Heart of darkness

An accomplished writer journeys deep into the twisted plight of the orangutans of Borneo -- and the humans who would save them.


Don George
June 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Two weeks ago I was wandering youthful and romantic through Paris with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, rereading "A Moveable Feast." Since then, I have found myself wandering through an entirely different place -- the tea-colored rivers and steamy green forests of Borneo, where I have been stepping carefully over fire ants and around poisonous snakes, stretching out on the floor of tribal long houses and scanning the treetops and trails for traces of orangutans.

My magic carpet in this journey has been an absorbing new book by Linda Spalding entitled "A Dark Place in the Jungle."

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"A Dark Place" presents a dense interweaving of travel narrative, natural history account and journalistic investigation. Spalding's tale begins in North America, where she becomes fascinated by the efforts of orangutan researcher Biruti Galdikas. Along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, Galdikas is one of Louis Leakey's three "angels" -- protigies the anthropologist dispatched into the wilds of Africa and Indonesia to study primates and learn more about the origins of humans. Galdikas' mission was to live with the orangutans of Borneo, and to do this she moved to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island, and built a research station called Camp Leakey, which Spalding terms "the last great site of primate research established by a woman and still in her charge."

Spalding's goal is to understand Galdikas' motivations and achievements: Why did she adopt the orangutans so passionately? What effect has her work had? What is life like at Camp Leakey today? What work is still being carried on there?

Spalding conceives this quest as a traditional "follow" -- which she defines as "a form of research in which the subject is observed from a distance, and in which a record is kept of the surroundings, noting moods of subject as well as environment." The twist, of course, is that in this case the subject of the follow is the original orangutan-follower herself.

As this follow unfolds, the trail becomes increasingly tangled and entangling. We come to learn that there are actually three jungles in this odyssey: There is the jungle of disagreement among well-meaning professionals over the best way to preserve orangutans and over the fundamental question of whether orangutans can be trained by humans to live in the wild (Galdikas' work is based on the belief that they can; other scientists and the Indonesian government have come to believe otherwise). There is the jungle of politics and economics where the fate of the great Indonesian forests -- and the fate of the orangutans and their would-be guardians -- is mapped and controlled. And there is the actual jungle itself -- the slippery, steamy, species-crammed place where wild orangutans still swoop gracefully from branch to branch and where our ancestors at some distant time dropped onto the ground and shuffled awkwardly into a clearing.

Spalding's follow gains another dimension when she decides to invite her two adult daughters along on her trip to Camp Leakey. This deepens and internalizes her journey, transforming it into an investigation not only of Galdikas but also of Spalding herself, of her achievements and failures as a mother -- and, on some subtler and larger level, an investigation of our entire species, of our achievements and failures on a grand evolutionary scale.

This is an ambitious subject, but happily, Spalding is a sensitive and eloquent observer who is able to bring the varied twists and trails in these jungles to vivid life. Her descriptions of village and research station, forest path and river trail, are rich and precise, and the scientists, officials, volunteers and villagers she encounters are drawn with respect and compassion. But what really distinguishes her tale are Spalding's introspections and connections, her ability to swoop gracefully from observation to speculation and revelation.

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Spalding has a winning way, for example, of putting the reader inside the brain of the orangutan, as in this description of how orangutans see:

The orangutan's stare is a sort of gaze, a meditation, a sense of time that is based on bringing long distance in close. An orangutan stares into a thousand shades of green and pulls one piece of it into focus. Is it ready? She moves her eyes a few inches and repeats the gaze. Closer. Closer ... Willing the fruit to readiness as a cat by the stove wills the mouse who lives behind it to come out.

Orangutans live in this state of meditation, watching the object of desire, approaching hand over hand, when the moment is ripe. The moment itself is silently teaching the infant who rides on the mother's hip, and the other, the youngster who bounces ahead or follows behind. But it's the mother who teaches them how to touch, how to sniff, how to break through the skin. It's the mother who hands down this "culture."

Spalding is also a fervid and attentive traveler. I love the way she describes her first sight of Camp Leakey: "An hour or so from the old floating hut where we had docked, the tip of a wooden fire tower appeared, and I knew one of those rare moments that make traveling in a straight line feel like traveling in a circle. I'd seen this landmark on a slide while I sat in the classroom in Long Beach, California, trying to imagine myself doing this. And here I was, complete with two daughters and a Dayak guide." What traveler hasn't felt this surreal, life-rounding conjunction of the imagined and the real?

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She understands the contradictions of contemporary eco-travelers who venture into the world's remote regions: "We are not trying to sell the virtues of our regions but to warn against the ruin we have brought to them. We carry Bic lighters and messages of caution, but our machine-made clothes, our health and the apparent control we exercise over our fates give us away. Instead of being eyed warily, we are envied."

And she is laudably alive to the traces we leave as travelers wherever we go: "Is it possible to touch a place and leave it unmarked?" she writes late in the book. "We must leave cells, thoughts, moods behind. We must leave shapeless pieces of frustration and joy and ambivalence."

These same sensitivities distinguish her descriptions of and meditations on the relationships between orangutans and humans, and between humans and humans, and her increasingly murky exploration of Galdikas' controversial and, it turns out, no longer officially sanctioned work.

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By the end of Spalding's follow, we are left with a dense and multi-layered portrait of a do-gooder who seems to have veered off onto a dark path of her own, and of a system that seems designed to frustrate the efforts of anyone who tries to place the preservation of orangutans before the purse strings of government and industry officials.

And so, as with Galdikas' own career, what began as an idealistic research effort becomes a journey into a place infinitely more confounding, entangled, disturbing and frustrating, a thousand shades of green. It is greatly to Spalding's credit -- and to the reader's enrichment -- that within these overlapping shadows and shades, Spalding is able to bring into poignant focus the jungle's moments of ripeness.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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