Biology Reference
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Ten years later, after I'd moved to Cornell University, came the stunning news that
Vincent was dead. Following the widely publicized massacre by Rwandan rebels of sev-
eral foreign tourists near Bwindi, a group of Ugandan soldiers had been garrisoned at
the park. One of them abducted Vincent's mother from a bar and raped her. She con-
tracted syphilis from the encounter and sought help at a nearby clinic; when the soldi-
er himself came in for treatment, the episode became public knowledge. Details were
sketchy as to what happened next, but the family suffered harassment from the military.
Vincent began drinking heavily; he was posted to a ranger camp so far from Ruhizha
that he only infrequently went home, and his relationships with coworkers deteriorated.
Then one afternoon this man who'd shined with such passion took drunken refuge in a
guard hut and ended it all—whether by accident or on purpose was unclear—with the
rifle he'd used to protect Bwindi gorillas.
The night after Jan's letter arrived I poured a glass of Merlot and sat down to Simon
and Garfunkel's ConcertinCentralPark. Vincent shared a remote forest with elephants
and giant vipers; he could have fallen through root tangles into an unseen chasm and
never been found. Yet the man owned a confident, guileless innocence, and I'd imagined
his life in that romantic vein. Now I remembered that at the time of my visit Uganda was
still suffering from horrific excesses of the dictator Idi Amin, and I wondered whether
I'd missed something back in 1990, been blinded by Western preconceptions and naive
hero worship. Perhaps while admiring Vincent's wilderness lifestyle I had failed to ap-
preciate some latent sorrow in him. Maybe I couldn't recognize it in myself.
I sipped wine and listened to the music, freighted with imagery from my own violent
youth, thinking about my recent lecture to a class on creativity. After I'd shown Michael
and Patricia Fogden's stunning images from our topic about snakes and talked about
studying nature, a student in a jaunty orange baseball cap challenged my sympathetic
portrayal of reptiles. “I could photograph serial murderers, ” he asserted, “surrounded
by children and smiling, but my friend's pet boa kills mice, so what's the difference?
Aren't your beautiful predators wicked too?” I admitted no special knowledge of philo-
sophy, then said that having been around victims of war and sexual assault, and having
had a loved one murdered, I believe viscerally in evil 12 —but surely snakes eating ro-
dents are just doing their job. Now, though, only hours after learning of Vincent's death,
the distinction felt pointless. A man who could have been trampled by large mammals or
died from myriad other natural dangers had succumbed to something not right within
himself, and what weighed most heavily was the loss.
In wilderness there are always matters of danger and the unknown, as well as moments
that affect us in surprisingly primal ways. A bushmaster was spotted at dawn near the
La Selva lab clearing, and although more than seven feet long and weighing perhaps
nine pounds, it was only an average-sized adult of the largest viper. Several of us
had abandoned breakfast and stood safely distant—we knew that although this spe-
cies rarely bites humans, about half its victims, despite treatment, succumb to tissue
damage and shock. The bushmaster was rod-straight and crawling slowly, but as more
people arrived it lay still, head just off the ground and cocked toward us. About once
a second its tongue swept down, out to the sides, and over the snout, measuring our
relevance in its morning. Among the assembled researchers were some whose preju-
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