Part VII. Women Working in Nature and the Arts
Mary: Hi Jessica. Thanks so much for letting me interview you. I have been looking at your website, “Words from the Wild“, and see that you are not just a writer and photographer but a biologist turned conservationist. I’m intrigued by the way you fuse your work and your passions–you work with words and images to weave stories of our natural world that you have experienced in your travels far and wide.
Your life seems so full that I don’t know where to begin! But let’s start with your travels. You were born in Colombia and have lived in Burkina Faso, Holland, Tanzania, England, Zambia, and Peru. What led you to these places? How did it come to be that you crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice on a sailboat as a child?
Jessica: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have had adventurous, enterprising parents and an unusual childhood and working career, both of which have led me to many unique places and memorable experiences. My father’s work for the Food and Agriculture Organization brought my parents to Bogota, Colombia, where I was born, and later he worked for the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) and Tanzania. In between, he fulfilled a life-long dream by building his own boat of ferro-cement and setting sail with the family for two years. My mother will try anything once, and loves to travel and see new places: having two small kids never encumbered my parents in any way. So my brother and I were home taught as we crossed the Bay of Biscay and then the Atlantic, and snorkelled around some of the Caribbean islands, before going to school in Annapolis, Maryland, for about eight months. Then we headed back to England but continued to live on board for two more years, some of that time in Scotland.
After completing my biology degree and Aquatic Resource Management masters in London, where I met my Peruvian/British husband, we moved to Amsterdam, where I began my working career as a volunteer for the Netherlands Committee for IUCN (the World Conservation Union). Four years later we were offered a job in southeastern Peru, with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, as coordinators of their giant otter research and conservation project. We spent seven years, on and off, working in the rainforest, during which time we had two children, both born in Lima. But our jobs were threatening to confine us to an office, and I missed Tanzania and field work, so we decided we wanted to work in Africa while the kids were not yet school-age. When our youngest was six months old we moved to Zambia and lived in North Luangwa National Park for two years, again, employed by FZS. After that we returned to Peru, where we have lived now for almost five years.
Mary: Fascinating, and it’s great that you have also given your children such experiences. These travels seemed to have inspired you deeply to care about our natural world, since you work as a conservationist and spend a lot of time writing prose and fiction about such subjects. What turned you onto into caring so much about our world–and what keeps you focused?
Jessica: I have no doubt my love and deep respect for nature were formed during my childhood. I read an article recently that children who experience nature before the age of 11 are more likely to grow up caring about wildlife and natural surroundings. My brother and I spent most of our time outdoors–swimming, snorkelling, beach combing–or visiting Tanzania’s stunning national parks. We didn’t have a TV or video player as we grew up. Or even a phone, for that matter. Instead, we had lots of strange and wonderful pets, including a chameleon, a praying mantis, owls, a dik-dik, and a boa constrictor. I loved to read, and all my favourite books had animals as their main protagonists; I became wholly immersed in their worlds. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and James Herriot’s series about life as a vet inspired me deeply. It was inevitable that I should study biology at university. But my interest has always been in the conservation side of things, in understanding and protecting wild nature and managing human activities in natural environments.
As to what keeps me focused? I want my kids, and their kids, to be able to experience nature the way I did. At the time, I took it all for granted, but the older I become, the more grateful I am for the time I’ve spent outdoors and in nature. I realise how privileged I was and still am, the more I see nature as a gift we should keep safe for future generations. When I hear that 100 elephants are being killed every day for their ivory, or that by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the sea (and whales are dying because they eat our plastic), I am filled with compassion for nature and regret at our stupidity. I found myself saying to my husband the other day that caring for the environment sometimes feels like a curse. It would be so much easier not to. But I do believe we need to hope, and that there are compelling reasons for hope. I try to share the good news with the bad, and, through my writing, I try to show how rich and wonderful (in the true sense of the word) a nature-filled life can be.
Mary: I think you are doing wonderful work; it is inspiring to me, and I hope that more people learn about your wild words and environmental passions. You are a mother of two and strongly believe that we should connect children and their families to nature. I strongly agree! Can you give examples of how you provide this connection in your own family?
Jessica: We regularly go hiking, fishing, or camping together during weekends and holidays. And we still don’t have a TV! In 2011, I read a book called Last Child in the Woods–Saving Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, about the growing disconnect between children and nature. This helped to crystallise my own thinking on the issue, and in early 2012 I started a family nature club called Club NaturaNinos (CNN). CNN provides an opportunity for families living in Cusco, where I live, to explore the great outdoors with the support and company of other, like-minded families. We set off into nature three or four times a month and each excursion is different, involving walks and climbs and Inca ruins, searching for small animal life, paddling in streams, climbing trees, building dams, getting dirty–whatever comes natural. The emphasis is on unstructured play and exploration and having fun, as well as learning about the plants and wildlife around us, using all our senses, and making new friends. Our motto is perhaps not very original but it sums up our attitude: we want to be a part of nature, not apart from nature.
Mary: CNN sounds important and fun. When I was a kid, my parents also spent a lot of time outdoors with us–hiking, camping, canoeing, rafting. I learned so much naturally about the wild. When I went camping with my school once, we went on a nature hike, and the teacher was classifying trees for us. I took over and knew them all, just by shape of leaf. She was impressed and said, “How do you know these things?” I didn’t know how–only we spent so much time outdoors. I later realized that my parents evidently had identified trees for us as part of our outdoor education, but unlike some indoor learning, it was seamless and fun. So I too believe it is important for kids to learn about nature. In fact, some of my best memories are from being outside in forests, so I know how inspiring these times are, and how much they affected me later, and I have no doubt your students and your own children are getting memorable lifetime experiences that will carry on later.
Your job is in conservation. What kind of work do you do?
Jessica: I have implemented applied research and conservation activities for the giant otter in protected areas of the Madre de Dios region of Peru, including the development of site plans for tourism management in giant otter habitats, and education materials that have been replicated in several other South American countries. I also monitored the demography of key populations of the species and catalysed the development of monitoring guidelines across the species distribution range, working together with giant otter specialists from eight countries. In Zambia, I was responsible for the monitoring of the reintroduced black rhino population, and managing a Conservation Education Programme in nine schools. In 2008, I began the analysis and write-up of 16 years of giant otter data, with the support of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; this has only just been completed with the publication of two peer-reviewed papers. And since July 2011 I have been working for San Diego Zoo Global as Education and Outreach Coordinator of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. I’m responsible for engaging with people from all levels of society towards research and conservation of tropical biodiversity. It’s a great job!
Mary: Sounds like a dream job! I really love your nature notes. You’ve written prose and stories about such things as termites and mushrooms in Kasanka, sea glass, and howler monkeys. You are also working on a novel and have written non-fiction articles, creative non-fiction short stories, a bilingual conservation book, and a popular science book. This list of accomplishments comes to life as internationally flavored and beautifully illustrated covers on your Books page. You wrote, for instance, the book Giants of the Madre de Dios, about giant otters living in South America, from the high Andes to the Madre de Dios River on the border of Bolivia. Another book, Tito intiro Chavaropona / Tito y el lobo de rio, about a young boy named Tito who acts as a the voice of his community when it comes to protecting otters. The book blends Matsigenka folklore with natural history and key conservation values to entertain and educate. Can you tell us more about these writings–any exciting stories to tell about them?
Jessica: Giants of the Madre de Dios was a joint venture with my husband. We wanted to make the key findings of our giant otter research accessible to anyone–not just scientists–interested in the species and in rainforest conservation. The book is illustrated with many of my husband’s beautiful photos and includes some of my stories of particularly memorable rainforest adventures. Our kids were just 1 and 2 years old at the time of writing and designing the book, and after completing it we joked that it was our third baby. So much time and effort went into it, and I’m still ridiculously proud of it.
Tito intiro Chavaropana means ‘Tito and the Giant Otter’ in Matsigenka. The most rewarding part of this project was collaborating with my Matsigenka co-author, Gregorio Perez. I was fascinated to learn that in Matsigenka culture it is considered rude NOT to interrupt a person who is relating a story. Rather, you’re supposed to prompt the raconteur—“And then?”—to show that you’re paying attention. Makes complete sense to me! I’m now working on a sequel, in which Tito sets off into the forest to hunt a spider monkey and meets a harpy eagle on the way. They become friends but not without a misunderstanding or two!
Mary: I have a young niece who I swore I would never gift unnecessary presents to (plastic toys, for instance). Each year for Christmas I give her a book or something meaningful or handmade–I think this Christmas I will order your Tito book for her so that she can read about the giant otter, certainly something she may never know about otherwise. What novel (or two!) are you working on now? How do you feel that fiction and non-fiction books can appeal to readers to care about our environment, and which authors/books inspired you as a child?
Jessica: I’m working on a book/novel/memoir (I can’t decide which!) based on those two years I spent sailing with my family and cat on our boat Urchin. I plan to tell the story from a young girl’s point of view and hope to inspire a deep curiosity about, and empathy for, oceans and sea life. If you’ve read My Family and Other Animals and Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird you’ll understand what I’m trying to do (got to think big!). Another project I have in mind is an account of our adventures in the Peruvian rainforest. I kept a diary during each of our expeditions so have plenty of raw material.
I firmly believe that books can and should make you care, and books or novels with a strong nature theme certainly had a huge influence on me. Apart from the ones I’ve mentioned, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sailing series and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books made me thirst for a similar life of outdoor adventure; Joy Adamson’s Born Free and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water made me want to be a wildlife biologist; and many, like The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings or Steinbeck’s The Red Pony or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web made me cry (isn’t it unbearable when the animal character dies?). I think the important thing as a writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction, is not to get on one’s soapbox and preach. This, I’ve noticed, is a tendency I have to guard against myself. Somehow we have to share our passion without ramming it down the reader’s throat. I recently read The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (herself a biologist), and though I loved most of the novel, the last quarter became an increasingly thinly disguised rant about the plundering of Africa’s resources by the West. As much as I sympathised with the message, as a fiction reader I found it heavy going.
Mary: I am with you on so many of those inspirational books while growing up! You also took most of the wonderful photos on your website. You say that you inherited your love for photography from your father. Please tell us more. I am so fascinated by the photos dotting your site; they let people who haven’t traveled far experience the places you’ve been, and I have to say that I someday want to see a baobab tree!
Jessica: Yes, my father is a keen and very good photographer, as was his father before him. My brother and I were given our first SLR cameras, a Pentax each, when I was 12. I went about taking photos of flowers (including, I remember, a bright red poppy lying in a muddy puddle–very symbolic) and curving grasses and insects. I lost interest while I was at university, but took it up again a few years ago, after we left North Luangwa National Park and embarked on a six-month road trip through southern Africa. I recall photographing the sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Namibia, in a kind of frenzy, so enraptured was I by the blue of the sky (I longed to plunge myself in it), and the clean, fluid shapes of the peach-coloured dunes and the way the sand blew in drifts off their crests. I literally walked holes in my shoes! Truly seeing the landscape with an artist’s eye (because, for me, photography is an art) enhanced my appreciation of it ten-fold; rather than passively absorbing a scene, the process of seeking the perfect composition meant that individual details–shadows, textures, shapes, lines, colours, anomalies, patterns–took on extra meaning and beauty. Now, when I go out into nature, I always take my camera with me. Of course, there’s a downside to this, too. If, for some reason, I miss the ‘shot of a lifetime’ (photography is like fishing–the ones you lose are always the best!), I can get pretty tense. Or, when I’m blurry-eyed after a particularly intensive photography spree, I sometimes find myself wondering whether I shouldn’t have simply relaxed and let the moment wash over me…
Mary: Jessica, thanks so much for sharing your adventures with us. I know we will keep in touch now that you are also a moderator of our Nature in Literature and the Arts community group. If you ever travel up to British Columbia, let me know! And thank you so much for the work you are doing; the world needs more people like you!