…No but seriously, didn’t I just get back from Kibale yesterday? Or wait, have I been back for a decade? What day is it? What year is it? Is this real life??
The good news is that, thanks to the Leakey and Nacey Maggioncalda Foundations, season three will start really soon, guys! In fact, if everything goes according to plan, you can expect a slew of new baby photos before the New Year… Which might be a damned good thing because I sneakily suspect that a hell mouth might open up in D.C. around the 20th of January… and in such a climate we may suddenly find that the world needs pictures of happy baby animals being adorable more than we ever have before.
The last time I talked about the Time Warp (see previous blog post) I was trying to communicate with words the way it feels to move between two very different paces of living on two different continents and among two cultures that are so similar and so different that my head spins. This time there’s a different kind of warping. I’m tugged and tied between two polemical sets of feelings: the purest, deepest excited happiness at the thought of seeing the chimps again, and this quietly pervasive underlying dread of what I might discover this year.
You see, I used to live in this beautiful bubble of a fairy-tell forest wonderland where all the chimps had too much to eat (see any 2015 blog post for evidence). All the moms hung out together so their chimp-kids could play together and the moms even jumped in sometimes. In 2015, my jaw hit the floor more times that I can count in utter awe of this sort of chimp Utopia that I was witnessing. It was certainly not representative of the “norm.” It didn’t fit anything that I had ever read or been told about female chimpanzee sociality. But as unrealistic as it may have been, it was real. It all really happened. I have the video to prove it! And it was impossible to walk away from. I came back a bit shattered and struggled to get all my pieces in order.
Then last season, 2016, was… just so hard in so many ways. Between the sudden uptick in snare injuries and the deaths of two babies, one mamma, and a subadult female, I got a crash course in chimpanzee tragedy. And, frankly, those events were just different tips of an iceberg. For the first time ever, when I left the forest last July I wasn’t kicking and screaming or lamenting the tragedy of life outside of Kibale. In fact, I was kind of ready to go home and that was the most uncomfortable thing about leaving.
Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m a filthy Nasty field woman through and through. And I always will be. But it’s important to talk about The Forest and field experiences as multidimensionally complex. As idyllic Technicolor as field life may appear from the outside, it is fully shaded in greys and thick bands of darkness too. It can be so hard to talk about it without oversimplifying, dichotomizing, or even accidently emphasizing the “better” part of the narrative at the expense of tackling the muddy ones. And, as any of you who know me might surmise, I tend to believe that the muddy bits are the most important to the story.
The truth is, that I couldn’t possibly need the forest more right now. Living at Kibale and spending my days chimping is so easily my most cherished privilege- one that I work very hard to honor and earn. Since I started fieldwork, I’ve been lucky enough to consider several forests- some of the most beautiful, perfect, privileged places in the world- as my second homes and my safe spaces. Even at a Forest’s worst- crawling in snakes, infested with ants or bees or both, stuffed full of cranky elephants, pocketed with giant pits of muddy swamp, shrouded in pissing rain, when I’ve got baboons in the foyer- I am a weirdo, energized and restored by solitude and the forest. What more could a girl possibly as for?
It just never occurred to me that the bottom could have fallen out like it did last year. And I know its good data, but damnit that just doesn’t adequately ease the sting of it.
But then… there’s so much left to see! So many things that I haven’t seen yet- that no one else has seen before! And even beneath such lofty goals there are these chimps that I know so well that I’ve been watching since they were so tiny and now they’re getting to be so big! Even now, as I’m writing and thinking of meeting Leakey’s new little sibling, or watching Thatcher play with little Tangawizi because he’ll finally be old enough that Tongo lets her, or checking in on tiny Omukunyu to see if she’s caught up to her day-older but much larger cousin, my cheeks are tingling with the burn of this smile plastered across my face.
So gosh, I guess I’m not too torn, huh? Somehow that deep warm happiness spreads across the tension of slightly fearful anticipation and snuffs it out. Maybe 15% anxious to 85% excited? The chimpanzees are playing… and I’ll be there so soon…
Mango is one of the original five infants of my study and, like her contemporaries, has grown-up so much since I met her! In 2013 both she and her mother, Michelle, were very shy. Michelle especially dislikes the camera and was very protective over little Mango. The pair also spent quite a lot of time on their own which added an extra level of difficulty for finding and tracking them. One of my favorite early moments following Mango was an hour-long play bout with Mango swinging across a trail in a tangle of vines. She was having so much fun and I couldn’t help but giggle through the whole hour. Until this season, Michelle and Mango were easily among the most difficult chimps for me to follow and photograph.
Over the years Michelle has slowly become more and more comfortable with researchers and in her position in the group and consequently spends more time with other chimps toward the center of the community. Mango’s curiosity has grown and she’s become bolder and more playful.
The thing about a pair of chimps like Michelle and Mango is that they remind me what my job means in ways that are more intrinsic than the science that I do. They teach me patience and flexibility. They teach me to track. They encourage me to work on my relationship with the forest and how to move through it. These two are the type whose trust you have to earn slowly over the days and months and years. But once you’re in its so worth it!
Last year (2015) I caught Michelle in a rare jovial moment: she completely she her normal serious adult façade, dropping her bottom mouth into a play into a big open play-face before charging into a massive play bout between five juveniles. Mango wasn’t even playing at the time! Michelle just jumped right in with all the kids first and waited for her daughter to catch up! That moment was one of the happiest of my life and instantly became a bit of a metaphor that I rely on to help me remember why I do what I do when things get hard. My job can be so difficult in so many dimensions-both in the field and back in the states- and it can be so easy to fall into a hole of questioning how and why I ended up here… but remembering the day that Michelle and Mango jumped into a pile of wrestling chimp kiddos is like instant happiness and one of the easiest reminders of how to answer all of those life questions.
This summer, when Michelle gave birth to Mango’s new baby brother, Mucoso, the distraction gave Mango some extra room to stretch her social legs! And that’s when I finally snapped this photos- which you may recognize from my homepage.
More to come...
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.