Night Eyes was first published on The Real Story on 22nd January 2018.
He looked at me from high up in a canopy tree. The forest was tinged rose by the early evening light, but I could see the blue of his face quite clearly, like the sky’s reflection. Below him among the bare branches sat the rest of his family, eight Black Shanked Douc langurs of varying sizes, monkeys with striking faces and long, black agile legs. I was standing near the “Danger” sign on the road, looking into the forest where the monkeys were sometimes seen at dusk. Beyond, the road ascended through wilder forest where there were gaur – wild cattle – and even tigers.
The forest was shifting as I wandered back. It was like glimpsing performers in the wings of a stage, like the bustle of an event about to take place. Evening weavers stitching up fragments of forest, birds in pairs contact calling each other, frogs starting up in the swamp.
My memories are fragments of mauve and orange. Orange for the sunlight I saw when I closed my eyes, mauve for the shadows of huts silhouetted against the evening sky.
* * *
This was a few years ago. I was staying in Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in Eastern Cambodia, helping a PhD student, Caroline, carry out research into slow lorises. Two species of these small nocturnal primates can be found in Cambodia and little is known about their ecology; Caroline’s first job was to see if there were any living in the conservation area. The plan was to search the forests, set live traps and eventually radio-collar any lorises caught.
I’d only ever seen them in a zoo, huddled in a dark corner to escape the light – endearing creatures with large, round, forward facing eyes and a body as fluffy as a cuddly toy. Sadly, slow lorises are in decline. They are traded illegally as exotic pets, their body parts increasingly used in traditional medicine, their habitat lost as Cambodia develops.
Feeding on insects, fruit, tree gum and small animals, lorises move deliberately through the trees. Their silence and slowness helps conceal them from predators, but they are not always so slow. The Vietnamese call them “monkeys that move with the wind” and in Indonesia they are “Malu malu” which means “shy one.”
Forests and their wildlife draw me – they always have. Many years ago I studied zoology at university. Now, at a crossroads in my life, I questioned whether I could work as a researcher, whether the scientific approach was right for me.
* * *
On the first night at the field station we walked out along the road looking for nocturnal life, lighting our way with red head lamps. Red light is invisible to many nocturnal animals but it picks up their eye shine, the light reflected off the tapetum lucidum layer at the back of their eyes that helps them see at night. In the darkness lorises’ eyes appear as two large round orange spots, set very close together.
We walked west, serenaded by the frogs in the ditches and the cicadas in the trees. The road was wet, it had rained a little, but the rainy season was yet to come. The sound of cars on the dark road had us hiding in shadows with our lamps turned off. Caroline was uneasy; there was still a lawlessness about the place.
The field station was a series of blue huts. When evening fell, the verandah of our hut would fill with insect life that fuzzed around the lights. There was a large rhinoceros beetle, with a protruding snout, that would hiss irritably if disturbed. The tockey gecko would appear from its corner, the same blue as the hut walls, flicking its tongue in and out while patrolling its patch.
Sometimes rats scuttled our room at night. In the toilet at the back of the huts lived a frog with her egg sac.
At the edge of the grounds stood a little wooden house on stilts like a bird table. It contained a jar and a stick of incense. I was told that it was a spirit house, put there by the local Bunong people who believe the forest is sacred and full of spirits.
* * *
Our days started early, 6am. We trekked into the bamboo forest to cut transects, hacking our way with machetes, marking our route with pink ribbons and clambering over occasional tree roots as we thrashed through the sharp, spiny undergrowth. Old bamboo trunks would splinter and break, spilling viscous black liquid over us. The forest crunched and oozed with decay. And there were leeches everywhere, keen for moisture and a taste of blood. Like everything else here they awaited the rains. Discomfort also came with minute stinging flies that tormented us as we carried out the tasks of the day; Caroline taking our GPS coordinates while I made notes and took compass readings.
The air was so humid it was like wading through honey. Afternoon and silence rolled out along the road ahead as I wandered back. Sometimes a bird of prey would perch on a twisted dead tree, waiting. It would launch itself languidly into the air as I drew nearer, the heat heavy on its shoulders. The road seemed to breathe out a haze, the forest to swell. There were few sounds, just the fumblings of a few birds in the undergrowth. Perhaps a kingfisher would flap across the road ahead in flashes of brown and white. Come evening the pools beside the road would come alive with croaking frogs, but by day the swamp just quivered with their subtle, hidden movements.
The forest looked so different from the outside, so dense when we were in it. I wanted to enter it quietly, to immerse myself in its complexity. But I was a visitor, laden with equipment, there to measure, map and record what I saw.
Later I would make lists of the wildlife I had seen – purple heron, green billed malkoba, white browed fantail…
Each evening Caroline and I would sit on the blue verandah and listen to the moaning forest, wondering when the rains would arrive. We would spray our boots and socks with cockroach repellent in the hope of warding off the leeches. Then our guide from the local Bunong tribe would appear, machete in hand.
“Sous-dey,” he would say awkwardly and then smile; he was learning Khmer too. We would set off in search of Dok gle, the Bunong word for loris.
Sometimes evidence of forest elephants halted progress. If we came upon dung, our guide would assess how fresh it was and which way the animal was travelling – fresh dung saw us turn back. Elephants would charge the white light of our hand torch.
One night we ventured out along a different trail. We had to hurry to keep up with the guide and when he stopped suddenly we ran into the back of him. A coiled snake lay on the path, fresh green as an apple. We set off again a little more vigilant, stopping once more beneath a tangle of branches. A sleeping bird the size of a pigeon, sat rock still, feet locked to a branch above our heads. I thought if I reached up I could pluck this little bird, so innocent, so vulnerable. We saw him the next night and the night after that in the same place, on the same branch.
On our night searches fire-flies lit up the vegetation like Christmas lights. I could just make out the silhouettes of the trees against the star-filled sky. The lorises were proving elusive, but we sometimes saw a forest civet high up in a tree, eyes gleaming gold, or the occasional mouse deer, a faint presence amongst the ground vegetation, eyes shining like the emerald blue-green of an inland sea, a forest in a cave.
Black drongo, greater coucal, common palm civet, fluorescent fungi…
Every morning I did my washing and hung it out to dry on a washing line that fenced an area of rough wasteland strewn with giant logs, relics of the days of logging in the area. Caroline decided that it would be interesting to carry out a small mammal survey there, a project we could undertake during daylight hours. So we baited traps and laid them out among the logs in a random arrangement and first the traps yielded a house mouse and then an unknown mouse. I was going to release it but Caroline decided to keep it as a specimen to be properly identified in case it was new for the area. She swung the bag containing the mouse around before hitting it on the stone step. The coldness of the act disturbed me and lingered in my mind.
Great spotted eagle owl, flying squirrel, unknown mouse, unease…
Our nocturnal searches continued. We ventured further out, to our guide’s village where he had seen Dok gle. Beside the forest on the way to the village I noticed another spirit house and wanted to check it out but feared being left behind. No one else seemed to notice it. I told myself to keep focused on the project and followed the others through the huts where the villagers were gathered around the flickering blue light of a television screen. I wanted to slip away from the throng, melt into the forest and tread by moonlight, firefly light.
* * *
As the days and nights passed we slipped further into a nocturnal rhythm. Night stirred me from my diurnal, mammal rest. The darkness was civet smooth, peopled with eyes, peopled with forest spirits. Caroline showed me photos of lorises on sale in the marketplace, dead lorises strapped to wooden crosses as though crucified, shrunken skin and bones, small fragments of forest sold as traditional remedies. In one photo a loris was hiding its face in its loris hands, too much the world. Somehow I felt I understood its need to hide.
Measuring tape, lamps, batteries, pink markers, GPS…
I was becoming weary. Every evening I took to wandering the road westward alone, beyond our pink markers, beyond where the road curved, and looking back I could no longer see the station.
One evening I walked further to the river and stood on the bridge. My mind swam with unwelcome thoughts about the research and the fate of the forest and its animals, about how we treat animals as objects to be studied, sold, toyed with, tortured or eaten.
The river said nothing. It stretched wide, a gaping mouth in a permanent yawn, speechless. Beige river, gently, silently shifting the world. A monkey of the same beige stood in amongst the shadows of a riverside tree like a sentry, a presence hardly there. He was a glimpse of another life so like my own, two eyes of the forest looking out from behind a screen of leaves. Who is behind the screen? Who belongs? He was a macaque, dull brown and unremarkable, not used to humans. Like the langurs he stood watching me before vanishing into the forest shadows.
I could have drunk the night through my eyes. Then, after three weeks of searching and out on a new trail, high up in the branches there was a glimpse of eyes like flickering coals. Then they vanished. Tapetum red? Orange? I stared with disbelief. Then we saw her, reaching out her soft limbs along the branch, first one limb and then another, moving swiftly as the night folded her into the darkness. We swung our head lamps across the canopy and picked out another loris in the dim red light. I felt a mixture of excitement, joy and relief; they were small and far off but we had found what we’d been searching for.
* * *
After finding the lorises I felt different. The scientific scaffolding and academic framework in my mind began to crumble. My mind jangled with technical words – transect, taxonomy, triangulation – that had distanced me from the forest. The measurements, the cataloguing, the lists – the dry scientific books and papers now seemed less important. Perhaps it was enough for me just to be there, to experience the forest and not worry about the research. Perhaps that was enough.
Thich Naht Han, the Buddhist monk, says there is no separate self, that we are all interconnected. “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it to really understand.” I needed to connect, to relate to nature in a way beyond that of my analytical mind, to somehow lose myself in it. I wondered how the Bunong people felt about the forest that was sacred to them. They were in the forest and the forest was in them. Then I thought of the lorises and their plight. Would they become another species labelled, examined, monitored – all for their own good? I began to feel the weariness of failure. I realised that scientific research was not for me.
But it wasn’t failure, more a transitional moment, a crossing over.
The following evening I wandered the quiet cambered road that wound through the forest. An open truck hurried past full of people and plastic sheeting for the rain that was due. Overdue. I closed my eyes to the sun, orange gold.
* * *
The next day the rains came. Water thundered down on the metal roof of our hut and cascaded on to the dry earth below. Gazing up at the mauve shadows I filled my cup from the water that fell off the corrugated roof, drank, and looked out at the forest, vibrant, mysterious and steaming beneath a nebulous sky. Soon it would be time for me to leave. I made my way along the road hoping to catch a glimpse of the langurs one last time. About me I saw kingfishers, hawks, mushrooming canopies, layer behind layer, tier upon tier of greens in the after-rain glow of a setting sun. I walked past the danger sign and the dead gnarled tree to where the langurs often gathered. They were not to be seen and the tree was empty, but the forest sang with life and mystery. Things would have to be as they were for now.