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A moving, inspiring, personal look at the vastly changing world of wildlife on planet earth as a result of human incursion, and the crucial work of animal and bird preservation across the globe being done by scientists, field biologists, zoologists, environmentalists, and conservationists. From a longtime, much-admired activist, impassioned wildlife proponent and conservationist, former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, four time Academy Award nominee, and Tony Award and two-time Emmy Award-winning actress.
In Wild Things, Wild Places, Jane Alexander movingly, with a clear eye and a knowing, keen grasp of the issues and on what is being done in conservation and the worlds of science to help the planet's most endangered species to stay alive and thrive, writes of her steady and fervent immersion into the worlds of wildlife conservation, of her coming to know the scientists throughout the world--to her, the prophets in the wilderness--who are steeped in this work, of her travels with them--and on her own--to the most remote and forbidding areas of the world as they try to save many species, including ourselves.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Shade trees spread their branches over walkways of the little zoo in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a respite from the late afternoon heat. Alan Rabinowitz was ahead of us, looking down into a spacious enclosure that mimicked the real rainforest of Mexico to our south. We heard the guttural snarls before we saw the object of his intense gaze. A female Jaguar snapped at the male as he attempted to mount her, and swiped her paw across his cheek.
He grabbed her by the neck, thrusting her low to the ground, but she managed to escape and ran off into the underbrush with the male in pursuit. He sauntered next to her and began licking her back and neck against the lay of the fur, surprisingly gentle compared to the bite to her neck. She didn’t stir until he again tried to get on top; then the whole courtship ritual began again. When at last she was ready he gained entrance and held her down with his jaws on her neck until the act was finished minutes later. They rolled on the ground and spooned like lovers on the grass, satiated for the moment. Then the process began all over again.
Alan was transfixed. He watched for the better part of an hour, barely moving, just like a cat. That is what Victor had said earlier in the day, when he first met Alan: “He is the cat he stalks!” It was true. His stillness was sometimes unnerving. His eyes, pale and catlike, could fix you with a penetrating stare while he contemplated the answer to something said. He was also powerful. He had excelled at wrestling in school and kept his body strong with weights and running. Later he would be dubbed the “Indiana Jones” of conservation for his intrepid pilgrimages on behalf of the great cats.
It was 1985. Alan, Ed, and I were traveling with Victor Perera in southern Chiapas. Victor, a Guatemalan, taught writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and had spent years with the Maya and the Lacandon Indians, a tribe never crushed by the Spanish. His book The Last Lords of Palenque painted a picture of the waning days of a once-great society, one that had built the graceful temple Palenque and worshipped gods and demigods of the animal world, including the Jaguar. I had studied the Maya, and Alan wanted to know more about the spirit world and the Jaguar. Victor’s book was fascinating; I sent a letter to his publisher telling him so. Our correspondence resulted in a friendship and an invitation to accompany him on his next visit to the Lacandon, in the last great forest of southern Mexico.
Chan K’in Viejo, his body bent, one shoulder higher than the other, his hands gnarled from the arthritis afflicting him, stood on the hill near his thatched house as we climbed to meet him. He smiled warmly as Victor approached, and they embraced. He said he had dreamed we were coming. This last lord of the Lacandon was barely five feet tall; he wore a white cotton tunic, and his black hair fell straight to his shoulders, with bangs covering his forehead. His voice was strong, and he was full of goodwill and humor. Victor presented him with a box of Churchill cigars, and Chan K’in immediately lit up, the huge cigar covering half his wizened face as he smoked. We spent the afternoon and evening under his roof as his three wives ground flour in the metate and pressed tortillas onto the hot stones in the fire, his little children treading the dirt floor with their stick toys. Chan K’in was reputed to have twenty-one children and in his nineties still copulated on a ritual pile of corncobs after the annual harvest.
He showed us the God House, where the men participated in balché ceremonies. Balché is an ancient intoxicating drink made from fermentated honey and the roots and bark of the sacred Balché tree. The gods are invoked with chants and offerings and the inebriated men soon begin to receive messages from the spirit world through hallucinatory visions. We stood outside looking up at the tall trees, one a giant mahogany used for hollowing out dugout canoes for the waterways. Looking at the colorful birds flitting by, I waved my arms in the air and said in my primitive Spanish, “Usted, mucho perros.” Chan K’in politely nodded while Victor broke up. “You said ‘You have a lot of flying dogs’!” We had a good laugh.
There was something magical about being in Chan K’in’s presence; he radiated wisdom, and we felt good. Victor told us that strange things happened here, that any technological device would break down after awhile. Alan and I were skeptical and I turned on my tape recorder at the conclusion of a dinner of rice, black beans, and the freshly made tortillas. Alan asked about the Jaguar, the “Were-Jaguar” and the “Master Jaguar,” while Victor translated, sometimes in Lacandon and other times in Spanish. Chan K’in began to talk.
He said they believed in a Master Jaguar that leads all the other Jaguars and in a minor god who transforms himself into a Jaguar to roam the forest. It was not clear if they were one and the same. “How do you know it’s the Master Jaguar?” asked Alan. “Because he speaks to you,” said Chan K’in. This resonated with Alan. In Belize he had sometimes heard his name being called in the night as if spirits were summoning him. He had also had an experience with an Obeah man who practiced a kind of black magic and who told him after a séance that a Jaguar would appear in his trap within three days. And there, on the third day, was a Jaguar.
The Mayan belief in the spirit world was clearly in decline as more Maya were converted to Christianity; still, a residual belief and even fear of a guardian of the forest persisted for many. As long as people believed in a controlling spirit or demigod, more protection was offered the animals of the forest. There was fear of retribution if one hunted too many animals or did not pay attention to the signs the spirit world gave, such as being bitten by a snake. Yet the arrogance of the Judeo-Christian ethic, placing man at the top of the pyramid of life rather than on a branch of the sacred Mayan tree, was dislodging the ancient beliefs of these people.
Alan asked Chan K’in if the voice in the night that called his name was the Master Jaguar. Chan K’in looked at Alan, his eyes shining in the firelight, and Victor whispered, “That’s your secret, Alan.” My tape recorder broke after a half hour. And then the light meter in my camera stopped working, as did my little travel clock. I have no explanation for this except to acknowledge how much I do not know of this world.
We bedded down in a tiny shack, Victor and Ed in hammocks and me pretzeled on a four-foot-long shelf with tiny spiders scurrying for safety. Alan spent time alone in the God House and then curled up in our VW van. He had endured enough nights battling insects, bacteria, and the chatter of sleepless jungle families.
In the morning we bid goodbye to Chan K’in. He gave me a very special gift of a god-pot, in which copal was burned for the Balché ceremonies. He was a most remarkable man to have graced our lives. Twenty miles down the road we got the tires of our van pumped up at a huge sawmill that was the repository for all the logging of the Lacandon National Forest. There, piled as high as a three-story building, were the giant mahoganies and the ceibas, the sacred tree. As far as the eye could see, the land had been cleared for cattle ranches and agriculture. Most of the Lacandon men had signed a government contract allowing extensive logging of the forest in exchange for money. Chan K’in was a holdout, explaining that the forest was not his to give away. “I didn’t plant the trees,” he said. “They’re God’s,” meaning they belonged to the great Lord Hachakyum, the major Lacandon deity. “Go ask him.” The greatest rainforest in Mexico, supporting a third of all the biodiversity in the country, was straining to stay alive. The fragmented landscape kept chopping away at the wildlife.
We walked the ruins of Palenque, marveling at the artistic line of stone Jaguars, safe for another thousand years for tourists like ourselves. Evening found us at Na Bolom, the home of Trudi Blom, the widow of archaeologist Frans Blom, who devoted her life to helping the Lacandon preserve the forest and their way of life. Trudi reputedly said,
I have learned through bitter experience that you cannot hope to protect the Lacandones without safeguarding their forest . . . In the dreams of the Lacandones, which regulate their waking lives, each animal, each plant and each ritual object is an instrument of prophecy or protective magic. As the forest is burned and cut down through our stupidity and greed, the animals disappear one by one; the jaguar, the boar, the puma, the spider monkey—they all disappear, and soon the souls of the Lacandones will also disappear . . . it makes no difference how many of them will be left—the fact is, their souls will wither and die as their magnificent forest is destroyed, and all of us will share part of the blame . . . What you are seeing is the last whisper of a magnificent culture . . . But in Naha, if you gain the confidence of Chan K’in Viejo and other elders, you can still get an idea of what the Lacandon culture was about. Chan K’in in particular is an extraordinary man. So far, he has not permitted the government to cut mahogany around Naha. When he dies, there will be no stopping them.
Chan K’in died on December 23, 1996, at 104 years old. The Lacandon forest continues to be logged. No one knows how many Jaguars still exist there.
Nothing in Alan Rabinowitz’s early years would lead you to believe that he would become one of the great conservation heroes of our time, except for the solace he always found in the company of animals. He was born on New Year’s Eve 1953 in Brooklyn, during the worst snowstorm of the century, it was said. He grew up a quiet child in Far Rockaway, placed in a special-education class because of a severe stutter. Alan found comfort sitting in a dark closet with his pet turtle or chameleons because there he could talk to them without stuttering. His father, a vigorous high school coach known as Red, noticed his son’s affinity for animals and took him to the Bronx Zoo on free afternoons. Alan gravitated to the Lion House, where the big Jaguar paced back and forth in her lightless cage, on a path worn into the stone by her short miserable journey from one wall to the other. The little boy stood mesmerized on the other side of the bars; here was a trapped, voiceless creature like himself. He promised her that if he ever found his voice he would be a voice for her and keep all animals from harm.
Years later an auspicious meeting with George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, then called the New York Zoological Society, the umbrella organization of the city’s zoos) changed his life forever. Schaller was working on Giant Pandas at the time and Alan was finishing up his PhD at the University of Tennessee when a visit by the great field biologist resulted in Alan’s taking him on a hike to compare the Black Bear habitat of the Smoky Mountains with that of Pandas in China. Schaller was the head of the International Program of WCS and needed someone to study Jaguars in Belize. He recruited Alan, and soon Alan was on his way to Central America and a life-changing experience.
Dr. Rabinowitz was well into his two-year study when I flew to Belize to research the movie proposal I’d written about a female zoologist. He suffered headaches from the recent plane crash. The single-engine aircraft had plummeted from the sky while he was tracking his radio-collared cats from the air. The propeller ground into the tangled forest floor, but Alan and the pilot managed to extricate themselves and walk away from what seemed like certain death. His head injuries needed time to heal, so it was a good time for me to visit.
The young field biologist was recovering from the crash, but he had been weary for some time of the immense efforts it took to do his work. The magic he had felt when he first came into the forest, the cacophony of insect life, of birdsong, the mammals and reptiles that he encountered on forest treks, the glory of plenty, had faded in the wake of constant trials. The difficulty of capturing and then safeguarding the Jaguars, the relationships with the Maya and the women in his life, the constant assault on his health from parasites and injuries—all these were weighing on him.
My arrival was serendipitous. I was immediately entranced with the rainforest. Most of my prior forays to the tropics were typical Caribbean vacations, lazing on beaches, a mai tai in one hand and suntan oil in the other, some hikes here and there and visits to the requisite tourist sites.
When Ed and I went to Belize in 1981 to visit my Foreign Service friend, Cynthia Thomas, I realized just how vast a world there was off the beaten path. Our world of theater and film, of imagination and the magic of illusion, never ceased to excite us. We would jump into a new project and know we were the luckiest people on earth to be involved in the exploration of human behavior, emotion, and the mind. There were layers upon layers to be exposed and the process never ended. But venturing into the wild, into landscapes dominated by animals, onto paths trod by few other human beings, presented even more exciting worlds of exploration.
At Alan’s study site, deep in the jungle of Cockscomb Basin, I was in my element. An insect species the size of a hummingbird must have just hatched because pale orange bodies filled the air by the hundreds and emitted a whirling hum, like toy helicopters. No one could tell me what they were, and I have never seen them anywhere since. A Laughing Falcon perched above the porch, cackling at my intrusion, antbirds followed the legions of army ants on the move, and dozens of different kinds of flycatchers whistled in the forest. The sheer abundance of life was mind-boggling.
Tropical forests cover about 7 percent of the earth and hold more than half of the animal and plant species. No one knows how many species exist on earth, but the figure could be as high as thirty million. They are still to be discovered. These forests used to cover as much as 20 percent of the earth’s surface, but as human beings continue to convert the land to agricultural and pastoral uses more species are lost every day.