I have the pleasure of including a number of incredible people among my friends. One of them, is Taylor Apostol, in fact, Taylor is one of my oldest and dearest friends- and she just happens to be an incredibly talented sculptor. I love her aesthetic- clean lines and beautifully minimalist mixed media. She has an eye for marble and a talent for finding the shapes it. I've included a photo of one of my favorite pieces- classic Taylor.
Some other time, I'll tell you about the time that Taylor and I both left school with high fevers and strep throat- only she could make such a terrible day so incredibly fun. But more importantly, Taylor is insanely accomplished for such a young artist and I love bragging about her. She has trained in Italy and spent time in China on fellowship for her work. Just this month, she earns her MFA from Boston University! She will be showing her work all summer long in several outdoor spaces and galleries- please check out her website for show locations and dates!
6 April 2015
Everything about today was big. Big mountains. Big walk. Big steps. Big dreams. Big hopes. Big gorillas. No- I mean, like really, really b-i-g BIG gorillas.
There are two aspects of my feelings toward today that I struggle to form into words. The first is that I realized the second of a short list of moments that I have been waiting for my whole life. I haven’t enough talent in molding words to even approach an accurate description of that to someone that has not felt it already. There were too many dimensions- the sheer size and weight of it, the taste of that last millisecond of anticipation, the color that doesn’t exist anywhere but inside my own chest, the infinite and endless feeling of waiting for the shortest breath of...
Either my mind and tongue are too clumsy or language is a medium that can only truncate, prune and pare, something so deep and wide and big.
The second is a sense of contented calmness that accompanied the realization that I am exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do. For a few brief moments near the top of a mountain in Bwindi, everything else- every source of stress and self-doubt- fell away and I sat staring at gorillas. Just watching and being happy. I cannot even continue on that because every attempt to force that emotion into words sounds exactly that- forced.
So instead, I’ll just tell you the story.
We chose to leave from Buhoma gate- for several excellent and valid reasons that I can discuss with you at length some other time if you’re interested. My labmate, D, and I headed up the mountain with a lovely American family, the Maizes (I changed their names), and an independent female traveler, Penny (name also changed). Penny and Mrs. Maize are in their sixties and moved a little more slowly than the rest of us- but I’m not ashamed to admit that I perfectly happy to use them as an excuse to climb slowly. The incline was far steeper than my usual Kanyawara trek, steep enough to steal my breath and get me sweating even in the chilly mountain air.
About 40 minutes into the hike, I heard our guide on her two-way radio. For all the Luganda and Rotoro that I cannot speak, I was even more hopeless with her dialect. D and I laughed to each other as we substituted our own stories into the conversation. Every response from the other side sounded like a war-time command and he was takin’ serious heat…needed back-up yesterday…the gorilla ripped his arm off and was beating him with it! All was lost!!! Inspired by Congo and Amy good gorilla, we giggled heartily imagining what he might be (but certainly was not) saying.
The true story was that the trackers who were sent into the forest ahead of us to locate the group had accidently followed the tracks of an unhabituated group. Upon realizing this the hard way (they had come too close and were charged by a silverback) they were forced to turn around and start from scratch. Our instructions were to wait for a half hour or until we heard back from their side. I found myself suddenly nervous that the group had disappeared into the mist and I would never see gorillas in my life. It seemed like a rational conclusion at the time.
After 45 minutes of getting to know Mr. Maize (a physician who had spent time studying animal behavior in Germany and, now that he had retired, had come to Mbarara with his lovely wife to volunteer his expertise), Mr. Maize’s strappingly handsome sons who had come to visit their parents (along with a sister and brother-in-law who were less chatty), and Penny the retired Barclay’s banker who was taking a gap-year and heading back to the States after 15 years, we finally got the call to continue up the hill. The gorillas were close! TUGENDE!
We hiked for another million years. Straight up the side of a mountain. Forever. And finally—FINALLY--- as Younger Maize #1 was telling me about his job at a small book publisher in Toronto-- we were standing at the edge of the top of a mountain, in a giant patch of brambles and nettles, and I saw the leaves in a gorilla-sized patch of the thick, herbaceous vegetation shake and rattle just a little bit. Then a stalk disappeared. Then I heard the munching and crunching and-- food grunts! We were upon the gorillas!
In that moment I had another tiny panic- the vegetation was so tight that I could not see the crunching and munching and food-grunting adult female from 15 feet away- what if we spent our whole hour this close and never gazed upon the austere face of our silverback? Or spied one of the kiddies tumbling across the forest floor? Or an infant tightly clutching mom’s fuzzy mountain fur coat?
Less than three minutes later I was posing to take a selfie with a blackback. No big deal… (OHMYGOSHHUGEDEAL!)
Needless to say, the first few minutes were an incredible rush of innumerable and varied emotions. Again, these words are failing. Perhaps one day I’ll wake up as a Bronte or a Hemmingway, a Virginia Wolfe or a Cormack McCarthy, but not this day.
The trackers led us to the edge of the THV and we ducked under a branch, emerging in a patch of forest that was much clearer of underbrush. There was a massive blackback just inside- barely five meters away, resting and staring our way as he chewed his brunch. Just a few meters past him, another blackback rested facing away from the group. And there, a dozen meters down the hill, the silverback. Surveying his territory, of course. Looking regal. And- oh! Out popped a seven-year-old male from behind our kings back. He peered through curious eyes at the Mzungus. As our King stood, turned, and headed for a nettley snack, our new little friend headed straight toward us- well, straight for Mr. and Mrs. Maize’s lovely daughter who stood very still as the juvenile approached, leaned against one of her legs, and reached up for her hand.
Fully aware of how wrong this is, but I’m going to admit that never have I ever been so jealous of another human being. And yes, so wrong. On at least a million levels. However, it is the truth, and I would venture to say that any person in the world be completely thrilled to have such an experience. Even (maybe especially?) the primatologists. Can’t help it. It would be too magical.
Gorillas are like leatherback turtles in that you can only truly appreciate their massiveness from close-up through your own eyes. No matter how many times the size of either has been described to you, or what metric they use in their attempt to relate such information, even when you are sure that you “get it,” you just cannot wrap your head around the gigantic scale of these creatures until you’re nearly close enough to touch them.
Though the whole group was larger, we spent the visiting hour with the three blackbacks and silverback, and two mother-offspring pairs. One of the little ones was unweaned, nursing and snuggling into her mom’s chest against the impending rain. The other little one was the same playful juvenile that ran back toward mom after touching the Mzungu. He was a super model in the making who seemed a big fan of posing for the camera.
After that magical hour, the guides started to usher us away from the gorillas just as the rain began to fall. We hid our cameras in the bottoms of our bags and suited up for the rain, heading back into the THV. As per the Ugandan rainy season, the rain continued gaining intensity and we slipped and slid, smiling all the way down the mountain. We ended up at our starting point for a quick debriefing, still in awe of our magical hour, still smiling, recounting. Finally we parted, 10 people heading in three directions carrying slightly differing memories of the same amazing minutes.
20 April 2015
5 April 2015
My aunt likes to say that she's the reason I ended up in this field. My family used to joke and that my dad was a silverback because of his stature, facial expressions, and salt-and-pepper hair. In truth, the resemblance is uncanny. So she bought me a stuffed gorilla on the day I was born. It was my very first stuffed animal.
But when I actually decided to become a primatologist it seemed like a completely random left-hand turn from the path I had put myself on. I was in film school studying to be a documentary filmmaker. I was primarily interested in capturing interactions. My sophomoric film-school ethos was trying to distill the complex and convoluted into something pure and transcendent. I thought that I could use film as a mechanism for understanding people in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and comprised at least mildly entertaining storytelling. At that point I didn't realize how circular these notions were, and that I was going about it all the wrong way because my particular form of processing doesn't translate well into a time-linear two-dimensional medium.
I started moonlighting as an anthropologist as early as I started shooting 16mm on a Bolex. And really, I had always been an evolutionary biologist, an anthropologist, and a primatologist.
Clue 1: at least once a week from the time I was in kindergarten until it was inappropriate to force Mum to read to me every night, I demanded that she read me 1 to 3 Wildlife Fact Files from the World Wildlife Foundation. We had a whole binder of full-color, trifold, animal profiles. All of the basic info was in there- natural geographic ranges, home range size, conservation status, diet, social structure, and probably even more than I can possibly recall now, more than 20 years later. The ones that I remember most are the Bengal tiger because the picture was taken at night and was the most beautiful I had ever seen, the great white shark, and the orangutan who wound up in the conservation tab rather than with the other mammals.
Clue 2: My favorite field trips were zoo trips and I could sit for heaps longer than the other kids just watching the animals. My favorite section was the primate house.
Clue 3: My favorite TV shows were all the documentaries about animals, especially when they involved primates.
Clue 4: I first attempted to read a scientific journal article at the age of 14 as a freshman in high school. I was working on a project about the evolution of venom in snakes and other animals. The paper was about the molecular structure of a viper (I don’t remember which viper) haemotoxin. I was completely enthralled.
There was a single moment when I realized that I wanted to be a primatologist, specifically. I was with a gorilla who had just recently arrived at the London Zoo and she wasn’t fitting in well. When I first saw her she was sitting by the glass with one shoulder pressed against it and the other facing the rest of the enclosure so she could see all the gorillas and all the people. I watched her for a while as she people-watched and kept her other eye on her new gorilla family warily. Every so often she looked my way. Eventually, there was a lull in visitors leaving only me and my new gorilla friend. I approached and slid in right next to her, shoulder to shoulder but for the glass.
I wanted to photograph her so I opened my bag to retrieve my trusty 35mm. She peered through the glass and into my bag as I dug rifled through, finally pulling out the camera. She was took one look at the black object and was disappointed. She motioned with her lips and chin as her eyes darted back and forth from me to the bag. We continued in this fashion until my bag was empty and I was surrounded in its contents. I tilted it upside down to show her that I did not, in fact, have any other goodies hiding.
As I started to gather my belongings, a new set of visitors started trickling in. My outline against the glass was obviously eclipsed by my new friend’s and patrons quickly realized the opportunity for a photo-op. They crowed around, shoving their children up against the glass, their cameras flashing in bursts. The gorilla looked at me one last time before skirting away. As she hid behind a nearby wall, she periodically peeped back out at me, but she never came back.
There’s something to those moments that you share with another species that you can’t find elsewhere. Its like an exponential version of finally breaking through or transcending a language or a culture barrier. I wanted nothing more than to know her whole story and how she saw her world- where did she come from? What was her old group like? Was she happy in this new group? Why did she like to sit by the glass? What was she looking for in my bag? Did she have a prior experience with some sort of zoo enrichment where she used to live? Was she ever privately owned? And, more importantly, how can I approach these types of questions in a way that will yield representative and accurate answers?
I was already fond of gorillas, but they had just become my flagship species. And here I am, on the eve of meeting some in the wild. My skin tingling with the electricity on anticipation, my stomach full of butterflies for all the same reasons. Tomorrow I will finally find this hour that I have been waiting for my whole life.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.