Read Predators I Have Known Online

Authors: Alan Dean Foster

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Novelists; American, #Adventure Travel, #Predatory Animals

Predators I Have Known (26 page)

BOOK: Predators I Have Known
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Do this
, I told myself,
or go home and forever wonder what might have been.

I started to slip out of my shirt and shorts. Underneath, I had worn a swimsuit in anticipation and in hope of being able to fulfill my long-held dream. Now that I was confronted with the reality, however, I found myself moving much more slowly. It wasn’t the prospect of possible hostility on the part of the otters that held me back. It was not even the undeniable presence of piranhas in the river as confirmed by the fishermen’s catch. It was the river itself. Because of the tannins, I would be lucky to be able to see my submerged hand in front of me once I was immersed in the shadowy water.

Gil was watching me carefully. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I nodded. “I want to. I have to.”

He said nothing more. Neither did our boatman. Seeing me stripped down to my swimsuit but still lingering in the skiff, the two fishermen were looking at me and murmuring among themselves.
How could I back out now?
I asked myself.
I’d look like a fine idiot in front of these two men.
I had no choice. By revealing my swimsuit I had committed myself. Or might find myself committed, when I got back home to tell the story.
If
I got back home to tell the story.

Although our little outboard was small, it suddenly seemed an amazingly long way over the side and down to the water. There was, of course, no ladder. Bare feet first, I slipped myself over the gunwale. The silvery metal was as hot against my belly and chest as the water crawling up my legs was cool. I would readily have enjoyed a swim if I had not been so uncertain as to the nature of my fellow swimmers. Hanging on to the side with both hands, ready to pull myself back into the boat at a moment’s notice, I looked around anxiously, not nearly as cool as the water in which I was presently submerged. Viewed from eye level, the river in which I now found myself looked even darker. Blackwater, indeed. I could see into it to a depth of about six inches. Below that, all was chilly, wet, absolute gloom. What was swimming around down there, out of view and just under my feet? What might have been attracted by the disturbance of my entry? I had no idea how deep the river was at this place.

Nothing nibbled my toes. A curious caiman would most likely approach on the surface and could be spotted by those around me. I had the benefit of four lookouts on two boats. But I continued to hang onto the side, unwilling as yet to abandon the safety offered by the skiff.

I looked up at Gil. “Can you see them? Where are they?”

He shook his head. “I think maybe they went away when you entered the water.”

All this preparation, all this mental anguish
, I thought,
for nothing
? A part of me was relieved—but the other, the larger part, was crushed. I was on the verge of climbing back into the boat when Gil unexpectedly and with a tinge of excitement in his voice announced, “No, one is still here.”

I spun around in the water, one hand gripping the gunwale tightly. I could feel the strain in my arm. “Where?” My eyes practically level with the surface, I couldn’t see a damn thing.

Gil pointed. “Over there. It’s coming straight toward you!”

I whirled, swirling water around me. Nothing. I couldn’t see anything in the river.

“It just went down,” Gil alerted me.

Something struck my right thigh. Reflexively, I jerked upward. Gil’s tone was suddenly anxious.

“It bite you?”

“No.” I took careful stock of my leg and its immediate vicinity. “No. Just bumped me.” I noticed that Gil was staring straight down as he activated the video camera. Delight replaced concern in his voice.

“I can see it clearly. It’s right next to you. This is wonderful!”

I looked around; I looked down. I couldn’t . . . see . . . anything. My frustration knew no bounds. “Where?” I pleaded. “Where
is
it?”

“Right beside you—oh, it’s gone now.”

I slowed my frantic turning. Evidently I had been the recipient of a rare and spectacularly close encounter—except that I had seen none of it.

“There, behind you!” Gil was looking past me and pointing.

About ten feet behind me, the otter had stuck her head (I fancied calling it a “her”) out of the water and was looking squarely in my direction. I let go of the side of the boat and, swimming very slowly while careful to keep my head above the surface, started breaststroking toward her. I had approached to within perhaps six feet when she suddenly vanished. Where had she gone? I heard Gil call out softly.

“Behind you! She’s behind you.”

I spun. The otter had indeed appeared directly behind me. I started toward her, and she disappeared again. A moment later Gil’s voice sounded afresh. His enthusiasm had reached new levels. “She’s behind you again.” Was he laughing?

I turned, swam. The otter dived. It was plain now what was happening.

She was playing with me.

Every time I started toward her, she would dive down and reappear behind me. It reached the point where I did not even have to start swimming. As soon as we made eye contact, she dove. Was she swimming around me, or under me? I found out moments later when, treading water forcefully, I kicked something with my right foot, hard. There was no mistaking what it was.

I immediately tensed. Had I hurt her? Would she vanish now—or interpret the kick as an attack and react offensively?

Seconds later, she popped up, staring at me. Clearly, I had not hurt her. I surmised that from an otter’s standpoint my accidental kick was all part of the game.

This continued for nearly half an hour: me spinning in the dark water, her diving back and forth beneath me, until she finally grew tired of the diversion and swam off. I watched her depart, having burned every bit of adrenaline my body was capable of producing. We had interacted in her habitat for some thirty minutes without a hint of a hostile gesture on her part. She had bumped me several times; I had kicked her unintentionally and ungently. Why had she remained behind to play when the rest of her family had hastily departed as soon as I had entered the water? I thought I knew the answer.

She must be a teenager.

Surely, that was it. A wary cub would immediately have sought protection from the adults in the group. An adult would have departed in a more leisurely fashion or might possibly have reacted aggressively. But a young adult—teenagers are the same everywhere, with an innate curiosity and a zest for entertainment that transcends species. I have observed this trait in gorillas and elephants, in dolphins and sharks. I don’t know for a fact that my playful friend was a juvenile, but she was certainly not full-grown. Any natural aggressiveness she might have possessed had been canceled out by a desire to amuse herself at the expense of the strange visitor to her watery world.

Sometimes in life we get lucky.

When told this story, those knowledgeable about the behavior of giant otters in the wild are united in their opinion that by entering their domain, I had taken a real chance. But if you want to experience that which is out of the ordinary, you have to take chances. Whether the object of your interest be giant otters, or big cats, or big fish, or big bugs, or tiny ants, if you want to understand them or get to know them more than just a little, you have to enter their realm. You cannot get this from television, or from movies, or even from reading.

Go. See. Touch. Listen, smell, and try to understand. And while you’re learning, you are free to marvel at some of Nature’s most exquisitely designed creatures. They may bite, they may sting, but you risk your life every time you cross the street or stand in a wet shower or bathtub. The rewards to be had from such potentially lethal everyday endeavors are miniscule compared to those to be gained from watching a leopard hunt or making eye contact with a shark, or from espying the ripple of color that is a snake retreating in haste into the depths of the rain forest.

Hearing or reading these stories, people sometimes ask me, “How can you do these things?”

To which my answer and explanation is and always will be:

“How can you not?”

CONCLUSION

BUT WHAT GOOD IS IT?

It’s a question I’m often asked. What’s the point of such encounters? Nearly being eaten, or stung, or bitten, or poisoned, being parasitized, risking not always replaceable parts of your body, and for what? What’s the point? Why choose to voluntarily invite such experiences when one could be lounging on a beach in the Tuamotus, or strolling through the Prado, or ordering
schlag
with your coffee at an outside table at Demel?

The answer is that I’ve done those things, too: There’s just not very much drama in them (well, maybe the bill at Demel). It’s all grist for the writer’s mill. The more so if you write fantasy or science fiction. I’m a firm believer that to create otherworldly settings you have to experience as much that’s alien to your everyday life as possible. To invent other cultures you should immerse yourself in other cultures. In the old days, writers would attempt to do this by subscribing to
National Geographic
and by camping out in their local library. Today we have the Internet. But reading, in whatever format, is not the same as doing. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, “Books are all right in their way, but they’re a mighty poor substitute for life.”

So how do I know when, where, and how I’m going to make use of experiences such as those I’ve related here? The answer is that I don’t. What I
do
know is that sooner or later I’ll be working on a story or a novel and a situation will arise involving a dramatic, perhaps potentially life-threatening confrontation. Often I’ll produce the resulting scenario out of whole cloth, but sometimes—sometimes I’ll think back to a situation from real life. Drawing on that will produce fiction that cannot help but be more realistic because the source of it has actually been experienced.

Oh, sure, you say. Like Air Jaws. Flying great white sharks.
That’ll
prove useful in a story some day. Sure it will.

See the novel
Into the Thinking Kingdoms
.

Or how about interacting with a semi-wild cheetah named Felix, or encountering feeding lions? See all of the novels in the Journeys of the Catechist trilogy.

Years ago, I created an oversize otter character (Mudge, from the Spellsinger fantasy series) before I knew such a creature actually existed. Seeing his real analog only inspires me to write more about him. How about Pip, the flying snake from the Pip and Flinx books? Yes, I created her before I’d ever traveled outside the United States, but I firmly believe that subsequent serpentine encounters have enabled me to render her far more believably in later works than if I had never encountered her actual brethren in the wild. And it’s not just individual creatures. That the description of the Amazon rain forest in
Phylogenesis
was singled out for especial compliment by one reviewer is due, I’m certain, solely to the fact that I’ve actually spent time there.

In
Blue Magic
, book one of the as yet unpublished Oshanurth trilogy, magic is commonplace, and much of it relates directly to the creatures that practice it. I refer, in particular, to shark magic, the basis of which lies entirely with the sharks that I’ve met. The octopus is there, too, along with dozens of other underwater denizens among whom I’ve spent some time.

Confront, encounter, interact with a creature, and you are made aware of the unique characteristics it may not share with other inhabitants of the planet. This holds true for plants as well as animals, as anyone who has read
Drowning World
or the
Midworld
stories will attest. The environment of
Drowning World
and much of the invented flora and fauna therein can be traced directly to time spent in the Amazon and, especially, in a reserve called Mamiraua that lies about halfway between Manaus and the Peruvian border.

I have to go now. A kitten is growling and nibbling on my toe. As a writer, I could extrapolate from her to full-grown cheetah or lion or tiger.

But it’s better, much better, and far more fulfilling both professionally and as a human being to have encountered her family relations in person.

The End

BOOK: Predators I Have Known
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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