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  • Coming of Old Age in Samoa
  • John R. Nelson (bio)

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How old are you?” local guides and drivers asked as I caned up and down hills and wobbled through woodlands. When I answered—seventy-two—they said, “That’s very old in Vanuatu,” or “You must be very strong.” I wasn’t feeling strong. In airports, adults and children would stop and ask, “Sir, are you all right?” [End Page 63]

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I was on a Rockjumper birding tour of the South Pacific. From the start I’d weighed the fun of finding birds against the pain and fear of falling with each step. Six weeks earlier I’d dislocated my left hip for the fourth time while cycling back home. The hip could pop out again at any moment, without warning, so I was favoring my right side, but my right foot still had two huge screws in it from an ankle fusion surgery. Bones had stopped fusing, and one screw was migrating, the head digging into my heel. On the island of Taveuni in Fiji, up a mountain that locals called Devil’s Peak, a guide heard an orange dove inside the forest. I doubted I could hack the trail—overgrown, mud-slick, steep—but two sturdy guys prodded and yanked me along until we’d tracked down the dove’s knocking tock tock. Behind me a woman clutched the neck of a grinning Fijian who’d piggybacked her up the trail. The dove was screaming orange, loud as a prison jumpsuit, plump, with a tiny olive-green head. Flitting through the understory was a rare silktail: small, lava-black, flashing a silky white rump and fine satiny iridescent spangles on its head and breast. For moments, pain vanished.

“I’m proud of you, John,” said our driver, Solomon, back in the van. “Brave man.” It can be embarrassing to be saluted for bravery. I wasn’t returning from battle. I’d been birdwatching. In three days on the mountain I’d become buddies with our Taveuni crew. They were all somehow related, from a village along the road up Devil’s Peak. Fiji is a rugby-mad country, and Solomon dreamed a young man’s dream of playing in a big sevens tournament in Hong Kong. Music had bonded us: he beamed when I recognized South African singer Lucky Dube on his reggae mix. I’d tried to tell my Fijian friends that I wasn’t some time-defying phenomenon. Most members of our group were around my age; they were merely less ruined. Solomon laughed. “You don’t complain, John.” Fijians learn the lesson young: if you hurt, keep it to yourself.


At dawn, hundreds of flying foxes glide toward their canopy roost below the Dave Parker Eco Lodge. “The forest echoes with sacredness,” wrote a Samoan poet. “The morning is silent with dew.” Pacific flying foxes, black with white necks and elongated wings, forage at night. Their cousins, Samoan flying foxes, have evolved into daytime feeders. Both [End Page 64] species pollinate the red flowers of forest vines and disperse seeds from fruits too big for birds to carry. These megabats once had no predators to fear, but in the 1970s, hunters with semiautomatic rifles began killing them and shipping them to Guam to be sold as delicacies. Despite resistance from bat profiteers, it’s now illegal to kill and sell any of the seven species of Pacific island flying foxes.

Sunlight ripples the cloud-banked Pacific. Restless flying foxes twitter communally in treetops. White-tailed tropicbirds, stately white with tails like kite streamers, rise from the green valley between the roost and the small coastal city of Apia, Samoa’s capital. The Samoan islands were isolated until the eighteenth century, when French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville determined their precise location and named them “the Navigator Islands” for their inhabitants’ skilled seamanship. Later, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States vied for control of trade and support from rival royal families. An 1899 agreement gave the eastern islands to the United States, the western islands to Germany. New Zealand...


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pp. 62-79
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