In February, 1995 novelist Linda Spalding set out on a journey deep into the rain forests of Indonesian Borneo to study the life of orangutan researcher Birute Galdikas. Along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, Galdikas formed Louis Leakey's famed trio of angels sent out to study the great apes in the wild. A Dark Place in the Jungle is Spalding's riveting account of her own travels into the jungle and the unexpected discoveries she makes along the way. This thoughtful, impassioned book is the story of Spalding's quest to reconnect with the natural world and to regain some of the closeness she once shared with her two grown daughters.
Although she does not meet Galdikas until her third trip to Borneo, Spalding encounters many of the ex-captive orangutans that the scientist has dedicated her life to preparing for return to the wild. Spalding's colorful, detailed descriptions make it easy to believe that these elusive, tree-dwelling creatures are one of man's closest relatives. Readers will be charmed by the Twisted Sisters, three inseparable young females that resemble a furry, multilegged creature from Oz, and Gistok, the naughty one whose pranks include locking Spalding's daughter in the outhouse.
Despite such moments of levity, Spalding sees much to disturb her on her journeys into the forest. Readers will share her heartbreak in the devastation caused by clear-cutting for timber and gold mining, which has left the Sekonyer River the color of chocolate, with waters made toxic by mercury. Spalding's encounters finally leave her disillusioned with Galdikas. Nonetheless, she does find some of what she'd come to the forest to discover. An evening in a remote Dayak village offers the chance to see a place still untouched by progress, where there is no sense of lack, but rather an enormous sense of regard for their mutual efforts. Here, Spalding feels at last that I knew who I was and I knew that I belonged, at least for the time I was there. I was taken on faith, which is quite an experience. Beth Duris works for the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia.