Linda Spalding, best known as a novelist (The Paper Wife and Daughters of Captain Cook) and editor of the literary journal, Brick, has written a new book that is at once deeply personal and universally relevant. The "follow" in The Follow: A True Story (Key Porter Books, 318 pages, $29.95 cloth) is an anthropological activity which involves pursuing an orangutan in the wild for days, sometimes even weeks, and observing its habits and behaviours.
In Spalding's follow, the subject is not an orangutan but noted Canadian orangutan expert Birute Galdikas. Like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Galdikas was one of Louis Leakey's protegees. She began working with orangutans in 1971, her mission being to learn "more about the origins of human behaviour" by studying them. Spalding's interest in studying the anthropologist and her work stems from her concern about how far we've drifted from these origins and her fascination with how our forest ancestors represent our unevolved human selves.
Spalding's follow is a quest-ostensibly to track the past and present of Birute Galdikas, but also to "awaken" her own senses and, in the process, to discover her "most elemental self". And as Galdikas herself observes in a memoir, "[e]very trip into the field is also a journey into yourself". Spalding's journey begins in 1995, and takes her to L.A., where Galdikas is based, to Vancouver, where she teaches for part of each year, and to Borneo, where she conducts her research and engages in her own form of ecotourism (which, incidentally, appears to be as harmful to the orangutans as it is helpful).
The Follow is a hybrid of autobiography, scientific information, travelogue-even political commentary-delivered in carefully balanced measures so that no one aspect dominates or becomes tedious. At one point, Spalding remarks: "What I'm doing is noticing. It's a full-time job." And what she notices is well worth reading. Her descriptions are spare and evocative: "Wood creaked, chattered at night, shone, absorbed rain. Bamboo slats clicking softly as we walked. Walls missing pieces, offering now and then a slice of outside. In the dawn or before, the rooster beside you makes a triumph of announcement: Now now. There is no noise. Then there is a wakening. Gibbons in the forest, roosters and hens and birds. Somewhere a pig, somewhere a cow. Insects. Women pounding rice."
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Follow is that it began as a biography of Galdikas which Key Porter approached Spalding to write. And although it does end up drawing a portrait of the controversial researcher-not a particularly flattering one, I might add-it isn't really a "biography" at all. Ironically, one of the book's greatest strengths is that it doesn't adopt the pseudo-objective tone so common in conventional biographies. Spalding tells her friend, Riska, who incidentally has also just published a book (Riska: Memories of a Dayak Girlhood, Knopf, 252 pages, $29.95) with an introduction by Spalding: "Tell it through your own eyes, the way it felt. If you're going to write, you need a point of view. You need to expose yourself." Spalding heeds her own advice, and the result is much more engaging than any straightforward biography would have been. In fact, by the end of The Follow, the anthropologist has become, not so much the subject of, but the catalyst for an inspired-and inspirational-journey.
The book's nomination for a Trillium Award was well justified.