Green and stiflingly fresh, the trail wound ahead, muddy and slick, everything alive with beautiful, deadly vibrance. The jungle was thick and treacherous and exciting. Grueling though the hike was, Pierce knew it was worth all the effort it took to get here; all the time spent pushing the proposal to the department head at Westmore University, all the hours consumed in preparations, arrangements, and travel; this was the moment he and Franklin had worked toward. Poor Franklin picked up a bug the very day they had arrived in Gabon, as though he had directly challenged Murphy’s law and lost the duel.
Although moths were their specialty, the pair had agreed look at all sorts of insects, while they had time. At least, that was the plan until the traps caught enough of the night-flying moths. Then the overabundance of African wildlife would have to give way to the focus of their study. And now, with Franklin out of action, Pierce would have to double-time it and set up all the traps himself. He knew the guide would offer help, but for the traps to be effective, they had to be precisely placed. He could manage it, even if it meant sacrificing any extra study.
Up ahead, his guide, Adembe chatted on with the other Gabonese native in a local tongue. Pierce had hired a second packman to help carry the three massive backpacks full of supplies. Another African followed close behind. While Pierce was drenched in sweat and breathing heavy, Adembe and the other two Africans carried on a jovial conversation, as though the steep climb did not bother them in the least.
Pierce shook his head, amazed at the strength they demonstrated. He had trained for two months, even through the minor illnesses caused by myriad vaccinations. Even so, he was beat and his feet ached in his expensive hiking boots. The Gabonese man in directly in front of him was wearing sandals. Sandals! On a steep incline that was and inch and a half of mud!
Adembe also spoke French, the official language of the nation, and English. He would occasionally point out some of the creatures along the way and name them, giving both the local name and the English name. Pierce was so absorbed in trying to keep pace with the guide, he wouldn’t have noticed them. It was thrilling to see these animals, in the wild, their element. He thought of taking pictures, but had little enough energy to keep his balance as he stumbled forward, plodding through the thick mire.
Following what seemed like a glorious eternity, Adembe’s path broke through the dense trees and out into a plain where the hard granite of the mountain poked through colorful mosses and lush grass. Some of the ground plants were greener than anything Pierce had ever seen and the mosses varied in almost every color he could imagine.
As they drew to a halt, Pierce let the pack slide from his shoulder and drop onto the ground. He panted and looked around, admiring the splashes of radiance that gleamed in the sunlight on top of this rather small peak. He wondered if his heartbeat, pounding in his temples and neck, was evidence that he was experiencing oxygen deprivation; he wondered whether that would account for the awe-inspiring beauty of this environment encompassing only the small field.
But as he caught his breath and poured water down his throat, the colors remained, and he began to pick out birds and snakes, even a monkey, in the nearby trees. The workers shared water amongst themselves, one of them asking Adembe something in the local tongue.
Adembe looked at Pierce, “He wants to know, is this good land?”
Between deep breaths, Pierce smiled and nodded, “This is fantastic!” He wheezed, “Just what I hoped for.”
Adembe relayed the message. Pierce had been fortunate to have a contact who was able to find such a clearing. Most of the short mountains in this rainforest, which stretched clear across the nations of Congo, were jungle as well, the sprawling wildlife bounding clear over the top of the peaks, leaving no convenient place to catch the moths that flew clear over the top of the gigantic tree canopy. This African pasture was a rare find!
As he expected, Adembe and the other men offered to help him set the traps which would catch moths alive and keep them safe so he could catalogue them. He politely declined making sure to tell them that he appreciated the gesture, and that the devices were very sensitive. The Gabonese men smiled and chatted amongst themselves as he moved about the pasture setting up the plastic boxes. Some of them were rather large, anticipating the tremendous size that African moths could attain.
One of the men deftly climbed up a towering tree, sandals and all, his experienced limbs defying gravity. The man cut some brown fruits out of the tree and tossed them down to the other two Gabonese. They carved away the tough hide off the fruits and offered a half to Pierce. It was bluish-green and lighter on the inside half, almost white. This was one of the fruits he’d had the night before, feasting in the local village.
Despite being an insectologist, Pierce had been worried about being offered the subject of his study for dinner. They had instead feasted on some type of meat and fruits like these. Its taste was sweet and citrus, almost like an orange but even lighter in flavor. He crunched into the meat of the fruit, satisfied to burn up a few minutes enjoying the snack.
Once again, he felt sorry for Franklin, who never even left Libreville. Pierce didn’t know how someone could catch a bug so quickly in the most modern city in Gabon, but Franklin had managed it on their overnight stay. He wouldn’t be able to keep down any of this.
He looked at the sun, high and hazy, distantly drifting through a few puffy clouds. It wasn’t drier on the plain. All of the humidity trapped and cooked underneath the plant-life drifted across the plain, almost scorching. The majesty of this environment was only matched by its harshness.
Pierce finished off the fruit and licked his fingers, and only then realized that contaminates may have latched themselves to his skin. The mud didn’t taste very good either, but Adembe and the Gabonese didn’t seem concerned. He decided not to worry until his stomach became upset.
The day pushed on, sun starting to drop in the sky. Pierce’s body continued to sweat water out by the buckets and he continued to pour water back in by the gallon. It wasn’t long before Adembe told him that it was time to start hiking back down. Even with the dense jungle, some sunlight made it through and lit the murky ecology. Once the sun had dipped too far, there would be almost no light to see by. And a dense jungle, traveling on a muddy, uneven, and steep path, is not the place you want to rely on flashlights and lanterns. He was here to study critters, not be swarmed by them.
His Gabonese helpers chucked their packs back up, and Pierce was happy to find his own pack diminished to almost nothing after all the consumption of water, not to mention his placing all the traps. He glanced around the field one last time to ensure that everything was set, and then the group began the journey back down the mountainside, weaving through tangled vines and stout tree trunks.
Adembe brought up the rear and in his African-mixed-with-French accent asked, “So, Dr. Pierce, do you think you will catch some nondos, tonight?” He used the Swahili word for moth.
“I don’t…” His breath squeezed away from him on the steeper drops, “know. I certainly hope so.”
“Some of the men in tha village. They did not want to show you tha place.”
That was news to Pierce. “No one seemed to opposed…” Step, “to the trip.”
“Of course not. Tha village decided.”
He replied, “I see. Why…” Step, “didn’t they want me to come up here, then?”
Adembe licked his lips, thinking. “Some of tha people say this place is god’s seat.”
“What? Like a holy place?”
“Yes, holy. Dey say, ‘we must respect tha place where god talk to mahn.’”
Pierce considered that for a moment. He was an agnostic. He parents had raised him catholic, confirmed and everything, but science had always seized his interest, and those university classrooms rarely found a place for the metaphysical. “Well, I hope I’m respecting their beliefs.”
“It’s not to worry. God finds mahn where dey are.” Adembe added, “Sometimes mahn listen better when dey too amazed to ignore him.”
He thought about that for a while. The words seemed so primitive to his scientific mind, and yet hadn’t science in some ways detached him from the very nature he studied? Pierce couldn’t deny that he had been astounded by the beautiful landscape, perhaps even enchanted for a moment, if he allowed an honest assessment of the memory. It would not have occurred to him as a spiritual experience, though.
Adembe was right in a way. He had fully taken in the scene because the experience had put him so off guard. God’s seat; the words churned in his thoughts. In light of the transcending excitement of the African pasture, life suddenly seemed like far more than just being born and dying, like more than mere animal instinct.
But god? The scientist in him scowled at the thought, and the wonder in him mulled why that response was so fierce. To Adembe, it seemed obvious that god and nature went together, involved each other somehow. To Pierce, such things made much of life impossible to classify, made it a fuzzy dream that denied any certainty of knowledge.
And yet, the experience on the hill appeared beyond classification as well. Or maybe classifying it so materially would somehow insult the glory he had seen. God’s seat, a place where god talks to man; the village-folklore explanation seemed an accurate definition of what happened, even if it amounted to nonsense compared to his rational understanding of life.
On up ahead, the path twisted, like a machete’s scar through the jungle. Leading the way, the packmen trotted easily. Pierce’s own boots rocked ungainly with each step, the mud underfoot full of stones and roots. Here and there, a ray of light punctured through the forest canopy and glistened against the scientist’s sweat.
He would have more to consider on this trip than Heterocera.