Women Who Wander
Are Female explorers better than their male counterparts?
When anthropologist Louis Leakey decided to hire three proteges--one to study chimpanzees in Tanzania, one to study gorillas in Rwanda, and one to study orangutans in Borneo--he deliberately recruited women. His detractors thought he was having a midlife crisis and needed to surround himself with female admirers; he insisted that women were tougher, more observant, and more tenacious than men.
The stories of the three women Leakey selected, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, are beautifully told in Sy Montgomery's Walking With the Great Apes (Chelsea Green), updated and reissued this year. Montgomery describes not just what the women achieved in science and conservation but also what they endured emotionally, including their efforts to find love and raise children without sacrificing their adventurous careers.
Montgomery, too, is an explorer. Though she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has swum with pink dolphins in the Amazon, hunted for a rare and secretive bear in Southeast Asia, and studied man-eating tigers in Bangladesh. The books she wrote about these expeditions, Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Search for the Golden Moon Bear, and Spell of the Tiger, were also reissued by Chelsea Green this year.
Until not too long ago, many female explorers found their vocation through their husbands. I'm not qualified to assess Leakey's claim that women make better field-workers, but one thing's for sure: The famed nature filmmaker Alan Root wouldn't have gotten far without his first wife, Joan Root, the daughter of a Kenyan farmer. A gripping biography of her by Mark Seal, Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa (Random House, 2009), shows how Alan, flashy and charismatic, depended on quiet, reliable, and organized Joan throughout the creative process.
She planned their safaris, nursed him back to health after snakebites, operated their hot-air balloon, and shot and edited footage. None of this kept him from leaving her for another woman. Though devastated, Joan eventually established her own identity as an outspoken environmentalist, taking on illegal fishing at her beloved Lake Naivasha, which might have led to her murder in 2006.
As with Root, it took an untimely death to get explorer Margaret Mee the attention she deserved. Beginning in the 1950s, Mee, a Brit living in Brazil, organized more than a dozen expeditions into the Amazon rainforest to study and paint plants. She died in a car crash in 1988 while visiting England to celebrate a crowning moment in her career: the opening of an exhibit of her gorgeous, inventive, and botanically accurate paintings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Flowers of the Amazon Forests: The Botanical Art of Margaret Mee (Antique Collectors Club, 2006) is a stunning book that also contains entries from her diary.
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