Seeing in the Wild
by Joanna Greenfield
I found this book on the new shelf at the library, the bold cover drew my eye. Unlike the cover may suggest, the book is not about lions, although the author does encounter some in her travels through Africa. It's mostly about her search for chimpanzees in the dense rainforests of Uganda. During one college semester, desperate to get material for her thesis and closer to the animals themselves, she pitched herself into the wilds of Africa, begging all the scientists she could find until one finally offered her work at a research station. I feel like more than any other, this book gives a feel for what the daily tedium of field work must be; the patient, often frustrating search for animals, endless waiting for something to happen, wrangling with officials for permissions, navigating differences among tribal men who are part of her camp team, learning the local languages piecemeal.... Then there's the cold soaking rain, eternal damp and mold, short food supplies, waves of fire ants, parasites, attacks by hyenas.... I was held down on nearly every page by the vividness of her descriptions, both of suffering and frustration as well as the enthralling moments when she finally spied her study animals and was allowed to approach closer than she'd ever hoped for.
There's another aspect to this story that makes it like no other I've encountered. Greenfield had a genetic condition where her eyes did not focus together. She had no depth perception, difficulty reading faces, was hopeless at things like dancing. There is a common thread throughout the book about sight, how the eye works, how the brain perceives its messages; both from her own observations and musings as well as quotes from other writers and professionals. It makes for very interesting reading. Her depictions of the world around her are so vivid I often forgot she couldn't see clearly, until mention of her vision impairment reminded me. It made it all the more amazing to me that she would brave political unrest, trigger-happy soldiers and all the many hardships, to sit in a thick damp forest hoping for a glimpse of chimpanzees. If you like nature writing with an unusual slant, this is some of the most immediate and raw I've ever come across.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 312 pages, 2009
More opinions at: Scene East