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Books Summer reading: A preview of Andrew Westoll’s debut novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain

Photo illustration ben barrett-forrest/the globe and mail/The Globe and Mail

Jungle South of the Mountain
Andrew Westoll

The letter arrived with the provisions, and when Stanley spotted it among the bags of cassava flour and the cans of beans and the bottles of palum he understood the rains were on their way. It was that time of year again, the last weeks of the dry season, when Maria penned her annual letter and Stanley braced himself for the deluge. Before he'd unfurled his hammock for the night and cracked the rum, he had slipped the unopened letter and a fresh jugo of beer into his day pack. And now five hours had passed, the jungle had woken outside Camp Collymore, and Stanley was late for an appointment in the bush.

He pulled on his field gear, his binoculars, his machete, laced his boots, hefted his pack and unlatched the front door. Flipping on his headlamp he picked his way through the darkness to the bottom of Ant Hill, where the mist was thick and the river slid silently past his little beach. What harm could come from remembering? he thought to himself, as he always did on this day each year. But he knew the answer to this question: a great deal of harm could come from it, a very great deal. In the jungle, negative thoughts had a habit of conjuring things, of slipping their bounds and finding shape in the world. That's how Maria would have explained it. For Stanley, the harm of the memory would be more visceral: every year on this day his stomach turned to mush.

Turning east from the river onto the Voltzberg Trail he began the hike in. At Anyumara Falls, which were still just a trickle, he startled the capybara and her young at the water's edge. By the beam of his lamp Stanley watched the rodents nose the air, their plump bodies paralyzed with awareness. They were so still they might have been part of a natural history diorama – Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, World's Largest Rodent, Tropical Rainforest Biome, South America. Of all the things Stanley had discovered about prey animals – and the capybara was the definition of prey, the prized quarry of the anaconda – it was this capacity for stillness, this ability to appear carved from stone at the moment of greatest peril, that impressed him most. After following monkeys for so many years Stanley had cultivated a similar ability to remain calm and still for long periods, but he often wondered if this skill would actually translate into real poise under pressure, as it did for the capybara, or if stillness would simply abandon him when he needed it most.

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Stanley flipped off his lamp, stepped off-trail and slipped quietly past the capybara. This small ritual of courtesy had marked the beginning of his days for eight years now. When he and Maria had first walked the Voltz it had been Maria who had spotted the capybara at the falls. She had let out a gasp, gripped Stanley's arm, and in the darkness Stanley's initial reaction had been desirous, the pressure of his wife's fingers on his skin causing his insides to surge. But a moment later he had reached into his pocket, pulled out his notebook and set to work. They had arrived in Roosvallen only the day before and both were beyond exhilarated – the winding boat ride south from the coast that felt like they were slipping off the edge of the earth; their first evening in this forest, sitting around the campfire while their boss, the great Professor Collymore, pressed his case that this jungle was like no other; this capybara and her young, caught in the spotlight, a taxidermied family of four. This is our life, Stanley, Maria would say at moments like these, squeezing him tight. This is our life.

Now, eight years on, Stanley recalled that encounter with the capybara with deep sadness. Because as Maria, awestruck, had narrowed the beam of her headlamp that morning, and as Stanley had scribbled the time and approximate location of those motionless rodents into his notebook, the pair had embodied one of the great ironies of the scientific enterprise: that out in the field, science does not make distinctions between the radicals and the rationalists, between those driven forward by the body and the spirit and those driven forward by the mind. For Maria, those capybara became members of a shared ecosystem that morning. For Stanley, those rodents became the project's first data point.

Up Kawati Top and down the other side Stanley took Domineestraat south. Here the jungle was at its thickest, and in the weeks since he'd last walked this trail the forest had made every effort to reclaim it. Spiny creepers criss-crossed the path at headheight, several epiphytes had slipped from their moorings and drifted to the earth, and about halfway down the trail a fallen tree barred the way. Stanley decided against his machete and quietly rounded these obstacles, the only human-made sounds his breath, his footfalls and the occasional clank of his camp chair against his pack, while the forest around him built towards the dawn crescendo. The peeping tree frogs of every denomination, the purr of nocturnal insects nearing the end of their shifts, the far-off moan of a dove or a bush dog, Stanley had never been able to tell which. At the bottom of Domineestraat stood a lone heliconia plant. As he passed Stanley flicked open his knife and sliced off an impressive set of bracts, the half-heart-shaped appendages seeming to glow in the dark they were such a brilliant red. Heliconia had been Maria's favourite.

On that first day in the jungle Stanley and Maria had bushwhacked for seven hours straight but had failed to find a single primate – no capuchins, no bearded sakis, not even a lowly squirrel monkey. Collymore had sent them out alone that morning to christen their new study site, to begin exploring and laying claim to the place that might one day become as productive as Corcovado or Manú. And now his protégés would return to camp with nothing to show for it.

Nothing? said Maria, when Stanley voiced these concerns. Sweetheart, open your eyes.

They had, of course, seen the menagerie that day. It had started with that capybara, then the caracara up on Kawati, then the trumpeter birds. And for the rest of the day, Stanley barely had time to stash his notebook before another wild feature of the jungle revealed itself. By midmorning they had spotted a tapir, an armadillo, two yellow-footed tortoises and the tail end of a giant anteater. During a water break Maria had noticed a kinkajou, or honey bear, peering down at them from the mid-canopy. Both were amateur ophidiologists – a result of having spent years chasing primates through rainforest environments – but they were only able to identify two of the twelve snakes they saw that day, the vicious bushmaster and the nasty fer-de-lance. There was something unique about this jungle, as Collymore claimed – something magical about the way it was put together. At noon the pair ate their lunch next to a large stand of heliconia, and as Stanley had reviewed his notes from the morning Maria had disappeared into this stand and reemerged five minutes later, a broad smile on her face and a long set of heliconia bracts in her hand. It had already fallen off, she said, before Stanley could accuse her, with gentle ridicule, of "defiling Mother Earth." They were just sitting there on the ground, she said, like little broken hearts.

That afternoon Maria had carried those bracts all the way back to Ant Hill. She had strung them up above their tent, and when Professor Collymore had returned from the river he had scoffed at the gesture. It's stunning, my dear, he had said, towelling himself off with an old T-shirt, his Scottish brogue echoing back from the canopy. From the family Heliconiaceae. It will be rotten by morning.

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South from Domineestraat now, Stanley carried his fresh heliconia with both hands, felt the satisfying heft of life still present in the plant, and soon the trail opened up into a grove of massive kankan trees. Their trunks were many feet across and their buttress roots nearly overlapped. Through the high canopy Stanley could see the mauve sky. I'm late, he thought. This should have been done before dawn. He walked faster, unencumbered now by the collapsing forest, his pack clanging through the grove, his route memorized, but as he neared his destination a lump formed in his throat. He slowed when he caught the glint of glass amid the roots of a particular tree. Flipping off his lamp and leaning the heliconia against a buttress, he dropped his gear and stood silently before the towering kankan.

At the foot of this tree stood a collection of empty beer bottles. In the dimness Stanley saw that a few of them had tipped over, so he reached down and righted them. Eight empty bottles. Seven years since he'd lost his boy. Beneath this makeshift shrine, a few feet down in the soil, lay the remains of Stanley and Maria's only child.

Excerpt from The Jungle South of the Mountain by Andrew Westoll ©2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


A Q&A with Andrew Westoll

What inspired the book?

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My protagonist, Stanley, inspired the book. He appeared in my mind one night, as I was contemplating what might happen to a primatologist if he were left alone for too long in the rainforest. The next morning, aware that Stanley would require an adversary, I googled videos of harpy eagles attacking monkeys. The first hit was a shaky piece of footage depicting the moments immediately after a harpy attacked a troop of monkeys, and when I heard the breathless voice-over, the hairs went up on my neck. It was my voice: "Oh my God. Oh my God." I had shot this footage in 2001. The die was cast.

You've published two works of non-fiction, including the RBC Taylor Prize-winning The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. Why fiction and why now?

I actually started out as an aspiring novelist, but when I discovered the power of creative non-fiction I was swept away by it. So I didn't consciously decide to start writing fiction this time around; I was just searching for a compelling story to tell. Stanley's predicament simply forced its way past the other ideas I was mulling over. The story won out.

If the excerpt is any indication, this is a book that is once again concerned with the natural world. Why is this a theme you're continually drawn to?

The natural world is both the canvas and the medium of the scientist. And in a way, the same is true for a writer, at least metaphorically. We are all human animals concerned with the trials and tribulations of the human animal. Given my background in the biological sciences, and my abiding curiosity in the tension between rationalism and faith, I have a feeling that science and the natural world will always feature, to some extent, in my writing.

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