Sometimes we drive to the forest through Bab Taza, where busy market days make us stop and start, inching forward through the people gathered around fruits and materials and the satisfying piles of grain that are colourful even in shades of beige, and cool to the touch despite the morning sun. On other days, we take the road past Chefchaouen, watching its blue walls floating in their sea of mountain green as we move quickly, leaving walls and crowds behind. In Talassemtane, we become tiny versions of ourselves; toy people with miniature notepads and pencils as thin as toothpicks, as the trees arrive from nowhere and silently line the tracks.
We are searching for monkeys, so we talk in low voices and walk as quietly as we can on crunchy ground, scuffing small rocks and freeing puffs of dust into the air around our ankles. We look for clues to their whereabouts, inspecting blankets of moss for the memories of quick hands peeling them off their stones, and freezing where we stand whenever distant noises sound like the voices we are waiting to hear. In the autumn, the idea of snow hangs in the air and makes everything sing against the bright white sky. The forest tastes of cold; clean and sharp as it sneaks into our lungs and draws our breath into cloudscapes in front of us. The monkeys perch on rocks far from the track, getting as close as possible to the milky late-year sun, or sway in the small oak trees that have found a foothold here, balancing on slim branches and filling hands and mouths with acorns.
In the spring, everything is richer and the only sign of cold is the snow still staking its claim on peaks almost too high for us to see. On the ground, our skin is coated in fine grey dust from the rocks that have tumbled, shattering, from the mountains, pushed by winter’s melt. It feels soft; a protective layer, as the sun breaks through the green canopy and grabs greedily at our arms. Flowers in their boldest colours, petals as yet unblemished by days outside, gather at the breaks in the forest’s shadows and submit to the busy ants and loud, rotund bees. The air hasn’t decided what to smell like yet, but it drifts past our faces offering indefinable sweetness – honey and clean water and delicate perfume – and gives us no choice but to breathe deeper than we need to, just for breathing’s sake.
The monkeys, now, are active, playing at fights in the middle of tracks and passing new babies from chest to chest, back to back, arm to arm. The babies scream their dissatisfaction as enthusiasm gets the better of their siblings and they are argued over, pulled about and groomed too much to enjoy. As evening starts to roll over the valleys, a group crosses our path, babies all in place now as the adults chase the last of the sun. They stretch on high rocks and groom on safe plateaus, and we take our cue to leave. Further down, away from the peaks but still far from the towns below, we stand still and look at the forest. The trees, our audience in green, seem to dance as the wind weaves through them, waving all their limbs in time as their needles point skyward and their trunks imperceptibly twist. There is a slight chill in the air now, and the bird song seems more urgent as the day draws to an end. We leave the forest slowly, with glances back into the trees – still craning our necks for one more monkey, one more butterfly, one more bird. We emerge into the brightness of the beginning of sunset, shielding our eyes with our hands, and the avenue of trees seems to close behind us, keeping everything safe.
This post was inspired by my work with Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation; specifically, our recent efforts to establish the viability of the remaining population of Endangered Barbary macaques in the Tangier-Tétouan region of north Morocco. For more detail, please see www.barbarymacaque.org.