BOOKS: Reflections of Eden

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1995:

Reflections of Eden:
My Years With the Orangutans of Borneo, by Birute M.F. Galdikas.
Little, Brown & Co. (1271 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 1995.
403 pages; 16 pages of photos. $24.95; $29.95 in Canada.
Birute Galdikas is less known than
her colleagues Jane Goodall and the late Dian
Fossey, but her reminiscences of field
research on primates are no less colorful and
interesting. Paleoanthropologist Louis
Leakey and his handpicked trio of female
researchers spent decades documenting the
lives of apes in the wild, and campaigning to
preserve primates and their natural habitat.

Fossey’s specialty was mountain
gorillas; Goodall’s is chimpanzees.
Galdikas studies orangutans, whose solitary
habits make them especially difficult to
observe. When she began her research in the
early 1970s, she and her husband lived in a
primitive jungle shack with almost nothing in
the way of modern convenience. Malnour-
ished, constantly struggling with malarial
fevers and other diseases, plus parasites,
Galdikas single-mindedly focused on her
research, spending hours every day in the
jungle looking for orangutans, tracking them
as best she could through the swamps.
In loving detail she describes her
many encounters with the apes, admitting
that they became her family and her world.
She grieves over the deaths of some of them
as if they were her own children. In fact,
Camp Leakey, where she and her husband
Rod Brindamour were stationed, became a
haven for infant and juvenile captive orang-
utans. These young apes had been taken as
pets by some of the local people, but when
owning orangutans became illegal, they
were turned over to Galdikas so she could
habituate them to their jungle environment.
She became their surrogate mother, and her
descriptions of how they clung to her day and
night, between turning the camp upside
down, inspires more awe than laughter.
Such laserlike focus and commit-
ment carried Galdikas through extreme hard-
ship and privation, but it also destroyed her
marriage, the details of which find their way
into Reflections of Eden. Galdikas makes it
clear that she has few regrets about putting
husband and children a distant second to the
orangutans, displaying that curious fervor
and single vision which seems to mark great
scientists, no matter what their gender.
Through Galdikas’ attachment to
the apes, she realizes that Nature is capri-
cious and hostile. “In traveling to the tropi-
cal rain forest,” Galdikas writes wistfully
after three of her subjects die of apparent
malnutrition, “Rod and I were fulfilling our
generation’s dream of ‘going back to nature,’
returning to the Garden of Eden. But gardens
are made by humans, to please human sensi-
bilities. To maintain gardens, one must keep
nature at bay: weeding, pruning, spraying,
watering, fencing. A garden is Nature
tamed, domesticated, civilized. In the
beginning there was no garden; there was
only Eden. Our original home was not a gar-
den but a wild place, where Nature reigned.
I was learnng that Nature clean and pure was
also nature brutal, ruthless and savage.”
It is this argument she puts forth as
part of her campaign of human intervention
in preserving habitat parks. “Nature had
offered humans a way out, through the
development of culture,” she continues.
“We have clothes, shelter, cultivated food,
medicine. As I visualized the lone nest
swaying somewhere in the green canopy with
Carl’s bones and another with Cara’s mag-
got-ridden remains, I wept. Nature had not
offered them a way out.”
––P.J. Kemp
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