- Before We Were Human
You are come to the very edge of the Wild, as some of you may know.- J. R. R. Tolkien
Gunung Leuser National Park Sumatra, Indonesia, June 2007
I sold my car to be here. And my library of hundreds of books—I could have cried as a garage-sale customer made off with my treasured Folio edition of The Hobbit under his arm. My furniture from IKEA—the loveseat and matching end tables, the fluffy white rug and modular bookshelves—disappeared into the backs of SUVs to find new lives, leaving me with a wad of crumpled bills in my pocket and the giddy sensation that I was about to jump off a cliff. I sold or gave away all the office clothes I’d accumulated over years spent in Vancouver publishing offices—leather pumps, turtleneck sweaters, pencil skirts, trench coats, totes and briefcases in safe, neutral black and tan. All gone, replaced [End Page 33] by hiking shoes soaked from river crossings, cargo pants smeared in mud from scrambling down embankments, and a sweaty green T-shirt. Sweaty because I’m standing in the jungle in eighty-plus degrees, peering through steamed-up glasses to get a better look at him.
Abdul. More than two hundred pounds of brawny orangutan with shaggy arms, a potbelly, and flowing red beard. And he isn’t yet full-grown, doesn’t have the dishy cheekpads of an adult male that would make him look like a creature from another planet. He hangs off a branch over the trail, swinging his arm and striking various poses for our cameras just like a seasoned Sports Illustrated model. Though wild-born, Abdul is used to people. Taken from his mother as a baby and kept as a pet, he soon became too big to handle and was brought to live in this protected national park on the island of Sumatra, the only place in the world where orangutans live with tigers, elephants, and rhinos in the wild. My friend Brettany, a wildlife biologist from Florida, is on the other side of Abdul with her triple-barreled camera, shutters whirring as he shifts his leg to show a more comely angle. I’m too much in awe of this magnificent, fiery being to bother taking a photo. Instead I take him in directly with my eyes and commit him to memory.
Just then a man in a floppy hat breaks from our band of camera-toting travelers and steps in front of me, blocking my view. A bit annoyed, I decide to join Brettany on the other side of the trail, giving Abdul a wide berth. Our Indonesian guide Wanda, a hobbit-sized fellow with springs of curly hair, has warned us not to touch the orangutans, since they’re susceptible to human diseases. But suddenly something steely clamps onto my right upper thigh from behind: Abdul’s hand. I’ve underestimated his reach—orangutan arms can span much longer than their bodies—and now he has me firmly in his grip. Gasps, more shutter clicks. “Stay calm,” Wanda implores.
And I am. Strangely calm. I can feel the reach of that hand, the retractable thumb that allows Abdul to brachiate through the trees in a hand-over-hand movement, encompassing almost the entire circumference of my upper thigh. A male orangutan is eight times stronger than a man. This kind of strength sustains his full weight [End Page 34] when he swings through the forest canopy. I’m locked in, my leg the equivalent of a tree branch, wondering if he could actually pick me up and sweep me off to his treetop nest. The thought makes me jerk my leg forward in alarm. Abdul’s grip loosens, falls away easily. “It must be true what they say,” someone says in a thick German accent. “Orangutans prefer blondes.” Laughter ripples through the trees, the waxy greenery that surrounds us as if we were long lost Adams and Eves who’ve finally found our way back to Eden. My heart’s skittering, and an unfamiliar feeling blooms in my chest. Is it joy? I feel as if I...