A tiny scrap of life

Gordon

On a November morning of confusing sun, we walked along the windswept corniche, with the sea, sand and rows of bright umbrellas painting summer scenery to our right. In the warm air, groups of people drifted, wandering only for wandering’s sake as the day got itself into gear. Three women approached us, chatting, and he followed them, pale fur almost the same colour as the pavement beneath his desperate, hurrying feet. We slowed, then stopped, and the women passed us by, crossing the road and leaving him behind. We looked down at him, this tiny scrap of life, and he walked towards my feet. He sat there, squinting into light too strong for his eyes, and we knew he would follow us home, now. We walked on and he walked with us, falling behind as his legs got tired. I picked him up, then, expecting resistance or fear, but he only sat and purred; a deep, pulsing engine in the smallest of fragile bodies.

At home, he drank water, a little bit, and then scrambled back onto my legs as I crouched on the floor. We tried to feed him, and tried again, but he wouldn’t take it, and his ears, when we touched them, were cold. He still just sat and purred, and stayed as close to my skin as he could. I sat with him and he slept, deeper than I thought possible; breathing only sometimes, and not deep enough. I thought he was leaving us then, and the sharpness of it hit me, blurring him into a small smear of colour across my lap as I looked down at his little form. I steeled myself, stern inside my head. Suddenly, he woke up and stretched, and finally, sitting on my shoulder, he ate. We hadn’t expected him at all, but suddenly he was the centre of things, and we smiled, and talked about him, and smiled again, already fond of his too-large ears and outsize snore.

Later, we took him out with us, because he’d followed us that morning, so we didn’t want to leave him alone. When we tried to carry him, he wanted to walk, trotting bravely on his thin baby legs, going as fast as he could despite our slow, steady pace. Finally he relented, and sank, again, into sleep, oblivious to the sunset and the birds gliding by, and the smell of smoke weighing on the air. That night, scared to crush him during sleep, we made him a nest on the floor. In the hours before dawn, the silence roared around the flat, telling me he’d gone after all; that he wasn’t strong enough for darkness and quiet and for minutes upon minutes ticking painfully by. Then I heard him, letting us know he was awake and hungry and alive, and I smiled to myself in my bed; a smile that came from somewhere deep and unstoppable, dragging tears and laughter behind it. That day, knowing he was safe, his character seemed to grow, and his name seemed to fit, and we made plans for him and the cat he was going to become.

We know him now, and we know his funny, infuriating, endearing habits. He was dirty when we found him, and his fur felt like dust and grease in our hands. Underneath, he was all bones; horrifyingly fragile with nothing to protect them but skin. We washed him one day, and he squeaked in indignation, but he didn’t bite or scratch, and afterwards, dry and warm, he still purred. He is demanding, and he wants the food he wants, and the rustling of plastic packaging animates him out of sleep. He follows us, and gets underfoot, and almost trips us over, and he likes to sit around necks and shoulders, or sometimes, for a change, on laptop keyboards, and he never wants both hands to be free to type. We shake our heads and complain about him, but we hold him for hours, and kiss his fur where it now lies soft and clean, and even when we’re out, we talk about him. He purrs when he hears our voices, after all.

I have known him only six days, this tiny scrap of life. He has fascinated me endlessly, doing nothing much at all, and I find myself loving him fiercely, even as his games go too far and his claws rip at my hair, or his teeth catch my ear. Tonight I said goodnight to him for the last time, because I’m going home tomorrow, and I kissed his warm, fluffy back; his whole body neatly in my hands. I told him to be good, and to stay out of trouble, and to grow big and strong. I think, months and months from now, he will.

 

 

 

Restoration

From a tall, neat city with straight-backed buildings looking down on wide streets, we travelled on hot roads, cocooned in air conditioning and slightly tinted windows, until we reached narrower tracks and rows of green.  Bleary and almost mute with tiredness, we thanked our hosts for jugs of water and clean, soft rice and piles of vegetables clothed in spices, and slept to the whirring of a fan until cockerels broke through the noisy, humming tropical night. We ate breakfast, quiet with anticipation, then climbed on to the back of motorbikes and headed for the forest. Tensing ourselves for balance as we swept into and out of patches of shade and glided nimbly around roots and rutted mud, we gave in to excitement as the forest closed in above us. The restoration site materialised; a slender cabin on stilts, and rows of new life pushing through the soil around it.

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The days there had a rhythm both industrious and peaceful. Early mornings were for planting and tending and combing the primary forest nearby for tiny shoots starting life in the rich safety of elephant dung. We listened and learned and marvelled at what had been done in this new forest resurrected from bare earth in the aftermath of the deforestation that came before. We dug our hands into cool, damp soil and packed it tightly into tubes of plastic sacking, ready to receive the next generation of trees. When it was done, we sat in the still air and listened to the life surrounding us.

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The heat at midday cast a spell over everyone, and we slept through the fiercest, burning hours. In the afternoon, the thunder cracked to our left and gibbons whooped and sang to our right, in the forest near yet far. Later, we stirred from our stillness in the relief of a cool breeze that made the trees whisper and tremble, just slightly. The elephants came then, browsing in the distance with heads swinging – characteristically, unhurriedly – as they seemed to glide through the green around them. They called to each other, and it rooted us to the spot. When they melted back into the forest, we returned to our contemplation. A gecko, the pale yellow of butter, with jewel-black eyes, crept along a gap in the wooden slats above, and ants joined forces to move crumbs along the ground. The thunder still threatened over the distant sound of evening prayer, but the ground stayed dry, soil becoming dust as it clung to our feet. As the fading light drew muted grey over the cabin and the trees, the smell of dusk hung sweetly, darting away if we tried too hard to breathe it in. At night, large spiders with a curious, lumbering gait skittered audibly away from our torch beams as we moved ourselves to bed, and the cabin seemed to sigh with us as we breathed slowly into sleep.

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On the last day, we planted trees ourselves, reverent and careful as we guided pale, fragile roots into the ground. We covered them and watered them, and watched insects, more insects than we’d ever seen, go busily about their day in the adult trees around us. Life in all sizes was everywhere we turned; loud and quiet and beautiful and alarming, and just as it should be.

The restoration site featured in this piece is a project of Orangutan Information Centre, an incredible organisation whose staff and volunteers do great things to preserve Sumatra’s biodiversity and human health. Please follow their work, and support them if you can.

All photos courtesy of Andrew Walmsley Photography.

Autumn; the uncertain season

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On Thursday, we were in Talassemtane, and it was a Goldilocks day – the weather and the mountains seemed to want us there. In sunny patches between conifers, and some trees turning gold, it was warm enough to sit for a time, motionless but for trickling dry earth through curious fingers. In the shade, the air licked at us coldly, a portent of winter snapping at autumn’s heels. Higher up the track, the clouds fought with the blue around the peaks, chasing our view away as we stood, and revealing it again before we could move.

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On Saturday, we were in Bouhachem, and the sky was blankly grey, sitting wearily on the mountains and turning them dark and blue. On the ground, leaves whispered beneath our feet as we crept through them, and ferns turning from green to orange bowed slightly, tired now that October had come. Bouhanou – eye catching, enticing – hung green, gold, and red on thin branches; some, already tasted, showed soft yellow flesh, and others fell easily into our hands. Their skin, urchin-like, crunched with seeds, and their taste, a strawberry muted by mountain air, ran gently across my tongue. Later, the wind swept the clouds down over the forest until they pressed into us, and the rain began. It fell briefly, bouncing from trees and bending fragile grasses, and disturbing dusty ground that had got away with being dry for too long. The birds kept singing, unperturbed, and when the rain stopped, we could hear them again, piercing the cold, white air.

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Today, in Martil, the storm threatened all day, draining us as it clung humidly to the town, and suggesting only sleep. Early in the evening, before the dark gathered humming around the street lamps, the thunder finally shouted its arrival, filling the spaces between buildings with its noise. Leaning out from the second floor as cold drops found my neck, I watched the rain and the people running through it, clothes sticking darkly to their skin. The cliffs in the distance had disappeared; the storm shrinking the coastline until it seemed the world stopped just beyond us. The palm trees along the sea front looked small; ashamed to be seen like this, perhaps.

After dark, the wind and the waves still carry through the walls as they dance outside, beckoning tomorrow’s beautiful, ugly, uncertain autumn weather.

Dog days in the mountains

When I was smaller than I am now, and more shy, I lived mostly in my head, drawing vivid pictures of a small world of my own; somehow more real than concrete and windswept trees and school books filled with my careful, hopeful work. The companions of my imagination came to life and ran alongside me as I walked, or slept at my feet on long car journeys when there was nothing outside the window but motorway and rain. They had long red coats or scruffy whiskered faces; pleasant aloofness or eagerness and bounce, and they stepped from the photo plates of the books I pored over, and into my mind. Most important to me, though, was that they were never completely perfect; simply, in their flaws and lifelike characters, perfect just to me.

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Then, suddenly, I was 27, and my imagination had become tangled in the fronds of degrees and decisions and the minutiae of adult life, which had taken the outer world and pushed it further into my consciousness with every passing year. I went, pursuing more of this serious adult life, to Morocco, and to the mountains, where the forest and the monkeys crept under my skin and the village, unbidden, appointed itself as my home. There, in the unapologetic sunlight of late summer mornings, I met the new cast of my inner world, inhabiting the external world, where everyone could see. They came in a whirlwind of barking and frantic, waving tails, falling over themselves to be noticed, and darting away if I noticed them too much. I was new, and they are careful with their trust.

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Days passed and became a year, and I returned to the mountains and the dog pack again, falling into the scrappy, jumping tumult of ears and noses and hot, dusty fur. They knew me now, and I was surrounded, and happy, my feelings catching in my throat as a laugh. They scattered as I walked through them, separate animals coming into focus from the blur as I scratched their heads in greeting. I sat in the shade, my back against the cold stone of the house, and watched them settle to their afternoon’s concerns. They snapped at flies and dozed in the wild sweep of daisies in the yard and trembled excitedly outside the kitchen in case of falling crumbs, and two of them joined me in the tingling shade, panting with the heat but sitting very close, just to be sure I knew they were there.

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I am here again now, chasing my dreams in the forests that feel like home. In the mornings, I squint into the sun as it climbs over the mountains and over our roof, resting my hand on the delicate paw that always finds its way – reassuring, possessive – on to my lap. I occasionally shift to brush away flies, and the long ears next to me twitch; irritated, but too sleepy to move. The others stretch, finding the first sunny corners, and scratch idly as they wait for breakfast. This is the quiet time, and I put the way it feels in a box in my head, wanting to keep it safe. In the evenings, I carry the heavy, satisfying tiredness of a day outside, and the smiling faces winding around my legs welcome me home. They are excitable now, the heat of the day vanishing into dusk and giving them new energy. As dinner steams on the table, they congregate at the door, alert for any sign that the food is for them as well. When I make my way to bed, their shapes, curled in the darkness or waiting hopefully under foot, fill my chest with a bittersweet ache of belonging. I am not here all the time, and soon I will have to leave. When I am back in the concrete and windswept trees and my notebooks full of the lists of adult life, they will be with me. It took years and miles and changes of plan, but there are dogs in my imagination again.

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This is for Cheezy, Rocky, Ruby, Smelly, Billy, Linda, Nipper, Bruno, Blackie and Ffion, who bring me happiness by trusting me, and by loving me in return. It is also for Tony and Chocolate, to whom we’ve had to say goodbye.

These dogs are the BMAC dogs, and they’re amazing. 

Of green-grey mountains, and monkeys among the rocks

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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.

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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.

Going home, somewhere else.

I had a bag carefully packed and weighed, a ticket for an aeroplane, a reflexive check for my passport every few minutes, patting down my pockets to make sure it was still there. I had all this, but I still I couldn’t think of going as going away. I left rain-washed Oxford with my coat zipped up to my neck and waved green and grey goodbye at the airport as England shrank beneath the trembling, hurtling metal climbing into the air. I slept and I read, and as we got closer, I watched the flight map on the small TV screen that floated a few rows ahead of me, counting off the European cities as we sped south through their skies. As we descended, I pressed my face to the window and let the excitement climb from my stomach into my shoulders, stopping it just short of the smile I was saving for the runway tarmac.

The evening was warm as I walked down the metal steps from the plane; the kind of springtime heat that whispers a prelude to summer’s inescapable shout. Everything was as I remembered – a collision of comforting familiarity and the novelty of a place so recently added to my story. My colleagues – more deeply and importantly my friends – met me in Arrivals and whisked me into the blue-toned dusk outside, my languages getting confused somewhere between my brain and my throat as we drove towards Martil.

In town, skeletons of buildings had been fleshed out in seaside blue and white since autumn, and the strings of lights outside shops and restaurants danced in the breeze. We went to our usual haunt, eating handfuls of hot chips as our main meals cooked and snatches of conversations from the kitchen and the tables outside drifted into ours. Later, we dragged my luggage up the stairs to a different apartment in our familiar complex on the seafront, and I settled myself among crisp white and richly yellow walls, a lantern throwing specks of light at my bedclothes as the traffic rumbled outside. I slept until the swallows flitting through the courtyard grew too loud to ignore, then ate breakfast with the lithe, wary cats who wind around the tables and chairs at a cafe on the street, and occasionally, grudgingly, permit fuss from the men with their cigarettes and newspapers and scraps of egg and cheese.

The day passed with documents and discussions; the paperwork of conservation that few people ever see. In the evening, birdwatching led us outside despite the dark clouds gathering overhead, and we walked through Laguna Smir with the wind whipping at us in indignant gusts, wondering at our insolence. Pochards and purple herons and gallinules appeared among the reeds, hovering in our binoculars as the grey sky pressed in and we noted them, excitedly, in our bird book. We left them alone before nightfall, letting them roost in peace, and drove back to town as the day let go of its grip on the sky. The next day would bring monkeys, if the weather was fine, and I could feel the forest waiting there in the distance, hanging at the happy edges of my mind. The roads and buildings smiled their memories at me as we passed them by; thoughts of other things I’ve seen and done in this place that is a home, as much as it is ‘away’.

In the clouds that rest on top of the mountains, the solemn waterways running through the town, the wildlife that lives in every corner, the people I know and the strangers walking down the bright and crowded streets, coming here is not going away. It is going home, somewhere else.

Rio Martil

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On an October day made strange by hazy skies, we took our usual evening route, to Rio Martil, and the dusty track to the sea.  The clouds hung heavy in the air, dressing the sunset in modest pastels and carving a quiet hollow around every sound.  A lonely tractor churned dry earth in the field to our left, a small, hopeful block of blue amidst the brown.  Birds followed it, an entourage of white catching creatures too small for us to see.  As we walked, we kicked up dust and scuffed crunching gravelly stones, and the temperature, cold enough for jackets and warm enough for mosquitoes, licked confusingly at our skin. Plastic bags caught on bushes hung dismal against the green, and the unpaired shoes and bottle caps and a desk with no writer reminded us of the discarded pieces of human lives – all those people we couldn’t imagine in the quiet of an evening watching birds.

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A marsh harrier flew overhead, appearing sharply dark as it punctuated the turbulent expanse of white.  To our right, a heron stood statuesque and poised for action, a pensive guardian of the water, unruffled by the smaller birds who couldn’t sit and wait.   The buildings in the background seemed to sleep, white walls and accents of pretty blue more suited to sunny days, summer noise, and heat to curl their careful paintwork.  A few steps further, town behind us and the sea in front, a little owl skipped, perfectly camouflaged as it landed in the field.  Only its eyes gave it away as it sat, beige on beige on brown on brown, moving its head occasionally, eluding our focus as we squinted through our cameras, missing it once, and missing it again.

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Closer to the end of the track now, the water to our left grew bigger and more open, revealing flamingoes in pink washed out almost to white.  In the fading light they seemed to glide serenely, a reproach to the mosquitoes reaching fever pitch around our ears.  Reluctant, we gave in to the specks of black that flashed into and out of our reach at blurry speed and stung our skin with burning bites.  They followed us as we followed the setting sun, hanging back sometimes, but never for long enough.  As we approached the car and the structures of Martil grew bigger, the spoonbills flew across our path, eight of them in line to stop us and make us smile.  Then the ibis, strung together in flight like bunting fluttering in a breeze, dragging our gaze back towards the sea as they sped for the horizon.  The dark drew in and we leaned our heads against the windows as we drove back through town.  The shops had their lights on and neon signs flickered and flashed, inviting in the people walking quickly by.  The river was still there, the town wrapped around it, and the peaceful haze still hung – behind us as we drove, but in the forefront of our minds.

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