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The Follow

by Linda Spalding

The Follow documents author Linda Spalding’s quest to be part of the drama to save orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo.

Toronto-based Spalding, author of two previous books, uses controversial scientist Birute Galdikas to tell her story. Galdikas is a primatologist who, like Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey, was inspired by Dr. Louis Leakey to devote her life to the study of apes. Spalding travels to Borneo in 1996 after a series of unsuccessful attempts to contact Galdikas.

In 1995, Vancouver writer Daniel Wood was awarded a Western Canada Magazine Award for a lengthy article on Galdikas published by The Georgia Straight. In it , Wood compares Galdikas to a “snake in the forest” whose “obsessiveness” and “self-righteousness” have blinded her to the damage she is causing with her stated mission to save and protect the orangutan.

The most damning of the revelations in Spalding’s book were covered in Wood’s article. It is also apparently well known in the scientific community that Galdikas is a difficult person whose methods of research are considered unorthodox and even wrong.

Yet the reader is asked to believe that Spalding had no inkling that the scientist was anything other than icon-like. One wonders whether the expressed adoration for Galdikas is a plot device for a book described as a memoir. Regardless of the author’s original knowledge, the book attempts to dismantle Galdikas’ reputation through the faux-naive eyes of the narrator, Spalding. And it does.

Galdikas is shown to have little empathy for the local inhabitants and her methodology of studying the orangutans is questioned. More damning still, she has a commercial interest in promotion of eco-tourism while her own fieldwork with the furry beasts appears to have come to a practical close because of the loss of field permits.

But, as a journalistic account, the book falls short of presenting a clear case for whether Galdikas is merely a complex and misunderstood person or a fraudulent campaigner for eco-dollars.

Scattered throughout The Follow are Spalding’s views on the ills of our planet. Sadly, they lean to the most simplistic and erroneous of generalizations. Underdeveloped parts of the world are “wild” and “natural” and therefore better. Technology is to blame, she writes. Even as she writes about the dire consequences of poor sanitation and potable water, Spalding wants Borneo to remain no more than an exotic postcard where well-to-do North Americans can spin out their fantasies of colourful primitives and uncut trees.