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Laima Vince is a novelist, poet, playwright and literary translator from Lithuanian into English. Her novel, This Is Not My Sky, has been translated into Lithuanian and published by Alma Littera, the largest commercial publishing house in the Baltic States. She has written five works of literary nonfiction and five plays. Laima Vince earned a MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants and a National Endowment for the Arts award in Literature, as well as a PEN Translation Fund grant.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo by Laime Vincė

Laima Vinceby
Laima Vincė

 

 

In the rain forests of Borneo, observing orangutans in their natural habitat for half a century, Dr. Birutė Galdikas absorbed an important lesson: “Without spirituality your research will not work.” She discovered the truth of spiritual forces in the jungle.

“We humans are not primates, we are monkeys,” she continued. “Our success is because we have so many monkey features. Orangutans are more closely related genetically to our human ancestors than we are because we have changed so much,” Dr. Galdikas reflected. “When you look at an orangutan, you are not looking at an ancestor, you’re looking at someone who is almost an ancestor. They are us, more or less, seven million years ago. Those relatives of ours never left the Garden of Eden. They are up there in the canopies of the forests eating their sweet fruit.”

She concluded her lecture at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas this October with these words: “If you think about creation myths, what do you think of? You think of Adam and Eve. If you think of the Tibetan creation myth, you hear that the monkey left alone and climbed up into the Himalayas. There, in the Himalayas, he met a female spirit. He mated with that female spirit; they are our ancestors. When you think about our western creation myths based on the Hebrew tradition, you remember that we humans were chased out of the garden of Eden. What I’ve tried to do as much as I can is to get back to Eden. I went to Borneo, and I found that the orangutans are still living in the Garden of Eden.”

Birutė shared a moment of epiphany with the small group of professors and doctoral students from the Natural Sciences Department who had gathered to listen and celebrate her remarkable life’s work. She described participating in an event where Al Gore spoke about the environmental crisis we are now experiencing. There was nothing Gore said that Dr. Galdikas did not know already, until he spoke these words: “The environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis.” This, the world-renown primatologist knew to be true.  

Her work at Camp Leakey over the past few decades included not only observing orangutans, raising, and then returning to the wild, captive orangutans, but advocating for conservation, taking on the global palm oil industry that decimated thousands of hectares of the orangutans’ natural habitat, stopping illegal logging of enormous ancient trees, fighting forest fires, and training local Indonesians to continue her work.

“We became a national park and were always under threat. Globalization made conservation more difficult,” Dr. Galdikas narrated. “Those government agencies active in conservation were local. Global corporations had no interest. The biggest threat was palm oil. Illegal loggers. We would pay off the local police to protect the massive trees from the loggers.

I was a researcher, but I was meeting local men on anti-poaching patrols.”

After the lecture, when invited to ask questions, I asked Dr. Galdikas: “You spoke about the relationship between spirituality and the work of the researcher. Did you go into the field with a deep spiritual foundation? Or did you develop your sense of spirituality through your work observing orangutans?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Dr. Galdikas mused and took a moment to consider. Then she responded: “My spiritual belief comes from a rootedness in nature that comes from the Baltic religion that I learned from my parents. My father took us to church on Sundays, but he was actually a pagan. He told us that his God was Perkūnas. He was born on a farm in Lithuania in 1918. He taught us that spirituality lived inside nature. I took that belief into the field with me. My mother was a nurse. She instilled in me the urgency of receiving an education, which was something she brought with her from her upbringing in Lithuania. My mother would take me on walks in High Park in Toronto and would point at leaves and tell me everything about their properties, whether they were used for medicinal purposes or to calm the spirit. She gathered and dried leaves for tea.”

Dr. Galdikas paused a moment, then added: “A philosopher once asked me whether orangutans have souls. ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘orangutans have souls. Absolutely.’”

“What are two qualities that your Lithuanian upbringing gave you that helped you in your work?” my friend Eglė Aukštakalnytė Hansen asked.

“Stubbornness and determination,” Dr. Galdikas replied firmly.

Both Birutė’s parents came from families of wealthy farmers who managed large farms in western Lithuania during the interwar period. This group of Lithuanians were among the first to be deported to Siberia by Stalin in 1941 during the first Soviet occupation. Her grandparents escaped Siberian deportation by fleeing to Berlin and staying there with relatives. After the end of World War II, in 1945, all war refugees were required to reside inside displaced persons’ camps. Birutė’s parents ended up in the Soviet zone. They met at a dance and soon thereafter married. However, worried that they would soon be deported back to the same Siberian labor camps they had narrowly escaped, together with twenty of their wedding guests, they made their way into the American zone and asked for refuge. Birutė was born in a displaced persons camp in 1946 in Wiesbaden, Germany. She was born homeless, stateless, a child refugee whose country had ceased to exist.

In 1951, the Galdikas family immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where her father secured work in a gold and copper mine. She grew up just two blocks from High Park, where she could explore the natural habitats of the park within its 162 hectares. She grew up speaking Lithuanian at home and participating in Lithuanian émigré cultural events. Immigrating to the United States, she earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and psychology and then a master’s degree in anthropology and archeology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As a student, Birutė attended classes taught by the famous archeologist, Dr. Maria Gimbutas. She traveled on several archeological expeditions with Gimbutas in Yugoslavia.

“Maria Gimbutas was deeply intuitive,” Birutė recalled, “she had the ability to take an object into her hands and feel its significance.”

While at UCLA, in March 1969, Birutė attended a lecture given by the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. He had worked in East Africa together with his wife Mary to discover the ancestors of humans. After the lecture, Birutė introduced herself to Leakey. She told him about her dream of studying orangutans in Indonesia. “Since I was an adolescent, I had a vision that I would study orangutans in the wild,” Birutė explained. However, her professors at UCLA had warned her “that studying orangutans couldn’t be done because they lived in inaccessible places. Indonesia was terra incognito.”

The next day, Leakey invited her to take an intelligence test. He spread cards out on a table and asked her which ones red and which ones were black.

“I don’t know which are which,” she replied, “but half the cards are slightly bent, and half are not.”

This response pleased Leakey. He believed that women were more observant than men and therefore were the best scientists to do field work. He had sponsored Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees and Dian Fossey to study Mountain Gorillas. Now he promised to secure funding to bring Birutė Galdikas to Borneo to study orangutans. He playfully dubbed the three women researchers: “The Trimates.” The name stuck.

“Louis Leakey was my mentor,” Dr. Galdikas admitted. “A woman needs to have a mentor to be successful.”

The other person who helped Birutė in her early years in the jungles of Borneo was her first husband, Rod Brindamour. “He was a high school dropout. He was a logger. It worked out perfectly. He was available to go to Borneo with me,” Birutė explained. “My husband was courageous. I was lucky.”

However, it was not so easy to in the early seventies to get to Indonesia. “Getting a visa to the Soviet Union was easier than getting a visa to Indonesia back then,” Birutė explained.

“We had two problems: money and permissions. Western scientists were not allowed in Indonesia. You needed to have connections to officials.”

Eventually, on a shoestring budget, Birutė and Rod made it to Borneo and took up residence in a wooden hut with one window and a thatched roof accessible only by traveling down the river by boat. Birutė dubbed the area Camp Leakey and set up her area of operation as a researcher. In the first few months, they did not locate any orangutans in the wild, but began caring for orphaned baby orangutans and ones rescued from the pet trade.

“Observing orangutans is not difficult but finding them is difficult,” Birutė shared. Tracking orangutans in the wild had no end of frustrations: “What happened is that I habituated them, but they got to know humans. So, they got harder to find. They began to know our tricks. And the trick was that we made noise. I learned to be silent. We would sit there and not move a muscle. We learned to listen. What you are listening for is the pitter patter of fruit falling to the forest floor. Or the sound of the orangutans eating leaves, pulling bark. We also cut trails. My husband would go out every morning and cut a system of trails. I can’t tell you how many kilometers. At least thirty. I would go out in the morning and search for orangutans. There was one instance when I couldn’t find any for twenty days straight. On the 20th day I found them. I spent a lot of my time walking, observing, trying to find orangutans. In the early days I spent much more time searching for orangutans than observing them. I’d be exhausted at the end of the day. After walking 12 hours I’d come back and write reports, write notes, letters. It was very hard.”

The work paid off in 1975 when Dr. Galdikas published an article in the National Geographic about orangutans, illustrated with Rod’s intimate photographs of the couple’s family life together with the orangutans. I remember as a little girl in New Jersey the moment I first held that issue of the National Geographic in my hands. I remember reading about these mysterious “ancient people of the jungle.” I was intrigued, but I was also inspired by Birutė Galdikas herself. She was a woman living her dream, doing amazing work, fearlessly braving the jungle. Because she was a strong Lithuanian woman, for me, she was a role model. Over the years, I have often recalled that image of Dr. Galdikas, surrounded by lush green, carrying one young orangutan in her arms, and leading another by the hand. That image became my clarion cry of what it meant to be a Lithuanian woman. The possibilities in life seemed endless.

“These are the real problems that primatologists face. I like to talk about them because these are the things we usually do not talk about. The problems are not methodological. The problems are technical, logistical, political. When you go to study orangutans you are going to what was once called the third world, the underdeveloped world, an isolated place with no infrastructure,” Dr. Galdikas stressed in her lecture. “I was never dry during the rainy season. I had burns on my buttocks from toxic sap, I suffered from cholera, typhoid, malaria, infections from insect bites, my hands were so swollen, they were like claws. I was once stung by a scorpion in my shoe. For years, I depended on antibiotics to survive.”

Money was always an issue: “Our money and grants ran out. Researchers would leave after a few years when their grant money ran out. We stayed. I refused to leave. I lost so much weight. Visitors would tell me I looked great because I was so thin, but I was starving. Well yes, we were both starving. We had no money for food. But we would not leave.”

After eight years, the green of the jungle began to close in on Rod. By that time, they also had a three-year-old son, Bindi, who was growing up among baby orangutans, but with no contact with human children his own age.

“Eventually Rod left and went back to Canada and he took Bindi back with him. He went to university and got a degree in Physics, then a Master degree in Computing. He had a successful career. He built the train system at Camp Leaky.” Birutė released Rod to live his life and he allowed her to live hers.

Birutė’s second husband, Pak Bohap, was a local Indonesian from the Dayak tribe. They married in 1981 and had two children, Jane and Fred. He became deeply involved in conservation and educational projects with Birutė, and they have remained together for forty years.

Dr. Galdikas spoke about some of the less romantic aspects of living among the orangutans. “Males fight to get access to the females. Male orangutans rape females, even human females,” Birutė shared. “There are stories about this in the Dalek culture.” Therefore, Birutė taught her female assistants to speak in whispers, so the orangutans would be confused about who is male and who is female. If the orangutan did not hear the higher pitched female voice, they would not know a human is a female. “We always speak in whispers when we follow wild orangutans, so they cannot figure out who is female or male. We had the center for orangutans from the wild. I always had orphaned infant orangutans hanging off of me. The female orangutans accepted me better when I had an infant with me.”

Birutė could mostly follow 20 orangutans on her own. “We couldn’t do it ourselves. We needed the help of local people,” she realized. “The ancient people of Borneo, the Dalek, are still animists. We had to get along. I worked to educate the local people although I was still doing research. We ran a native education program for Indonesians. We were living in a simple hut, living and sleeping with the orangutans. The problems we faced were similar to the problems the orangutans faced. We planted trees to help the orangutans. We planted half a million native trees by 2017.”

Now at age 75, Dr. Galdikas seeks ways to pass on her life’s work to a younger generation who can take over and build upon the research center she has spent the last fifty years of her life establishing. “If you are committed to the species you are studying as a researcher,” Dr. Galdikas says, “you must go forward and work with the local people to ensure the survival of that species.”

After not having spoken Lithuanian for nearly fifty years, in the past few years Lithuanian students have started traveling to Camp Leakey to study orangutans and to learn from Dr. Galdikas. In this way, now as a mentor to others, her life has come full circle.

 

 

 

 

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