“That was from when I fell down in the forest. You weren’t there.”
— Finch, to me, explaining a big gash on his shin. A sentence that could be repeated any number of days between us. My life with an explorer-man.
We are birding in the rainforest, early in the trip, skin dripping under the layers that we hope will keep the mosquitoes off. (They don’t). We left at 5 am to see a bird that unlocked the concept of evolution for Wallace, the man who independently and concurrently with Darwin came up with the theory. Wallace sent his ideas to Darwin, Darwin panicked and scooped him and got our undying gratitude, and Wallace got nothing but a demarcation line.
We have our guide plus two other minions, carrying our breakfast. Nasi goreng (brown fried rice with strips of cold egg) and a flask of hot water I add Starbuck’s instant to. Christmas cookies with pineapple jam inside in a little glass jar. We eat in a little hut erected just for such purposes.
It has emergency water and mosquito coils cunningly tucked in its eaves. I lie o the bench made of thin trunks and try to imagine making something like this.
The forest is dark, and Finch was right to tell me not to bring my big lens. I see amazing birds — the standardwing bird of paradise, two or three types of parrot, white cockatoo, the prehistoric blyth’s hornbill — but never closely enough to photograph them. They’re high up, and fluttery, and I feel so privileged to see them.
Finch tells me that many of the endemic birds need primary forest — the incredibly tall, first growth trees — in order to survive — for height and for diversity and plenitude of fruit. The forests are being logged everywhere, and the owners of our lodge have bought big tracts for conservation.
“I do not know this trail.”
Finch is at his prowling best here, sniffing out an old logging trail that’s been regrown, striding off down it. Our guide is uneasy, more concerned about returning us safely than letting us explore the area. He’s never followed this trail, right off to the side of the hut.
I watch Finch’s ears twitch — “did you hear that sound like drums?” He senses an invisible rail, the sound reinforced by the presence of sago palms, alert to the most subtle shift of habitat. He points out what looks like a pile of dirt to me, the breeding space of dusky scrubfowl, who cooperate to build this nest area over generations. I make the long-suffering guide stand next to it to demonstrate scale.
The guide grows increasingly uneasy, and Finch sends him back with me to the hut. I saunter along, taking photos of Things I Can’t Identify
and the incredible lacy detail of this thick thick forest.
Back at the hut, I try to persuade the guide that Finch doesn’t need to be rescued. He won’t listen, and sends a minion to find him. As fully expected, Finch pops out in about 20 minutes, and the minion is lost for a while. Minion #2 starts hacking at the vines to find him.
We reach our perfect balance on this trip, Finch taking himself out birding early while I sleep in, and then I join him for smaller doses. On our last day, we drive up the winding main road, looking in the highest canopy for Blyth’s Hornbills, the drab whistler, rufus bellied triller, huge Goliath coucal, red-cheeked and eclectus parrots, grey headed fruitdoves, Brahmin kite.
Locals buzz up and down on their underpowered motorbikes. They’re curious about us, and our guide tells one pair briefly that we’re looking for birds. Burung. They are intrigued. They buzz off, then come back, the most curious carefully tucking his banana cutting knife into the space under the handlebars. The pair stands about four feet from us, watching us look up into the trees, looking up themselves, wondering what we’re looking at. Burung? They ask and laugh, watching us watch the birds.
One starts texting. “He’s texting his friend to come and watch the white woman and the really tall man behaving like crazy people,” I say. Five minutes later, another pair appears, pulls over their motorbike, join the first pair. Burung! They nod and laugh and watch us for at least 15 minutes.