Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Postcards From Borneo: A Family Adventure Begins Anew

Some National Geographic magazine assignments come out of the blue. A phone call or email from an editor saying, “Can you go to the Amazon for us next month?” They can take shape quickly, and be carried out and completed in months. Then there are the ones that span half a lifetime. This is one of those.

It was in 1986 when I saw the poster in the hall of the biology building at Harvard. It featured a plate from Alfred Russell Wallace’s natural history classic The Malay Archipelago: Land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise, depicting Dayak natives in Borneo battling a giant orangutan. “Wanted: Field Assistants for Rain Forest Research in Borneo. Contact Prof. Mark Leighton,” or something to that effect was typed beneath. I talked to Professor Leighton. I read Wallace. I was off to Borneo for a year.

Fast forward to 1994. I had already completed my Ph.D. research in Borneo, focusing on life in the rain forest canopy. Now I was back in Borneo with my wife, Cheryl Knott. We had met in grad school, and made an instant connection. She was studying primatology, and I told her about the orangutans of Borneo, at the site called Gunung Palung, where I had done my Ph.D. Once she had a chance to visit there and do a pilot study, she was hooked.

As I expanded my scope of interests beyond science to concentrate on photographic storytelling, Borneo became my proving ground, and my first two published stories in National Geographic came out of my own work in the forest canopy, and then documenting Cheryl’s orangutan research.

Since then, Cheryl has continued her long term orangutan project in Gunung Palung and is now a professor at Boston University. My projects have taken me to many other corners of the world as well, but nearly every year we return to Gunung Palung.

Soon we started a family, but that didn’t stop us. Our son Russell first traveled to Borneo with us when he was not quite one year old. A brief report we published in National Geographic in 2003 about the threats to orangutans included a shot of Russell and Cheryl in a canoe on the river to Gunung Palung.

Now the summer trip to Borneo has become a family tradition. Russell is now thirteen, and his younger sister Jessica is ten. They count on that long flight across the Pacific, those hotel nights in Indonesian towns on the way, and finally that long boat trip upriver to the research camp.

By the time they get there to the opposite side of the world and to that enclave in the wilderness, they know they are doing something special. It’s what sets our family apart. They know we are “different”, but in a good way.