Morning light in forest

Motionless Long Enough

By Sarah Dunphy-Lelii

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The chimps move lithe and silent, and are never out of breath. I go through, they go under. I drop things everywhere, they have nothing to drop.

The tin roof that arches rusty over 12 crates of empty bottles also covers a table for collecting skulls, a sticky wall chart of trails, and a murky tangle of cords and tape that keep the field radios alive. When rain hits the water cistern, hot metal flexing in the chill makes a hollow pinging, eerily rhythmic. We watch as a snake climbs straight up its corrugated side before C. comes with a stick to fling it into the forest. It holds on briefly, makes a lunge toward porch safety, and we realize how many must already be here, watching our piles of rice and nuts, curled in our boots.

After breakfast I pour hot water into our old, bare frying pan to soak before the scraping begins. I lose a thin sheet of egg this way each morning. Even when it is not my day for dishwashing, I wash this pan because it is only me eating the eggs and the cleaning of it is annoying. Or would be if it weren’t done squatting in the morning sun at the base of the cistern with the smell of mist rolling up and over and pairs of hornbills floating together in the air currents through the valley. I can hear chimpanzees down there today, welcoming each other to a bursting tree of figs or simply welcoming themselves to the joy of it in the early light.

If I sit in silence, motionless long enough, an ensuku will nose out of the undergrowth on her own quiet business, oblivious and delicate, a miniature rust-colored deer with trembling feet and fluttering nose. Butterflies also come, blue and red, to drink the salt that coats my skin. Monkeys drop into lower branches and hang their heads to gape at me with their white coin noses and their red tails longer than their bodies. I worry snakes will come, or elephants, unwelcome always, and I whistle a few bars or stand to stretch my arms above my head. The chimpanzees don’t mind this and carry on sleeping, inspecting each other’s faces and thighs with determined fingers, trumpeting their shameless gassiness.

Each day I stagger back into camp covered in sweat and dirt, desperate to take off my boots and lift my feet. The Ugandans who have done the same work as me return later, having stopped along the way to find firewood. They arrive with ten-foot-long branches over their shoulders, to drop by the cook shed before they rest. S. comes now to bring our meal, then to the cook shed to make his own, smoke leaking out into the clearing and through the soaked air.

Forest butterfly
Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
There is a woman here called Blessing who is just that, with her slow grin and her claims to love her work. She has a cousin called Monday, and I love this family for the hope they see in tiny faces. There is also a bird here called the go-away bird. The field guide says this is the sound of its call, but I don’t hear it. It could be anything, really, though now that I know it the bird does sound less welcoming than it could. The white-bellied and grey versions of it, the guidebook tells me, do a “wonderful, drawn out gu’ way and also a loud harsh pinched and interrogatory descending Wherrrrrr?” I find I can’t manage to be both interrogatory and descending. Where is the sea, I say, starting high and ending low, and this does not seem a question at all. The bare-faced go-away bird, who in the next sentence is described as having a black face though I don’t know if this means skin or feathers, makes instead a “rather surprised corrr! and… a loud insane cackling duet.” After a few tries I can make a surprised corrr! but would need another go-away bird for the second part. Then there is the wagtail. It comes to wait hopefully for bread crusts that break off while I eat because there is no toaster, and balancing a single slice atop the gas burner makes blackened fragile zones. There is a bit now on the porch floor that I’ve managed to step on twice already this morning, but it ignores this and instead bobs and wags as it watches me with one eye.

The miombo pied barbet boasts a “scaly moustachial streak” and has a “long series of hollow pooh notes, falling terminally” which can only speak to how delightful these authors are, how much joy they take in the telling. What would it mean to let your pooh fall non-terminally—to fall and then rise before impact like a diving albatross or to fall then hover just above the ground like Tom Cruise on an impossible mission? The trumpeter hornbill has “a loud far-carrying distressed braying which often weakens and dies away as if the bird has lost interest in calling.” And I laugh because this is exactly right. I know exactly this bird who begins with enthusiasm and each time ends with “… anyway… yeah.”

I have my hood up over hair still damp from the shower. I balance on this chair with my legs folded up under me so the ants can’t get to my skin. Moments ago I discovered a small lotion sample that I’d gotten on the plane, pushed into the folds of my luggage, and I smell like a girl for the first time in months. As I write, a fuzzed caterpillar labors up the table leg, taking an unusually long time I’d say, though I can’t say how much time is usual for this.

The word for grasshopper is encenene (en-say-NAY-nay), a Bantu word, shared by the local languages. A. says there is a call that people use to announce the grasshoppers’ arrival. I ask for a demonstration; to my astonishment L. does a sudden, throaty call, and we all cheer. In grasshopper season, people with trucks and lights will go out into the fields at night and attract millions for large-scale sale, drawing them off from small fields and gardens, leaving local people far fewer. If someone (a woman or a child) does collect some and give them to you, you thank her with gifts of salt, sugar, and coffee.  If your wife makes you a sauce with grasshoppers or termites, you buy her a dress.

A. tells me that local tradition frowns on women who eat bananas or eggs, or who whistle (which I have done most every day since I arrived; he does not mention this). He is fascinated to hear that we sometimes cook pigs in holes in the ground for parties at home—he has never heard of such a thing. I’m saving Louisiana crawfish boils for another slow morning. During dinner, in the pitch black that falls by then, a scientist from Texas roars up in jeep and parks between my tent and the shower shed. They will begin work in the forest immediately, he announces, and return at daybreak to sleep in their vehicles. To be in the forest at night is a kind of insanity and we eye him as we chew. It has to be dark, he says, because he’s scouting herpetofauna. What a word. And what a mission, to go looking for snakes at the very hour when the one defense you have against them—seeing—doesn’t work.

Beryl and daughter.
Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
I am sitting with Jackson, sharing one tree’s narrow canopy in refuge from the unending rain. We avoid each other’s gaze, but I watch in my periphery how the mist settles on the hairs of his cheek. He sighs and settles one wrist on his knee; he glances upward without moving his head. And then, in a way that is both sudden and also somehow gradual, the earth beneath us rolls. I feel the disoriented queasiness of one unused to earthquakes but do not yet understand; we both reach our arms out to touch rough bark on either side. Our eyes connect—Jackson alpha of two hundred others, and me alpha of none—and he shows his teeth in a tiny, momentary grimace of fear. We are close together because I’d been forced off my earlier root-perch by a three-year-old. She’d peered with narrowed eyes down from the relative warmth of her mother’s belly and stamped her feet, waving one arm loosely in my direction, rightly certain of the clarity in her message. I didn’t move and she shook a branch; I was immediately soaked. Then she threw a stick down. Another entry for the RAINCIV file—random acts of incivility.

Ali is seven years old and bored. His is the oldest mother in all of Central and West, and he will be her last. She curls in a tree crotch in the rain with a nasty cough today, a recluse even in the best of times and with only one foot, the other lost to a poacher’s snare. She is no match for his bounding readiness, his hustling from vine to branch to vine when he should be napping, trying the view of me from between his legs, over one shoulder, beneath an extended arm, resting his chin so deep it brushes his round belly. Ali presses the soles of his two feet together and purses his lips as I fork rice into my mouth and I put one leg through the strap of the binoculars by my side in case he should suddenly find them appealing. Red monkeys arrive to the neighboring tree and sit quietly among the figs; Ali scratches his elbow as he watches them, and I do too, and we all wait for old Lita to do something.

A mile to the west, Yoyo is all alone. His eldest brother was killed. His mother Cecilia, the new baby, and his brother Benny died in the influenza epidemic four years ago. His younger sister, Joya, has left for a new community somewhere unknown and will never return. But he is making his way, following and listening and no longer a child, his face darkening, growing lined and ambitious. He steps over a stream on two flat rocks and then checks his feet before continuing uphill, sauntering southward in the afternoon heat, moments before the rain begins.

Jolie is never alone, her days full of three tumbling and needful children. Zawinul is only 11 but big for his age, his shoulders strong and his gaze serious. It touches me to see him here with his little sisters instead of with the big males, maybe because food is scarce and the war makes everyone afraid. On his rear end linger traces of soft white hair, the marker of childhood, and he sits quietly as his mother holds his face to clean his eyes and cheeks. Younger Kabi and the tiny new one, yet unnamed, dangle their hands together and lay against their mother’s thighs. For an hour the only sounds are beetles rolling dung, parrots arguing, and the sighs of a small family.

Julianne is lovely, everyone thinks so, with a dark thoughtful face and a bit of white on her chin. The day before yesterday her infant died, no one knows why, and today she continues to carry the tiny body with her everywhere. I glimpse her near the flat rocks just after noon and pick up the follow until I’m able to flag down A. as he searches nearby. The baby’s hands and feet are so pale they look like wax, and he hangs so limply. She carries him on her back, with one of his arms tucked between her chin and shoulder to secure him. She climbs a tree and keeps him cradled while she eats. As she descends, she hurries to get away from me and he falls off. She picks him up, places him on her back, and pins the tiny arm again. I don’t see his face—I don’t want to—just the back of his head. I guess he will soon begin to smell, and disintegrate, and she will let him go.

Elephant footprint
Elephant footprint.
Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
In Rutooro, the local language, my three biggest fears in the forest begin with the same four letters. Enjoki, bees, who come for the figs carpeting the forest floor, pungent with decay, and who drive me insane with their nasal hum in my ear. Until they fall suddenly silent, and I know they’ve found a cuff or hem to creep into, stinger brushing my bare skin, searching nook and cranny for home and with the fury of thousands if cornered. Enjoca, snakes, invisible and silent, watching from above and below and carrying death in their face. Enjojo, elephants. The fear of snakes and bees pales beside the fear of elephants, because snakes themselves have fear and wish to be alone; bees you can hear coming and are, anyways, very small. Forest elephants are silent when they want to be, and it is not in their nature to flinch. They rumble their irritation before they charge, but rainfall and monkey chatter prevent me from hearing them. I can’t see further than ten feet, and in this terrain, I can move no faster than a shuffle. Even if I could sprint full-out, they are much faster than me, very aggressive, and extremely large. My impulse to sing as I move, so I am not a surprise, is not the right thing because my noise would annoy. I hope they become aware of me as I simply walk, quietly and steadily in a straight line. They will not get out of my way, no, but they may pause and become visible, or they may rumble. Though they may pause in such a way that I unknowingly pass between a mother and her calf, and then I would get no warning.

There is a fourth whose name is close enough that I say it by mistake, enkoko, chicken. Chickens are not a threat deep in the rainforest (can you imagine?) nor kasuku, grey parrots. But embogo, buffalo, could be. Or empunu, wild pig. I am reminded of that tired character-building bit from action movies, once an agent always an agent, about counting escape route doors even when off duty or retired. I’ve begun scanning each clearing, each pause point, for a forked tree sturdy enough to get me higher than a charging empunu. There is so little sunlight on the forest floor that trunks rise many meters before branching, and the options are few—I imagine myself clinging comically to a sapling as it bows slowly back to the ground, a pig huffing in circles as it waits below.

Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
The toilet paper brand for buzungu, white people, here in field camp is EuroSilk Jumbo. It’s a fitting enough description of me.

Lumbering through the forest, my thin skin a map of raised welts from thorns and ants, I crash down ravines with my heavy rubber boots and two compasses. I trip uphill all day long on slopes too steep to halt the lurch when a foothold tears loose and my shoulder hits the ground. Or I fall through a rotted tree trunk into a hole I panic-pray is not filled with snakes, or the piglets of an angry, tusked mother. I imagine many times each day that I will slip gracefully between two saplings and then I do not—the brim of my hat catches a long thorn, the cord on my bag another, a surprise root bulge pitches me forward into an invisible web strung between the slim trunks, an oversized jungle spider clinging to my face as I flail. Thistles an inch long pierce my clothing, ticks virtually invisible trek silently up my thighs, vines like steel cables wreck my shins as I plummet top-heavy into a rain-slick descent. I spread a raincoat before I sit and roll wet and uncomfortable on the slope, digging in my heels for balance, knees to my chin, shooing bees from my cuffs.

The chimps don’t do it this way. They move lithe and silent, and are never out of breath. I go through, they go under. I drop things everywhere, they have nothing to drop. I give up trying to cool my skin and wear long sleeves pulled tight every moment I step off trail. This doesn’t help with the thorns or biting ants, but it helps some with the rashes, tiny poisonous plant hairs, oils, caterpillars. Chimps are without clothing but do have long hair everywhere except their face and their soles, wildly advantageous in the battle against all of the above. On their heads the hair is short, so they need no hat to keep it from snagging on every branch, like mine. Their feet are different, like our hands, so they grasp everything they step on. Most of all they walk comfortably on all fours and so are vastly more stable, much faster moving uphill, and don’t need constantly to crouch. But when they do crouch, they can get almost flat and needn’t limbo-squat, dragging their ears through the millipedes and burrs that collect beneath downed trees. They don’t walk on the palms of their hands but instead their knuckles, saving that soft expanse from injury and the wrist from ache. They are perfect, reclining with a sigh into the ginger, cracking nuts with wide flat teeth. I am not made for here, stranded a hundred feet beneath rosy fruit, requiring tools that exhaust me to carry.

Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
When he was a child and the moon passed between the earth and the sun, D.’s grandmother filled their widest basin with water and set it in the courtyard. Together they watched the eclipse on its calm surface, side by side, without raising their eyes to the sky. I say that I once watched a partial eclipse from my own porch with special cardboard glasses for both me and my elderly cat, and Blessing nods like this is the only way, to shield the gentle eyes of everyone you love, even when they don’t know to ask not to see.

On the day I accompany B. to catalog the leaves of trees ancient and remote, he points to the mitragena. It is used locally to rid yourself of worms, the bark boiled and the cloudy water drunk. I ask if the worms then come out and B. says no, at least not so that you can recognize them, and I am sorry I asked. B. points out a deadly snake soon after, near my stumbling feet, and then checks the batteries in my radio. And we are still alive, because of each other.

Halfway back to camp D. nods to a tree under which a student died four months ago from an elephant who was too close and young. They were both young, alone together in the forest, with no language to share. We move past one after the other, breathing hard from the steep rough of the trail. I straddle a tree fallen across the path and now my thighs are soaked. We all three sink into the cloudy grey mushrooms on the far side and struggle out, adjusting our pack straps. Each silent and sweat-soaked journey home is a lesson and a celebration, a trial and a victory.

Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.
To shower, I crouch in the rusty tin shed under a hose attached to a bag full of rainwater that had been sun-warming on a grassy mound since dawn. The water lasts only a couple minutes, even when I halt the flow between soaping each body part; there is no water pressure, just the thin stream of gravity. The water running over me itself went running into the catch basin, raining down through the channel of a rusty corrugated roof littered with dead insects, and lizard and bird poop. My limp towel hangs on the nail furthest from the resident wasp nest, its papery sides flaking in the shudder from the squeaky door when I enter and depart. With wet hair I watch a dramatic death struggle between a green-headed lizard and a too-large cockroach. The cockroach hisses and raises up on stiff legs, the lizard darts in for a crushing bite, the cockroach retreats, then advances, the lizard crushes him again then skuttles away, the cockroach, armor damaged, flails under a leaf. The battle moves under the porch, and I can’t see how it ends.

When I walk down the jeep trail at dusk through the shin-high grass, I step over soccer balls of elephant dung, needled with stalks, softly disintegrating in the heat. If I am very lucky, a family of striped mongoose will be using the trail for their evening stroll too, rounding a curve gossiping amongst themselves, tiniest babies swinging from their mothers’ mouths. I was not believed once when I said I’d seen them, but they’d crossed a puddle as they fled and their little footsies feathered the soft rim with miraculous proof.

And they are miracles, these forest lives, plunging forward morning after morning whether or not we are witness to their reunions and their quarrels, their adventure and rest, their hungers and births and sleep. Each day loved fiercely by the one who’s got a hold of it, as I love mine even in the rain, all of us do, who are alive.

Gecko outside tent
Photo by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.

Rainforest chimpanzees, and the human cultures they inspire, are vanishing. In August 2016 I traveled 7,200 miles from upstate New York to Kibale National Park in western Uganda for five months of remote tent-living, binoculars in hand. The world that is Ngogo—the more than 200 individual chimpanzees who live there, and the researchers who sleep, eat, and work in the forest to record their lives—is a breathing, blended archive of the ancient and the modern, stories ready and unfolding. The opportunity to put language to moments of wild living, as a close witness to personal story both human and chimpanzee, is rare. I am grateful to the ones who came before me, and to the ones who make the protection of these lives their own life’s work.


Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, Illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small. Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi. Princeton University Press, 2002.


Sarah Dunphy LeliiSarah Dunphy-Lelii has been teaching psychology at Bard College for 16 years, working with undergraduates (in upstate New York), preschool-aged children (in her research), and wild chimpanzees (in Kibale, Uganda). Her academic writing has appeared in journals including the Journal of Cognition and Development, Folia Primatologica, and Scientific American; her creative nonfiction writing appears in places including Plume, The Common, Gone Lawn, Dogwood, CutBank, Unbroken, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Passages North.

Header photo of morning light in the forest by Sarah Dunphy-Lelii. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.