Tilly (foreground) and Daniel (background)
There are footsteps on the continent, and some of them are mine. I had memories of these footsteps from long before they were born. It's like this sometimes: a place gets under your skin so deeply that you cannot remember a time that it didn't hound you, even if it was only biannually in dreams.
I come back again and again because I feel that I have to. Our nonhuman brethren are only a part of this, but in no way a small part. With the chimpanzees at Sanaga-Yong, I find myself wondering if some piece of me lingers in their consciousness (or subconsciousness). That vague and persistent kind of familiarity. Like when you see someone in a grocery store and you know that you know them, but you cannot place from where. Or how for me as a child, the smell of my father's old blue-terry bathrobe always reminded me of Poland, as if the country were itself a breathing, singular organism.
Tilly was just three when I last left. She was always the kinda gal who kicked it with boys. She still is. In her group of seven, she is the lone female. She certainly can hold her own, and she's not at the bottom of her group's hierarchy.
When she was younger, Tilly was a food sharer. She gave me banana chunks on more than one occasion. This fact becomes even more significant when you understand that chimpanzees are not usually known for their generosity with food. In fact, some chimp mothers have been known to ignore a whimpering infant with an outstretched hand. Not that she'd starve her own child, of course, but just perhaps because she wants to savor the culinary experience on her own terms.
The other night, when the chimpanzees of Tilly's group (officially called Charlos's group, after the alpha male) came into their sleeping quarters for the evening, I crouched down alongside the chamber that Tilly shares with Daniel and Shy (who were all just babies the last time I was here). Tilly watched me watch her. I didn't look away, and neither did she. Soon, she began rifling through the leaves until she came upon a guava skin with the faintest hint of pink flesh still hugging the interior. She threw it to me.
"Oh, thank you Tilly!" I exclaimed, and brought the rind toward my lips (carefully avoiding contact). I began making soft food grunts. She watched, interested in my consumption. I think I was able to fool her, and when she turned away, I placed the guava skin on the floor. But then she handed me another.
Shy's place face
Milou says hello
Tilly grooms Charlos
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