Nov 1, 2010

Reflections of Eden

My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo
by Birute Galdikas

As a teenager I discovered the books of Jane Goodall about chimpanzees in Gombe and was enthralled. I've heard quite a bit about Dian Fossey but never yet read her works (it's next on my plate!) But until I picked up this book I was unaware of the third woman primatologist the famous Louis Leakey supported- Birute Galdikas, who studied the wild orangutans. Her book was incredible. I was amazed at the depth of her dedication and patience. She not only managed to locate and follow wild orangutans in trackless forest, but to embrace the local culture, start a movement to protect the rainforests surrounding her camp and rehabilitate confiscated pet orangutans back into the wild. All while conducting her studies and learning more about the quiet red apes than anyone knew before (including McKinnon, to whom she gave a generous nod in her book- she even met him at a conference!)

I feel I can't really describe Reflections of Eden sufficiently; it is better in this case to let Galdikas' words speak for herself. She summed it all up so well here:
Journal articles and monographs on fieldwork talk about theory, techniques, and results. Popular books focus on the animals or on the adventure. One rarely hears how fieldwork changes people's lives. The living conditions, the funding difficulties, the practical problems, the highs of discovery, the false starts and dead ends, the drudgery of scientific record-keeping, the learning how to get along with people and societies initially very foreign to you, the learning how to get along with people, places and things you once took for granted, the feeling of suspension in time as the world spins on without you- all have an impact. Fieldwork forces you not only ton confront situations you could never have anticipated, but also to confront elements of your own character you might never have known. Every trip into the field is also a trip into yourself.
I really felt like I got that broad, yet detailed picture of her work and experiences. Not just the fascinating observations of the animals and insights into their behavior, but also the day to day efforts of conducting the field study and rehabilitating the once-captive orangutans, working with the local people, struggling with the poor living conditions, etc. It was all so vividly real and intellectually stimulating. It reminded me quite a bit of reading The Lion's Eye; the raw reality and wonder of it all.

Near the end of the book Galdikas speaks of the passing of Dian Fossey and her work with the mountain gorillas, it seemed such an appropriate segue into my next reading choice; I know I've had that one sitting on my shelf far too long!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 408 pages, 1995


Chandra said...

Great review! I can't wait to see how you find Dian Fossey's work. I've never read anything by her myself.

Eva said...

Sounds like I'll be picking this one up!