Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: The Follow by Linda Spalding

The Follow by Linda Spalding

Review by Tamarra Kaida

Orangutans may not be with us much longer if illegal logging continues to erode their natural habitat in the Indonesian islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Writer Linda Spalding makes several trips to Borneo in search of not only understanding orangutans but also of the ecological and political systems that surround and affect this endangered specie. She conducts a " follow” on world-renowned primatologist, Birute’Galdikas. “A follow” is a term used by rain forest researchers to describe a form of benign stalking and observation of an individual oraungutan. Linda’s “ follow” starts out with the intention of getting to know and interview Birute’, a women she admires for dedicating her life to the preservation of oragutans. She is one of Louis Leakey’s protégées. Like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, (Birute’),“ followed” a primate for days, even weeks, learning what she ate, where she slept, how she raised her children, what mark her life in the forest made”. Louis Leakey found women particularly adept at this kind of research, observation in situ. The traditional domestic qualities of nurturance, patience, attention to detail, apparently became scientific attributes in the jungle. Woman’s place was no longer just in the home. Or did we have to broaden our notion of home?

Connecting with the formidable Dr. Galdikas proves to be difficult. Linda’s “follow” turns into a search, for understanding the genesis of nurturance itself, of cross special interdependence and a personal journey replete with greedy gold miners, politically protected illegal loggers and a profound friendship with Riska, a Dayak woman guide.

The Follow, a deeply feminine book, tracks previously male territory – difficult and primitive terrain, jungle heat, unsavory characters and a buddy friendship that survives cultural differences. The heart of Spalding’s book is her personal quest for answers to the big questions of why we are all here and how we animals can live together on our small and fragile planet. Linda is not afraid to examine the pluses and minuses Birute’s actions. Perhaps trying to rehabituate former captive pet orangutans back into the rainforest is not a productive act of nurturance but rather of misguided love, which can endanger the remaining wild orangutans with contagious diseases. Another concern is that many of the former “pets” have lost their ability to survive in their natural environment. Are we helping or hindering the preservation of orangutans? The correct scientific approach is under fierce debate.

Linda began her “follow” because she was questioning our connection to nature. “ We seem to be wandering outside of it, but how can that be? Aren’t we made of the same coils of DNA as everything living? Aren’t our closest relatives the great apes? Now only orangutans still live in trees whence we came, wandering like nomads through the canopy, without permanent nests, the way we must have wandered once .Was it settlement that cut us off from nature? Are we human because we left paradise?”

What makes us want to save a species?

“ The story of the ark is a fable for our time, the dream of all people who have similar stories everywhere. Stories of saving may even be part of our biological inheritance. While we sleep, the brain cells that hold our maps are working, communicating with each other about our hopes of survival, carving ever more complex maps in our brains, carving frightening and protective thoughts as one who carves a dragon and lets loose its spirit.”

Spalding’s “ Follow” of Galdikas and the endangered orangutans takes her far from her home in Toronto to the Borneo rainforest, but ultimately it brings her home to herself. Through her writing we also track the predominant issue of species survival in an ever more interdependent global village.

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