Into the Woods

January 21, 2015

I sat, coffee in hand, gazing out of a window from within my parents’ home. Beneath a grayscale sky, black streaks of barren walnut trees stood upright like daggers on a white-out landscape. It was a Wednesday, and in my morning sights were snow-covered fields of Timothy grass encircled by woods, so cold and serene as if imagined by Robert Frost himself. Seventy-two hours, three flights, several taxis and one boat ride later, gazing out of a window with coffee in hand would mean something entirely different.

Every year, I traded in the peace and comfort of a Pennsylvania winter with family and friends for a hearty dose of solitude in an African evergreen forest. In a quest to understand more about the evolutionary origins of human behavior, psychology and physiology, I studied a population of one of our closest living relatives, wild East African chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii), at Gombe National Park, Tanzania. In a matter of days, cinnamon buns and home-brew became dry oats and powdered milk, hot showers became baths in a lake alongside an unruly troop of baboons, and quiet mornings of downy snowfall became pre-dawn treks through nearly impenetrable vines and a hoard of screaming bush pigs. And every few months, as I drew the comparisons between my life in Pennsylvania and the one I led in Tanzania, I was plagued by the ever-pressing question: what in the fuck was I doing?

Addressing this crude (yet somewhat rational) self-inquiry was not always clear. And, today, as I find myself once again aboard a plane that carries me towards 10 months of isolated field work, I am only slightly less befuddled by my life’s current trajectory. What seems to endure, however, alongside rigorous bi-weekly indictments of my own sanity, is an unrelenting interest in what it means to be human. Why do we behave and think the way we do? Are these novel adaptations, or deeply embedded in our species? Why, as a comfortable young westerner, am I compelled to live in natural conditions, with limited access to technology and modern amenities?

The purpose of this blog (in addition to informing my friends and family that I have not succumbed to meat/alcohol withdrawal and/or aggressive diarrhea) is to explore these questions as they expand and evolve both through academic research and personal experience. Despite the pleasures of sweatpants and breakfast at home, there is no better opportunity to challenge personal conventions than to expand one’s horizons through travel and, at times, discomfort. Similarly, there is no better way to understand present conventions than to explore the past. Many a great men have gone into the woods to “front only the essential facts of life”, and while I am neither great nor a man, I am going into the woods, and I hope to do the same.

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