed.]--Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Spalding follows orangutan researcher Birut<'e> Galdikas to Borneo's threatened jungles to discover a mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, and half-tame orangutans vying for control of the jungle. Galdikas began studying orangutans in the wild in 1971. As poachers and timber barons slaughtered the orangutans by the thousands, she became a mother to orphaned orangutans and confronted the dangers and temptations of eco-tourism. Spalding has written two novels. Lacks a subject index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Bad press for primatologist Biruté Galdikas and her work with the orangutans of Borneo, from novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, 1996, etc.). Grim rumors attend Galdikas much as they did another of Louis Leakey's trio of angels, Dian Fossey: reports that she is delusional, vastly self-absorbed, a threat not only to herself but also the creatures she claims to protect. Unfortunately, Galdikas does little to challenge the snipings, if that is what they are. Spalding, who had sought out Galdikas as a vehicle to explore our species's distancing from the natural world, found the primatologist distracted and aloof on the rare occasions when she made contact and furtive the rest of the time. Spalding tries to avoid official channels to get at Galdikas, but that only incurs the wrath of Borneo's refuge manager and distances Galdikas even further. So Spalding must rely on reports and interviews with those who have worked directly with Galdikas to investigate claims of the dreadful failure of interspecies adoption (humans caring for orphaned orangutans) and retrofitting them for the wild—Galdikas's sacred notion and guiding principle. From what Spalding has gathered, it's a disaster, with the rehabilitated orangutans often killed by their wild counterparts, or spreading disease throughout the forest canopy, or simply too emotionally damaged by their time with humans to survive in a wild state. Spalding also reports that Galdikas may have an outrageous number of orangutans at her town house in Pasir Panjang, far from their natural precincts, in a situation that comes perilously (and creepily) close to an anthropomorphism gone berserk. There are further allegations of profiteeringand intellectual back-stabbing, of worthless data gathered by incompetents under Galdikas's direction, and of an ecotourism that delivers a skewed message and its income into the wrong hands. Spalding tries to lighten the impact of her story with an idyllic, out-of-time passage to a Dayak village, but it is to no avail. The picture here of Galdikas's activities is unremittingly distressing and raises serious questions to which she will have to respond.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780783889672
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Series: G. K. Hall Core Series
  • Pages: 435
  • Product dimensions: 6.27 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Spalding is the author of two novels, Daughters of Captain Cook and The Paper Wife. Born in Kansas, she has lived in Mexico, Japan, and Hawaii. She lives now in Toronto, where she is the editor of Brick: A Literary Journal.
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Read an Excerpt

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 Biruté'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. Biruté's secret forest. I'd heard that Biruté 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, Biruté's secret place. Behind me, Riska's hidden life.

Biruté 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.

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