The Follow by Linda Spalding

July 25, 2011

The Vancouver Sun, May 30, 1998

At the centre of this book lies a problem. The problem is the subject won’t cooperate. So the book must take another shape around the absence of the subject.

Linda Spalding is the author of two excellent novels, Daughters of Captain Cook and The Paper Wife, and editor of the Toronto literary journal, Brick.

She was approached by Susan Renouf of Key Porter Books to write a biography of Canadian Biruté Galdikas, one of three women (Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey being the other two) chosen by Louis Leakey to study the great apes in their own habitat.

She accepted the project with enthusiasm only to find that Galdikas’ enthusiasm did not mirror her own. Galdikas agrees to meet Spalding, but after several dates are set and Galdikas fails to honour any of them, Spalding realizes she’s being ducked. With determination she bulls her way through and manages to meet Galdikas once, but Galdikas is distracted, tired and absent.

Spalding apparently entered this project with the hope of encountering the pure, the pristine, the uncorrupted—and when those expectations don’t match reality, she’s hurt and bewildered. 

She imagines the national park in Borneo to be “nature more or less undisturbed. The original place.” When she’s trying to extract an invitation to travel to Borneo with Galdikas, she tells her, “You’re close to something that might be the answer to so much of what I want to know. How we can readapt ourselves to fit back in. You seem to have managed.”

Galdikas’ cornered response—“well, listen, maybe we could just do a team of one . . . We’ll see”—evokes the following fantasy in Spalding:

“I could imagine myself in Borneo after all . . . I’d take a camera and a notebook and all the goodwill in the world . . . At Camp Leakey I would step out of a boat and onto a dock, and she would be waiting under the trees. She would stride along forest trails, casting her eyes up at the slightest sound and keeping a few voice lengths ahead of me. But there would be no need for conversation . . . Biruté would stop, smile, point up and up and up and, in the distance, I would just make out, at the end of her gaze, a wild red ape swinging through the canopy.”

Right to the end, on her third and last trip to Borneo, Spalding is still trying to get near Galdikas, long past the point any reasonable person would persist. Even she notes: “I don’t know why I’m still pursuing her.”

The title of this book, The Follow, is taken from a term used for researching animals in the wild. Once an individual is spotted the researcher follows, observes and records everything that creature does for as long as possible, usually over several days. Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas all employed this strategy for studying chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans respectively. Spalding adopts it as a structure for her approach of Galdikas.

But Spalding never acknowledges the territorial dimension of following someone, the inherent threat for the object in being followed by a stranger, the link between being followed and being stalked. Not many would respond well to an uninvited stranger intruding on their territory and I doubt the author herself would enjoy being the object of such an exercise.

She never asks herself the question, why should Galdikas want to cooperate? Why would Galdikas spend time explaining herself to Spalding and bringing Spalding up to speed on anthropology and orang-utans when she has already expressed what she wanted to in her own autobiography?

At one point Spalding quotes somebody as saying: “Have you read her doctoral thesis? Your time might be better spent doing that,” as an indication of their hostility. Spalding doesn’t answer the speaker, or the reader, and I found myself wondering if she had read it, reasoning that in itself it wasn’t such a bad suggestion.

There is no bibliography in this book so the reader has no way of knowing what Spalding’s frames of reference are, what information she is bringing on her follow. Another question Spalding neither asks or answers is what Galdikas might stand to lose.

One need only read about Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall to understand the impossibility of the situation Galdikas is in. In Farley Mowat’s biography of Fossey it becomes clear that the grief, rage and despair she feels as the gorillas she has come to know and care about are slaughtered, drive her to become emotionally unbalanced and increasingly confrontational, to abandon her self-protective instincts.

Goodall, faced with an only slightly less dire predicament for the chimpanzees, manages to maintain the clear-headedness of an army general, always working to keep morale from slipping so low people cease to act, though occasionally her pain flashes through her reserved narratives. 

It’s possible that the orang-utans are in the most precarious situation of the three because a single orang-utan requires so much more land to survive in the wild. 

The survival of their species hangs by just a few slender threads and Galdikas must feel herself to be one of those threads. Yet pushing on the other side are Third World people who have little to eat themselves, logging companies, corrupt governments, researchers, poachers, etc. Galdikas may have arrived in Borneo as a scientist, but she was quickly propelled into an extremely politically charged situation.

She is also personally threatened. Everything Galdikas says has political ramifications for her, for people around her, and for the orang-utans. Her life is on the line, perhaps literally (Fossey was murdered in her camp by a local) so it should be no surprise her boundaries would be well in place.

By not thinking about them however, Spalding burdens the reader with a naiveté that is unsettling. Despite her genuine efforts to be candid about the tension between them, as the boundary-crosser she transmits a territorial edginess too difficult to transcend and ultimately justifies Galdikas’ wariness. Indonesian officials hope to use The Follow in prosecuting Galdikas for illegally keeping orang-utans on her property.

Territorial tensions aside, how does Spalding, an accomplished writer, cope with the vexations of not having her sub subject sit still for the portrait? Her solution is to reshape the biography into a travel journal and allow the narrative a very personal dimension.

She makes three trips to the rainforest in Borneo. On the first she takes her two adult daughters with her. Spalding floats memories of her daughters’ childhood among reveries about mothers and daughters and observations of their changing relationship.

Occasionally the novelist takes over from the biographer, the uncomfortable subtext vanishes, and the language soars.

She describes entering the rainforest:

“This walk could go on forever, given the trees and given the time, and even then we would enter and reenter the dark. Under the trees, the ground would be wet and only a few plants would survive: the palms, the fungi, the parasites. Everything from above would find its way down, falling or gliding, breaking and dying; the beautiful blow of decay would be everlasting and constant. In its damp, in its warmth, constant, too, in the waiting leech. The floor of the forest offers its mould; it offers its flatworms that throw off buds of themselves to multiply and eat. Bellyteeth.”

Spalding’s philosophical premise on these journeys is that there is an Edenic plane of existence wherein all beings are in perfect harmony and balance with nature and that we homo sapiens have been thrown out of it because of some intrinsic unworthiness.

“Even if Biruté is as elusive as the orang-utans she follows, I thought, she might lead me to an understanding of how we Homo Sapiens got ourselves thrown out of the garden and how we must look, in our exile, to the many eyes watching from the trees.”

In Spalding’s cosmology the more primitive the human society the closer it still is to nature, to oneness with the divine, to bliss. “For the Dayak (head-hunters) have lived in the forest for thousands of years and they share it with thousands of other species, among them orang-utans. Maybe they still know how to live as part of nature, as part of the garden, as participants.”

Primitive equals good. Human equals bad. Modern Western culture equals very bad. Human does not equal Nature. This equation arises out of a Rousseau-ian worldview. In fact Spalding takes a quote from Rousseau as a kind of structure for her journey: “Rousseau’s prescription for us, who have drifted so far from our origins, was to make two journeys: one to a place where life is still uncorrupted, and another into the self.”

At night she sits in her Dayak host’s house. “I was drifting backwards. I was becoming pre-hominid, watching a woman wipe the glass of the lantern, push and pull at the pump, trim the wick and then jump back at the tiny explosion. We sat or lay on the floor and engaged in life minute by minute.”

Spalding is describing a state of mind, not a culture. It can be achieved in all cultures. No one, even a former headhunter, lives in that state of mind all the time. 

Notionally the Edenic view holds that human beings are separate from nature, qualitatively different. I view this as a form of self-aggrandizement. We aggrandize ourselves as much with exaggerated thoughts of our inferiority as with thoughts of our superiority.

It is hubris to think of the human species as worse than other species, that the effects we’re having on the environment somehow place us outside of nature. Belief in our special badness is still a belief in specialness, in being an exception. It’s a covert hope that, should the conditions of life be destroyed, somehow we may escape. It’s a hope for immortality. I don’t think we were thrown “out of the garden,” but rather have been thrown into the world. We are in nature and are subject to its instincts and forces. Hard though it is to accept, we are one of the forces of nature. The behaviours we have that are so destructive to the eco-system and to other species, are behaviours present in chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans among others. Because of our consciousness we are responsible for our actions, but we’re not in control.

The Follow contains some interesting material, some beautiful writing, but it lacks a centre. What fills the void is Spalding’s antagonism toward Galdikas. Spalding expects intelligent readers, who know there are always two sides to any story, to accept one. Because I cannot accept her Edenic paradigm, her conclusions about homo sapiens and nature left me uninspired.

Spalding hoped and was disappointed in her hope, that Galdikas would lead her to a deeper understanding of her connection to nature and, even in a small way, to the meaning of life. In the same way I hoped to find a similar revelation with The Follow.

The truth is, as Spalding discovers, at a certain age, after a certain amount of reading and thinking and experience, no one else is going to hold any special keys that you don’t already hold yourself.

At one point Spalding wanted to abandon this project but was convinced to continue by her editor. She should have followed her own instincts, gathered up her material and written a novel. Maybe then she would have been able to bypass her expectations, get inside Galdikas’ head and discover what makes her tick. 

The Follow
By: 
Linda Spalding
Publisher: 
Key Porter, 315 pages, $29.95