Books: Tales of the Trimate

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Books: Tales of the Trimate
By Andrea Barrett

Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo, by Birute M. F. Galdikas (Little, Brown, $24.95). As a graduate student, Birute Galdikas was befriended by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who'd already trained Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees and supported Dian Fossey's work with mountain gorillas. With Leakey's help, Galdikas became one of the trio of young researchers referred to as "the trimates" and set off to do fieldwork with the orangutans of Indonesian Borneo.

"One rarely hears how fieldwork changes people's lives," Galdikas writes. But her frank and very well written memoir tells all, detailing 23 years of coping with "the heat, the mud, the humidity, the torrential rains, the fire ants, the leeches, the cobras, pythons, and pit vipers, the fevers, the deaths, the frustrations" while studying wild orangutans and rehabilitating former captives that she has rescued. As she weaves together a life story, she also details the destructive changes that are sweeping Borneo and threatening both orangutans and the aboriginal Dayak people who have helped her with her work. Now married to a Dayak, she raises their children as part of an extended Dayak family. How she got from here to there makes for irresistible reading.

The Point, by Charles D'Ambrosio (Little, Brown, $19.95). Set largely in the Pacific Northwest, the seven accomplished stories in D'Ambrosio's debut book bring to life troubled men whose chief consolations are found in the great outdoors. Characters find their way by driving through "a landscape too wide for the eye to measure," ease grief over a lost child by working with the Mount Hood Search and Rescue Team, or balance the tensions of a crazy family by "drinking beer and tying flies, filling one box with hare's ears and pheasant tails, and another with size 16 Blue-winged Olives and Pale Morning Duns." The brave boy narrating the stunning title story notices, while escorting his mother's drunken party guests to their homes along the ocean, how "a few boats rocked in the wind, and a seal moaned out on the diving raft, the cries carrying away from us, south, downwind." Lyrical, morally complex, and always surprising, these perfectly pitched tales bring to life distinctive characters and communities that haven't quite succumbed to the increasing homogenization of American culture.

Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans, by Sy Montgomery (Houghton Mifflin Co., $23). In the mangrove swamp of Sundarbans, stretching along the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh, "fish climb trees; the animals drink salt water" and "tigers do not obey the same rules by which tigers elsewhere govern their lives. They hunt people." During three visits to this tidal delta and its vidhaba pallis -- "tiger widow villages," in which most families have lost someone to the big cats -- nature writer Sy Montgomery gathered tales and observed the ecological balance in which humans and man-eaters have lived for centuries. Sundarbans tigers, she reports, "leave untouched those parts of the victim we associate most with personhood," namely "the hands, legs, and head." Although Montgomery occasionally gets lost in mythology and mystical prose, this is a fascinating account of a little-known place and its anomalous inhabitants.

Women on Hunting, edited by Pam Houston (Ecco Press, $23). In her introduction to this intriguing collection of fiction, poetry, and essays about hunting, writer and former hunting guide Pam Houston characterizes this traditionally male sport as "a work of art, a feat of imagination, a flight of spirit and a test of endless patience and skill." Joy Williams, in one of the essays, takes a different view, stating flatly, "Death and suffering are a big part of hunting. A big part. Not that you'd ever know it by hearing hunters talk. They tend to downplay the killing part.... Sport hunting is immoral, it should be made illegal." Between those poles of appreciation and revulsion, the writers here explore hunting's literal and metaphorical aspects, including the predatory side of love. Deer hunting dominates: Joyce Carol Oates's terrifying story "The Buck" resonates interestingly with Carol Frost's transcendent poem "To Kill a Deer," while selections by Alison Baker, Tess Gallagher, and Francine Prose focus on accidents that occur when, as Prose puts it, "You are considered a nine-point buck until you are proven human." The nature of human blood-lust also surfaces in Jane Smiley's essay about the secret pleasures of fox-hunting, which originally appeared in Outside, and Antonya Nelson's gory, heartbreaking story of domestic-animal slaughter, "Fair Hunt." Well balanced and thoughtfully arranged, Women on Hunting avoids stereotypes while charting a wide range of women's responses to an ancient human pursuit.

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