Extinction of experience

At the end of the book “The birds at my table”, the author Darryl Jones mentions a phenomenon called the “extinction of experience.” The extinction of experience can be summarised by the loss of immersing yourself in nature, be it with wildlife watching, making mud pies or building tree forts, in this era of the digital age. As a 90’s kid, my childhood memories are filled with experiences of riding bikes around the neighbourhood all weekend with my friends, capturing yabbies and bringing them home to bite my mother’s fingers and raising tadpoles we stole from the wild with my next door neighbour. Reminiscing back on all the tree houses I built, pretend mountains I climbed and pure bonding with my friends and siblings over the privacy and intimacy of being alone in nature, made me realise how these experiences were so powerful and profoundly important in my life. These experiences were so pronounced in fact, that I based my whole career around the ability to keep on experiencing these experiences. (As you can tell by the content and theme of this blog.)

The phrase “extinction of experience” unexpectedly suck in my mind much longer than I read the words for as I struggle to understand the possibility of a generation who has never washed dirt out of their fingernails after a long mud pie making session, who has never fallen from a low branch while trying to climb a tree or has never felt the exhilaration of rolling down a grassy hill.

I remember when I was working in an ecotourism venture where families from all over the globe would come to stay on the beautiful farm style property with lakes, orchards, wildlife and lots of space to run around an explore. The most bewildering moments were meeting some of the children who came to stay who, for them, running around and exploring was a new phenomenon that they had never been exposed to. We had to in essence, show these kids how to be kids and let them know that they had free rein to be able to utilise all the resources that they discovered in their new environment.

One family in particular had flown in all the way from Tokyo, Japan and had grown up living in a dense city environment. Suddenly in quite the opposite surrounds, with large open spaces, flowering trees and fruits all around them, the I urged the kids to explore, create and get inspired. Walking to work the next day, a huge smile filled my face as I saw the most amazingly decorated tepee made from sticks in the front yard of their accommodation. Those kids had created an experience that they will remember for a long time and hopefully one which will shape  the way they experience life into the future. Suddenly there were building blocks and toys all around them in this natural environment now they had uncovered that way of thinking.

I believe experiences can be manifested at any age, not just within a “childhood” as I feel that an essence of human-hood is to return back to a natural state in order to keep ownership of your sanity. For some, this can be a walk through the park with a dog, the pondering of a bird outside of your kitchen window or sitting on your porch with a glass of wine. Sometimes losing yourself and finding yourself are the same experience and often these instances occur in nature where you have time and peacefulness in order to make sense of the chaos of your mind.

Do I believe in the extinction of experiences? Yes and no. Yes technology and child safety means there are more restrictions in the free play of newer generations, yes, technology, busy schedules and modern lives do make it seem hard to prioritise time for experiencing nature and yes, Google is asked more questions than are pondered on a long stroll. But at the same time I honestly believe that humans are still a part of the animal kingdom on Earth. We still need to take time to re-connect with our world to discover what our role is on this planet, we still need to take time to think and explore and wonder because it is a huge part of silencing the chaos of the world we live in. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if people will eventually get addicted to the peace of nature as a break from being constantly being attached to devices, and maybe there will be a reoccurring surge of interest in losing ourselves in the world around us. Who knows? Maybe this is just a crazy fan theory.

My experiences with nature have shaped who I am today. They have lead me to a career in the conservation of global biodiversity, they have lead me to form incredible friendships, unique memories and most of all my experiences in nature have taught me more about myself and this world than any book, paper or documentary ever could. So passionately that I have compiled everything that nature has taught me in this very blog:

Teachings from the wilderness.

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Forest grooming

Self grooming for most people is a daily ritual. Freshly shampoo’d hair, freshly shaved legs and clean feet is usually nothing to harp on about, or even rejoice in. For whatever reason, however, during my time spent living in remote locations whether it be on a sandy island surrounded by mangroves, or in the middle of a tropical rainforest, nothing has ever become more of a sacred ritual than “cheer-up grooming”.

It was a sad day, I had been living in the middle of a North Sumatran rainforest for two weeks with two peers from my university. One was a PhD student and the other was an honours student. Who was I? Well, I was more of a tag along with the aim of deducing a future research project for the following year. Jumping at the opportunity to spend as much time out of Australia as possible, I convinced the university I needed a whole month to settle on a project, meanwhile I had already figured out what I was going to do and my fellow university students were up up and away to continue their research back home. Knowing about five Indonesian words, I stood bewildered in front of the pondok (bare bones cabin), the only building in the forest, after I waved goodbye to the only English speaking people in a 100 kilometre radius.

Looking at the pondok, there were a group of local men sitting in a circle, shirts off, playing a betting game and smoking cigarettes. I suddenly realised that I was a fish out of water with no life-saving puddles in site. Suddenly super aware of my own body, my pale white skin, my not-Muslim-in-the-slightest attitude and the large leech bite bleeding through my shirt, giving the illusion that I was shot in the stomach. What was I even allowed to do in this situation? Could I even sit down in the same area as them? Could I even talk to them? In my anxious moment of self awareness, I slunk up to the top level of the pondok and collected a towel, a razor, some soap, shampoo and conditioner as well as a pair of pants and a shirt I had not had to wash in a bucket of creek water yet.

Living in a humid forest, it is so easy to let yourself go for a long long time. What’s the point of washing your hair when you will sweat it into a greasy mess in a few hours anyway? What is the point of washing your feet when they will just get covered in leach bites anyway? What is the point of washing your shirt when a new leech will bite you tomorrow anyway? Self grooming soon becomes a relief, rather than a necessity really quickly.

Undressing in the room a few hundred meters away from the pondok, I looked at the huge bucket of water that was not only my shower, but also the washing machine and the flush for the toilet. A “mandi”, or as you would call it “a bucket of water and a scoop” is the crux of any Indonesian household, or middle-of-the-forest residence. I looked down at my body, scratched and bruised from head to toe, which complemented the array of leech holes perfectly. Was I dirty or tanned from all this time outside? How did I still have any hair left after the trees have continued to rip it off of my head every time I ventured into dense patches of forest? Oh wait…there it all was…on my legs.

I scrubbed and I washed and I shaved until I felt totally brand new. My clean clothes complemented my new shiny skin that was at least five shades lighter than before and I felt five times better than before. I went back up stairs to moisturise and continue this self grooming session until I knew my role in this world, and thankfully moments later I hear a call from down stairs.

“Jessie! Jessie!”

I peeked down to the bottom floor. A young field researcher looked up at me.

“Kamu suka mie?”

I knew “kamu” meant you and “suka” meant like but what in Allah’s name was “mie”? Meat? Me? did I like him? I took a leap of faith, said yes, and went downstairs.

Sitting around was a group of men eating none other than fresh bowls of fried noodles….oh that’s what mie was, noodles! The man that asked me if I liked noodles was smiling at me ready to hand me a plate. I ate thankfully.

“Terima Kasih” Thank you!

I said.

“Sama Sama” No worries.

He said.

I realised how awkward it was that I couldn’t speak to the men as I ate, it seemed rude and unfriendly but to my surprise, they all started trying to talk to me as best they could. One of them got out a translating app on his Nokia and a note pad and we tried the best we could to go back and forth answering each other’s questions.

Later that night, a section of my ankle exposed as I got up from my sitting position. “Where is your hair?” one of the men said with a disgusted look on his face. After working out what he asked I motioned that it was gone.

“Tidak bagus” Not good.

He said.

And after that, I felt good because I had friends, and thus could let my leg hair grow wild like a viking beard flowing from my legs, just how the Indonesian’s like it.

To this day, if I am unsure of how to feel, what to do, or if I need some cheering up on a primal level, I still go to a little bit of extra effort to take some time for myself to transform my dusty old body into a shiny and clean one. If it works in the forest, it can work anywhere. I guess the mentality is, if you feel good on the outside, you often feel good on the inside too which can get you through anything. The year after I ate noodles with the field staff, I did end up returning to carry out my own field study alone with the same men, who complimented me on my practised and improved conversational language skills. Here is a picture of me below, teaching them all how to speak English. A fresh start gets you a long way, as does a fresh body.

 

A dose of vitamin me

For most of my life, I have been terrified of hospitals in fear that one day I may contract an illness or sustain an injury which may hold me captive forever within the haunting sterile white walls, trapping me from the outside world I love so dearly. Unfortunately, no matter how well I have managed to keep myself out of the wars, there are others around me who do require care from hospitals and their staff. Despite my distaste for such places, I have been inside a hospital every single day for the past month which has given me time to think about how I view medical care and how I have seen medical care be distributed throughout different parts of the world.

When I was little, being sick was taking a day off of school to rest, eat dry toast and to watch Oprah Winfrey with my mum at lunch time. This routine has carried through my whole life as can be seen by the way I begged a local Indonesian to bring me dry toast when I was sick in Medan, despite not having anywhere to get bread or even a toaster from for kilometres surrounding my house. If they couldn’t get toast, there was probably even lesser chance of obtaining Oprah Winfrey to comfort me in my time of need.

In Madagascar, everyone inevitably contracted a severe case of “The Shits” which lead some people to set up camp at the long drop until this never ending period of life actually did end. I called my sharp abdominal pains “My Tree Baby” after the episode of Around the Twist where Pete urinated on a tree and ended up having to give birth to the tree’s child after somehow impregnating himself in the process. Soon after impregnating myself with my “baby tree” I aborted it with a couple of shots of moonshine from the Frenchman down the beach. In the middle of a tropical island, land locked from any real town, moonshine was as good as any medicine to kill stomach bugs and a litre of Coke was all you needed to replenish your sugars after you had lost all your mass, water and electrolytes.

Having a fever in a wooden hut in the middle of a tropical island was one of the few times I thought I was actually going to die. Having a fever in the equivalent of a sauna had me thinking about what I wished I had said to my loved ones and wondering who was going to bring them the devastating tales of my loss across the oceans that separated us. Like a zombie, I crawled across camp to the shower, stood lifelessly under the nozzle with my clothes on, and went back to bed already dry by the time I got back. After being force fed beans, rice and a litre of coke, I began coming to the realisation that I might actually survive to tell the tale.

This way of thinking carried me through to Indonesia when the nurse couldn’t find my partner’s vein to put a drip in so he could replenish his fluids after his first experience with third world diseases. After being frustrated from seeing him wince in pain every time the nurse missed, I stopped her, took him home and made him drink a litre of sports drink instead. Needless to say,  He felt much better after and it was 100 times less painful. Even now, back in Adelaide when he gets a cut or a scratch, I immediately get out my forest medical kit and dress his wounds as if he was at risk of a tropical ulcer…..unnecessary, however old habits die hard and you can never be too safe.

There is something about African doctors visits whereby they are always the same. From wealthy South Africa, to poor Madagascar, any doctor you have will invite you into an empty room with just a single desk sitting in the middle of it. They will then sit you down to explain your ailments and following this, no matter what you say, he or she will open the top drawer of the desk and remove one bag of small blue pills. They will push them towards you and send you on your way. In one instance where I had a foot infection, they supplemented the random magical blue African pills with eye ointment. In that instance, I walked out of the doctors office confused then paused shortly before walking back in again to ask what was actually wrong with me.

When I snapped my tendon and the whole country of Indonesia tried to convince me that all I needed was a massage and herbal tea to fix it, I was not impressed. No way in hell was I allowing anyone to touch a broken tendon, and to mash it forcefully at that. My boss swore to me that if I went to a hospital or doctor they would laugh at me hysterically because all I needed was a special Chinese massage. I was at the very least hoping for an experience like at the Indonesian dermatologist who asked me to point to my disease in an English picture book, knowing full well he couldn’t speak a lick of English. More random pills. More desk drawers. HOW, TELL ME HOW, are third world doctors fitting their whole medical inventories in the top drawer of their desks? This is surely which craft or multitasking medication.

From dry toast to a bottle of moonshine and random magic blue pills, I have experienced a plethora of medical advice in my time. Maybe, just maybe, Australian hospitals aren’t that scary after all…. but then again, maybe living in the wilderness has taught me that all you need to survive is a Frenchman baring strong potent liquor and a doctor baring a single desk drawer of random blue all encompassing pills.

 

Be Better

In nature, I am just a person. I am as flesh and bone as the birds in the trees, the worms in the soil and the bats in the sky. In nature I am a giant to ground dwellers and a midget to tree dwellers. I am neither too big nor too small for my surroundings, I am neither better nor worse than those around me and I am not judged nor valued within my environment. In nature, I simply just am.

Unfortunately, the constructs of human society do not mirror the laws of nature. The premise of survival of the fittest is contradicted by the presence and use of hospitals and welfare programs and the premise of niches is corrupted by the fact that we seem to thrive everywhere despite what used to live where we wish to establish ourselves. In the world of humans, you can be too small, too big, and you can definitely be judged and valued by those around you. In the human world, it is not just enough to be, but rather you are encouraged to spend your whole life being better.

It was written on the wall of my first job in my field in big blue letters. Those two words haunted me every day reminding me that I was never good enough, I was never all I could be. That evil phrase “BE BETTER” loomed over me as I lit the fire at 5am to make everyone breakfast and when I returned at 9pm from my last data collection walk of the day. No matter how much I did or how hard I tried in my position, I could always be better. Who I was was never enough.

Sitting at the airport on my way back to Australia, before a life of running water, electricity, wifi and a loving harem of family and friends, I wrote a final blog. I told the world that I was stronger, I knew what I was capable of and I was going to try my best to help animals in the tourism industry. I had forgotten about those big blue letters and all I cared about was being good enough and strong enough to continue on my own journey and I believed that I was more than capable. At that moment, I didn’t need to be any better than I was. I found this blog the other day having realized that I had in fact been strong enough and capable enough. I reflected on the organisation I started called “Heroic Tourism” which aims to conserve animals in the tourism industry, I thought back to all the successes that have come from that and all the people who have joined me in my journey. I read my foreshadowing words with a smile, I believed I was good enough and low and behold, I was right.

Years later I found myself in a new job where once again I was never good enough for my bosses. All my values were wrong and I was constantly having to stand up for my rights as a woman, surprisingly this job was not in another country, but in a small town here in Australia. Even more surprisingly, the misogynous person I was battling against was also a woman. I ended up taking responsibility for the whole business, the property, the house, looking after the kids and dealing with correspondence from other businesses who wanted to collaborate while my bosses went overseas. On their return I was exhausted, but as I picked them up from the airport as my final duty from their absence, instead of being greeted with warmth and gratitude, I was greeted with a lecture on how I should have cleaned the bathroom.

A week ago I found myself in a meeting for a job opportunity whereby the interviewer asked me about the situation and how I resolved it. I was granted the opportunity based on the way I handled that situation and my attitude toward conflict resolution. What once was my living nightmare was now a gateway to new exciting opportunities in exactly the field I want to work in. I was no longer a slave to to the anxiety and trauma caused by my stay in that position and more so, I was vindicated by my actions thereby relieving me into a new world of possibilities. Once again I had come out of a bad situation stronger and more equipped to take on whatever I endeavoured to embark on.

On my days off, I often find myself compelled to walk for as long and as far as I can and in this time I spend a moment to reflect on the people I have been. I am not the sum of the values bestowed upon me by people who do not believe in me, but instead I am the sum of all the belief I bestow upon myself. Those big blue letters on the wall are laughable, and only reflect the thoughts and feelings of those who wrote them. I know for sure that all the people who have employed me that don’t treat me with the respect I deserve are not the best versions of themselves and I hope that everyone who works with them in the future doesn’t kill themselves trying to be better, but knows deep in their hearts that they are good enough, at least in natures eyes anyway.

 

Women of the Earth

At about 1:30am this morning, I had a profound realization about how powerful, inspirational and character shaping women have been throughout my life. Finding myself in a nightclub despite having avoided them for the past five years, I found myself awkwardly dancing in a very un-clubby outfit which comprised of long black pants, boots and a shirt and feeling a bit too old and a bit too tall for my surroundings. Following my friend into the bathroom, a young girl who was probably half my age and height looked up at me and just blurted out:

“I love your legs! They are so long!”

I blushed because she was the perfect example of what I thought the ideal clubite was, and she was the one who was envious of the long legs I was so ashamed of just moments before. This flooded my brain with a wealth of recent examples of when women have allowed me to grow and blossom in my industry as well during everyday life.

As a child, it was my mother who handed me a toy gorilla that sparked my passion for animals and it was her that pointed out every bird and flower and critter, calling it by its real name and allowing my curiosity to grow. Growing up, my conservation heroes were Leaky’s Trimates; Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, who were all young women who were sent out into the field with nothing but a notebook and a sense of observation. Little did they know at the time, all three women would return from the forest as icons for their respective species, the chimpanzee, gorilla and the orangutan alike.

In my first long stint as a professional conservationist on a Madagascan island it was my good friend Lou, who despite everything that happened to us during those six months, was always there at the bench looking out over the ocean ready to talk about life, or to dress up and party down or just to laugh about inventing new names for groups of gorillas with. After all the emotions, tears and smiles, she was always there. Years later, it was Shermin, from Trunks and Leaves that discovered me at a dinner table at a conference in Singapore. Just from overhearing me talk about my forest fairy elephants over dinner, she offered me the chance to work with her team in Sri Lanka and to get to know a whole other race of elephant.

It was a woman that recommended me to get into community programs which allowed me to get funding for Heroic Tourism, women that helped me form my first team and women that came together to give me help and advice on my endeavours. Throughout all the time I spent working hard to impress the standards of male workers and failing time and time again, it has been the women of the conservation world that have carried me through and have given me something to believe in.

As I sit here planning to accompany an old friend, who also shares my passion for conservation, on her field work next week, I now have all the faith in the world that women are a great and indestructible force within our planet. Maybe that is why they call her Mother Earth, but now I can see that compassion and building communities is what we are best at. Instead of working harder and longer to surpass the male expectations around me, I will now aim to work smarter with amazing people who provide support and encouragement. Done are the days of disappointment and defeat, for this is a new era for being empowered and encouraged by other amazing women in science.

Being labelled as an honourary man used to be a reward, but now I feel that I deserve more. I deserve to be who I am, and represented as who I am while allowing my achievements and personality to be able to stand for what it is. This is the time where I am going to allow myself to thrive despite my age, appearance or gender and let my true skills shine through. I was not put on this planet to be anybody else, so today and from now on, I am going to be proud of the powerful woman that I believe I am and I am going to harness the inner Jane, Dian and Birute that lives inside of me. Yes my legs are too long for their own good, but damn, they are powerful vessels of transportation and sometimes all it takes is a young girl in a dark bathroom to remind me of their value, and in extension, my own value as well.

 

 

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it

Throughout my life, there have been extended periods of solitude and extended periods of constant companionship, both which don’t sit with me too well on their own. Isolation can become torturous over extended periods of time, or conversely, sweet relief from the business and sometimes suffocating tendencies of day to day life. In the same stroke, company can be both comforting and joyous when spending time with the people you love or smothering and unbearable if you never manage to get a second to yourself. Both states, in their extremes can be both heaven and hell.

Maintaining a balance of both extremities has been something I have not yet been able to achieve as I tend to go through waves of isolation, remedied with waves of constant companionship until I need some time to myself again. The natural world has always provided the solution to my constant see-sawing of social exhaustion and loneliness and has always provided a safe haven of stillness and friends that live their lives passively around me without the expectation of interaction.

Wildlife photography has become an important factor in maintaining this balance in my life, as it allows me to enter a meditative state of pure concentration on the subject at hand, watching the movements and behaviours of my subject, waiting to get a shot that captures the essence of the moment. From the second I heard a whipbird in the backyard of the new location I would be stationed for three months at the end of last year, I knew I needed a camera to be able to identify all the creatures that shared the property with me. As the obsession developed, I researched cameras and purchased one the very next weekend ready to discover the world around me.

As soon as this magical device touched my hands, I knew I had stumbled across a window into another world, and my behaviours changed as a result of it. I couldn’t wait to spend every evening in the garden sitting still and watching the different birds interact and show their different personalities. I got to know each species as if they were long lost friends, studying their interactions, feeding and vigilant behaviours. My photos became less about identification and more about capturing their personalities, colours and individual styles. What drew me in was the capability to learn, meditate and see self growth at the same time as showing people the world around them through my images. Sometimes rare birds would come and I would be able to savour the moment before sharing the moment with others. Sometimes I would watch water skinks, knowing that if I became as still as a rock, they would bask with me in the sunshine without slithering away.

Being back in a city again, away from the peacefulness of the country, I deeply miss the birds, the lizards and my meditation time behind the lens every night, however now I have human friends, memories and laughs to have. Nature has provided me the only form of meditation I know whilst allowing me to experience the profound impact of stillness and fading back into an environment. I know now that during times of both social exhaustion and loneliness, I can turn to the natural world for both stillness and companionship and know that I will feel rejuvenated, relaxed and humbled after sheer minutes. I don’t know any other medicine or remedy otherwise that harbours such immediate results as the power of the natural world around us.