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able Berkeley coffee shops or high-powered Washington boardrooms, and the gritty, on-
site work of preserving African rainforests. Tom and Jan were respected scientists who
hoped to raise a family, yet lived on yearly contracts and traveled hours over rough
roads for basic medical care. Vincent's salary covered only part of his family's subsist-
ence needs, and I was humbled that he didn't poach or steal. Throughout rural Uganda,
death was casually omnipresent, as if lives were cheap.
One morning, four forestry department officials arrived as we broke camp on the
edge of Bwindi, and the scene rapidly turned grim. While one of them in a long coat
stood with his assault rifle not quite pointed at us, their leader, a thin, ominous man with
high forehead and sparse goatee, launched a vitriolic tirade about affronts to his juris-
diction. I remembered Vincent saying that trespassing soldiers had recently disarmed
our game guards, forced them to lie naked on the ground, and then fired bursts from
automatic weapons. Thinking the others dead, he'd dashed for the forest and arrived
at Ruhizha three days later, incoherent from fatigue and fear. Now those same men re-
garded the forestry people with smoldering glares. I quietly asked one who was stand-
ing next to me and fingering his rifle trigger, “Francis, what's going on?” “They are all
corrupt and we hate them,” he whispered back. “They hate us too, and sometimes we
shoot each other.”
We white guys smiled and kept quiet, deferring to Jan. Hateus and shooteachother
clattered around in my brain with how many rounds are in that Kalashnikov's banana
clip? Later I learned that Bob, like me an army veteran, was also pondering where to
dive for cover and how to get one of the guns if a firefight broke out. Instead, the only
woman present diffused the situation by acknowledging the goateed man's authority yet
just as firmly insisting on the legality of our research permits, and after we all shook
hands the forestry people roared away on their motorcycles.
Bwindi means “darkest of dark places,” and our journey felt like a descent through
human history coupled with apocalyptic visions of the future. It had begun with twenty
hours of jet flight, followed by a jolting twelve-hour truck ride across an almost totally
converted landscape. As we traveled through neighboring Kenya, Nairobi National Park
evoked surprisingly powerful nostalgia for North American prairies. Surrounded by
zebras, buffalo, and several species of antelope, I imagined the richness of other equally
grand, now extinct savanna faunas: not many centuries back the Great Plains held thirty
million bison, and only twelve thousand years ago mammoths, ground sloths, and saber-
toothed cats inhabited North America. But a month later, looking south at the Virunga
Volcanoes from a forested ridge near the Rwandan border, I had never felt more remote
from Western culture, even though we'd seen no undisturbed habitat during the drive
from Kampala—only people and livestock everywhere.
On that first night in Mubwindi Swamp campfire fumes burned my eyes, evoking a
whimsical phrase from teenage hiking trips. “Vincent,” I quipped, “in my country we
say, 'Smoke follows beauty.'” After a pause, he grinned and replied in precisely enunci-
ated British English, “Here people say, 'Smoke follows one who dee-fee-cates too close
to the trail.'” While we looked for snakes in Africa, on foot in the cradle of our prim-
al quest for fire, I sometimes glimpsed a darker irony in those lighthearted comments.
With so many paths crowded and foul, I wondered, where will the mingled destinies of
snakes and people lead next?
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