Like I said, things are looking up! A few fig trees have ripened and are fuller and fuller of fruit, bringing the chimps back together to feed. This week I finally caught up with the few mammas and babies that I hadn’t seen yet. Of course, after a few days in this beautiful ficus (see pictures), we’ve all been headed straight for the thorniest, elephant-iest edge of the southeastern boundary… but at least its all of us together!
Here are some of the best pictures I’ve taken this week.
Ok, so after I wrote my last blog, I took a deep breath and pulled myself up out of my little pity puddle party. The thing about collecting data for a dissertation is that there’s so much pressure- you only have a certain budget and a certain time frame to collect all of your data. Under those constraints, the weight of one bad day can feel disproportionately stressful. And since it’s the beginning of the season, I don’t have a cache of really good days that have already happened to remind myself that it will all be ok. Not every day is a bad day. It’s easy to let negativity spiral out of control. Like every other graduate student in the world, I struggle with that.
My strategy is to logic the hell out of things until I find the upsides to the downtime. And I’ve got a couple nailed down:
Most of the parties we’ve followed since I arrived have had started one or two babies. I spend two hours at a time with each baby, and when I run out I can either wait for a new one to show up or go searching for some new mommas. When I go searching, I get to work on my tracking skills and explore trails that I’ve never checked out before. I’m getting to know the forest better and better, which is always satisfying. Sure it’s exhausting, but in a good way. On the days when I wait it out for a while, I can spend a little time and concentration photographing the chimps that are already in the party. On days that I’m flush with babies to follow, I’m way too busy taking data-videos and jotting notes to pay attention to my framing and the light. So it’s been a nice change to focus on imagery and portrait aesthetics for a minute.
And at the end of each “less than optimal” data day, at least fruits of my frustration are photographs. Visual representations of the chimps I enjoy so much and the science that drives me.
25 January, 2016
That’s my mantra right now.
You’d think that I would know better by now, but I hit the ground thinking that I could jump right into data collection at a full sprint. I really thought I’d arrive, set my schedule, and get right back into it like I never left. And now here I sit, grappling with the reality that it is so much easier to fall out of chimping shape than to get back into it! Especially when I’ve been focusing so much on the kind of work that is sitting at a desk and typing- the least active type of work.
Luckily the universe has thrown some obstacles in here to keep me from burning myself out too quickly: rain, low fruit availability, more rain, spotty electricity, the works! Its seeming like the rainy season just does not want to end this year. It’s rained nearly every day so far. Last night we watched the most intense lightning storm sweep across the north valley. There were dozens of bolts dancing across the sky within milliseconds of each other. Most days I’ve been waking up to find camp inside a cloud, shrouded in mist like some sort of alien world! Some days it hasn’t burned off until late afternoon- some days it hasn’t burned off at all! Needless to say such conditions (read: extra wet, extra low light) are not the best for shooting video and therefore not the best for my data collection. But at least it keeps my mountain of data manageable!
Low fruit availability, a lack of good chimp foods, has also been a bummer. Its not that there really isn’t any fruit in the whole wide forest, just that nothing is ripe yet. Chimps are big animals and need a pretty big number of calories in a day so when food is scarce, they tend to split up into smaller and smaller, quieter and stealthier groups. In these small groups, chimps are harder to find and track.
And then, the sprinkles on top are the foods that are abundant: extra bushy, super spiny, terrestrial herbaceous vegetation. It mostly grows to 5 to 8 ft tall (perfect for poking your eyes). In swamps (where the mosquitos are so happy to see you). So you get to stand in the swamp and try to sneak a few glances through tight vegetation at the chomping chimps while the plants viciously defend themselves against….you. Actually it’s almost like they’re punishing you for the chimps too.
…Oh, and do you know what else loooooves the nice, cool swamp? Elephants.
So yes, I know that I’m a spoiled brat, but it’s been a little bit of a rough start this year. But I’m already getting my forest legs back. And the sun was out all day today. In fact, as I’m peeping out the window right now there isn’t a cloud in the sky. I can see a million stars. I can also hear the elephants happily crashing around and calling their alien pop-calls to each other in the back yard side of the forest. They’re headed toward the other swamp- the next valley over from where we left the chimps.
Looks like things are shaping up for a good day tomorrow!
I’ve been back in the forest, getting my forest legs back, for just over a week now and things here are as wonderful as ever! In addition to the old favorite cuties, we’ve got a few newbies that I’ve already been lucky enough to meet. As announced by the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, there’s a new baby in the new family just in time for my 2016 study season! Here are two photographs that I snapped during my first focal follow of tiny Utah.
I’ve been working on this post, with my best and brilliant friend, Marian Hamilton, for months now. We keep waiting for the Naledi news calm down enough that we can start to summarize what's been going on, but every time we’re ready to pull the trigger, something else hits the newsstands. Right now its shenanigans about whether the specimens could have been murdered, sacrificed, or some other form of cultural violence led to their deaths (more on that in subsequent posts).
Anyway, we've decided that this piece is better suited as pieces and so we split things up a bit. Part One of Have you met Naledi? is called Naledi's 1,500 Parts. This piece summarizes news reports, science blogs, and published manuscripts describing the Dinaledi site and physical specimens that comprise Homo naledi. We will discuss the descriptive observations and measurements that we have so far and try to bring all of the pieces together (heavily referenced and linked to original sources, of course) with a little more emphasis on the science than most pop-science and media outlets and a little less intense detail than the original manuscripts from the team. The point of this section is to help situate the evidence in the context of our current understanding of human evolution.
Part Two (or possibly parts Two+) will be Naledi in the Crux of Controversy and will focus on a number of controversies that swirl around H. naledi. First, we’ll discuss the more controversial ideas from Berger’s team and others about how these specimens made it to the cave where they were discovered. Second, we’ll delve into the bigger debates about how we, evolutionary and paleoanthropologists in particular, do our science and report our findings. Third, we’ll talk about Berger’s hiring decisions, international reactions to a largely female excavation team, and whether this represents a case study of sexism in science.
Part One: Naledi’s 1,500 Parts
Keeping up with current research and new discoveries can be hard, but sometimes we get those publication gems that make it easy- piercing through to the front page and attracting hoards of media attention. Even those of you who do not obsessively follow new findings in paleoanthropology have probably heard of Homo naledi, the newest member of the genus Homo and our extended ancestral family. At the very least, I bet you caught the initial excited press releases and immediately following sharp edges of media controversy surrounding this assemblage (more on that in subsequent posts).
With all this buzz, and the smattering of drama, it can be hard to cut through everything and keep all the information straight. The purpose of this post is to gather scholarly bits and pop-sci pieces from around the web and distill them into some solid science knowledge, Buzzfeed style:
8 (sets of) things to know about Homo naledi:
1. H. naledi comes from South Africa.
The taxonomic name, Homo naledi, derives from the Dinaledi chamber, or “Chamber of Stars,” where the specimens were discovered. The chamber is part of the Rising Star Cave System near Johannesburg, South Africa and is connected to the rest of the system by a single chute called the ! The system has been explored for at least 50 years and people had even entered the Dinaledi chamber multiple times prior to the 2013 discovery of this assemblage.
2. This is a MASSIVE set of remains!
The Dinaledi Chamber assemblage includes more than 1500 bone fragments from at least 15 individuals that range in age from infant to geriatric! This single site has unearthed more bones representing a single species than almost any other ancestral hominin site and is the largest, richest assemblage every discovered on the continent of Africa. In general, Most paleoanthropological discoveries are limited to single bone or tooth, or perhaps a few clustered together. The best known and most charismatic hominin finds - Lucy the australopithecine from Ethiopia, the Nariokatome Boy (we've included pictures of each skeleton below), the Homo erectus from Kenya - are fairly complete individuals, but were discovered in isolation from others of their species. This makes it very hard for researchers to understand how varied the species might have been in terms of size, dimensions, or cranial size. Imagine millions of years from now if the only modern human to fossilize and be discovered was the 7.5-foot tall NBA star Yao Ming. What would future paleoanthropologists conclude about humans from 2015? Of course this is a very extreme example, but it illustrates the broader point: the more individuals we find of a given species, especially all together in the same place, the better understanding we have of what ‘normal’ might have been for that species. That is what makes the Dinaledi Chamber so valuable!
Two of the other most fruitful hominin excavation sites, Sima de los Huesos in Spain and the Dminisi site in Georgia (the country of Georgia, of course) can help us put this assemblage in perspective. Since 1976, Sima, the largest excavation of hominin fossils to date, has yielded 28 individuals and 6,500 bone fragments. Dmanisi, also regarded as one of the most productive hominin sites, has 5 excavated individuals. The Rising Star expedition has yielded 15 individuals over two to three years at Denaledi- already tripling the number of individuals at Dmanisi. Compared to Sima, the site has recovered over half the number of individuals and a quarter of the number of bone fragments, but in about ONE 20TH OF THE TIME. Can you see why people (including Marian and I) are so excited about all this?!
3. This is (probably) a new leaf, or species, on the tree of human evolution.
The experts are arguing about this because that’s what they do, but it looks like we have a new species of ancient hominin. H. naledi is represented by multiple (nearly) complete skeletons. Morphologically, they are a mash-up of hominin and australopithecine traits, which sends us some mixed messages. This is to say that they don’t fit in with any other previously discovered hominin or australopithecine. They are, “Weird as hell,” to quote paleoanthropologist Fred Grine from Stony Brook University. “How so?” you ask. Well, let us tell you…This is about to get a little nitty gritty- so hold tight!
4. H. naledi’s mixed morphology: some parts look more like us…
5. ....and other parts look more like australopithecines.
6. Ok, fine, but what about brain size?
Ah, yes, the other diagnostic marker of a “true” hominin… H. naledi had a brain size of about 560cc, which is less than half the brain volume of the average human (averaging 1350cc) and barely larger than chimpanzees (275-500cc). Gracile australopithecines, like Lucy, fall just below H. naledi between 420 and 450cc, and robust australopithecines, like A.boisei, are just about the same size, averaging around 530cc. By the time we get to Homo, on the other hand, cranial volume surpassed H. naledi. The earliest member of the genus Homo (2.1-1.5 mya), H. habilis, overlaps with H. naledi at 510-660cc1 on the lower end, but by H. erectus (also classified as H. ergaster), cranial capacity is up to 850cc and growing. However, even though the size of the brain is more like earlier australopithecines than Homo, the shape of the crania is much more similar to Homo than earlier hominins.
7. We don't know how old H. naledi is...yet.
Dating cave-people is hard! While caves are awesome at preserving bones and fossil assemblages, accurately dating bones that have been recovered from a cave - particularly this cave - is prohibitively difficult. Why? Well let’s take a look our current toolkit for dating fossils:
8. “But, wait a second, didn’t I just see a report that Naledi was 2-3 million years old?”
Yes, impressively well-informed reader, you did. A recent study by Thackeray compared a composite measure of cranial morphology between H. naledi and other human ancestors, placing H. naledi between two other hominins: H. rudolfensis and H. erectus. The maximum recorded age for H. rudolfensis is about 2.5 million years and H. erectus is considered to be about 1.5 million years old. As such, the author concluded that the H. naledi branch must be somewhere on the order of 2 million years old. However, this method of comparing the shape and size of H. naledi bones versus other, more confidently-dated specimens, is kind of sketchy. Now, this is a touchy subject among paleoanthropologists and we’re happy to discuss this in depth if anyone is interested, but several studies have shown that phylogenetic trees based on morphology do not faithfully recapitulate genetic relationships. In other words, it isn’t a great method for determining true genetic relation or the position of the branches on an evolutionary tree. Given the mosaic nature of H. naledi’s skeletal features, this type of dating may be particularly problematic. Think about it this way: when the mosaic of traits exhibited by a single set of skeletons is representative of two different genuses that span a few million years, which features can you choose as the “most” relevant? The classic approach is to look for the most "derived" traits, or the traits that are present in more recent ancestors, but not older ones. However, its pretty easy to see how this sort of classification can get real circular real fast. And that's why we’re on the side of keeping this issue open for discussion.
Ok, so obviously this cartoon is ridiculous- I mean, the hominins are dogs. But this cartoonist (Dog on the Moon) drew up a pretty hilarious piece depicting all the to-do about Naledi. Check out the full cartoon, but only if you promise to remember that it's satire.
So to recap this hodgepodge of a hominin: Homo naledi had human-like feet and long, strongly muscled legs adapted for striding, walking, and perhaps even running, but a shoulder joint and long, curved fingers that look more like a species spending time in the trees. They had flaring, australopithecine-like hips and a wide pyramid-shaped ribcage, but Homo-like vertebrae. Their teeth were small like ours but simple in their shape and structure; their brain size was small like earlier species, but the shape of the cranium shared many traits with other members of the genus Homo.
The real question is: what are we to make of all this? First, the mixed morphology of Naledi flies in the face of popular notion that there was a “human adaptive package” - a suite of traits that arose all together that shifted us from not-human to human. Typically, these traits include larger brain size, hand adaptations for increased dexterity, smaller dentition and smaller guts, and adaptations for efficient long-distance walking and running. H. naledi makes it pretty clear that these traits did not arise all together, and even throw into question the logical order in which such traits would have arisen. For example, most people assume that large brain size was a prerequisite for sophisticated tool use, and then anatomical adaptations for fine motor skills and manipulation would have come afterwards. With their human-like hands but australopithecine-like brains, H. naledi looks from the past and suggests, “Maybe not…”
Second, no matter how old these specimens are, H. naledi is an incredible find that will revise the story of human evolution. If they preceded humans we might have identified a direct ancestor to our own species. If they lived alongside early Homo, that could have profound implications for the “bushiness” of the hominin branch of the primate tree. However, our ability to fit this evidence into the context of our evolutionary history is severely limited until we find a decent method for dating these specimens.
No matter what—this is some very exciting science! Stay tuned for more.
Please note: comments and criticisms for this post are welcome, as well as suggestions for future posts. Our goal is to help evolutionary anthropology and science in general reach a wider audience and are always excited for opportunities to do a better job!!
Many of the sources used to write this piece are linked directly to the text. Here is a list of those sources plus some additional resources for any and all of those interested:
1. Berger, L. R., Hawks, J., de Ruiter, D. J., Churchill, S. E., Schmid, P., Delezene, L. K., ... & Skinner, M. M. (2015). Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. Elife, 4, e09560.
(And associated slideshow: http://www.slideshare.net/Lor342/homo-naledi-highlights-from-the-paper-published-on-elife)
2. Gibbons, A. (2015). New human species discovered. Science, 349(6253), 1149-1150.
3. Harcourt-Smith, W. E. H., Throckmorton, Z., Congdon, K. A., Zipfel, B., Deane, A. S., Drapeau, M. S. M., ... & DeSilva, J. M. (2015). The foot of Homo naledi. Nature communications, 6.
4. Kivell, T. L., Deane, A. S., Tocheri, M. W., Orr, C. M., Schmid, P., Hawks, J., ... & Churchill, S. E. (2015). The hand of Homo naledi. Nature communications, 6.
5. Stringer, C. (2015). The many mysteries of Homo naledi. eLife, 4, e10627.
6. Thackeray, J. F. (2015). Estimating the age and affinities of Homo naledi.South African Journal of Science, 111(11 & 12), 1-2.
Team Leader, Lee Berger's website: http://ewn.co.za/Features/Naledi
Paleoanthropologist and team member John Hawke's Blog: http://johnhawks.net/
The Expedition Blog: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/blog/rising-star-expedition/
National Geographic Coverage: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/
Other news releases:
Other blogs about Naledi:
For some words about Naledi from Berger's own mouth, check out this video!
Orangutans as a species are under extreme duress. If you haven't already heard, fires have been decimating Indonesian forests, destroying everything and every living creature in their wake. While seasonal forest fires are relatively normal in that part of the world, the scale and scope of this year's fire season is unprecedented and completely devastating. For more on the fires ripping across Borneo: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/26/indonesias-forest-fires-threaten-a-third-of-worlds-wild-orangutans image credit: theguardian.com
Generally speaking, my blogging is chimp-oriented but today I want to talk to you about another great ape. Orangutans are large-bodied, long-lived apes that live in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra- and only in those two places. It is estimated that orangutan populations have declined by 50% in recent decades, almost entirely due to anthropogenic (human) causes. Bouncing back from such a decline is particularly difficult for orangutans because it can take them 8-10 years to wean offspring and birth a new one. So even though female orangutans may live up to 40 years in the wild, they don't start reproducing until about 12 years old so- if we do some quick math on this- female orangutans generally max out at about 4 offspring in a life time. Currently, the ICUN lists Sumatran orangutans as "critically endangered" and their Borenean counter parts as "endangered," however the most recent published population sizes for this subspecies may be inflated. In a terrible twist of fate that has escalated over the last few months, Borenean orangutans have been facing a far more direct and immediate threat: wildfires.
But the good news is that there is an easy way to support orangutans and all of the other wildlife that share the forest with orangs.
Yesterday, I challenged my readers to go strawless. Today, I have an equally important and seasonally-appropriate challenge to put you: this year, have yourself an Orangutan-friendly Halloween. Just like going strawless, this challenge is far more difficult than it seems.
The problem is palm oil: it is ubiquitous. All over the world, palm oil is used in everything from make-up to shampoo to your favorite candy and chocolate delights. So your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to avoid confectionaries that use palm oil and palm-oil-derived products this Halloween and help save some orangutans.
What’s the big deal about palm oil? Let me tell you:
First of all, clearing land to make room for palm oil is absolutely devastating rainforests across Southeast Asia. However, the problem is so much deeper, and so multi-facetted.
Right now, the most relevant facet is fire. Not only are logging conglomerates clearing land that supports hundreds of species of endemic and endangered wildlife, but they are also implicit in burning hundreds of protected acres that are not intended for logging to the ground. As a means to clear and prime land for palm oil production, people routinely burn existing vegetation. But the fires can easily spin out of control.
In fact, right now, as I am typing this, our friends in Indonesia are risking their lives and lungs to fight out-of-control fires in the worst fire-season on record. While we cannot even begin to measure the devastation to local wildlife, we already know that hundreds of acres of forest have been destroyed by fire.
“But Kris,” you say, “I just checked- none of the ingredients in my shampoo say 'palm oil.'” And that is exactly what palm oil plantations and irresponsible corporations want you to think. Unfortunately, its a sham! Palm oil is called by tons of other names, most of them derived from chemical-vocabulary, to confuse and trick consumers. I thought that was absolutely crazy too, until I started digging around a bit. Here is a list of all of the alternative names for palm oil that you might find lurking in your products.
I’ve embedded several links in green text into post if you would like to learn more about palm oil and how you can be a responsible consumer. If you are as upset as I am about how close we are to losing orangutans forever, you should check out this grass-roots funding campaign. This research team has dropped everything to help fight fires around their field site and beyond, and they’re funding their efforts on their own.
To make this challenge as easy as possible for you, here’s a list of safe Halloween treats. And look, it isn’t even the lame candies! Some of my favorites are on here (and thank goodness because I am not at all sure I could go without peanut butter cups).
If you think that helping wildlife by supporting sustainable products is a great first step, but it isn't enough, I agree with you. Here are two links to projects that are on the ground fighting fires in Borneo right now. If you can spare a few dollars, you can directly contribute to saving the lives of Borenean orangutans and all of their forest friends, not to mention helping us to stop the global environmental crisis caused by these fires.
A friend asked me last week when I was going to post my next blog... I thought that today would be as good a time as any to jump back in. Especially because I have such great news: I have officially been awarded a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in support of my second field season. This means that I am officially headed back to KNP in January. There are no words to express how happy I am about this award! It’s kick-started my preparations for next season, which is always exciting! As soon as the flight is booked I’ll have a count-down going…
In other news, over the weekend, we held a small regional conference here at UNM: the 3rd Annual Meeting of the South Western Association of Biological Anthropologists. Lots of research came out of our lab and project and everyone who presented did an incredible job!
My best friend, M, won the prize for best talk, presenting a piece of her dissertation work about how we can use strontium isotopes to reconstruct landscape use among extinct taxa (for more information, check out this paper she co-authored). Labmate D gave an excellent talk updating us on his dissertation research and sharing his findings about the social strategies of adolescent male chimpanzees (here is a link to his abstract from the Biennial Meetings of the International Primatological Society last summer in Vietnam). And I presented some preliminary results from my research, adapting a technique from Machanda, Gilby, and Wrangham (2014) to determine if play partner preferences among immatures foreshadow adult patterns.
Oh, and I also won a prize for the best use of SWABA in a talk. No big deal.
So there’s been an up-tick in positive academic news in the last few weeks!
An update on the straw situation:
Guys, avoiding straws is a lot harder than it seems. They are so insidious! On the one hand, I am primed to go strawless under normal circumstances because I prefer drinks with no ice- and no it’s not only the PTSD from my Entebbe departure. I have always preferred drinks with no ice.
However, as it turns out, a strawless existence is not conducive to (1) driving across the country, (2) drinking any beverage at any bar or restaurant, or (3) being a graduate student who just really needs a soda with her fastfood lunch sometimes. As it turns out, cups that do not include a lid and a straw are an order of magnitude more spillable than those with lids and straws. In a non-travel context, not using any straws is similar switching to making everything (including your iced coffee) at home: really hard. In a restaurant setting, servers are like straw pushers and are constantly littering beverages with those little plastic siphons even when politely ask them to refrain. It is so far against their expectations that it blips right out of their brains. And by the time the straw is submerged in whatever beverage- its already too late! I’ve taken to bringing my own straw (I am totally serious, I have been saving and reusing straws whenever I can in order to cut down on my straw habit). Whenever I can remember, I tell servers that I’m a germaphobe and need to use my straw so please don’t bring me a drink with a straw in it. I’m not the most successful with this strategy because I forget… a lot… but baby steps.
You may think that my tone is overly flippant and I want to assure that I take the threat of straws and other plastics to marine- and land-living wildlife very seriously. If anything, the humor in my tone is reflective of how ridiculous it is that something a silly as a straw, a tool concerned primarily with comfort, is so pervasive. I never expected that it would be so difficult to parse out of modern life, let alone that completely deleting straws from my life would be this close to impossible.
For those of you on the go all day every day, try going strawless. For those of you with the time to dine out, try to go out and refuse all the straws. Notice how many straws are served to you. Did you ever consider this before? Did you encounter more straws that you thought you would? Next, see how hard it is to remember to ask your servers to hold the straw. Then observe how often servers forget to hold that straw. Then come leave some comments- tell me how it went! This is my personal challenge to you.
Even after a stint as short as seven months in the forest, the culture shock of coming “home” caught me in a big way. These are a few of the top-most surprising challenges that I have encountered since re-entering the American atmosphere:
1) I keep forgetting not to talk to myself aloud in public.
2) On the other hand, I continually respond in my head instead of aloud during casual conversations without realizing it until the awkward silence has stretched on for far too long.
3) I have no idea what normal people wear, but I’m pretty sure I own none of that stuff.
4) Everything is distracting. Finding my academic footing and rhythm feels near impossible with so many other things happening around me.
5) I get anxious about talking to people, especially lots of people that I know, but that I don't know all that well. It freaks me out and I feel like I'm on the spot and don't know what to say to anyone about anything- except when I’m bartending, which I somehow like more than I used to. Enjoy that little morsel, psychology friends.
6) Crowds, which never used to bother me, suddenly cause some sort of acute, panicked, claustrophobia-like reaction (which I can only assume from other people’s description of claustrophobia because I’ve never felt that either).
7) At the end of a very productive day of computer work, I feel like I blacked out and have no idea what happened or what I accomplished. That problem is solved when I have the time to go home and cook something, and admire the tangibility of my fabulous and far superior accomplishment.
8) Everything is too quiet here until it’s too noisy in all the wrong ways. My ears ache for lack of colobine calls and cicadas and the sudden influx of trash trucks and barking dogs that aren’t my barking dog.
9) Why are there no animals in the forest here? It shouldn’t surprise me… but the magnitude…
10) Choice. I am so overwhelmed by choice. Everyone keeps asking me what I want to do or watch, or where I want to go to eat and what I want to have when I get there. At the grocery I’m surrounded by an insurmountable mountain of choices- which of the 45 different types of shampoo should I purchase? Do I want apples or peaches or pears or watermelons or cantaloupes or strawberries or ridiculously overpriced mangos and avocados? Which kind of the dozen types of lettuce do I want? I can’t process fast enough and then I realize I’ve been staring at a wall of choices for ten minutes with nothing but white-noise in my brain. I feel so berated by endless questions of preference and inquiries of want that I can’t answer quickly enough to satisfy.
And then there are the constant check-ins and assumptions that I’m exactly how I used to be but seven months older and suggestive comments about why and how I should be. Am I back to normal? Do I feel normal yet? No. Ok, well how about now? The answer is still no.
Field life has always been a catalyst for me. I’ve grown and changed and transformed a little with each project and each place. I’m not sure why, but I did somehow think that this time might be different. Maybe I thought that I was done growing. Maybe I thought Kibale had finished its work on me. After all, it was only seven months. I expected to be “back to normal” within a few days but I’m still not “back to normal” and maybe I’ll never feel that version of “normal” again.
And the point is that I’m fine with that. I like that I come back from the field a little different every time, in fact I feel like I come back a little more me every time. Granted, I’m the only one who has been there through the whole process, experiencing the things that have shifted and refined who I am so I’m not surprised by the outcomes. I understand that for other people it is a bit more jarring. It can be difficult on both sides to resolve contradictions between the real me with perceptions of who I’m supposed to be. And I think it must be a little weird for the people who only see the before and the after.
But don’t worry, I like the new me. And you’ll get used to me just like I’ll get used to being “home.” :)
Well. That escalated quickly. Wasn’t I just writing “Exhilaration" from the runway at Dulles yesterday?
The writer in me wanted to pen this post as I was touching back down on the same runway, but there were unforeseen oh-you’re-leaving-Africa-here’s-a-parting-gift circumstances that prevented me from doing much of anything really. As a result, the goals of this first post-field piece have shifted a bit. The flight experience tied together so many facets of what it feels like to leave the forest: the transition to “normal” society, walking away from your happy place, shifting from one sphere of your life to another, shifting from develop-ING to develop-ED nation, and so on and so on. It was such an excellent metaphor, but I’m not sure how to tell you why.
Don’t worry- I’m not going to tell you the harrowing tale of how I violently vomited every half hour for 8 hours until we touched down in Brussels. I won’t describe the way that such a vicious departure was so ridiculous, and so appropriate to my emotional state, that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing- out loud- between puking bouts. Or mention the details of how I completely forgot the rules of normal public behavior and talked myself through the hilarious misery- out loud. It’s too graphic. If you had been on this plane beside me, like the model-gorgeous Danish dental hygienist who really was stuck beside me, you might have thought I was completely crazy. Ok, like, almost definitely thought I was bat-shit crazy.
It all came down to a false sense of security and a rookie mistake.
After so many months frequenting the same local haunts in Ft. Portal, I forgot that most Entebbe and Kampala restaurants do not take the sort of precautions that a small restaurant that caters to mzungu tourists will. So when I saw iced tea on the menu, my brain said “Ooh! It’s so hot out and that sounds delicious!” instead of “…Do they make their ice from filtered or bottled water?”
I’ve barely stopped moving since I landed, and, as such, have found neither the time nor the energy to focus all these feelings floating around into some sort of coherent framework. But don’t worry, it’s coming. Tomorrow I start the long drive to Albuquerque and always do my best thinking on the road.
For now, some teasers. I’ve got quite a few blogger-balls in the air and I’m working on some interesting pieces. To start with, there are a few more stories to wrap up my field season- my trip to Ngongo, in particular, will include some fabulous photos and (spoiler alert) a short update on a certain Kanyawara female that emigrated some time ago…
And after that, let’s get heavy. Let’s get into some contemporary controversies in science, conservation, social justice, all kinds of stuff. For instance, many of you have asked me about my opinion Cecil the lion and I’ve been fleshing out a proper response to those inquiries.
My friend, K, is a marine biologist on Turks and Caicos and she recently posted a story on Facebook about a sea turtle that was discovered with a plastic drinking straw lodged in its nose. So I’m working on a piece about wasteful, harmful plastics. The kinds we don’t even think about. And I’m going to try not to use a single straw on my entire cross-country drive. I’m not sure how the experiment is going to hash out- but I am sure that I (and consequently you) will be very surprised to see how ubiquitous and unavoidable dangerous disposables are.
The point is- stay tuned! I might be out of the forest, but there will be plenty of interesting writing to keep us occupied till I head back.
More to come….
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.