52 Blue

52 Blue

A meditation on what it means to be alone and how we seek meaning from the natural world

By Leslie Jamison

The Atavist Magazine, No. 40


Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams and the novel The Gin Closet. She is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review and her work has also appeared in Harper’sOxford AmericanA Public SpaceVirginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer. She lives in Brooklyn.

Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research and Calligraphy: Natalie Rahhal
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrations: Tim Jeffs
Cover Illustration: Richard Lewis/Getty
Other images: Courtesy of Leonora and Zee
Music: From “Migratory Patterns,” by Lowercase Noises

Published in August 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

December 7, 1992: Whidbey Island, Puget Sound. The World Wars were over. The other wars were over: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf. The Cold War was finally over, too. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station remained. So did the Pacific, its waters vast and fathomless beyond an airfield named for an airman whose body was never found: William Ault, who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This is how it goes: The ocean swallows human bodies whole and makes them immortal. William Ault became a runway that sends other men into the sky.

But at that Naval Air Station, on that day in December, the infinite Pacific appeared as something finite: audio data gathered by a network of hydrophones spread along the ocean floor. These hydrophones had turned the formless it of the ocean and its noises into something measurable: pages of printed graphs rolling out of a spectrograph machine. These hydrophones had been used to monitor Soviet subs until the Cold War ended; after their declassification, the Navy started listening for other noises—other kinds of it—instead.

On December 7, the it was a strange sound. The acoustic technicians thought they knew what it was, but then they realized they didn’t. Petty officer second class Velma Ronquille stretched it out on a different spectrogram so she could see it better. She couldn’t quite believe it. It was coming in at 52 hertz.

She beckoned one of the technicians. He needed to come back, she said. He needed to take another look.

The technician came back. He took another look. His name was Joe George.

Second Petty Officer Ronquille told him, “I think this is a whale.”

Joe thought, Holy cow. It hardly seemed possible. For a blue whale, which is what this one seemed to be, a frequency of 52 hertz was basically off the charts. Blue whales usually came in somewhere between 15 and 20—on the periphery of what the human ear can hear, an almost imperceptible rumble. But here it was, right in front of them, the audio signature of a creature moving through Pacific waters with a singularly high-pitched song.

A recording of 52 Blue, sped up for audibility.

Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.

The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.

So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue. A scientific report, published 12 years later, would describe his case like this:

No other calls with similar characteristics have been identified in the acoustic data from any hydrophone system in the North Pacific basin. Only one series of these 52-Hz calls has been recorded at a time, with no call overlap, suggesting that a single whale produced the calls. … These tracks consistently appeared to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species (blue, fin and humpback) monitored year-round with the same hydrophones.

Much remained unknown, the report confessed, and difficult to explain:

We do not know the species of this whale, whether it was a hybrid or an anomalous whale that we have been tracking. It is perhaps difficult to accept that … there could have been only one of this kind in this large oceanic expanse.

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Two

The drive from Seattle to Whidbey Island, a little less than two hours north, took me through the plainspoken pageantry of Washington State industry: massive piles of raw logs and cut lumber, rivers clogged with tree trunks like fish trapped in pens. I passed stacks of candy-colored shipping containers near Skagit Port and a collection of dirty white silos near Deception Pass Bridge, its steel span looming majestically over Puget Sound—hard-sparkling water glinting with shards of sunlight nearly 200 feet below. Craggy cliffs rose on either side over the water, studded with crooked straggler pines clinging to the steep rock. In front of me on the two-lane highway, a biker wore a jacket full of skulls.

On the far side of the bridge, the island felt pastoral and otherworldly, almost defensive. “LITTER AND IT WILL HURT,” one sign read. Another said: “Space Heaters Need SPACE.” The lawns were full of goats and rabbit hutches.

Whidbey Island often calls itself the longest island in America, but this isn’t strictly true. “Whidbey is long,” the Seattle Times observed in 2000, “but let’s not stretch it.” It’s long enough to hold a kite festival, a mussel festival, an annual bike race (the Tour de Whidbey), four inland lakes, and an annual murder-mystery game that turns the entire town of Langley, population 1,035, into a crime scene. In 1984, the island was a refuge for a white supremacist named Robert Jay Mathews—leader of a militant group called the Order—whose home burned down around him when a pile of his own ammo caught fire during a shoot-out with the FBI. His body was found next to the charred remains of a bathtub. Every year, it’s rumored, his followers gather on the day he was killed, at the site where his home once stood, to commemorate his death.

The Naval Air Station, on the northern end of the island, specializes in electronic attack, which means manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum: sending out radio and radar frequencies to locate and neutralize enemy operations, or using these same techniques to defend against similar tactics. The station also monitors the intricate array of hydrophones known as the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), part of an undersea surveillance network that ranges across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, from Nova Scotia to Hawaii, seafloor-mounted hydrophones connected by underwater cables to facilities that process the audio data onshore. SOSUS was initially built for one reason: to track Soviet subs. Its earliest hydrophone arrays were installed on the seafloor between Greenland, Iceland, and Britain—a naval-warfare choke point known as the GIUK Gap, the waters that Soviet subs would have to cross if they were heading west.

SOSUS tracked its first diesel sub in 1962, its first Victor- and Charlie-class subs six years later. The system was expanded through the 1960s and helped locate the only two U.S. nuclear submarines ever lost at sea.

But once the Cold War ended, operations were downsized, and much of the equipment was declassified. The hydrophone arrays still did military duty, but the Navy started looking for other uses for them, too.

Joe George, the technician who first identified 52 Blue in 1992, still lives in a modest hillside home perched on the northern end of Whidbey, about six miles from the Naval Air Station. When I visited, he answered the door smiling—a burly man with silver hair, no-nonsense but friendly.

He’d offered to show me around the naval base. Though he hadn’t worked there for 20 years, he was still able to get us past security with his Navy ID. He told me he uses it whenever he comes back to the base to drop off his recycling: the profits go toward a Morale, Welfare and Recreation Fund that pays for bleachers and baseball diamonds for the base. We passed by the looming hangars where the planes are kept, “prowlers” and “growlers,” all designed for electronic warfare.

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Whidbey Island is currently home to 17 active-duty electronic attack squadrons, including the VAQ-133 Wizards (radio call sign: Magic); the VAQ-142 Gray Wolves (formerly the Grim Watchdogs, radio call sign: Timber); and the oldest electronic-warfare squadron in the Navy, the VAQ-130 Zappers (mascot: Robbie the Dragon, who is pictured with lightning bolts coming out of his angry lizard eyes). The VP-40 Fighting Marlins also sport a fierce insignia: a marlin spearing a submarine alongside a squid that bleeds fat red drops.

We passed smaller simulator buildings, where some guys step into a cockpit for the first time and other guys do their best to mess up the ride. Just beyond these dreary beige boxes, the coastline was ragged and beautiful—waves crashing onto dark sand, salt wind moving through the evergreens. Joe told me that a lot of people like getting stationed here: The work isn’t bad, and the island itself is pretty stunning. Outside the officers’ club, men in flight suits were drinking cocktails on a wooden deck.

Joe explained that his team—the team responsible for processing audio data from the hydrophones—was fairly disconnected from the rest of the base. It was a question of security, he said, and when we reached his old building I saw what he meant: It was surrounded by two fences topped with razor wire. Some of the other servicemen on base, Joe explained, used to think his building was some kind of prison. They never knew quite what it was for; its machinations were mysterious. The only contact Joe’s division had with the rest of the base was passing along whatever information they’d gathered about subs.

Joe stressed the intensity and secrecy of his old work, everything that happened past the razor wire. I asked him what he thought the strange sounds were, before he realized they were whale calls—back in 1992, with Second Petty Officer Ronquille. “I can’t tell you that,” he told me. “It’s classified.”

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Three

July 2007: Harlem, New York. Leonora knew she was going to die. Not just someday, but soon. She’d been suffering from fibroids and bleeding for years, sometimes so heavily that she was afraid to leave her apartment, heavily enough that she grew obsessed with blood: thinking about blood, dreaming about blood, writing poems about blood. She’d grown increasingly reclusive. She’d stopped working as a case supervisor for the city, a job she’d held for more than a decade.

Leonora was 48 years old. She had always been a self-sufficient person; she’d been working since she was 14. She’d never been married, though she’d had offers. She liked to know that she could support herself, but this was a new level of isolation. She’d grown obsessively focused on a self-directed exploration of embryonic stem-cell research and increasingly distant from everyone in her life. One family member had told her, “You are in a very dark place,” and said she no longer wanted to see her.

By summer things had gotten worse. Leonora felt truly ill: relentless nausea, severe constipation, aches across her whole body. Her wrists were swollen, her stomach bloated, her vision blurred with jagged spirals of color. She could hardly breathe when she was lying down, so she barely slept. When she did sleep, her dreams were strange. One night she dreamed about a horse-drawn hearse moving across the cobblestone streets of another century’s Harlem. She picked up the horse’s reins, looked it straight in the eye, and knew it had come for her.

She unlocked her apartment door so that her neighbors wouldn’t have trouble removing her body before it “stank up the place.” She called her doctor to tell her as much—I’m pretty sure I’m going to die—and her doctor got pissed, said she needed to call the paramedics, said she was going to live. So Leonora called the paramedics. When they were wheeling her off on a gurney, she asked them to turn around and take her back so she could lock the door again. This was how she knew she’d regained faith in her own life: If she wasn’t going to die, she didn’t want to leave her door unlocked.

That request, asking the paramedics to turn around, is the last thing Leonora can remember before two months of darkness. That night in July was the beginning of a medical odyssey—five days of surgery, seven weeks in a coma, six months in the hospital—that would eventually deliver her, in her own time and her own way, to the story of 52 Blue.

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Four

Back at his house, Joe showed me how he’d been spending his time since retiring from the Navy. In addition to a job restoring salmon habitats—putting in the right plants and taking out the wrong ones—he was regularly participating in 18th-century fur-trapper-rendezvous reenactments. He kept an impressive collection of carnivorous plants and raised bees to feed them. He showed me the cobra lilies, his favorites, and explained how their translucent hoods coaxed trapped flies to exhaust themselves by flying for the light.

Certain patterns emerged across Joe’s various vocations: evident care and conscientiousness, a desire to be accurate and meticulous. He fixed a frost cloth over his cobra lilies right after he showed me their elegant green-veined hoods, and it was with conspicuous pride that he showed me the 18th-century musket he’d built from a kit. I saw the same sense of pleasure at precision when he explained the sheaf of papers he’d pulled out from his old days tracking 52 Blue. They were computer maps documenting nearly a decade of migratory patterns, 52 Blue’s journey each season marked by a different color—yellow, orange, purple—in the crude lines of mid-nineties computer graphics. He showed me charts of 52’s song and explained the lines and metrics so I could compare its signature to more typical whale noise: the lower frequencies of regular blues, the much higher frequencies of humpbacks.

Blue whale songs hold various kinds of sounds—long purrs and moans, constant or modulated—and 52 Blue’s vocalizations showed these same distinctive patterns, only on a wildly different frequency, one just above the lowest note on a tuba. The brief recorded clip of 52 I listened to, sped up for human hearing, sounded ghostly—a reedy, pulsing, searching sound, the aural equivalent of a beam of light murkily visible through thick fog on a moonlit night.

Joe clearly enjoyed explaining his charts and maps. They took him back to the days when the story of 52 was still unfolding, still a mystery—this inexplicable whale and his singular sound. At the time, Joe had recently arrived at Whidbey after several years of what was technically classified as “arduous duty” on a base in Iceland, though he explained that those years weren’t particularly arduous at all; his kids built snowmen by the Blue Lagoon. Joe was a good candidate for Whidbey. He was already trained as an acoustic technician, already prepared for the work that happened in his squat little bunker behind the razor-wire fence.

SOSUS, Joe told me, was a “bastard child”: It had bounced from one Navy division to another over the years, and was treated differently depending on where it was housed at any given time. It got a lot of funding when it was in the submarine division, headed by an admiral. But after it was moved to surface fleets, which had less pull, there was less money to go around. And then the Cold War ended.

Without Soviet submarines to listen to, the Navy started thinking about how else the expensive hydrophone array might earn its keep. That’s when they decided to offer it to science, so they could listen to everything else. Dennis Conlon—a civilian Navy scientist with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command—invited an acoustics expert from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts named Bill Watkins out to Whidbey. Watkins, who’d worked with the Navy in the past, realized he could use the equipment to track blues, fins, and humpbacks—their migration patterns and areas of seasonal density.

Now Navy guys who’d spent years tracking subs were suddenly tracking songs. They were accountable for making sense of something other than threats. The sounds they gathered were processed and examined by Watkins’s team back at Woods Hole.

Joe spoke of Watkins—who died of cancer in 2004—with evident respect. This was a pattern in the various accounts of Watkins I heard, this reverence: He was honest and passionate and kind. He could talk to anyone. He spoke a bunch of languages, the precise number changing each time I heard it: Twelve. Six. Thirteen. Nancy DiMarzio, one of his former research assistants, claimed it was twenty. She also said he once fled an African country in the middle of a war. Darel Martin, another naval acoustic technician who worked with Joe at Whidbey, told me the story of Watkins’ Ph.D: how he learned enough Japanese to defend a doctoral dissertation at the University of Tokyo.

Watkins was born in 1926 to Christian missionaries stationed in French Guinea. According to Darel, he hunted elephants with his father when he was a kid. He could hear the elephants from farther off than anyone else: “He found out that he could actually hear 20 hertz, which is extremely low for any human,” Darel told me. “You and I can’t hear that—20’s pretty low—but he could actually hear the elephants in the distance. And he would tell his dad which way to go.”

Watkins studied broadcast technology at a Christian college in the United States and then returned to Africa to work in radio. He spent most of the 1950s operating a station in Monrovia, Liberia. When he first started working at Woods Hole, in 1958, he was hired not as a biologist but as an electronics assistant—it was the recording he excelled at. He didn’t know much about whales then, and he wouldn’t earn his Ph.D in biology until he was in his fifties. By the time he did, however, he had already made profound contributions to the field, developing much of the technology and methodology that made it possible to record and analyze whale songs: whale tags, underwater playback experiments, location methods. He developed the first tape recorder capable of recording whale vocalizations, which opened up new frontiers of fieldwork.

During the years the Whidbey Island team tracked 52 Blue, Watkins came out to the base every few months during migration season, and Joe and Darel would show him the vocalizations they’d picked up. The three men enjoyed working together. While some of the other Navy guys didn’t like going from tracking subs to tracking creatures—the stakes of intelligence work felt more palpable—Joe and Darel loved eavesdropping on marine life. “It’s just endless what you can hear out of the ocean,” Darel told me. “We went from being experts on sharks of steel to tracking living, breathing animals.”

For Joe and Darel, 52 Blue’s unusual frequency was interesting for largely practical reasons: His singularity made him easy to track. Because you could always distinguish his call from others, you always knew where he was traveling. Other whales were harder to tell apart, their patterns of motion harder to discern. The possibility of particularity—this whale, among all whales—was unusual: It allowed for an abiding relationship to 52 as an individual creature, while other whales blurred into a more anonymous collective body.

Joe George on tracking 52 Blue.

52’s particularity, as well as his apparent isolation, lent him—they figured it was a him, as only males sang during mating season—a certain kind of personality. “We always laughed when we were tracking him,” Darel told me. “‘Maybe heading to Baja for the lady blues.’” His jokes echoed the way frat brothers might talk about the runt of a pledge class, the one who never had much luck with chicks: 52 was ugly, 52 struck out, looked again, tried again. 52 never let up with that song. It was something more than a job. Darel bought his wife a whale necklace during the years he spent tracking 52; she still wears it whenever they go to Hawaii.

Joe had his own fixations. “One time he disappeared for over a month,” he told me, his inflection registering the mystery; it clearly still engaged him. At the end of the month they finally picked him up—farther out in the Pacific than he’d ever been. “Why was there that gap?” Joe wondered. “What happened during that time? You just wonder about stuff like that. What happens in that month. You always kinda wonder.”

Watkins was the driving force behind the whale tracking, and he fought hard to maintain the funding, but he couldn’t keep it running forever. The Twin Towers happened and everything changed. Just as the end of the Cold War had signaled the beginning of a new era, so did the onset of another war signal the beginning of the end. “When 9/11 came around, it was a couple weeks after that, Bill told me all the funding was gone,” Joe explained. “Everything.”

The whale-tracking team hunted around for other jobs on the base or within the Navy. Joe tried the marine-acoustics field but didn’t have much luck. So he went back for an associate’s degree in environmental sciences, which paved the way for his current job restoring salmon habitats.

Now the records of 52 are just reams and reams of data taking up space in filing cabinets at Woods Hole. The mystery survives in splinters: just a man sitting at his kitchen table, pulling out old folders to point out the ordinary-looking graph lines of an extraordinary song.

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Five

Leonora grew up in Harlem near Bradhurst Avenue. She was raised mostly by her grandmother, who was four foot eleven and blind from diabetes, a determined and resourceful woman who’d come to the United States from Chennai by way of Trinidad. She always said people back home in India thought America was full of golden sidewalks. It was the flecks of silica in the pavement, she said, their sparkle. Word had spread.

Leonora’s grandmother was a woman who felt blessed by an extraordinary second sight—she got a strong sense about people, could feel the energy coming off them. If she didn’t want to get to know you, she’d tell you. If she did want to get to know you, she’d run her hands over your face and body to get a better sense of the spirit inside. She could describe your clothing without seeing you. She could sense the energy of different colors: the calm of blue, the heated intensity of red.

During the mid-seventies, when Leonora was in high school, Bradhurst was something of an urban war zone, with its own police task force and sky-high murder rates. One summer when Leonora got interested in photography, taking pictures of friends and folks in the neighborhood, people started calling her Death Photographer because so many of her subjects ended up becoming victims of violence.

Leonora worked hard to find a way out, started City College and made good money bartending at the Red Rooster and Broadway International. One day she was walking along the Hudson and had a vision: It started looking like another river entirely. This was how she realized she needed to get to Paris. She needed to get even farther away from home.

She kept bartending until she had enough money saved, then got herself across the Atlantic as an exchange student. She found a place on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and spent the next year in a happy blur: walked around with a corkscrew in her hand, took a trip to Capri, where she and her friend met a pair of amorous lifeguards, broke into an abandoned villa and ate bread and jam off the dusty kitchen table.

It was tough coming back to New York. Her friends resented the fact that she’d been somewhere—done something—that they hadn’t. She lived in New Jersey for six months, which she hated, then returned to the city to be with a man she almost married. They went to the courthouse and she got such terrible cramps that she had to go to the bathroom. She realized it was her body telling her: Don’t do this. She listened. She stayed in the bathroom until the offices closed; a police officer had to tell her to come out.

She eventually started working for the city as a case manager for clients on food stamps or welfare. It was emotionally draining work: dealing with families in states of desperate need, hungry kids, a mother who’d scored a little money in the lottery but still dressed her kids in rags and wanted her own mom’s share of food stamps. For a while in the nineties, Leonora worked for a city program helping Russian immigrants. They got off the plane at La Guardia with visas and apartment leases and not much else; she helped them figure it out from there.

She was dedicated to her clients, respected their courage and determination, but by the mid-aughts her health was in decline. She was holed up in her apartment and bleeding all the time. Home was a refuge but also a container for her increasing isolation. By the time she was hospitalized, in July 2007, she’d retreated from the world so much that her time in the hospital felt less like an absolute rupture and more like the continuation of a descent that was already well under way.

Six

In 2004, three years after the funding dried up, the Woods Hole researchers published a paper about 52 Blue in a journal called Deep Sea Research. The paper explained how the audio data had been recorded—gathered by more than ten arrays of hydrophones and analyzed by acoustic technicians familiar with whale calls—but gave few details about the process, for security reasons: “These Navy facilities, hydrophone arrays, their characteristics, and associated data processing techniques have remained classified.” The paper described the units of noise recorded from the whale (“calls,” “groups,” “series,” and “bouts”) as well as patterns in his motion: “The tracks for the 52-Hz whale indicated relatively slow, continuous movement” across “the deep waters of the central and eastern portion of the North Pacific basin,” where he “roamed widely” and “spent relatively little time in any particular area,” and—of course—never seemed to cross paths with any other whales.

The article was accepted in August 2004. Bill Watkins died in September. Though he was listed as the lead author on the article, another member of the team—Mary Ann Daher, his former research assistant—was listed as its corresponding author. Soon, Daher started getting notes about the whale. They weren’t just typical pieces of professional correspondence. They came, as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin wrote at the time, “from whale lovers lamenting the notion of a lonely heart of the cetacean world”; others were “from deaf people speculating that the whale might share their disability.”

After Revkin’s story ran that December, headlined “Song of the Sea, a Cappella and Unanswered,” more letters flooded Woods Hole. (One marine-mammal researcher quoted in the story, Kate Stafford, may have inadvertently fanned the flames: “He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,’” she told Revkin. “Well, nobody is phoning home.”) These letters came from the heartbroken and the deaf, from the lovelorn and the single; the once bitten, twice shy and the twice bitten, forever shy—people who identified with the whale or hurt for him, hurt for whatever set of feelings they’d projected onto him.

A legend was born: the loneliest whale in the world.

In the years since, 52 Blue—or 52 Hertz, as he is known to many of his devotees—has inspired numerous sob-story headlines: not just “The Loneliest Whale in the World” but “The Whale Whose Unique Call Has Stopped Him Finding Love”; “A Lonely Whale’s Unrequited Love Song”; “There Is One Whale That Zero Other Whales Can Hear and It’s Very Alone. It’s the Saddest Thing Ever and Science Should Try to Talk to It.” There have been imaginative accounts of a solitary bachelor headed down to the Mexican Riviera to troll haplessly for the biggest mammal babes alive, “his musical mating calls ringing for hours through the darkness of the deepest seas, broadcasting a wide repertory of heartfelt tunes.”

A singer in New Mexico, unhappy at his day job in tech, wrote an entire album dedicated to 52; another singer in Michigan wrote a kids’ song about the whale’s plight; an artist in upstate New York made a sculpture out of old plastic bottles and called it 52 Hertz. A music producer in Los Angeles started buying cassette tapes at garage sales and recording over them with 52’s song, the song that was quickly becoming a kind of sentimental seismograph suggesting multiple storylines: alienation and determination, autonomy and longing; not only a failure to communicate but also a dogged persistence in the face of this failure.

People have set up Twitter accounts to speak for him, like @52_Hz_Whale, who gets right to the point:

Hellooooooo?! Yooohoooooo! Is anyone out there? #SadLife

I’m so lonely. :'( #lonely #ForeverAlone

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Seven

Leonora woke up in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in September 2007. What had happened in the previous two months—after the paramedics wheeled her out of her apartment—was only explained to her long after it was over, once she’d recovered enough to process it. The doctors had discovered that a severe intestinal blockage was making her ill, and she’d had major surgery over the course of five days. The surgeons removed everything the blockage had rotted; the more they looked, the more necrotic tissue and gangrene they found. They kept cutting out portions of her intestines—seven inches, nine inches, three inches—until they’d gotten it all. By the time they were finished, nearly three feet of her guts were gone. The remaining incision was huge.

Leonora was put into a seven-week coma so she could recover more efficiently, and after she awoke she remained hospitalized for several months to keep the open wound from becoming infected. She was on an IV. She hardly knew how to speak. She thought it was 1997. Her father came to visit once, and she vomited when she saw him. She could barely make herself understood, barely convey how much she wanted him to leave.

At one point, she sensed an incredible stench around her. She didn’t know where it was coming from. She said “smell,” and someone understood; eventually they realized it was her hair, which was matted with blood. She asked one of her doctors to cut it. The doctor said that wasn’t her job. Leonora said, “If you don’t do that, I will start screaming now and I will not stop.” The doctor did it. It turned out looking pretty good. Weeks later they joked that the doctor might have a second career as a hairdresser.

For Leonora, the hardest part of recovery was losing her self-sufficiency. “Feeling that I could no longer be independent,” she said, “that I could no longer take care of myself. Ever since I was 14, I’ve been doing that.” In the aftermath of her coma, Leonora couldn’t walk. She had trouble remembering words. She couldn’t count past ten. She couldn’t even quite count to ten. But she pretended. She didn’t let on. She didn’t want other people to see her struggling. The hospital offered decent physical rehab but nothing to help her re-inhabit her own mind.

Leonora was wheeled into the hospital on July 6, 2007, and wasn’t home again until 2008. She went to a rehabilitation facility in November, then had a bad fall—she still wasn’t walking well—and returned to the hospital, then to another rehab in December. During those months at various institutions she had visitors but generally she felt abandoned—like everyone in her life was fleeing her damage, pushing her away for a simple, primal reason: The healthy don’t like to be around the sick. Her illness made them uncomfortable, because it reminded them of their own mortality—or the fact of mortality itself.

When people did come to visit, she perceived a dark energy coming from them; it made her feel nauseous. When her father visited, he told her over and over that she looked like her mother—a woman he hadn’t spoken about in many years. She felt that her illness raised long-buried emotions in him, feelings of anger and loss.

During much of her recovery Leonora couldn’t even watch television. It gave her headaches. So she turned to the Internet. It was a way to find interest and beauty in the world. And it was then—alone and late at night, once again, searching for something that might offer a sense of meaning—that she came upon the story of 52 Blue.

By then the story of the whale had been floating around the Internet for several years. But it spoke to Leonora with a particular urgency. It resonated. “He was speaking a language that no one else could speak,” she told me recently. “And here I was without a language. I had no more language to describe what had happened to me. So I too… I was like him. I had nothing. No one to communicate with. No one was hearing. No one was hearing him. And I thought: I hear you. I wish you could hear me.”

She identified with his plight. She felt that her own language was adrift. She was struggling to come back to any sense of self, much less find the words for what this self was thinking or feeling. It was hard to speak, because her trachea was so scarred from all the tubes that had been thrust down it during her coma. She felt the world pulling away. When she found the whale, she found an echo of this difficulty.

She remembers thinking: I wish I could speak whale. She found a strange kind of hope, a sense of certainty that he must know he wasn’t alone. “I was like: Here he is. He’s talking. He’s saying something. He’s singing. And nobody’s really understanding, but there are people listening. I bet he knows people are listening. He must feel it.”

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Eight

When I first began looking into the story of 52 Blue, I reached out to Mary Ann Daher at Woods Hole. I was hoping she could help me understand how the story of this whale had jumped the bounds of science and become something more like a rallying cry.

Daher’s role in the story was curious: She’d become the unwitting confessor for a growing flock of devotees simply because her name was on a paper recounting work for which she’d been a research assistant years before. “I get all sorts of emails,” she’d told one reporter, “some of them very touching—genuinely; it just breaks your heart to read some of them—asking why I can’t go out there and help this animal.”

But it seemed the media attention had started to grate on her nerves. “It’s been pretty painful,” she told a reporter in 2013. “You name the country and I’ve had a phone call, wanting to get information. And I haven’t worked on this since 2006 or so. … And … oh God, [Watkins would] be dismayed, to put it mildly, to know of the attention.”

I was eager to speak with Daher; I pictured the two of us at Woods Hole, meeting by the sea, locking eyes, nursing two cups of coffee in the salt air. How did it feel to get those letters? I’d ask her. And she’d tell me about the tug on her heart each time, her inbox turned into confessional booth. Perhaps she’d recite one from memory, the one that had moved her the most: He is hope and loss at once. I’d hear some break in her voice, and I’d copy her words, and I’d copy the break—I’d make note of it: scientific neutrality showing the strain at its seams, nearly torn open by a lonely stranger’s hapless wonder.

It could have gone like that. Perhaps there is another world in which it did. This world, however, holds only her refusal to return my emails. The Woods Hole media-relations representative made it very clear: They were done. Daher was done talking about the whale; done refusing to make assumptions about the whale; done correcting other peoples’ assumptions about the whale. She’d already said everything she had to say.

The last journalist Daher agreed to talk to, as best I could tell, was a writer named Kieran Mulvaney. After I contacted him, he offered to send me the transcript of their conversation from 2013. It gives a sense of Daher’s wariness and aggravation about the phenomenon 52 had become: “We don’t know what the heck it is,” she said of the cause of 52’s odd song. “We don’t know if it’s a malformation. … Is he alone? I don’t know. People like to imagine this creature just out there swimming by his lonesome, just singing away and nobody’s listening. But I can’t say that. … Is he successful reproductively? I haven’t the vaguest idea. Nobody can answer those questions. Is he lonely? I hate to attach human emotions like that. Do whales get lonely? I don’t know. I don’t even want to touch that topic.”

Research can quickly grow tiresome to its own researchers once it’s been distorted by the funhouse mirrors of public fancy. For Mary Ann Daher, I came to realize, I represented little more than the persistence of that distortion: It’s been pretty painful. It’s been worldwide. The phenomenon itself was a reproach to Watkins’ legacy: He’d be dismayed.

I thought I understood why she was done, why she was sick of it, why she was tired. This was part of the story, too: the way a phenomenon could alienate its own midwives. But I wanted to talk to her, and I wanted those letters, the ones she’d been sent—I wanted them so badly that I started to resent her refusal. I even wrote about her in my diary:

I get angry at Mary Ann Daher because she stands between me and the piece I’m capable of writing—the ghost text, hypothetical and unrealized, that includes every angle, every perspective; the white whale of completion and wholeness—she stands between me and the editor (stand-in for the father figure/lover/mentor/teacher) who says “good job,” the paycheck, the readers who say “this story moved me.”

I tried her one last time. She didn’t have to talk to me, I told her. I just wanted the letters. Then I told her media rep. I tried to explain my aesthetic; how my piece would be different from all the others. I tried to explain: I just wanted to find all the people who’d been moved by this animal.

She never sent the letters. So I went looking for the people on my own.

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Nine

They were voices out of the digital ether, at first, emails appearing in my inbox. I found them on a Facebook page devoted to the whale. Juliana was a 19-year-old English major at the University of Toronto. For her, she explained, 52 Blue was “the epitome of every person who’s ever felt too weird to love.” He represented “the fears that all of us have about never finding love and dying alone.” Juliana was no stranger to these fears herself. The summer she discovered 52 she “wasn’t really seeing as many people as [she]’d have liked.” She felt out of sorts at college—described herself as a “lonely soul”—and believed the whale represented not just her but anyone “wandering alone,” anyone “trying to find someone who accepts us for our weaknesses and faults.”

Zbigniew—a 26-year-old photo editor at the biggest daily tabloid in Poland—decided to get the outline of 52 Blue tattooed across his back after a bad breakup, the end of a six-year relationship:

i was deeply in love. but as it came out she was treating me like a second category person in relationship…i was devastadem mainy becose i have given her everything i could, and i thought she would do the same for me. [Because] of her i lost connection with important friends. View of the wasted time made me sad….Story of 52 hz whale made me happy. For me he is symbol of being alone in a positive way…He is like a steatement, that despite being alone he lives on.

For Zee, as he calls himself, 52 came to represent the lonely days after the breakup, watching sad movies alone at home with his two cats, Puma and Fuga: “for long time i was ‘singing’ in other frequency then everybody around.” But the whale also represented resilience: “this is what my life looks like for last 2 years. im swiming slowly through my part of ocean, trying to find poeple like me, Patient, going past life being sure that im not crippled but special in positive way.”

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The tattoo was a way for Zee to honor what the whale had meant to him, and to communicate that meaning—to sing at a frequency that might be understood. It stretches across his upper back, the “only place on body huge enough to make it look awesome.” Rather than offering a visual representation of 52, the tattoo is actually an artful evocation of the fact that 52 hasn’t ever been seen, and might never be seen: behind a detailed rendering of Moby Dick—another one of Zee’s fixations—there is a second whale, , just a negative space of bare skin defined by an outline of ink.

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Ten

In 1894, a wealthy amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell built a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He spent the next 20 years looking through it and finding things no one else could see: a series of canals extending from the poles of Mars, a network of spokes radiating from a hub on Venus. He took both as signs of extraterrestrial civilization. He was mocked. He kept seeing the canals, kept seeing the spokes. He kept insisting. Years later an optometrist solved the puzzle: The settings on Lowell’s telescope—its magnification and narrow aperture—meant that it was essentially projecting the interior of his eye onto the planets he was watching. The spokes of Venus were the shadows of his blood vessels, swollen from hypertension. He wasn’t seeing other life; he was seeing the imprint of his own gaze.

The natural world has always offered itself as a screen for human projection. The Romantics called this the pathetic fallacy. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “intercourse with heaven and Earth.” We project our fears and longings onto everything we’re not—every beast, every mountain—and in this way we make them somehow kin. It’s an act of humbling and longing and claiming all at once.

“Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” Emerson wrote. “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind.”

For Emerson, these correspondences offered a kind of completion: “All the facts in natural history taken by themselves have no value but are barren, like a single sex.” Put crudely: Human projection fertilizes the egg. It not only brings meaning to the “barren” body of natural history; it also offers sustenance to man: “His intercourse with heaven and earth,” Emerson wrote, “becomes part of his daily food.”

Emerson’s celebration of this process was not without interrogations. “We are thus assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meanings,” he wrote. “But how great a language to convey such pepper-corn informations! … We are like travellers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs. … Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?”

Roasting our eggs on volcano cinders: This is like asking the splendid form of an elusive whale to embody dorm-room homesickness or post-breakup ennui. We offer animals and mountains as ritual sacrifices at the altar of metaphor. Is he lonely? I hate to attach human emotions like that. I don’t even want to touch that topic.

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Eleven

Shorna, a 22-year-old in Kent, England, told me she relates to 52 Blue because she’s always felt “on a different wave length to other people … like I don’t fit no where.” The feeling grew particularly acute after her brother was killed when she was 13: “I felt I couldn’t talk to no one. That no one understood or cared enough.”

Years later, learning about 52 gave her a way to understand the isolation of that time—a sense that her grief was nothing anyone else could understand. Her family didn’t want to talk about it; no one at school understood. Therapists were telling her what she should feel. The whale never told her what to feel; it just gave a shape to what she’d already felt: “I felt withdrawn and it made it worse along with the pain of his death.” She felt she couldn’t connect with anyone.

Sakina, a 28-year-old medical actor living in Michigan, associates 52 with a different kind of loss—a more spiritual struggle. I first saw her in a , wearing a hijab, describing how the story of 52 immediately made her think of the prophet Yunus, who was swallowed by a whale. “It makes sense that the loneliest whale feels lonely,” she says. “Because he had a prophet with him, inside of him, and now he doesn’t.”

I met Sakina in a coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor, where she told me what happened after she read about the whale online: She started crying and needed to lie down. He evoked certain lonely periods of her childhood—she grew up Muslim in New Mexico—and reminded her of the first time she’d ever learned about the prophet Yunus in religious school, when she was six: “I was frustrated with my teacher for not recognizing that, you know, she can be straight with me and just say this is an allegory.” She said: “I found it hard to believe in miracles.”

She wondered if 52 Blue came back into her life to finish the lesson that had begun when she was a child. She was being told: Take it literally. It’s more than metaphor. She didn’t imagine 52 seeking love so much as purpose, wanting a prophet to swallow or a prophecy to fulfill. She found herself wondering: “Is he aching for the divinity again?”

Twelve

There used to be a name for the kind of people who tell tall tales about animals: nature fakers. The phrase emerged from a turn-of-the-century debate between a coterie of nature writers and the naturalists who hated their sentimental tales of animal communities, a genre they dubbed “yellow journalism of the woods.”

“I know as President I ought not do this,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt, but he went on to do it anyway: offered a scathing public condemnation of these nature fakers for their syrupy accounts of the natural world—tales of wild fowl setting their own legs in mud-made casts and crows convening schoolrooms for their young.

He is not a student of nature at all who sees not keenly but falsely, who writes interestingly and untruthfully, and whose imagination is used not to interpret facts but to invent them.

Roosevelt was especially concerned about what he called “fact-blindness”: the possibility that telling fake stories about nature might blind us to the true ones. This is the danger of nature faking, making the whale lonely or prophet-hungry, asking the duck to set a mud cast for his own broken leg—the possibility that feeling too much awe about the nature we’ve invented will make us unable to see the nature in which we actually live.

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Roosevelt’s argument finds a strange modern echo in one of 52’s twitter accounts, @52Hurts, which actually imagines the whale protesting his own symbolic status: I am no symbol, no metaphor. I am not the metaphysics you feel stirring in you, no stand-in for your obsessions. I am a whale. Some of his tweets are just nonsense, as if protesting the projection of language in the first place: Ivdhggv ahijhd ajhlkjhds jhljhh ajlj dljl 52 skjhdsnlkn and then, a few hours later: Tjhgdaskj agjgd ahg jhs kjslhsljhs. These are the tweets of a whale that doesn’t know why it’s on Twitter. Something about them feels weirdly honest: gibberish that’s more interested in what isn’t legible than what we force into hollow legibility, more interested in acknowledging the gap than in voicing the projections we hurl across it.

Thirteen

I first found David, an Irish father of two, through a YouTube video he’d made of himself singing a song he’d written: I’ve followed sorrow like Whale 52 Hertz—it doesn’t have to be this way. When I reached out by email, he told me he’d written the song after losing his job at Waterford Crystal, where he’d been working for more than 20 years. But he’d identified with the whale even earlier—“another being similarly living in parallel”—even when his life appeared to have all the external trappings of belonging: marriage, family, stable job. David insisted he’d always felt alone. It was his wife who first told him about 52, invoking the whale as his echo. “That’s you, that is,” she’d said.

After the layoff, David and his wife moved to Galway, and they began forging a new life. In a letter he wrote to me last year, during his first autumn there, he described himself at the cusp of change:

“I am told by everyone that Galway will be good for me and that I need to do something ‘arty.’ I’m starting tonight with a singing group. It’s my first day at school again. And I’m 47.” He felt the whale as inspiration and assurance in this sense of beginning again: “I have taken the discovery of the Whale as a signal from the depths that I am close to discovery… All I really know is that the 52 Hertz Whale is out there singing and that makes me feel less alone.”

When I checked in with David in the spring, he said things in Galway had been a mixed bag. He’d found a job he loved—as head of IT for a farmers’ cooperative in a little village called Tubbercurry—and was enjoying the new folks he met in Galway on the weekends. There was a sense of being in a new city full of unexpected kindred spirits. But the singing group, he wrote, had been “a bust. Lots of hugs from pig-tailed 60-somethings.”

Struck by the fact that his wife had been the person to show him the story of 52 in the first place, I asked David if she’d always thought of him as an isolated person. “My wife does think I am someone who has always felt alone,” he said. And in fact, just after he’d started his new job, he told me, his wife said she couldn’t live with him anymore. “Our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is in August,” he wrote. “Communications have broken down. I am, to quote an old song, ‘seething and bewildered like a din-deafened army.’”

But the whale still held something for him, despite the fact that things in Galway hadn’t turned out as he’d planned. “I do still think that I am close to discovery,” he said. “I still don’t know what I am watching out for. When I hear ‘Whale 52 Hertz,’ I feel at peace. I know that I am still heading in generally the right direction. I often think of the whale. I know that she’s still out there. I see others searching. Maybe, I won’t be alone for much longer.”

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Fourteen

I found Leonora on the same Facebook page where I found Juliana and Zee. After I wrote to her, she responded immediately to welcome me into the “vast vibrational pool” of 52 devotees and then told me pieces of her own story over the phone. Before we met in person, she wanted to know more about what kind of story I was telling about this whale and how she might fit into it. But eventually she agreed to meet at Riverbank State Park, in upper Harlem, where she was working as a volunteer and taking art classes four days a week: beginner and intermediate at once.

We met one afternoon in early March, a day caught between winter and spring, wind still chilly off the Hudson. Leonora wore a purple wool cap, a sweater, and slacks. She moved carefully and deliberately and chose her words with the same care. Riverbank was clearly a special place for her. She said it was built on top of a sewage-treatment facility and seemed eager to tell me that—proud of how it had turned ugly necessity into possibility.

The park had also been an important part of her rehabilitation process: It was where she went once she had relearned how to walk after coming out of her coma. She called her sister on the phone after the first time she had successfully crossed “the big street,” which is what she called Broadway then—her language was still fumbling at that point, grasping at whatever it could hold. She felt embarrassed at the thought of having her home-care aide see her practicing how to walk, watching her stumble at every step. So she went to the park instead. The park never judged. It just let her practice.

Now that it was almost spring, Leonora told me she was proud of herself for not getting a cold all winter. She knew it was because of her vitamins—she’d been taking a “barrage” of them ever since she died. That’s how she described her illness and coma: a process of dying and coming back to life.

“My ticket back came with conditions,” she said. She had to learn to take care of herself—hence the vitamins, the art classes, and the desire to start growing her own vegetables this spring. She was hoping to get one of the small gardens that the park association was going to auction off before summer. The plots were down by the running track, full of the residue of winter: shriveled stalks, leaves withered to a crisp, bent lattices that had once held tomatoes and would hold them again. Leonora said she wanted to plant peppers and parsley, a small crop perched above a sewage plant—a way of saying, We do what we can with what we have. She’d come back from her coma in pieces. She was still putting these pieces back together into a life.

A red-bellied robin hopped across one of the garden plots—just across the fence from us—and Leonora couldn’t believe we were seeing it when it was still so cold. She told me we needed to wish on it. She told me about her three-day rule. When she asks the universe a question, she always gets an answer in three days—in a dream or a visitation: maybe an animal or something as simple as the smell of lavender. She is open to messages from everything, all the time, in languages that aren’t even recognizable as languages at all.

We walked inside and settled at the snack bar—the last place in New York, Leonora assured me, where you could get coffee for a dollar. We sat by the ice rink, where some of the younger hockey players—the Squirts—were practicing. It was Leonora’s home turf. The guys behind the counter knew her order before she ordered it. The guy riding by in a motorized wheelchair said hello. The guy lurking by the register wanted her to sign a petition for a candidate for parks superintendent.

At our table, Leonora pulled out a large notebook to show me some of her pen and pencil sketches of 52 Blue. She’d also painted him in acrylic on a scrap of canvas. These were the materials she was using in her current art class, but she’d been drawing him for years already. “He obsesses me,” she explained. “I was trying to get a sense of what he looks like.”

Her early drawings were “muddled,” she told me. So she started looking at photographs of other whales to get a better sense of him. “But I still wasn’t finding him. He’s so elusive.” She kept sketching him anyway. I saw his colored-pencil body curving under lists of relevant websites she’d gathered. She told me she was working on a painting of 52 for her class’s final exhibition, to be displayed in one of the recreation-center hallways.

As we spoke, it became increasingly clear that Leonora’s sense of connection to 52—from that first online encounter onward—had always been twofold. It was about communication, and it was about autonomy. He represented the struggle to be heard and also the ability to live alone. He represented her difficulties in recovery—the failed attempts to speak—but also the independence that these difficulties had taken away. Others saw the whale as heartbroken, because he couldn’t find a companion; she saw him as a creature that didn’t need one. She cherished the capacity to live alone, and this capacity was precisely what her illness had imperiled.

Apropos of very little, she told me suddenly: “I haven’t been in a relationship since the last century. I haven’t been on a date.” She said it bothered other people in her life. “I’ve had cousins, people, family members, friends, try to hook me up with somebody. It’s like a woman is not a whole person until she has a man.” But it didn’t bother her. “I’ve never felt lonely. There is not this lonely factor. I am alone. But I am not lonely, OK? I go over to a friend’s, I buy cases of wine, I have people over, I cook. I’m a very good cook.” It bothered her that people conflated 52’s aloneness with loneliness. It bothered her that people conflated her aloneness with loneliness.

It was hard not to feel a hint of doth protest too much in her distinction, but it also felt like a sincere call for a certain kind of legitimate humility: Don’t assume. Don’t assume the contours of another person’s heart. Don’t assume its desires. Don’t assume that being alone means being lonely. The scientists would say of 52, of course: Don’t assume the whale is either one.

Leonora on solitude and self-worth. 

The first time Leonora ever listened to 52’s song, she told me, she felt skeptical of the clip available online. It was short and had been sped up for audibility. She felt sure 52 had “more to say.” But she kept listening. “I think I played it back at least 50 times, just trying to get a sense of it.” And the listening did something: “As I listened to it over and over, it helped me meditate into him. That was a key.”

She told me she believes we could locate 52 this way. “If you want to really find him,” she said, “all you need is five people, ten people, to concentrate hard enough, and to send that request out.”

She once traveled with 52 in a dream. He was in a pod of whales, no longer alone, and she was swimming with them, maybe carried in their wake—moving just as quickly, her head huge, her body sleek and hairless. Her coma recovery was full of dreams about water. She’d felt a particular connection to water ever since falling over the side of a waterfall at the edge of 17—when a voice inside her told her to hold her breath, assured her that she wouldn’t die. In her recovery dreams she swam everywhere: “In the ocean, in the river. I didn’t do any lakes or ponds—no stagnant, no still.” She was always in motion, but sometimes restrained: “It was always me struggling against all obstacles to get to water. Even when I was in there, sometimes it was crowded with people. People were stopping me from getting to the water.”

The dream with 52 was different. She could feel the different layers of water—different temperatures, different pressure levels:

We were traveling at speeds that were, I don’t know, maybe 100 miles per hour? You don’t even see anything when you’re traveling that fast. What you see—it’s not that you see it, you just feel it there. I don’t know—you just throw something out, and then something comes back, so you know there’s something there. You could feel it all over your body. When I woke up, I was moved by it, all I could do was just lay there and think: What was that? What was that?

She couldn’t make sense of it. She kept drawing him anyway. She kept drawing him because. Never reaching water kept the journeys alive. Not seeing the whale kept him infinite. His elusive form echoed her insistence on motion: no stagnant, no still. She told me that she hopes that they never find him—whoever they might be. “I hope they don’t,” she said. “I pray they don’t. I like to believe that I’ll see him in my dreams.”

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Fifteen

Hast thou seen the white whale? The hunt for an elusive whale is—of course—the most famous narrative in the history of American literature. The whiteness of Moby Dick is “a dumb blankness, full of meaning,” full of many meanings: divinity or its absence, primal power or its refusal, the possibility of revenge or the possibility of annihilation. “Of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol,” Ishmael explains. “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

No one has ever conducted a physical search for 52 Blue. An entrepreneur named Dietmar Petutschnig is currently prowling the South Pacific in a small sailboat, but his hunt for the whale seems more metaphorical, a kind of personal branding. Dietmar calls himself skipper and whalefinder and is joined by a co-captain and a chef, along with a little spaniel named Vienna Linz who is billed as security, angler, and crew morale officer. When I spoke to him on the phone while his boat was docked in Vanuatu, Dietmar was reluctant to do an interview but wanted to offer me a job working for him as a freelance editor. “We are still in the middle of our discovery,” he’d written earlier. “We do hope the whale will go out of fashion.”

If anyone actually finds 52, it will probably be Josh Zeman, a filmmaker currently working on a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World. Zeman had been hoping to conduct his actual search this fall, planning to take a research vessel into the Pacific for 50 days, but his funding fell through two weeks after it was announced by his producer, actor Adrian Grenier, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Zeman first heard the story of 52 at an artist’s colony in the summer of 2012, and it struck him immediately. He was in the aftermath of a breakup. He’s been working on the project ever since; he described his relationship to the movie as “Ahabian.” But figuring out how to make the trip work “is fucking complicated,” he told me. The plan was to have a research vessel staffed with five scientists and three crew, using sonar and old migration routes to locate 52. Joe George told Zeman his search was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Daher used the same phrase. The search would “take a lot of coordination,” she told him. The data was more than a decade old. But she encouraged him all the same.

I asked Zeman what he made of folks who didn’t want the whale found at all—who preferred it mysterious, elusive, unknown. He said he felt like this resistance to finding 52 was actually a way of speaking for him—obstructing the possibility of interspecies communication, making him more precious. Zeman doesn’t want to follow the whale, he explained, or find him a mate. He just wants to make contact: “Do we want to help him? No. Do we want to say hi? Sure.”

One of the themes of Zeman’s film is modern loneliness, that people are particularly responsive to the story of 52 in the digital era—when the Internet promises connectivity but can actually deliver us even deeper into isolation. Ironically enough, the film’s Facebook page has become an effective epicenter for the 52 Hertz community: It’s where people post their responses to the story of the whale, register their sympathy, report their desires. “This story touched me so deeply,” wrote a woman named Pamela. “I wish we could all help and play whale songs for him.” She wanted to know why “we can build laptops and smart phones but we cannot figure out a way to get this whale some companionship?”

Some posts struck a different chord. Catherine was actually a little sick of all the “mawkish sadness” at this “anthropomorphized meme,” and wasn’t afraid to say so, though another user responded immediately to her post. “52 Hertz isn’t a myth or a meme,” she shot back. “He’s real, and I think we’re all damn curious about him.”

Most of the posts converge on two themes: helping 52 and feeling bad for 52. A woman named Denise posted one message—“find 52 hertz”—over and over and over again one morning: at 8:09, 8:11, 8:14, 8:14 (a second time), and 8:16. A woman named Jen wrote, only once: “Just want to give it a hug.”

Sixteen

It was late spring the second time I visited Leonora up at Riverbank Park. The air was full of promise and possibility, balmy without making you feel trapped under the armpit of an entire city. Leonora told me she didn’t get a garden plot after all. Her allergies had gotten so bad she didn’t even bother entering the lottery; she wouldn’t have been able to use the plot anyway. She told me she thinks about me whenever she sees a robin. I told her that two weeks after we saw that robin I’d met the man I wanted to spend my life with. It wasn’t three days, but still. It was something. We headed straight to the community snack bar, got our dollar coffees, and sat in the corner, in the shadow of a wall of lockers.

During our conversation that day, I started to understand better that Leonora’s connection to 52 wasn’t just a product of recovering from a particular medical trauma, struggling for language or self-sufficiency, but an accumulation of feelings from decades earlier—her youth, her childhood. Even when we weren’t talking about the whale, we were talking about the whale. It was under everything. Her whole life suggested what he might mean to her.

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She thought of her medical crisis in similar terms: as an accumulation, the intestinal blockage as an accretion of traumas from all across her life, experiences she endured but never let herself cry or talk about. They cluttered her insides and finally made her ill.

The whale offered another kind of gathering: a vessel in which a lifetime’s worth of longings might reside. Even while I struggled to make sense of Leonora’s fixation on signs and voices, her desire to find the patterns woven through her life felt deeply intuitive—the search for a logic that might structure everything.

At the snack bar, she shared a new angle of resonance with 52: the possibility of extinction. The whale might be the last of his kind, she told me—that was part of how she understood him—and in a way, she will be the last of hers: She doesn’t have any kids. She said she hated how people think of this as a kind of insufficiency—an absence. She thought of her artwork as the closest thing she had to progeny.

Leonora on extinction.

After the snack bar filled up with a flock of boys, we moved someplace quieter, a long hallway with cinderblock walls where the art would be displayed for her class’s final exhibition. In the quiet of that hallway, she told me about the darker years that followed her coma recovery. She was questioning her own purpose: What did her life mean? She wasn’t working. She started living on disability and workman’s comp.

I was aware that any cynic could have a field day with her brand of New Age mysticism, but the more I heard about her life, everything that led up to her encounter with the story of 52 Blue, the more I started to respect the incredible gravity of what she’d built him up to be—and what she’d rebuilt herself to be, under the sign of his story. He had become the mascot and fuel of her own reinvention.

I remembered all the ways she had described her coma and its aftermath—“resurrection,” “rebirth,” “second birth”—and couldn’t help thinking it was no accident that she used these words, that we kept coming back to the subject of babies, having them or not having them, that “birth” was such a big part of how she thought about all this. I bled for years. And at the end of all that blood, when she came back from death, she gave birth to herself.

Seventeen

“I just don’t know what it is, the fascination with this whale,” Joe George told me, sitting at his dining room table. “To me it’s just science.”

Which made it even more charming, the tray of that sat between us—all shaped like whales, with frosted tails, various pastel shades of green and pink and periwinkle, and “52” written in matching shades of icing. Joe’s daughter had made them for us. He was pleased to offer them but also seemed a bit sheepish; they were complicit in the whimsy of a phenomenon he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around.

It felt odd, he told me, to have funding for the whale tracking cut so suddenly and unequivocally—to feel like no one cared about what they were doing—and then to see his whale resurface so many years later in such a strange, refracted form. Suddenly everyone cared, but for reasons that didn’t really make sense to Joe—a man more worried about doing a job right than mining it for metaphor. To me it’s just science. And it wasn’t just science—it was great science. The singular signal made the whale a godsend.

Joe told me that at a certain point, the whale called 52 Hertz stopped coming in at 52 hertz. The last time they tracked him, his call was more like 49.6 hertz. It could have been age—a kind of delayed puberty—or else a function of size, his growing form pulling his vocalizations down into lower frequencies.

There’s something nice in the idea that an elusive animal might stop flashing its old calling card—that the physical creature wouldn’t even match the statistics of its own mythology. We have tuned our hearts to a signal that no longer exists. Which means there is no way to find what we’ve been looking for, only—perhaps—to find what that thing has become.

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Eighteen

I went back to Riverbank for the art show. It was early summer, a day of celebration: art hanging on the cinderblock walls, dance and music classes performing in the gym. Leonora was taking photos, wearing lavender pants and a pink scrunchie, rolling around the shopping cart in which she’d carried all her paintings. The beginning keyboard class played “When the Saints Go Marching In” under giant beige industrial fans.

Leonora took me to the hallway, where at last I got to see her vision of 52: a whale painted in flat acrylics, flying over a rainbow, over an ocean. The decoupaged figure of a woman was riding him—or flying with him—and Leonora said it was a photograph of herself, taken years ago, though she obscured the face so it wouldn’t just be her. The woman’s head was ducked low in the , down to the whale, as if she were listening to something he was saying. “Someone asked me, ‘Is the whale kissing you?’” Leonora told me. “And I said, ‘Maybe he is.’”

A park employee walked by—a young Latina woman wearing the green shirt of park staff—and Leonora explained to her, without apology or introduction: “This is 52 Hertz. Just how I imagined him.” As if everyone would know the whale, or should—as if the project of imagining his distant body should be familiar to us all.

Leonora didn’t seem perturbed by how much the whale meant—all those vectors, some of them contradictory. “He’s everything and anything,” she told me. “Anything you want him to be. He’s the dream you could never attain. He’s the million-dollar lottery. He’s Shangri-la. He’s all these things that you aspire to. He’s God, even. How do you know that he wasn’t sent here to heal us, and his song is a healing song?”

Sometimes we need to be heard so badly we hear ourselves in every song the world sings, every single noise it makes: I will start screaming now and I will not stop. Maybe desire and demand are just the same song played at different frequencies. Maybe every song is a healing song if we hear it in the right mood—on the heels of the right seven weeks, or the worst ones, the ones lost to us forever.

On our way out, Leonora carefully wrapped the whale in paper and packed him into her shopping cart. When we parted ways at the park bus stop, she handed me a FedEx envelope, cut and folded and taped to make a small flat package. Just a little something, she said. I pulled out a small painting of a robin—red breast, tiny claws, a single beady eye. It was the robin we’d seen together, the one she’d taken as an omen and came to believe was my totem. She said the red on his breast meant: activation.

I thought: This return ticket came with conditions. I thought of the man I’d met after I saw that robin, the man I knew I wanted to marry. I felt the contagion of magical thinking: Life becomes a series of omens. I wanted them to imply the presence of some organizing spirit, or at least compose a story.

“Vaya con Dios,” Leonora told me. “You should have a baby someday.”

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Nineteen

“The material is degraded before the spiritual,” Emerson wrote. He thought we’d “transferred nature into the mind, and left matter like an outcast corpse.” He’s everything and anything. Anything you want him to be.

The actual body of 52 Blue has become the outcast corpse, the matter left over once our machinations are done. There is some violence in this alchemy, and also some beauty. Emerson understood both sides of that dilemma:

“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see.”

52 Blue suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but metaphor itself as salve for loneliness. Metaphor always connects two disparate points; it suggests that no pathos exists in isolation, no plight exists apart from the plights of others. Many fans of 52 were lonely even before their lives gave this loneliness a reason: David was lonely in his stable marriage; Zee was lonely before his breakup and after it. Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison. Now there’s an entire coterie gathered around this kinship—people trained to the same pulse of a minivan-sized heart.

You might say it’s a community formed around an empty center. When we pour our sympathy onto 52 Blue, we aren’t feeling for a whale; we’re only feeling for what we’ve built in his likeness. But that feeling still exists. It still matters. It mattered enough to help a woman come back from seven weeks at the edge of death.

At one point during our conversation on Whidbey Island, I mentioned Leonora to Joe George. At first I wasn’t even sure he’d heard me, but near the end of our visit, he turned to me and said. “That woman you mentioned, the one who was in the coma.” He paused. I nodded. “That’s really something,” he said.

Joe was right when he said that the whale is just a whale. And so was Leonora when she said the whale is everything. Happiness is a kind of truth. Feeling is a kind of fact. What if we grant the whale his whale-ness, grant him furlough from our metaphoric employ, but still grant the contours of his second self—the one we’ve made—and admit what he’s done for us? That’s really something. If we let the whale cleave in two—into his actual form and the apparition of what we needed him to become—then we let these twins swim apart. We free each figure from the other’s shadow. We watch them cut two paths across the sea.

The Electric Mind

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The Electric Mind

One woman’s battle against paralysis at the frontiers of science.

By Jessica Benko

The Atavist Magazine, No. 15


Jessica Benko is a freelance journalist focusing on stories about science, medicine, technology, and the environment. Formerly a producer for WNYC’s Radiolab and science editor for WNYC’s Studio 360, her written work has appeared in National Geographic and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Producers: Olivia Koski and Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman
Illustrator: Damien Scogin, dls4.com
Audiobook Voice Artist: Liz Stephens

Published in May 2012. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter One

“The primary aim, object, and purpose of consciousness is control.”

—Conwy Lloyd Morgan, ‘An Introduction to Comparative Psychology’

The first thing Cathy Hutchinson became aware of upon waking from three weeks in the quiet of a coma was the rhythmic alternation of surge then draw: whoosh, hiss, whoosh, hiss. As the contours of a room began to resolve before her eyes, she discovered the source of the sounds—a ventilator machine beside her bed. Her eyes followed the curve of a plastic tube issuing from the noisy box until it disappeared under her chin, entering her body through the opening in her throat left by a tracheotomy. When she tried to raise her head, she discovered that she could not. No amount of effort allowed her to lift her hand or flex her feet.

Her last memories were of feeling sick, of passing out as her 18-year-old son, Brian, helped her up the stairs to her bedroom, of waking briefly on the rough carpet of the hallway, unable to move. She was 43, a healthy nonsmoker, single mother of two, post office employee. She and Brian had taken a break from planting their annual vegetable garden to check the score of a basketball game when she began to hear a loud buzzing in her ears and was overcome by a wave of nausea.            

On that spring day in 1996, it took doctors nearly 12 hours following Brian’s emergency call to discover that Cathy had suffered a catastrophic brain-stem stroke. The brain stem is located at the base of the skull, a small region of primitive structures crucial to survival. It governs the critical functions of breathing, swallowing, blood-pressure regulation, and consciousness and conducts all messages between the brain and the spinal cord.

A brain-stem stroke is the sort of medical event that can result in death immediately or soon thereafter. But in Cathy, who was young and in otherwise good health, the stroke disconnected her brain from the descending motor tracts of her brain stem—the neural pathways carrying instructions to her muscles—leaving her “locked in,” not only quadriplegic but also unable to speak. The ascending tracts, which carry sensory information from body to brain, remained intact, allowing her the experience of pain, itch, heat, and cold but not the possibility of addressing them. She had a sensate, lucid mind incapable of action.

The best-known locked-in person is Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of French Elle magazine who, like Cathy, had a brain-stem stroke at the age of 43. He wrote a book about the experience, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by communicating with an assistant by blinking his left eye. “But my communication system disqualifies repartee,” he wrote. “The keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter.”

Unlike Cathy, Bauby endured his condition for just 18 months, eventually succumbing to pneumonia. When I first met Cathy, she had been unable to move or speak for 14 years. She was a participant in a promising medical study I was researching, involving experimental trials that tested the limits of science’s ability to tap into the brain of someone in her condition and read meaningful signals. In strict accordance with privacy protocols, the scientists identified her only as S3, but when I investigated their work further I discovered that Cathy had been featured in a television segment about the early years of the study. I was, I admit, intrigued by the extreme nature of her disability, and I wanted to know more about the research from her point of view. She was a scientific pioneer, it seemed to me. The question was, how did she view herself and the experiment? I scoured the Internet until I found contact information for someone I thought might be her son. It turned out to be Brian, who relayed my request for an interview to his mother. Once she agreed, and after I had been vetted by the directors of the research study, I set up our first meeting.

Bauby’s sharp observations of the dark ironies of his condition left me uncertain about what to expect from her. It’s not hard to imagine a poisonous strain of bitterness growing over a decade and a half of insurmountable helplessness and inexpressible opinions—or, more precisely, it’s not hard to imagine that happening to me if I were in her place. (“In the past,” Bauby wrote, “it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony.”) Yet, survival for so many years with her condition seemed incompatible with that sort of resentment, and I half wondered if I might meet a paragon of nonattachment, preternaturally skilled in quieting the echo chamber of her skull.

Chapter Two

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

—Mark Twain

I first met Cathy on a warm August day at her nursing home in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She was outside in a courtyard with other residents, in the shade of a large tree. At 57, she had skin that was still beautifully smooth, free of the lines and discolorations of age. Her nails were neatly manicured, her hands drawn into her lap. Her forearms were in braces to combat the contraction of her wrists and fingers into the sharp angles that result from neurological damage and disuse. A seat belt secured her to a motorized wheelchair.

What recovery her body was able to make had happened early on after the stroke. She could control her eyes, she could swallow and breathe on her own, and she could move her head slightly, which allowed her to operate the wheelchair with a button on the headrest behind her. She smiled at me, which I hadn’t realized she could do, and flicked her eyes upward in agreement when I said I was pleased to meet her.

Cathy’s daughter, Holly, had come to help with our meeting. She visited her mom often, driving from her home just over the Rhode Island state line. She had shoulder-length chestnut hair framing a round face, a warm smile, and eyes just like her mother’s. She was proud of her mother’s resilience and happy to help her tell her story. We made small talk as Cathy led us down the long hallways to her shared bedroom, where her roommate was watching a biography of Doris Day on television. Holly gathered up her mother’s link to the outside world: a computer equipped with a head-tracking device. We navigated out past the nurses’ desks and open common areas to a long, empty family room.

We had planned for Cathy to use her computer to communicate with me. The machine itself, a system modified by engineers at UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering to allow Cathy to use email and do some basic Web browsing, sat on a rolling computer stand that could be positioned in front of her. A camera tracked a small white target on the bridge of her eyeglasses, and when her gaze rested in the same place for a few moments, the software would perform a mouse click. In this way, she could slowly pick out letters on a keyboard. I wanted to be in her line of sight, as in a normal conversation, but with the computer placed deliberately in front of her face I couldn’t sit across from her and still see her. I wound up standing somewhat awkwardly beyond the screen, so we could at least see each other’s faces with ease. 

Head tracking requires total focus by the operator; stray movements can easily cause the software to misfire. Parked in the middle of the family room, Cathy struggled to control the program, and minutes elapsed as she attempted to compose an answer to my first question. Holly approached to readjust the placement of the computer. “What’s happening?” the synthesized female voice of the computer interjected, “Hi! I am Fred.”

After 10 minutes of effort that yielded only 17 words, we gave up on the computer, instead using the more reliable method of a transparent acrylic alphabet board, which was stored inside a polka-dot bag hanging from the back of the wheelchair. Tracking eye movement through the alphabet board takes practice, so Holly acted as translator. Holding up the board between herself and her mother, Holly shifted it until she thought her eyes met Cathy’s on the flip side of a letter, which she then named aloud. If she was correct, Cathy looked up to the right for yes. If not, she looked down to the left for no. It was easy to get tangled up in the recitation of letters and lose sight of the words she was trying to form. Holly called out letters in succession until, like the predictive-text function of a cell phone, she thought she could complete the intended word. The pace hinted at the dissonance between the speed of Cathy’s thoughts and the speed with which she could communicate them.

Over email, which allowed Cathy to take more time with her communication, and in two visits together with Holly, we pieced together the progression of years since her stroke that afternoon in May 1996. Like Brian, Holly had been a teenager, age 17, at the time of Cathy’s stroke. She remembers her mom as playful and active, an avid gardener and an enthusiastic cook. “My mom was always goofing around and singing and dancing,” she told me. “That’s one of my cherished memories, dancing in the kitchen.”

The weeks of Cathy’s coma are a blur for her kids. They lived with extended-family members while Cathy’s sister took over guardianship of their mother. “We relied on social workers, because we didn’t know how to navigate anything, it was so foreign to us,” Holly said.

Cathy’s sister was the first person to recognize that Cathy had emerged from her coma and had voluntary control over her eye movements. She alerted a junior resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Aneesh Singhal, and he and Cathy began to communicate, at first using the binary code of yes and no. But the discovery that she was conscious and mentally alert didn’t mean an optimistic prognosis. “They never sugarcoated my condition,” Cathy told me, “nor did the doctors offer any hope for recovering. I appreciated their honesty, but I would not accept paralysis as a permanent way of life.” She had raised her children as a single parent, and for the first time she felt helpless.

She was firm in her resolve to battle her way back from her stroke. Though she was, in the neurological lingo, awake and alert, she struggled at first to control her emotions and found herself laughing hysterically for no identifiable reason. Over time she regained her emotional equilibrium and accepted that although she disliked being dependent on others for even the simplest tasks, she had no choice but to consent to  the assistance. Her family and her children drew closer together, depending on one another in ways they never anticipated.

At the nursing home, Cathy’s electric wheelchair gave her a cherished degree of independence, allowing her to move around without assistance. Arrow indicators on a panel in front of her cycled through the cardinal points, and when the desired arrow lit up she bumped the button with her head to cause the chair to move. I laughed when I noticed a speedometer on the control panel. Holly told me that when her mom had gotten the new chair, she’d said, “‘Let’s go out in the parking lot and see how fast she can go.’ It goes up to five miles an hour, and when you’re in five-miles-an-hour mode it spins just as fast, too. She jumped out of her skin!” Cathy laughed, a short burst of air that vibrated across vocal cords she can’t voluntarily control.

The wheelchair enabled her to keep up with her three grandkids, A…N… A…N…G…E…L… A…N…D… T…W…O… T…E…R…R…O…R…S, she joked of her granddaughter, 9 at the time, and her 2- and 3-year-old grandsons. The older boy, Holly said, liked to sit on Cathy’s lap in her seatbelt and drive around with her in her wheelchair, yelling, “Faster, Nana, faster!”


In our early conversations, Cathy was careful to maintain an air of hopefulness and determination in her answers to my questions. There could be no spontaneity in our exchanges, and she betrayed few of the harder emotions that must have taken hold of her at times. Her responses followed well-trodden paths through the narrative of overcoming extreme hardship: She had a greater appreciation for life. She realized that she’d taken her life for granted. She was happy to have a second chance. She learned not to allow her condition to stop her life. They were stock sentiments but sincere. And they were likely the anchors that kept her mind from drifting into darker waters. Her lack of self-pity seemed genuine. She was never concerned with the why of her stroke, only with the how: how it had happened and how she could overcome the worst of it.

But her dreams of greater autonomy were close to the surface, even as they remained maddeningly out of reach. When I asked what her days consisted of in the nursing home, she replied, F…R…U…S…T…R…A…T…I…O…N. Her options were limited. She read books, she said, something she had never had time for before. Her favorites were biographies—she particularly enjoyed one about Rose Kennedy, a fellow resilient Massachusetts mother whom she admired—but the selection of books programmed to work with her computer was small. She could watch TV to the point of saturation if she liked, but Cathy could only stand to watch the news.

Tony Judt, a historian who died in 2010 from ALS, a progressive neurological disorder that leaves a patient locked in before his eventual death, dictated an essay, entitled “Night,” after he had become essentially quadriplegic but before he had lost the ability to speak. Judt described the psychological pain of thwarted desires, of the inability to stretch or scratch or adjust in response to discomfort. Hardest to bear was the nighttime, when, for seven unattended hours, “there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.”

At one point, I asked Cathy if she had come up with a system that kept her comfortable when she was alone in her room at night. She laughed again and spelled out A…M…B…I…E…N.

“Loss is loss,” wrote Judt, “and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing, but I could do without them.” 

Chapter Three

“Mind knows the world and operates on the world by means of its body. It is hard to escape the conclusion that bodies existed before minds and minds only exist because there are bodies fit for them.

—A. D. Ritchie, ‘The Natural History of Mind’

Humans have long sought to stave off death by replacing what they could not heal. Many diseases and injuries of the body do not impact the life of the mind. The scientific endeavor to overcome the frailty of the body to preserve the life of a sound mind has been closely linked with experiments to determine which parts of our bodies we could live without, leading toward the conclusion that the brain, the seat of self and consciousness, needs little more than circulating blood, oxygenated and nutrient rich, to survive. Whether that blood is supplied by the biological body the brain was born with or by some other means may not be of critical importance.

Robert J. White, a devout Catholic and one of the country’s leading transplant researchers, was a neurosurgeon at Case Western Reserve University. He spent his career seeking a way to allow humans to replace diseased parts. He believed it could be possible to use a healthy body from an otherwise brain-dead patient to replace the unhealthy body of a cognitively intact human with heart disease, diabetes, or any other disease or disorder. First he had to make certain that the only role of the human body was cycling blood containing oxygen and nutrients to the brain through the arteries and veins that connected it to the heart and lungs. In the early 1960s, he immobilized a living monkey and methodically removed the face, eyes, tongue, scalp—in fact, every scrap of tissue—from the head and neck of the pitiable creature, leaving only the major vessels and arteries to circulate its blood. He then removed the skull as well, allowing the still active brain to rest, alive and intact, for several hours before disconnecting it from the heart, ending the life of the monkey.

The success of this experiment set the stage for the procedure that would bring White infamy. In 1970, he and his team transplanted the head of one rhesus monkey onto the body of another, carefully splicing the circulatory system of the donor body onto the recipient head. The new, hybrid monkey was supplied with blood and oxygen through the body of the donor and regained consciousness after several hours, tracking the researchers with its eyes, chewing food it was given, and snapping its teeth savagely if they came too near. It lived for a day and a half, long enough for the procedure to be considered a success, but its body remained quadriplegic because, then as now, there was no known way to attach a brain to a spinal cord. Regardless of the health of the new body, it could sense the intentions of the monkey’s brain no better than a cold hunk of metal could.

White’s reports of this and several subsequent head-transplant experiments were widely met with outrage. The experiments were cruel—not an unusual feature of animal experimentation—but they were also useless to medical science. There was no chance White would ever be allowed to try such an experiment with humans (though he believed that would not be the case in some other countries), it would be prohibitively expensive and dangerous even if it could be done, and still the patient would have neither movement nor speech.

In the decades since, researchers have continued to struggle with the problem of finding a way to reroute the signals from an active brain to an otherwise functioning body. Without a functioning spinal cord, even the healthiest brain has no agency. Until recently, doctors held out little hope for patients like Cathy, but seven years ago she enrolled in a pilot study that could radically change the prospects for people trapped inside damaged or diseased bodies.

A friend of Cathy’s, a nurse, had come across a call for participants for a project called BrainGate, run out of Brown University. The researchers were seeking patients with quadriplegia for a pioneering experiment in which an electrode-studded implant would be embedded directly into the brain, with the hope of identifying and decoding the neurological activity that governed physical movement. The short-term goal was to use signals from the brain to control computers and then assistive devices; the long-term goal was to bypass damaged sections of the spinal cord and restore movement. The study’s codirector, a conscientious young neuroscientist named Leigh Hochberg, was blunt with Cathy: Whatever the failures or successes of the study, she could not hope that the results would assist her in her lifetime. “There are no expected benefits this early on in the research,” Hochberg told me. “What we’re doing, and what Cathy knew when we were starting and what she enthusiastically joined, is an endeavor to test and develop a device we hope will help other people with paralysis in the future.”

Cathy was the third patient chosen to participate. The first was a young man named Matthew Nagle, a former high school football star who had been injured defending a friend in a brawl. His spinal cord was severed at the C4 vertebra, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down but still able to speak. Competitive and determined, he threw himself into the research, receiving his implant in 2004 and helping the BrainGate team build a foundation of data for decoding the instructions flashing through his motor cortex. Because he was only in his twenties, Matthew held out hope that BrainGate could restore him to independence in his lifetime.

The health complications of his spinal injury proved too grave for medical science to overcome, however, and Matthew died in 2007. The second participant had his implant removed after a year, due to repeated failure of the hardware outside his skull to record the signals from the electrodes. Cathy’s device, the BrainGate Neural Interface System, was implanted in 2005. For six years, she worked with researchers one or two times a week to allow them to read her intentions from inside her brain, in an attempt to release them from her unresponsive body.

Chapter Four

“The ancestor of every action is a thought.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

John Donoghue runs the Brown University lab that developed the BrainGate system. He has spent his career in neuroscience focused on unraveling how the brain turns thought into action—essentially, what happens in our neurons that results in movement. After all, Donoghue points out, you can’t do anything without movement. His grand, wood-paneled office in the old Victorian home in Providence that houses the Department of Neuroscience is composed and orderly, rather like the man himself. On a cold winter day, the radiators banged loudly as we sat at a long wooden table next to an enormous flatscreen monitor hanging on the wall. The only personal touches were several large tile coasters painted with monkeys and a basket on his desk with a monkey eating a banana sitting on the edge, nods to the importance of nonhuman primates in his team’s work.

The human brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, which communicate among themselves using electrical and chemical signals. A neuron can fire a message to others by releasing a barrage of chemical particles, triggering a spike in the electrical charge of a nearby cell and starting a chain reaction along the branching pathways of the brain. Scientists have only known about the existence of electrical activity in the brain since the late 1800s, and it has proved to be a difficult phenomenon to study, given the significant obstacles encountered in any attempt to poke around in the brain tissue of a living animal to take measurements.

The first major breakthrough came in 1924. Years earlier, a young Bavarian soldier named Hans Berger fell off his horse while on duty with his regiment. Miles away, at the same time, his sister felt a strong premonition that he had met with an accident and insisted that her father telegram to inquire after Hans. Berger would later write, “This was a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger, and as I contemplated certain death, I transmitted my thoughts, while my sister, who was particularly close to me, acted as the receiver.”

The incident inspired Berger to pursue a career in medicine and psychiatric research, with the hope of detecting the psychic waves he believed had been the medium of telepathic communication with his sister. Presented with a patient who had gaps in his skull following removal of a brain tumor, Berger took the opportunity to measure the electrical current from the brain by placing two electrodes under the patient’s scalp. He eventually succeeded in producing recordings from electrodes placed on the outside of the scalp, as well, using his son and himself as test subjects. He called the recording technique hirnspiegel—brain mirror—which we now know as electroencephalography, or EEG.

EEG reads what is called field potential, a kind of aura of the ebb and flow of the chemical and electrical activity of neurons. It is a noninvasive detection of brain activity that renders a sort of smeared version of what’s going on inside our heads. And it remains the foundation of research into electrical activity in the human brain. In the past decade, German neurobiologist Niels Birbaumer was able to use EEG to decode intended speech in locked-in patients, but only after months of training and at the painful pace of about a minute a word.

The investigators of BrainGate wanted to delve closer to the source, intercepting the flickering electrochemical signals of a human’s thoughts as they coalesce into intentions inside the brain. Unlike EEG, implanted electrodes can render the electrical activity of populations of individual neurons in fine detail. An implant like the BrainGate sensor allows for communication between brain and computer in a shared language: electrical impulses. But the electrodes must be physically embedded in brain tissue to pick up the signals. Specifically, they must be in the motor cortex, a narrow region on the surface of the brain, spanning from ear to ear, that governs movement by translating intentions into electrical directives to be carried out by muscles. “If they’re not really close,” Donoghue explained, “they don’t get them. It’s like being outside the range of a cell-phone tower.”

For nearly 25 years before launching the BrainGate project, Donoghue investigated the brain’s signals using rhesus monkeys—the nonhuman primates with the unfortunate distinction of having the motor cortex most similar to our own. Using at first single electrodes and then increasingly complex arrays of them, Donoghue recorded the brain signals of living, moving monkeys, amassing enormous quantities of data correlating the locations and signatures of brain activity with specific movements of the monkeys’ bodies. Then, in the late ’90s, a team of engineers at the University of Utah developed an array of 100 microelectrodes made of silicon and platinum, materials that could safely be used inside the body. In 2004, Donoghue and the BrainGate team used the Utah array to demonstrate that the electrodes could last for over a year in the brains of three rhesus monkeys, collecting reliable data and causing no harm. That reliability had to be shown for the team to receive approval from the FDA to begin testing the implant in humans. “There were something like 12 or 14 boxes of papers, all consolidated, sent to the FDA,” Donoghue recalled. Later that year, the implants were cleared for preliminary trials in human subjects.

By 2005, it was time for Cathy to receive her implant. Working with data accumulated from the monkeys, the neurosurgical team had a good idea where in Cathy’s brain to look for signals intended for her arm. In surgery at Rhode Island Hospital, a neurosurgeon working with the BrainGate team removed a bottle-cap-sized piece of her skull and opened the delicate membrane that lay just beneath, exposing the neuron-threaded tissues of the arm area of her motor cortex. Using a pneumatic device, like a tiny air hammer, the team fired the implant into the surface of her brain. They then carefully closed the membrane around a set of wires, leashed to the implant, leading to a titanium pedestal that covered the removed portion of her skull.

The wires were housed under a gray plastic port, like a tiny top hat, protruding from Cathy’s head. When opened, the port allowed the wires to be linked to computers, which recorded electrical data sensed by the array.

The researchers began trials with Cathy a month after her surgery, and Donoghue was unsure whether the region of her brain that corresponded to her hand movements would still fire signals after a decade of disuse. “We have this concept of brain plasticity, which I certainly adhere to: that our brains are always changing, rewiring themselves in some way, changing their interactions. You’d think that a piece of the brain that had lost its job for a few years would retire.” There was reason to be hopeful: They had been able to read useful information from Matthew Nagle’s brain. But Matthew had been paralyzed for only two years when he joined the BrainGate trials.

The team hooked Cathy’s implant up to a cart of computers and processors the size of a mini refrigerator that received the signals being detected by the electrodes in her brain. They asked her to follow a cursor moving on a screen in front of her by imagining that she was controlling a computer mouse with her own hand. The scrolling screens lit up with peaks of her brain activity. Donoghue was delighted. “The brain was actually very active, and in fact was active in ways that resembled what we expected to happen when a person was actually moving.” After years of paralysis, Cathy’s brain was still primed for action.

For the computer to act as a useful translator—taking the neural signals in her brain and interpreting them as directions to action—researchers still needed to decipher the unique dialect of Cathy’s motor cortex. Using her still vivid imagination, Cathy commanded her arm to move in all the ways the researchers requested. Over and over, she tried to move her hand forward and back, left and right, flexing, grasping, and releasing. The computer systems were trained to recognize the electrical signatures preceding each action, filter out any noise, and amplify the signals they identified as meaningful.

To this point, all the action had been taking place, as usual, only inside Cathy’s head. But the researchers weren’t aiming just to recognize her intentions from her brain activity. They wanted to use the brain signals to direct actions outside her body. Their first target was a computer cursor. As Cathy concentrated on moving her hand, her efforts unspooled on screens in front of the researchers, who tried to use the information from her brain as a sort of virtual mind-controlled mouse. When the researchers turned control of the cursor over to Cathy’s neurons, the cursor immediately began to move haltingly across the screen. Cathy couldn’t believe her eyes. “I was numb with shock and disbelief,” she wrote to me, “so I moved the cursor all over the screen.”

From there, over the following months of weekly sessions, it was a matter of refining her control. The first task she mastered required moving the cursor from a center mark on the screen to tag an image that appeared at the top, bottom, or side of the screen before returning to the center. As the trials progressed, she learned to play a game the researchers called “neural pong” for its similarity to the early Atari game modeled on table tennis. In the neural version, the playing field was a box framing the screen. At the bottom was a sliding plank, controlled by Cathy’s brain. A circle would bounce against the sides of the frame, and when it approached the bottom of the screen Cathy moved the plank to intercept it and send it ricocheting back up.

She also learned to use the cursor to navigate a simplified computer interface. She could open email and select music. She was able to pick out letters on a virtual keyboard. As the researchers refined the algorithms, the system learned to assist Cathy in her goals: If it detected two different intended motions in succession, it would supply the movement in between.

The cursor experiments were a huge achievement; for the BrainGate team, they were important steps toward the goal of turning thought into action. But moving cursors on a screen involves interpretation of only two dimensions of intended movement in a digital environment. The next trials would require a great leap. The researchers wanted to give Cathy the ability to operate in physical space. They hoped to allow her to control a sophisticated robotic arm to stretch, grab, and move real objects in her surroundings—her first chance to do so in nearly 15 years.

Chapter Five

My heart is human / My blood is boiling / My brain IBM

—“Mr. Roboto,” Styx

In April of 2010, the BrainGate researchers secured the use of an advanced humanoid robotic arm made by the German space agency DLR. The sophisticated system is much in-demand, and arranging for it to travel to the BrainGate researchers was made difficult by the constraints of its schedule. “It’s like a visiting professor,” Hochberg says, “and then it returns home.” It is equipped with a shoulder, an elbow, a wrist, and articulated fingers complete with fingernails, and can move in the same directions as a human arm: The shoulder and elbow can swing and raise, the wrist can rotate, and the fingers can squeeze. Controlling it requires coordination of seven degrees of freedom of movement, as well as compensation for complicating factors like mass, inertia, and gravity.

The BrainGate researchers set up their equipment in a beige-and-gray visiting room in Cathy’s nursing home facility, the site of the past four years of their work with her. Video and lighting rigs stood at strategic angles around the room, documenting the details of the trials. Cathy sat in her wheelchair, surrounded by stacks of computer processors and screens, a gray plug the size of a Rubik’s cube protruding from her short brown hair. Underneath, the neurons of her motor cortex were securely woven through the 100 platinum-tipped microelectrodes, the combined size of a baby aspirin, emerging from the implant embedded in the surface of her brain. A thick cable ran from the plug to a box attached to the back of her wheelchair, and from there it split off to the surrounding computers. Pink and blue lines zigzagged across a graph on one of the screens, registering the activity of neurons detected by the electrodes of her implant.

At first the blue and silver robotic arm, 30 pounds heavy and much larger than Cathy’s own, was placed at a remove from her body, hanging over a cloth-covered table marked with small colored circular targets.

I have seen video of the trials, which were preliminary demonstrations and, at the time, mere reflections of in-process research, not ready for publication. In one clip, John Donoghue stands beside Cathy, whose face is blurred in accordance with privacy protocols. He asks her to try opening and closing the hand. A second later the robotic fingertips bend inward. Donoghue and three researchers standing behind Cathy break into grins. In the next clip, shot over Cathy’s shoulder, a young researcher standing to her left asks Cathy to lower the arm, and a moment later the robot’s joints adjust smoothly until the hand rests on the tabletop. More commands follow. She raises the arm halfway, then drops it back to the table. She lifts it all the way up, then brings it down to rest again.

In another experiment, a bottle of juice is placed on the table to the left of the robotic hand. A voice off camera instructs Cathy to try to pick up the bottle. The hand begins to inch slowly toward it, joints extending, and captures the bottle between fingers and thumb. The bottle starts to tip over, and the arm retracts slightly until the bottle is standing again. Then the arm extends once more, the bottle leaning, and retracts again, then pauses. It reaches for the bottle a third time, the fingers closing around it, and shifts upward, lifting it off the table. Cathy is then asked to move the bottle to the middle target on the table, several inches to the right of where it sat. The arm retracts too far at first, then adjusts and releases the bottle gently within the target, which is just barely wider in diameter than the bottle itself. Later on, with more authority, the hand sweeps a wineglass resting near the edge of the table into its grasp, fingers closing around the bowl. It wavers indecisively, then picks the glass back up and readjusts its positioning to place the glass on the target.

Even from the distance of a video, what I was seeing was difficult to believe. There, in that moment of indecision, was Cathy, dissatisfied with her performance, insisting on greater precision. The robot’s movements were matching Cathy’s thoughts. The smiles on the faces of the researchers in the room reflected the significance of these moments. The team had worked with Cathy for more than four years. The hundreds of hours spent on tedious and repetitive tasks had led them to this: for the first time in 14 years—indeed, for the first time for any quadriplegic—Cathy was able to reach out into the world.

The trials were an attempt at brain control of a physical object and important proof of the BrainGate team’s progress translating brain signals into directions for an assistive device. In this case, Cathy had control over only two dimensions of the robot arm’s movement at a time, either the horizontal plane or the vertical plane; programmed instructions governed the third. When she imagined grasping the hand, it triggered the robot to not only close its fingers but to lift the bottle off the table so it could be moved. After she directed the hand to a specified target, her next grasp command caused the arm to lower the bottle and then release it.

When directing the hand to reach the bottle, Cathy was thinking of her own hand in the same way she did to control the cursor in previous trials, and the computers read her intended direction and velocity of movement, adjusting the arm’s joints to make the hand follow those intentions. This is the same way we control our biological arms. When we plan to reach out and touch something, we don’t think of moving each joint individually. We set our focus on the endpoint, and our brain does the calculations to control the muscles to get us there.


The next challenge was building filters to detect Cathy’s intended movement in a three-dimensional space, giving her greater control over the robot and greater flexibility of movement. It was not a simple task. The team needed to record and classify the signals of the ensemble of neurons surrounding her implant as they sent instructions in the three dimensions: left-right, down-up, and toward-away. They calibrated the computers by asking Cathy to watch carefully as the arm moved through a series of programmed actions, imagining herself doing the same with her own arm. Once they had rough filters built, they transferred control of the arm to her implant and refined the translation. Like in previous trials, Cathy’s focus was on moving the hand to the correct destination, while the computers detected her intended speed and trajectory and adjusted the joints to follow, now in three dimensions.

The targets, which in a rare lapse into informal language Hochberg refers to as “raspberry ice cream cones,” were made of pink foam balls set in black cones at the end of flexible rods. They lay flat on the table until activated, when motorized levers brought them up one at a time to varied spots in the space in front of Cathy. Her task was to maneuver the robot hand to meet the balls, which were only slightly smaller in diameter than the open hand, and, if possible, grasp them. The task was made harder by the springiness of the rods: If the hand brushed against the target, it would bounce, making it even more difficult to grab.

Cathy performed the trials with both the DLR arm and an advanced prosthetic made by New Hampshire–based DEKA Research, founded by the inventor Dean Kamen and developed with funding from the military in the hope of creating sophisticated prosthetics for amputees. The results of the trials, published in May 2012 in the journal Nature, report that Cathy and a second participant, called T2, another brain-stem-stroke survivor, were able to touch or grasp the targets a significant portion of the time.

The BrainGate system worked like a prosthetic spinal cord leading to an artificial limb, conveying the will of the mind without the need for speech or movement. The researchers were able to read the signals of the brain, not in vague generalities but in specific detail, and their computers passed those instructions to a robot nearly as quickly as they would have been communicated to a living limb. BrainGate, in fact, could have applications not only for people with brain and spinal-cord injuries, but for others with neurological disorders and for amputees through injury or illness. The technology promises to relink the brain to working bodies both artificial and, potentially, biological.

With the ice cream cone task accomplished, researchers had a special plan in store for Cathy. After the successes of the preliminary demonstrations with the DLR arm, the BrainGate team decided to bring the arm into range of her body.

They knew that Cathy loved coffee, but she required assistance to lift a cup to her mouth to allow her to drink from a straw. So the team placed a red metal thermos of coffee, emblazoned with the initials and insignias of the research team and sponsors and topped with a straw, on the table in front of her. With pursed lips and a look of intense concentration, Cathy guided the remote hand to the bottle and closed the fingers around it. She lifted it off the table and brought it close to her chest, and when she triggered the arm with a grasp command, it tilted the thermos toward her, allowing her to reach the straw. She took a sip, gave it another grasp command to right the bottle, and set it back down on the table, breaking into a shocked-looking smile.

“Drinking from a cup felt very natural,” she told me later. It’s what the BrainGate researchers most wanted to hear: that controlling the robot arm felt like moving one’s own. “My mind raced back to the early days of BrainGate, when a team member told me I would be able to control a cursor,” Cathy said. “I was in disbelief when I was able to control a cursor, and here I was controlling a robotic arm, drinking from a cup.”

Chapter Six

“If real is what you can feel, smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

—Morpheus, ‘The Matrix’

What lies beyond Cathy’s grasp of a coffee cup? Speech, requiring the coordination of tongue and lips to shape sound, is similarly the result of a complex electrical storm of intentions funneled into simplified directives in the motor cortex, making it a candidate for eavesdropping electrodes. And, in fact, research is under way at Boston University that uses microelectrodes implanted in the speech area of a locked-in volunteer’s brain to attempt to identify intended phonemes, the units of sound we string together to make up speech. Though successful detection rates are still low, they are higher for some sounds than for others and are gaining accuracy with time and research. It’s another advance that would have inestimable impact on the quality of life of people with a disease or injury that has left them unable to speak.

Other glimpses of the future of human brain implants can be seen in the lab of Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. Supported by a $26 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—DARPA, the R&D arm of the U.S. military—Nicolelis’s lab has been investigating the possibilities for remote control of supplemental limbs and for the augmentation of sensory systems for the past decade. Rhesus monkeys are again the preferred subjects—or collaborators, as Nicolelis likes to refer to them—when testing not just the safety of cortical implants but also their possibilities. With them, Nicolelis and his team are able to push the boundaries of experimental design well beyond what can be achieved using a patient like Cathy.

In 2001, Nicolelis’ lab acquired a middle-aged rhesus monkey called Aurora, rejected from other labs for being difficult to work with. Nicolelis describes her as a slow learner, disinclined to participate in complex or repetitive tasks. After months in the lab, Aurora finally began to show interest in experimental assignments, spurred on by a reward of fruit juice, often used with monkeys. The researchers discovered that they could entice her to play video games with a joystick, and soon she excelled. She became a star in the lab and was chosen as the subject for 2002’s Project MANE—an acronym for Mother of All Neurophysiological Experiments.

Like Cathy, Aurora received an implant of electrodes in her motor cortex, connected to decoding computers, which mapped the activity in her brain to her arm movements and translated them into directions for a robotic arm. The arm, in Aurora’s case, had a range of movement similar to the monkey’s own and a set of fingerlike pincers for grasping. According to Nicolelis, Aurora couldn’t see the robotic arm and had no idea that it was in a separate room mimicking her movements. What she knew was that if she successfully performed video game tasks—using her joystick to control a cursor on a screen and intercept moving targets—a high-frequency beep would sound and she would receive a few drops of the juice she loved.

Once Aurora’s brain signals were being reliably read by the computers, a researcher entered Aurora’s room and removed the joystick from her reach. The team switched control of the video game from the joystick over to the robot arm. The targets in the video game continued to move across the screen, but the cursor lay dormant, not receiving any commands. After a period of confusion and false starts, during which she grabbed at the targets on the screen with her hand, Aurora began following the video game closely, watching the targets intently. The only way for her brain implant to send the signals that would cause the robot arm to move the cursor was to imagine that she was controlling the cursor with her joystick, as she had been before with her own hand.

Eventually, the signals her brain was sending to the computers began to resemble the patterns they had shown when she was moving the joystick. As the computer decoded her intentions, the robotic arm began moving the cursor on the screen. Every time her brain successfully caused the robot to intercept the target on the screen, she received a reward. Aurora, in other words, had figured out that she could play the video game with just her imagination. She could choose not to move her limbs while continuing to generate brain activity the computers could interpret. After about a month, she discovered that not only could she relax her body while playing the game with her mind, but she could actually use her limbs for other purposes—like scratching—at the same time.

Combing through the data produced by Aurora’s brain, the Duke researchers found evidence of three important populations of neurons. The first was active in the same or similar ways whether Aurora was playing the game with the joystick or with her mind. The second was active only when her biological arm was moving. The third was active only when she was controlling the video game with her brain alone. That third group of neurons was largely functioning as though she had carved out space in her brain for a new phantom arm and integrated it into her mental model of her body.

In 2007, Nicolelis’s lab conducted an experiment—for demonstration, not peer-reviewed research—with a monkey called Idoya, focusing on the lower limbs rather than the arms. Using tips discovered in a 100-year-old report of Russian circus-training techniques, the researchers were able to teach Idoya to walk upright on a treadmill, rewarding her with her preferred snacks of Cheerios and raisins. The researchers modeled her brain activity as she mastered walking forward and backward, shifting directions, and changing pace.

Fluorescent markings painted on Idoya’s hips, knees, and ankles enabled researchers to track their positions in 3-D space. As Idoya walked on the treadmill, the computers matched the activity of her brain to the positions of her joints. Those models were mapped to the legs of a five-foot-tall, 200-pound humanoid robot in a laboratory in Kyoto, Japan. The electrical spikes of Idoya’s motor cortex governing her leg movements were used to control the robot’s movements as it hung suspended just above its own treadmill. A large screen covered the wall in front of Idoya, filling her visual field with a live video feed of the robot. As Idoya found her walking pace, she watched the robot match her movement for movement. She continued walking and watching for an hour, as the robot legs churned in time with her own.

The researchers switched off her treadmill, and Idoya slowed to a stop, still watching the screen. But her brain continued sending intelligible signals through the computer link, maintaining control of the robot and continuing to direct its movement for several more minutes as she watched.

Taking their exploration of the rhesus brain further, the Duke researchers placed electrodes in the sensory cortex of two monkeys. They could stimulate the monkeys’ brains by sending small electrical signals to the implants. In research results published in Nature in 2011, they trained the monkeys on a simple video game task: Three circular targets appeared on a screen in front of the monkeys. In some trials, the monkeys used a joystick to control a cursor or an image of a virtual arm to select the targets. In other trials, the cursor or virtual arm was controlled by signals from the implant in their motor cortices. The virtual hand would pass across targets as though the monkeys were reaching out and running their fingers over them. 

An artificial “texture” was assigned to each target and was communicated directly into the monkey’s sensory implant as a pattern of electrical stimulation. When the cursor passed over the two dummy targets, a sequence of high-frequency pulses was delivered to their brains. When the cursor passed over the reward target, signals of a slightly different frequency were sent. The monkeys could distinguish between the two artificial “sensations,” allowing them to use the pulses sent to their implants to choose the reward target from among the three. Though it is impossible to know what the monkeys felt when their neurons were buzzed by the researchers, they were able to recognize the input and use it to play the game.

Taken together, these discoveries indicate that monkeys can control artificial bodies while maintaining control over their own, and that they can integrate artificial sensations. They suggest intriguing possibilities: that there is room inside the brain for the adoption of additional limbs, and that substitute, and supplemental, body parts can not only receive signals from inside the brain but also send new forms of sensory information back.

In 2002, at DARPATech, a showcase of defense technologies Eric Eisenstadt of the Pentagon’s Defense Sciences Office spoke about the agency’s vision for the future of biology. “Picture a time when humans see in the UV and IR portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, or hear speech on the noisy flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or when soldiers communicate by thought alone,” he said. “Imagine a time when the human brain has its own wireless modem so that instead of acting on thoughts, war fighters have thoughts that act.” He described the goals of the Pentagon’s Brain Machine Interface Program as allowing the human brain to incorporate synthetic devices as though they were part of the biological body, giving the capabilities of machines to intelligent human operators. “Who knows?” he added. “If we can eavesdrop on the brain, maybe we can sort out deceit from honesty, truth from fiction. What a lie detector that would be!” The 2013 budget for DARPA includes funding for a project called Avatar, which, according to the agency, is intended to “develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.” 

Chapter Seven

“You’re only a clear, glowing mind animating a metal body, like a candle flame in a glass. And as precariously vulnerable to the wind.”

—C. L. Moore, “No Woman Born”

Advanced bio-hybrid fighting machines held little interest for Cathy. For her, and for the BrainGate researchers, the goals they cared most about were more prosaic: achieving small degrees of meaningful function to improve the lots of people with paralysis or limb loss. Day by day, trial by trial, they worked toward more precise readings of Cathy’s brain. During a visit last winter, Cathy told me that being a part of BrainGate kept her going, providing a welcome distraction and a chance to help others, an opportunity she intended to take full advantage of.  M…Y… L…I…F…E… I…S… O…V…E…R, she spelled, as Holly translated using the alphabet board, tears filling her eyes. “But young people have lives ahead of them and I can’t imagine kids spending childhood in a wheelchair.” (Later, Cathy sent me an email asking to clarify that her life wasn’t really “over.”)

Cathy used to love to ride bikes with her kids, to sing and dance around the kitchen, making meals from the tomatoes and squash and peppers she had grown in her carefully tended garden—things she hoped her participation in the BrainGate research would someday allow other injured people to do. Holly handed me a photo of her mother before the stroke, standing with three friends in long winter coats, dressed up in front of a limo they rented to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of the women. It took a moment for me to identify Cathy, but then I saw her. Her face was fuller then, her hair styled for a night out. She was smiling broadly.

There is a science-fiction story from 1944, written by C. L. Moore, called “No Woman Born,” about a beautiful singer, Deirdre, whose badly burned body is replaced by an artificial model. Moore describes her “bare, golden skull … the most delicate suggestion of cheekbones, narrowing in the blankness below the mask to the hint of a human face.”  They chose not to attempt to re-create her face as it looked in her humanity but focused on her motion, which, Deirdre says, “is the other basis of recognition, after actual physical likeness.”

Cathy and I talked about the future, and though she was little prone to sci-fi thought experiments, we pondered the idea of a replacement body, a robot body that would behave like her own, back when it worked. She would take it, she said—she wasn’t particularly sentimental about her human flesh—as long as her mind stayed intact. There was something, though, that worried her. She told me she had “a  trust issue” with the robots and the computers, that she felt entirely dependent on them not to malfunction. One day, during one of the BrainGate experiments, she was startled to see the large robot arm drop suddenly, possibly from a power outage. It made her realize something, she said.

“I was not in control.” 

Chapter Eight

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by legitimate operators, in every nation. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.”

—William Gibson, Neuromancer

“I am an inexperienced pilot of Skype. I’m waiting for the version just by thought!” Miguel Nicolelis joked, eyes crinkling merrily on my computer screen as we video-chatted. Unlike the BrainGate scientists, who are extremely reticent to discuss unpublished research and even less inclined to speculate about the future, Nicolelis believes in stimulating public conversation about his work. “We had this pattern of conduct—scientists don’t speak to the press, scientists don’t talk to people, scientists don’t come down from their pristine castles to explain what they do. I don’t believe in any of this. And I think that scientists should speculate. They’re paid to.”

When the monkeys in Nicolelis’s lab control an extra limb or make decisions based on the sensations from a virtual arm, he says, they are demonstrating their ability to dissociate their minds from their biological bodies. Their physical body has no impact on their ability to enact a voluntary motor command across long distances or in a virtual universe. “I like to say that this is when you free the brain from the body,” he told me. He believes this dissociation will one day make it possible to use computers, drive cars, and communicate with one another by brain activity alone. “Your presence is going to be pretty much anywhere you want to be,” he told me. “You don’t need to send a manned mission to Mars. You send your avatar there. And you experience being there. Your physical presence will be represented by this device.”

He described the brain-implant surgery as a “trivial procedure,” from a neurosurgical point of view, and told me he believed that one day these kinds of implants will be considered no more extreme than cosmetic surgery. Recently, he said, he was speaking about his work to a group of high school students. Following his presentation, he asked the students if, were it safe and available, they would get an implant that allowed them to play video games faster and better than any of their friends. “The kids, nearly unanimously, said, ‘Yeah, of course!’” Nicolelis said.

Though he may not share their enthusiasm for video games, Kevin Warwick, a systems engineer and professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, does share their willingness to receive a brain implant. Warwick is best known for his Cyborg 2.0 project, a 2002 experiment in which he had an early version of the Utah electrode array wired into his nervous system, fired into the median nerve of his wrist by surgeons at the Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford who had practiced the procedure on sheep carcasses. He used the electrical spikes that traveled through the median nerve when he closed and opened his hand to pilot a wheelchair and, via the Internet, to control a robotic hand located across the Atlantic Ocean. He was also able to feel and interpret signals fed back through the electrodes to judge the pressure of the robot hand’s grip and to gauge distances while blindfolded, using feedback from a sonar transponder attached to a hat—a form of sensory substitution.

Warwick’s real interests, echoing Hans Berger’s, lie in what he calls radiotelepathy—communication from one human brain to another, nervous system to nervous system, in a rich and unedited wave of sensation. He believes it will be possible to transmit colors, images, and emotional and physical states in a vastly superior form of communication. He speaks freely of his desire to experiment with a brain implant like Cathy’s. “From a scientific point of view, there are things I want to find out, things I want to experience, and I don’t want to die without having experienced them.”


When I asked Donaghue about goals like these, he dismissed them as an unworthy focus. “We do all that already,” he said. “It’s an immensely complex way to solve a problem where we have a beautiful solution like literature. That is your interface with somebody else’s brain.” In any case, it is unclear whether electrical signals fed into the neurons via electrode will ever feel like sensations that have traveled the lengths of our bodies, through billions of networked nerves. It could be little more than a new form of language. It could be another method for conveying an impression of thought, but it wouldn’t be a truer experience of thought itself.

Even if we could transmit the complexity of a person’s thoughts, memories, or emotions through a computer to another person, they would encounter an unfamiliar environment. Donoghue referred to the words of Charles Sherrington, a neurologist working in the first half of the 20th century, who described the activity of the human brain as “an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.” At any given moment, our brains are suffused by swirls and eddies of chemicals, flickering electrical storms morphing as our interactions with our environments do. It is as though the same spot on a map is at some times a desert, at others a rainforest, at still others buried in snow. Identical sensory input may be met with a completely different response in the brain depending on the instant of the encounter, as when a rush of adrenaline dulls the experience of pain.

This prevents us from achieving the fantasy of the mind meld, but it also protects us from dystopian scenarios of unwelcome mind hacking. Our brains are more like palimpsests than blank canvases. It is impossible to draw the experiences of one brain onto another without them being warped by layer upon layer of past impression stretching back to the moment our lives begin. The connections of 100 billion neurons are unique in every individual; we can make sense of impulses in the brain only by being grossly reductive, letting the activity of a few dozen neurons being read by electrode-studded implants stand in for the activity of billions of others, wiping away any subtlety.

With just those few dozen neurons, though, the BrainGate researchers were able to do something real, tangible, and potentially life changing. Even cursor control would give Cathy an important degree of freedom in her everyday life. The implanted electrodes would allow her to control her computer and type with greater reliability and precision than her head-tracking device allowed her, increasing her ability to communicate without human assistance. But for the technology to be usable, not only do the computer algorithms have to be unfailing, but the entire system has to be fully wireless—no open port through her skull. And for it to be wireless, it would require a power device, batteries implanted under the skin that would have to be recharged with a special device or periodically replaced. Those advances aremany years, and countless safety trials, away.

infographic-1394062040-10.jpg

Chapter Nine

“The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter—for the future. His duty is to lay foundation of those who are to come and point the way.”

—Nicola Tesla

The halting progress Cathy has made toward greater independence is picking up speed. Five years ago, she agreed to be the lead plaintiff in a class action against the state on behalf of the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. State-administered Medicaid allowed brain-injured patients to live only in nursing homes and long-term-care facilities—sterile, rule-bound environments often focused more on preventing patients from dying than on giving them a life worth living. But many brain-injured patients like Cathy are in good physical health, with long life expectancies, far too long to be committed to an institution under rules that make it difficult, if not impossible, to participate in a community outside the nursing home.

In 2008, Massachusetts settled the suit, the first of its kind in the United States. Under the agreement, the state is required to reduce unnecessary institutionalization. Patients can apply for a waiver that allows them to use the money that would be spent on housing them in large facilities to assist them in living in their communities, in provider-run small group homes or in private residences.

Cathy received a waiver under the decision, and last fall her opportunity finally arrived. In September 2011, after 15 years in nursing facilities, she moved into a real home. It has two porches, two living rooms, soft couches and curtains, and a big open kitchen with dark wood cabinets. At Thanksgiving, the families of the residents descended on the house, and Cathy’s son, Brian, cooked a feast for all.

She has her own bedroom at last, with bright yellow walls and a white wooden dresser. There is no roommate and no beeping medical equipment; it is a welcome return to privacy after so many years. She calls it her sanctuary. She shares the home with several other brain-injured residents, and a small staff assists when necessary. Cathy leaves home during the day for programs and therapies, and a personal-care attendant takes her in a handicapped-accessible van to the mall, to the grocery store, or to visit friends and family at her request. Last October, she even went trick-or-treating at Halloween. Holly describes her mother’s trajectory as going from seemingly permanent despair to genuine happiness.

In our recent correspondence, Cathy does seem very pleased with her new arrangement. She has close relationships with her housemates and her personal-care attendants and sees her family frequently. The new control she has over her day-to-day life has given her a great sense of liberation. Her network of friends and family support her in her continuing push toward autonomy and recovery for herself and others like her.

But there are no longer twice-weekly visits from the BrainGate researchers. Several months before moving, Cathy decided to have the implant removed and exit the research trials. “I was hopeless before BrainGate,” she told me. “Being a participant in the trials is one of the best experiences of my life.” She had grown close with the researchers, especially Leigh Hochberg, whom she still consults about her plans.

She made the decision, she says, not because she had given up on the promise of BrainGate, which she believes will eventually lead to a functional cure for paralysis. But controlling an assistive device, like a robotic arm, isn’t her goal anymore. She wants to move her own arm.

To that end, she wants to pursue functional electrical stimulation, FES, which uses electrical currents to trigger muscle contractions and enable limb movement. The BrainGate researchers hope to someday link the motor-cortex implant of a paralyzed patient to FES devices, to reconnect the brain to the limbs. For now, though, and likely years to come, they need to work at refining the devices that read and record signals in the brain before adding the additional factor of an external device injecting signals into the body.

Cathy doesn’t want to wait that long to feel her body move again. She’s eager to participate in other trials, other studies. She has received cord-lengthening surgery on the tendons in her arms and wrists to ease the contractions. With physical therapy, she says, she has gained some range of movement in the hope of using FES to gain useful control. She still can’t move her limbs or speak, but she has lived at the vanguard of scientific research and of advocacy.

Her current technology, however, continues to be unreliable. In recent weeks, as she tried to fill me in on the latest developments in her life, her computer began to fail, cutting off our line of communication and erasing her hard-fought email responses to my questions. Ultimately, the technologies she relies on—the wheelchair that carries her body, the computer that projects her voice into the world—are indifferent to her needs, unaware of their importance in her life. What is left, when even the most sophisticated robots and advanced computers fail, is other people, who will continue to care for one another, connected by a shared understanding of human fragility. 

Island of Secrets

If John Lane can prove the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo, he just might be able to save one of the last truly wild endangered forests on earth. 

The Atavist Magazine, No. 09


Matthew Power (1974-2014) was a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, and his work appeared in The New York Times, Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, Outside, Granta, Slate, and elsewhere. He was included in Best American Travel Writing in 2007, 2009, and 2010, and Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2009.

Expedition Photographs: Dylan van Winkel, Sarah Wells, Matthew Power
Photographs of Tree Kangaroo and Fred Hargesheimer: John Lane
Jungle Recordings: Matthew Power
Tok Pisin Recording: Robert Eklund
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Design and Music: Jefferson Rabb
Editor: Alissa Quart

Published in November 2011. Design updated in 2021.

One

“The world is apt to judge of everything by the success; and whoever has ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name.”

Captain William Dampier, on the wreck of his ship HMS Roebuck after discovering the island of New Britain, 1699

In the summer of 2007, John Lane was driving along a rough dirt track on the western end of New Britain, an immense tropical island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, when he noticed a local man who had set up a large cage by the roadside. Lane, a California geologist and explorer who had traveled to New Britain on a research expedition, stopped to take a closer look. Inside the cage was an animal the size of a large raccoon, with a thick coat of soft gold-and-chestnut fur extending to the tip of its long tail. It moved languorously and looked at Lane with deep brown, heavy-lidded eyes set into a gentle face. In its curved claws it grasped a red jungle flower. From a captive specimen he had seen in the botanical gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Lane recognized the animal as a species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in the world.

Lane was in his early forties, and his day jobs included running a small environmental consulting firm and working as an adjunct science professor at California State University, Chico. His obsession, however, was cave exploration, and during the previous decade he had mounted ambitious caving expeditions in the far corners of the world, including Borneo and Sumatra. But Lane was not a biologist, and his curiosity about the animal went only so far. The villager wanted 1,000 kina for it, about $500. What am I gonna do with a tree kangaroo? Lane recalls thinking. He snapped a few pictures and drove on.

A photograph circulated online. Lane started getting inquiries about it. A BBC film producer wanted to know where the picture had been taken, and several zoologists wrote asking if he had more photographs. The animal, they told him, wasn’t thought to exist on New Britain. Unlike their Australian cousins, tree kangaroos—genus Dendrolagus, from the Greek for “tree hare”—have, true to their name, evolved to live in trees. They are extraordinarily agile climbers, living high in the forest canopy and descending only to forage. Their long tails provide balance, and their powerful legs are like spring-loaded shocks, allowing them to jump from the upper canopy—as much as 60 feet up—to the ground, unhurt.

Today, most of the known species of tree kangaroo are threatened, several of them critically. They are endangered by overhunting and by massive habitat loss as New Guinea’s rainforests are cleared to create oil palm plantations. There are twelve known species, ten on mainland New Guinea and two more in northern Australia. The last known new tree kangaroo species was discovered in 1995 in a remote mountain range on the New Guinea mainland. In the world of comparative zoology, the discovery and description of new species are the building blocks of a career, but from what Lane could tell no specimen of tree kangaroo taken from New Britain had ever been studied.

Although New Britain lies only 50 miles offshore from New Guinea, deep water has always kept the two geographically isolated, and most evolutionary biologists believe the existence of native tree kangaroos on the island to be highly improbable. Even if the tree kangaroo Lane had seen was from the island, the theory went, it was likely the product of ancestors brought there to be used as pets or food by early human settlers arriving in open canoes as many as 30,000 years ago. The ecological term for an animal that has received this sort of human-assisted migratory boost is ethnotramp. The New Britain tree kangaroo could be a species brought from the mainland, or an altogether unknown variety: since no tree kangaroo like it had ever been studied, its provenance remained a mystery.

Lane sent out inquiries to some biologists in the field and received an enthusiastic email from Ken Aplin, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert in Australo-Papuan marsupials who had worked extensively in New Britain. Aplin said he’d spent a recent field survey looking for fossil evidence of tree kangaroos on the island, hoping to clarify their origins as native or introduced. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, who has discovered 2 percent of the world’s known mammal species, sent Lane a note that read: “The New Britain tree kangaroo identity remains unresolved. Perhaps you will find some trophy skulls or other samples that will help resolve the tree kangaroo question.” That was all the encouragement Lane needed, and he began plotting an expedition in the hope of doing just that.

New Guinea and its surrounding islands are among the world’s great reservoirs of biodiversity. According to a tally by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 new species were identified there in the past decade. The vast majority of these were plants and invertebrates—important to science but hard to put on a fundraising poster. New species of charismatic megafauna, on the other hand, are extremely rare. If the New Britain tree kangaroo were somehow a species previously unknown to science, it would be huge news, alone worthy of an adventure.

But Lane began to develop a grander vision for his mission: Perhaps the discovery of the tree kangaroo could lead to the preservation of thousands of square miles of rapidly disappearing wilderness on the island. By some estimates, half of New Britain’s primary tropical rainforest had been lost since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975. An application for Unesco World Heritage status for New Britain’s Nakanai Mountains had been submitted by the nonprofit Conservation International in 2006 but had made little progress toward ratification. “If there were a major discovery,” Lane told me, “it’d kind of be a freight train for conservation. Maybe there would be a greater sense of urgency.” He seized upon the idea of the tree kangaroo as a catalyst to action, an animal that could catch the imagination of scientists, the media, and the world.

Lane called up a friend at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is based in Chico and is known for its interest in environmental causes, and coaxed the beer maker into sponsoring his enterprise. During the following several summers, Lane coordinated expeditions into the trackless wilderness of the Nakanai, a largely unexplored range of limestone karst riddled with thousands of caves. Tree kangaroos had been spotted in the region by locals, and the prospect of exploring its vast and uncharted cave network was an additional enticement for Lane. In 2009, he got together a crew of scientists and student assistants from Chico State and hatched a plan to operate the kangaroo search and conduct other biological surveys from a jungle base camp at the edge of a lake that filled an enormous caldera, the cauldron-like center of an extinct volcano. The area is one of the wettest on earth, receiving more than 24 feet of rain annually. In a world that, to Lane at least, seemed to harbor fewer and fewer mysteries, the New Britain tree kangaroo was a concrete example of nature yet to be discovered. He imagined the creature as an avatar of a wildness he wanted both to witness and to conserve.

There were, it should be pointed out, some logistical hitches to Lane’s plan to find a tree kangaroo, not the least of them the fact that he was a geologist, not a biologist, and knew almost nothing about the behavior and habits of genus Dendrolagus. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote, difficult, and expensive places in the world to mount an expedition, with few roads and little infrastructure to speak of, and with a population frequently volatile toward foreigners. Terrible weather, impenetrable terrain, malaria, crocodiles, high crime, corrupt public officials: I easily discovered these obstacles after a few minutes of Googling. None of them are likely to be made simpler by having your chief sponsor be a beer company. And yet in the summer of 2011, when I first spoke to John Lane and he invited me to come along on his next expedition, something about the way he described the landscape of the Nakanai silenced my doubts. I booked a $3,500 plane ticket and packed my bags.

Two

The cloud-draped, dark green coast of New Britain rose out of the impossibly blue waters of the Solomon Sea, its march of volcanic cones vanishing into a haze set aflame by an equatorial sunrise. The crescent-shaped island is 14,000 square miles, home to nearly half a million native Papuans and Austronesians who between them speak dozens of distinct languages. In the previous 47 hours, I had traveled more than 12,000 miles on five flights—JFK–LAX–SYD–BNE–POM–HKN. I had crossed both the equator and the international date line to get there.

Scarcely a road or clearing was visible in New Britain’s forested and mountainous interior, where steep valleys carved their way down the flanks of volcanoes. Near the north coast, the mountains eased into plains. The forests morphed from the rugged texture of native canopy into a flat and uniform pattern of green dots. These were oil palm plantations, an economic bonanza and an ecological nightmare. From the air, the landscape seemed like something dreamed up by a computer: nature expressed in binary absolutes. Millions of acres of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have been razed to make way for “green gold.” An acre of mature palm trees can produce nearly three tons of oil in a year, and palms now supply a third of the global edible-oil market. There is an almost limitless appetite for it, in products from soap to chocolate to lipstick to biodiesel.

When we landed at the tiny, oil-palm-surrounded airstrip in the coastal town of Hoskins, a throng of Papuans stood pressed against the airstrip’s fence. I was met by a Papuan driver and piled my gear into a white Toyota Land Cruiser with “Hargy Oil Palms Ltd.” stenciled on the door. Conservation attracts strange bedfellows, and John Lane had taken up with an organization that would otherwise be his natural adversary: one of the largest palm-oil producers in New Britain. One of the very industries that Lane hoped to keep from despoiling the forests of New Britain was also a chief supporter of his expeditions.

Palm oil has a serious public-image problem. Environmental groups have faulted the industry for the massive deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra that is pushing the orangutan toward extinction in the wild. In 2004, some companies and nonprofits got together and created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the goal of creating sustainably produced palm oil. The RSPO now includes enormous multinational corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Nestlé and environmental nonprofits like Conservation International. By meeting a strict set of environmental guidelines, producers could become certified sustainable. What sustainable really means, and whether environmental groups are participating in a greenwash of the industry or an exercise in realpolitik, is a source of much debate and hand-wringing in environmental circles.

Hargy Oil Palms, as part of its effort to meet its RSPO goals—or at least appearing to—was lending its support to Lane’s expedition. When I asked Lane about this, and whether it represented an attempt to make palm oil seem eco-friendly, he was acutely aware of the irony but unapologetic. “They have a very serious mandate to achieve sustainability,” he told me, “and sponsoring us is part of that. They know that I’ve been critical of their industry in published papers, but working with them is really the best way to have input in what they do.”

We tore off in high gear, the diesel 4×4 roaring and jouncing over potholes as the Papuan driver shouted stories to a pair of industry auditors who had arrived on the same flight. He spoke in Tok Pisin, the creole of Papua New Guinea and the lingua franca of the country’s 860 language groups. I stared out at mile upon mile of perfectly straight rows of oil palms, their fronds spliced into gothic arches, our movement opening up ever shifting lines of perspective far into their shady depths. Dark-skinned, shirtless Papuan men with polesaws harvested great bunches of the bright red palm fruit and stacked them in piles by the roadside.

We drove for several hours, over dozens of bridges that wash out with every rainy season, past sulfuric-smelling volcanic springs boiling up from the ground. There are still dozens of active volcanoes on the island; its former capital, Rabaul, was crushed beneath three feet of volcanic ash in 1994. The town can still be reached only by airplane or boat. We finally arrived at the Hargy Plantation, and a uniformed guard opened a barricade as we drove past neatly cropped expanses of lawn and bushes filled with hibiscus blossoms. John Lane was sitting on the porch of the guesthouse when we pulled up, looking out over a wide sweep of coast far beneath him.

Lane kept his thinning hair cropped close, framing a sun-creased face, ruddy cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed grin. His patter was Northern California laid-back, a sort of stoner deadpan. Knowing New Britain mosquitoes carry deadly falciparum malaria, I asked him what kind of malaria pills he was using. “They’re actually anti-malaria pills,” he replied. “I think you might have the wrong ones.”

As we talked, he stooped to pick up a stick from the ground, balancing it on his forearm. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spike-covered, cigar-sized New Guinea spiny stick insect. The enormous bug tried ineffectually to escape, marching slowly back and forth along Lane’s arm. “We make some of our best insect collections on the lawn right here,” he told me. An iridescent green bird-wing butterfly the size of a paperback drifted by on the breeze.

This was the first time in weeks Lane had emerged from his base camp in the caldera. There, a crew of several researchers and a few students from Chico State conducted surveys and collected insect and animal species. We may live in a world that seems bereft of geographical blank spots, but even through the unblinking gaze of Google Earth, the caldera’s low-resolution satellite imagery was obscured by clouds. “There are less and less of these places in the world,” he told me as we studied an old topographical map of the caldera. It was as close to terra incognita as one could wish for, an irresistible attraction for Lane.

Of course, being off the map is not always best for a nation’s economic survival. Papua New Guinea won full independence from Australia in 1975, and 97 percent of its land is still in the hands of its native tribes. It is astonishingly rich in natural resources—copper, natural gas, timber, palm oil—and yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of less than $1,500. In the past generation, there has been a massive boom in resource extraction across the country, including a $15 billion Exxon Mobil pipeline project, though little of the new wealth has trickled down to the natives. Official corruption is rife, and the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is a crime-ridden pit where boomtown contractors stay in $500-a-night hotels and gangs of “raskols”—disaffected youth from the highlands—wreak havoc outside compound walls.

Graham King, the Australian general manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation, sat drinking tea on the porch with Lane and defended the oil palm industry as an economic necessity for New Britain. “No other cash crop survives here,” said King. “Oil palm is a beautiful fit in this rainfall and soil.” He pointed out that in 2010, the plantation paid out $20 million to 3,500 small oil palm growers in the area, on top of wages to plantation workers of $15 million. “In a developing country, people’s livelihoods are important,” said King. “Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth don’t seem to realize that.” Nevertheless, it is one of Papua’s many paradoxes that the palm-oil industry has become critical to its citizens’ survival even as it has destroyed the environment they inhabit.

All of King’s product is shipped to Europe, and the largest buyers of palm oil—multinational manufacturing giants like Nestlé and Unilever­—claim they will convert to 100 percent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015. Even the Girl Scouts have pledged to make their Thin Mints and Samoas contain oil derived from sustainable palm-oil plantations. Less than 10 percent of the 50 million tons of palm oil produced annually meet the RSPO sustainability standard, but King wants to be on the right side of history, or at least the market. One of the key RSPO standards, which has made Lane much more comfortable working with King, is that primary forest cannot be touched. This doesn’t at all mean that the forests of New Britain are protected; it just means that Hargy Oil Palms won’t be clear-cutting the forests. They are nevertheless being rapidly destroyed by logging, expanding agriculture, and oil palm operations not following the RSPO guidelines. King swept his hand over the topographical map of the area where Lane’s base camp is set up. “It would take two years and it would be all gone,” he said. A 2008 report in the journal Biological Conservation showed satellite evidence that a fifth of New Britain’s lowland rainforest had vanished between 1989 and 2000. Since independence, perhaps half of the island’s forest cover has disappeared.

Enter John Lane and the mysterious tree kangaroo. Lane is not a policy wonk or a development expert, and he has little interest in being part of the NGO world with its endless meetings and half-measures. His dream role in conservation is the spectacular turnaround, the heroic diving catch, employing mainly a sense of adventure and force of will. If the tree kangaroo were out there, and if he could demonstrate its value to the world, it might be the tipping point to save this place. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the thing. This was Lane’s third venture into the forest of the Nakanai to look for it, and he planned to push himself farther into the unknown landscape than he had ever gone. His take on it seemed to echo the doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s famous words on climbing Everest. “We’re going out there,” Lane told me, “to see what’s there.”

oldkangals1-1395023645-84.jpg
Dendrolagus inustus, the grizzled tree kangaroo (Illustration from Mammals of Australia by John Gould) and Dendrolagus bennettianus, the Bennett’s tree kangaroo. (Lithograph by J. Smit, late 19th century)

Three

The Hargy Plantation covers 25,000 acres, and we followed a dirt road to the plantation’s outermost edge, where the endless lines of oil palms ended and the rainforest began, to begin our search. At the trailhead, a half-dozen “bois” waited for us in the shade, wrestling and goofing around with each other in their native Nakanai. (“Boi” is the Tok Pisin term for a guy; the girls are called “meris.”) They were from the Nakanai tribe and lived in a village of thatched huts near the plantation, where many of their fathers and older brothers worked. They were all barefoot, and chewed buai, a mixture of betel nut, mustard, and lime that turned their teeth bright red. Lane had hired them, for seven dollars a day, to ferry loads of fuel and food along the muddy five-mile trail to base camp. One had carried in a 30-pound car battery for the radio, another a huge propane tank for the stove.

The bois were like teenagers anywhere on earth, loud and anarchic when in a group, and basically indifferent to me. The language barrier was nearly insurmountable, with Lane knowing only a few phrases in Tok Pisin and none at all in Nakanai. One of the better English speakers was a good-natured twentysomething named Daure—pronounced “dowry”—who had become a village hero after being chosen for the national cricket team. Daure taught me one of Tok Pisin’s most useful words, bagarap: damaged, broken, destroyed. It derives from the British colloquialism buggered up and can be used to describe anything from flat tires to geopolitics.

Employing the bois was part of the bargain for being allowed to set up base camp in the forest, Lane told me. The Nakanai tribe communally owned all the forestland that lay before us. The problem Lane faced was getting the tribe to recognize the lasting value of conserving the place. Everyone in the tribe was aware that their forest represented millions of dollars in quick and easy wealth, and the material temptations of modernity are pervasive and ubiquitous. Money, materialism, capitalism: Lane knew he couldn’t shield the Nakanai from the corrosive influences of the developed world. “In the past five years, I’ve seen the rapid Westernization of the landowners,” said Lane. As if to illustrate this, one of the bois walked by, a pair of bootleg “Calvin Klain” underwear showing above his waistband.

We descended along a steep trail, the bois leaving barefoot prints in the black mud. Hornbills flapped overhead, their wings carving a deep whoosh whoosh whoosh through the air. Epiphytes—plants that grow upon other plants to reach sunlight and nutrients—dangled from overhead branches like chandeliers. Understory plants grew head-high where an old-growth tree had recently fallen and opened up a gash in the canopy. The perfectly smooth and multihued trunks of rainbow eucalyptus shot straight through, eight feet across and topping out 250 feet above the forest floor. Those trees are a favorite of pulp companies, Lane explained, and are said to make excellent paper. This was the third time Lane had set up base camp in this spot in the caldera, and each year the jungle swallowed all signs of their presence, the trail erased by crowding plants. There were dozens of water crossings on the walk in, and we scrambled down steeply carved banks and forded knee-deep streams.

On an earlier expedition, Lane had handed out copies of his tree kangaroo photograph and asked several locals to keep an eye out and send him any reports. He had received an email from Angelus Palik, a plantation employee:
 

For your information tree kangaroos do exist on the island of New Britain. We sighted one adult (female) about 3 km inland from Area 12 next to the Lake Hargy. The adult female escaped and we caught its baby and took it home. We gave the tree kangaroo some sugar cane and banana. Unfortunately it died.
 

I asked Lane what became of the body of the tree kangaroo joey, which would seem to be a key piece of evidence in the mystery.

“They ate it,” he said.

lanels13203-1395023646-15.jpg
John Lane looking up at a limestone drainage in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Four

As I clambered over fallen logs, I scanned the canopy for tree kangaroos and checked the trunks of trees for their telltale claw marks. Lane told me to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wandered off the route, I could easily fall down tree holes, where hot lava cooling around ancient trees had left deep cylindrical shafts dropping as much as 10 feet straight down. I stared anxiously at the jungle floor, and as we walked Lane told me about himself and his previous adventures. He grew up in the middle of a pack of eight siblings, his father a nuclear engineer who traveled the world with his huge family. They lived in Tokyo when Lane was a child, and by age 7 he would wander for hours around the city, searching its strange alleys and corners totally alone. It was a kind of freedom children are rarely afforded today. He thrived on it.

His childhood gave him a taste for exploration, and he got into caving in his twenties. There was something about caves that captured Lane, perhaps the mystery of going someplace no human being had ever gone. Caving was also what first lured him to New Britain, its limestone karst riven with hundreds of miles of tunnels. Lane had heard of whole rivers vanishing into the island’s fissured earth or shooting out of mountainsides like fire hoses. There were vast caverns home to colonies of bats with five-foot wingspans. Throughout the 1990s, in his quest for places as untouched by man as possible, he had traveled the world on a series of caving expeditions. In Borneo, he descended miles into the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cavern ever discovered. “A quarter-mile wide, half a mile long, and 400 feet high,” Lane told me. “They say you could put four 747s end to end and spin them around.”

He soon led another expedition, to the Gunung Buda (White Mountain) cave system in Borneo, for National Geographic. The massive caves were filled with endemic species and spectacular rock formations. Lane was so inspired by what he saw that he arranged to meet with the Malaysian minister of the environment to preserve the extraordinary site. Eventually, thanks in part to his efforts, the Gunung Buda became a national park.

Through that experience, Lane saw how a big discovery could lead a government to act in the name of conservation. If it could happen there, why not in New Britain with the tree kangaroo? He recognized the differences in the two situations. “Getting things done here is a lot harder than any other place I’ve been,” Lane told me. “I keep thinking I’m getting closer to some solidification of conservation of the area, and then I don’t know. Would it just be a paper park?” But having had a taste of what adventure and exploration could achieve, he’d decided to make a life of it.

This sort of life had its victories, but there were great risks. Things could easily go too far and spin out of control toward the irrevocable. And so they did in 2001, when Lane and a good friend and expedition partner, a 34-year-old archaeologist named Adam Bodine, went “tubineering” with a group of 18 people, riding inner tubes in extreme Class V whitewater down the middle fork of the Feather River in California. Running through a particularly difficult section of rapids, Bodine was tossed from his tube and drawn into a strainer, a barricade of boulders and logs that allows current to flow through but can quickly trap a person. He vanished. “Nothing came out the other side but a shoe and a helmet,” said Lane. He and a few of his companions searched frantically, but after 10 minutes had passed they knew their friend was dead, his body lost beneath the rushing water. Lane was devastated, sobbing as he broke the news to the rest of the group.

Bodine’s death had a tremendous effect on Lane, reinforcing the enormity of the risks that he undertook. It was all an abstraction, he felt, “until shit goes down.” But that abstraction had been made manifest in the worst possible way. Lane returned two months later and spotted his friend’s skull at the bottom of a pool downstream. “He always lived his life at the limit,” Lane told me. “I think he accepted that outcome as a possibility.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment, perhaps a defense that Lane had constructed knowing that such a fate might befall himself as well. Lane had a daughter by then, a fact which underscored the consequences of the risks he took. But he couldn’t entirely withdraw from a life of adventure and found himself soon drawn again to the ragged edges of experience.

In more than a decade of globe-spanning cave expeditions, Lane had had a wide array of close calls: A tiger had paced around his tent in Sumatra; an angry tribesman had brandished a spear at him in Papua New Guinea; he’d stepped on a king cobra in Borneo. There were encounters with crocodiles, bears, pit vipers, kraits, sea snakes, and rattlers. But none were so close as one day in August 2006 when he descended into the Bigfoot cave system deep within the Marble Mountains of Northern California. Bigfoot was an adventure much closer to home, one of the deepest alpine caves in North America. The year-round temperature in the cavern is 38 degrees, and he and his group of fellow explorers made a 300-foot rappel from Bigfoot’s entrance down a series of steep pitches. As he lowered himself to the floor of the grotto, a 400-pound chunk of rock came loose from the wall in the darkness, smashing into his chest and knocking him to the ground. At the same instant, a massive boulder broke away from the rock face and became wedged against the wall directly over his head.

Lane was smeared with dirt and blood and badly bruised, and when his companions pulled him up, they discovered he had fractured his calf bone, the break nearly coming through the skin. The group’s first-aid supplies consisted of two Advil and an elastic bandage. Lane didn’t go into shock, but that only made the pain more acute. Worse, with just one usable leg, Lane knew he could never climb back out the way he had come in, even with his companions’ help. But there was, according to their charts, an alternate route, a quarter-mile belly-crawl through a narrow crevice with the Lovecraftian name Lurking Fear.

Dragging his leg behind him, Lane hauled himself forward through the blackness alone, trying to keep his face clear of the 36-degree stream that half-filled the passage. After a soaked and freezing crawl that seemed to take hours, Lane had to climb a steep rock face, his useless leg dangling as he ascended in his harness. The slightest jostling of his leg caused him agony. “The only relief was knowing that each step was one closer to home,” Lane later recalled. He finally scrambled out to sunlight and reached the group’s base camp. After drinking an entire box of wine to blunt the pain, he fashioned a crutch from a branch and limped five miles back to his car.

The incident frightened Lane and his wife, Anna. Of course, it wasn’t the first time: Lane’s frequent absences from his family had never been easy, but with two kids they had become far more of a burden. Anna had been with him since she was 20 and he was 25. She had fallen in love with his spontaneity and curiosity, his willingness to drop everything and go on an adventure. Despite Lane’s broken leg and the thousand other near misses, Anna somehow remained calm about the physical risks he undertook. She knew that worrying would just consume her but accepted those risks were an inextricable part of who he was. Lane had curbed his expeditions after their first child was born, in 2000, but once their daughter was a little older he had persuaded Anna to let him go off again. Now the agreement was that he would not leave home for more than four weeks at a stretch. Lane loves his family but he’s still drawn to the edges of things. Besides, he told me, after he nearly blew up the entire family with a home fireworks display the previous summer, “Anna was glad I wasn’t home on the Fourth of July this year.” When I asked her what she thought motivated Lane, Anna conceded to me that he remained something of a cipher to her. What made him do what he did?  “I know him really well, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.

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Bioluminescent fungi in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Five

At 6 p.m. on the dot, thousands of cicadas buzzed in the forest. You could set your watch by them: a pulsing hybrid of subway brakes and jet engines. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the forest gloom deepened. As we stumbled the last mile by headlamp, I spotted a strange light along the ground. On a rotted log there grew a colony of bioluminescent mushrooms, each tiny gill clearly drawn in glowing green. Not long after, we arrived at the base camp, a wide clearing hacked out of the forest, with an enormous tarp strung across poles and tied down with vines. A large banner for Sierra Nevada Brewery hung across the entrance. This would be the staging ground from which we’d stalk the tree kangaroo.

A shout of greeting went up from a group of bois in ragged shorts and T-shirts sitting around a smoky fire of half-green wood hacked from the forest and split by machete. One picked up a burning ember and lit a Spear cigarette, a leaf of local tobacco rolled in newspaper. They all chewed betel nut, spitting the juice in theatrical blood red arcs onto the ground. A noisy card game was played by several bois splayed across a stick bed, and a radio broadcast some kind of screechy, saccharine Papuan tween-pop that made me long for the cicadas. A propane stove held a pot with our communal dinner, a glutinous mass of ramen and canned tuna mixed with gume, a spinach-like forest fern. There were about 10 bois and meris in the camp at any given time, and they were beginning to wear on Lane. They would stay up shouting over card games until 2 a.m. each night, and by sunrise at 5:30 were back at their game, seeming never to sleep.

The bois and the meris weren’t the only people besides Lane at the camp, however. As I strung up my hammock between a pair of trees, a bright light shone directly in my eyes. It came from a headlamp belonging to Dylan van Winkel, a herpetologist from South Africa by way of New Zealand. He was chasing a frog that had hopped along the leaflitter past his laboratory, a tarp strung above a table made of sticks lashed together with vines.

Dylan had joined the expedition with his girlfriend, Sarah Wells, a 30-year-old Brit working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology. They were committed zoology freaks. There was nothing more fun than spending weeks euthanizing skinks or scanning for nesting grebes (diving birds) waist-deep in a marsh. They lived together in Auckland, and Dylan had spent months reaching out to every field-research expedition he could find, hoping they’d be able to join one. Their dream was to get on board with one of Conservation International’s legendary Rapid Assessment Programs, well-funded blitzkrieg species surveys in some of the most remote and biologically rich locales on earth. In Papua New Guinea in 2009, 200 new species were found by CI field surveys, including a species of fruit bat that made headlines around the world for its uncanny resemblance to Yoda.

If Papua New Guinea is the World Series of zoology, in comparison with CI’s rapid assessments Lane’s expedition was the Chicago Cubs of field surveys, underfunded and a bit haphazard. But Lane was Dylan’s most enthusiastic supporter, so that is where the pair had cast their lot. They didn’t know much about New Britain, but there was always that lingering dream that something extraordinary and new would manifest. They certainly believed that they were looking in a good place. They had both taken thousands of photographs, gorgeous color-saturated portraits of the strange, tiny, fluttering, slithering things that populated the forest. “The biodiversity is just huge,” said Dylan. “We’ve been seeing all sorts of crazy-ass insects.”

Dylan was a 25-year-old with a surfer’s build, curly black hair, and a three-week scruff of beard. He told me his ringtone alternated between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. He showed off his collection of “herps” by the light of his headlamp. That’s herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles—most of which in New Britain are poorly documented. He had collected dozens and went out frequently at night to spotlight them on the wet leaflitter of the forest. Each one he caught would be euthanized with a shot of pentobarbital, the same drug recently approved for administering the death penalty in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. With tweezers, Dylan would extract a tiny sample of liver for genetic analysis and preserve the rest of the specimen in alcohol. His “lab” was a stick table covered by a tarp, with stacked Tupperware containers filled with coiled snakes, board-stiff frogs, and vials containing scorpions. He was hoping that some of what he had collected would be new to science.

Sarah had already observed and cataloged dozens of bird species around the base camp, but some of their other collection attempts had been less successful. The wire-mesh lizard traps they’d had Lane climb to place high in the tree canopy had been turning up empty. Dylan gestured to a large bundled net on his worktable. “That’s a mist net,” he said. “It’s for catching birds—or mist.” Sarah sounded discouraged. “I think we need to rethink our strategy,” she said. The one mammal they had managed to trap, a large native rat that Dylan believed was a species new to science, bit him on the finger and scampered off into the underbrush.

Three Chico State undergrads had joined the expedition as well: Heidi Rogers, Alan Rhoades, and Emily Ramsey. Bringing them along was part of Lane’s bridge-building with the university, and they had all been working on their own research projects, collecting spiders, documenting and measuring trees, and enduring the discomforts of camping out in an equatorial quagmire. It had not been an easy transition from civilian life. Heidi had maintained an upbeat demeanor despite being covered head-to-toe with a remarkable assortment of suppurating welts, sores, rashes, and bites. Alan and Emily, both 22, had been together since early high school and were now giving their relationship the ultimate stress test. Emily was a soft-spoken blond ingenue whose panoply of food allergies and intolerances to pretty much anything but white rice had kept her on a near starvation diet for weeks. She had been so sick upon arrival that she’d spent the first three days in camp without leaving her tent. Lane suggested in jest that she was also allergic to dirt, as she was the sole member of the expedition who managed to appear sparkling clean at all times. Her hapless, floppy-haired boyfriend seemed wracked between his innate desire to have a fun jungle adventure and the guilty feeling that he should be a full partner in her misery.

Lane felt that the expedition would build character in the students—that it would add meaning to their existences for them to suffer a little. “They’re going to look back on this all someday and realize it was the greatest experience of their lives,” he pronounced.

Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” which managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.

There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps for teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.

I observed to Lane that a bunch of Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web stitched between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 25 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled to out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he felt a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding in his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers. 

The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State president Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s number one party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, rendezvous with the students, and escort them directly back to Northern California.

After planning dozens of expeditions full of ego clashes and unpleasant surprises, Lane had developed various coping strategies. This, in part, explained his deadpan affect and seeming inability to get worked up over almost anything. He received the Chico State president’s direct order not to bring the students along with stubborn unflappability. “If you let that stuff get to you, you end up with a nine-to-five as a pencil pusher, stuck in traffic,” Lane told me. There was something in his tone that implied such a fate was the one defeat he really feared. So Lane had simply ignored Zingg’s request and met up with the students in Port Moresby to begin the expedition. And now here they were, deep in the New Britain jungle, far beyond the reach of any administrative consequence, ready to fan out in search of Lane’s elusive quarry.

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John Lane, Emily Ramsey, and Nakanai locals at base camp near the Hargy Plantation in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)

Six

On my third morning in camp, we all walked out to a small machete-cut clearing on the shore of Lake Hargy. The volcanic caldera’s lake had filled with millions of years’ worth of rainwater, and the sun burned mist off its glassy surface. From the rough dock of vine-lashed logs the bois had fashioned, I could see 10 feet down through the astonishingly clear water. The lake reaches three miles across, and a ring of forest-covered mountains rose above the far shore. The jagged mountains formed the edge of the Nakanai range, hundreds of square miles of unpopulated, untrammelled country divided by steep gorges and knife-edge ridges, and full of thousands of limestone caves. Lane told me the Nakanai never travel to the far side of the lake. The Nakanai are afraid of the thick mists at higher elevation, which they call “snow,” swirling with malevolent spirits.

Lane’s mission in the region was to search for the tree kangaroo and whatever else he might find. If he came across one of the creatures and by some extraordinary circumstance managed to grab hold of it, Lane and Dylan agreed there was only one option: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. To prove the creature’s existence, he would have to kill it. The mystery of the New Britain tree kangaroo seemed to be as much a problem of ontology as zoology. But Lane was not vexed by philosophical questions. He had always been drawn to the unfilled spaces on the map, and he wished them to stay that way. These lost places were a screen upon which he could project his desires. And by that same promise of mysteries to be revealed, most of us had been drawn here by Lane’s mercurial vision.

Lane, Dylan, and I gathered our gear by the lakeshore. Given the limited rations and certain difficulties of our plans, only the three of us would travel into the Nakanai, while the rest of the group continued their research in the forests around the base camp. We carried a machete, climbing harnesses, several hundred feet of rope, a small cookstove, Dylan’s collecting equipment, and a camera trap for identifying animals moving along game trails at night. Lane carried a GPS unit, but it would be of limited use. The only topographical maps that exist for the region were created by the Australians in 1978, and the gradient on Lane’s copy was so coarse that a 200-foot cliff wouldn’t even merit a line. I’d brought a dozen freeze-dried camping meals. Lane and I had jungle hammocks, with rain flies and mosquito netting attached. Dylan would have to improvise, building stick beds with the machete. Considering our remoteness and the extreme topography, I asked Lane why he hadn’t brought a satellite phone. “Sat phones take the fun out of it,” he replied dismissively. “Our lives are soft enough as it is.”

I was beginning to understand the ways Lane elevated improvisation to a life philosophy. On our expedition, there was always some crucial supply missing, some unexpected obstacle to overcome. For example, Lane had planned for us to have a small aluminum rowboat to transport our heavy gear across the caldera’s lake. The boat had been acquired, but it needed to be helicoptered in from the plantation. Despite Lane’s persistent pleading for more than a year, the helicopter pilot had never gotten around to doing it. So we would make do, and that would be half the fun, according to Lane. He showed me the vessel that instead would ferry us the three miles across: a pair of inner tubes to which the bois had lashed a latticework of sticks with vines. The platform was scarcely bigger than a front door, and there were three hand-carved paddles. This didn’t seem terribly safe. Hargy is a lake where crocodiles—which can grow to 20 feet—had migrated inland and now basked along the shore. “I really don’t think they’re likely to come out to the middle,” said Lane.

In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.

As we paddled, our raft seemed a little society adrift in a wilderness outside of time. Lane recited his litany of corny and mildly dirty jokes to offset the spookiness of our isolation. (“What’s the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scotsman? Mick Jagger says, ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud.’ A Scotsman says, ‘Hey MacLeod, get off of my ewe.’”) After three hours, we reached the far side of the lake, where we dragged the raft through thigh-deep mud to the shoreline and stashed it in the 10-foot grass. There was no trail to be found. Great sails of buttress roots propped up forest giants, and the high canopy cast a cathedral gloom over the forest floor. A strangler fig the size of a house grew from a hillside, its mossy roots a dendritic maze. Lane studied the map and decided to make for what appeared to be a ridgeline rising from the lake edge toward the cloudy heights. We shouldered our heavy packs, and Dylan struck out first, machete in hand, hacking at vines. I gradually picked up on his personal lexicon of Kiwi-influenced slang, generally used to denote varying levels of approval: If he was excited for something, he was “frothing”; if deeply disappointed, “gutted.”

Dylan told me tree kangaroos give off a strong, musky odor, so I inhaled deeply, hoping for a whiff. Instead, I smelled rotting vegetable matter and my own sweat. As ever, I searched overhead for a glint of chestnut fur among the mossy branches. Almost immediately it began to rain, pounding down so hard that it was like being held beneath an open hydrant, the roar so loud we could barely hear one another. We didn’t even bother with raincoats, which would only drench us from the inside with the humidity. The jungle was filled with mutant versions of flora more familiar as houseplants and garden flowers, 10-foot ferns, head-high begonias, and fluorescent-pink impatiens erupting from the rotting crevices of trees. Rattan, that Pier 1 standby, was here a flesh-tearing horror, with stems covered in three-inch spikes and cat-claw thorns lining the undersides of its fronds. My clothes were soon shredded and my forearms bloody with deep scratches.

Dylan stopped frequently to roll over rotten logs, each one like a lottery scratch-off whose jackpot was yet unnamed species of spiders, beetles, and frogs. At one point, he squatted and poked at something on the ground with the machete, a slimy heap of half-digested seedpods. “Cassowary shit,” he said. We all took pictures. Five feet tall and weighing perhaps 60 pounds, the Bennett’s Cassowary is one of the more dangerous creatures in the forest. It resembles a flightless steroidal turkey, with a royal blue neck streaked with red, a mound of shaggy black feathers, and dagger-like spurs on thick legs. The birds can be territorial and will attack humans, leaping and punching with their spurs or head-butting with an ax-like crest of bone atop their skulls. “He can jump up to a meter in the air, and he’ll go for your throat, your stomach, or your groin,” Lane casually observed. He had been charged by one, of course.

The terrain suddenly steepened. We scrambled up the muddy hillside, wedging against roots and grasping at saplings to pull ourselves upward. We seemed to have missed the manageable ridgeline we had spotted on the map and were forcing our way up a drastic incline. As I climbed, I knocked loose a chunk of limestone the size of a basketball, and it smashed 100 feet down the hillside, echoing against the trees. The forest grew claustrophobic, offering nowhere to gain a view outward. With the thick canopy overhead, it became difficult to get the GPS unit to even register a waypoint. Finally, smeared with mud, we arrived at a slightly flat spot and hacked a camp for the night from the vine-tangled undergrowth.

We were at nearly 3,000 feet now, and the air turned chilly and damp as soon as the sun had set. I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag, assuming the tropics would be hot enough at night to make one unnecessary. Within a half-hour, I’d put on all the dry clothes I had, including my otherwise pointless raincoat, and still shook uncontrollably with cold. Lane dug into his pack and tossed me a small packet containing a Mylar space blanket. There was a picture on the package of a smiling woman wrapped in one—presumably not in the euphoric end stages of hypothermia. I found myself constantly glancing upward at the silhouetted branches, looking for some sign in the dripping expanse of foliage: a long dangling tail, a moving shadow, anything.        

From a scientific perspective, of course, stomping through inaccessible rainforest and looking around at random trees is hardly a methodologically sound way of finding a tree kangaroo. Some of the best research on tree kangaroos in the wild has been done by Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She used native hunters with tracking dogs to locate the animals, then sent climbers up into the branches after them, until, to escape, the tree kangaroos leaped to the ground, where they were promptly tackled, radio-collared, and released. There are few other ways to make long-term observations. But Dabek’s research and dedication have achieved real results; she persuaded local landowners to create a 180,000-acre conservation area around the heart of the tree kangaroo’s habitat on the mainland’s Huon peninsula. It took Dabek 10 years, and extraordinary cooperation by the native communities, to establish the protections.

That is exactly what Lane would have to do—a long process of diplomacy and trust-building with the local tribes—but it was unclear whether he had the patience for that. Lane was aware of this, of course, but rigorous methodology and slow diplomacy were not his preferred M.O. My own feelings wavered between resentment at having come halfway around the world on a half-assed goose chase and a sense of wonder that we were searching for something rich and strange at the far end of the earth. But there I was, and there was nothing much to do but follow Lane deeper into the jungle. He was out there trying for the big win, the Hail Mary that would save New Britain with one grand and miraculous discovery.

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Lake Hargy in New Britain (Photos by Dylan van Winkel)

Seven

There is a phrase in Tok Pisin, longpela taim, which means “a long time ago.” And from a long time ago until the present, outsiders have rummaged through this corner of the world for supporting evidence of their dreams. It has filled the popular imagination as a place where desires could be imprinted onto an unknown, “primitive” landscape. This has led to resource booms in copper, timber, gold, natural gas, and palm oil. But it has also spurred far more esoteric and less financially rewarding quests. The blank spaces on its map have beckoned a long parade of entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of their fantasies, and Lane is hardly the most unusual.

Papua New Guinea’s history with foreigners is filled with both seekers and the lost. Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, traveled there in 1961 to collect tribal art and vanished. There were rumors for decades: He had drowned or had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles or natives, or was living out a Colonel Kurtz–like exile deep in the jungle. A cult of searchers arose, but after 50 years they’ve failed to unearth any solid evidence. Similarly, a retired Australian aircraft engineer named David Billings has spent 17 years, and $100,000 of his own money, searching fruitlessly in the jungles of New Britain for the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart, which took off from the mainland. But these, at least, are quests for something that actually exists.

The Creation Research Society (CRS) stands out even among the many oddball Western groups obsessed with Papua. The CRS bills itself as a “professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons” devoted to a version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis. The society publishes a quarterly “peer-reviewed journal” that seeks to build an evidentiary basis for young-earth creationism, the Bible-based belief that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. In March 2006, CRS Quarterly published an article titled “The Fiery Flying Serpent,” by David Woetzel, a New Hampshire business executive and avid cryptozoologist. Woetzel described a 23-day expedition to Papua New Guinea in search of a living, possibly bioluminescent flying dinosaur natives call the ropen.

Woetzel recorded interviews with several natives of Umboi, a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast of New Britain, who claimed to have seen the flying creature. One night, while alone in his camp, he witnessed a “spine-tingling sight”: “a glowing object passing low on the horizon. … The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds, too brief to photograph it. … [We] spent five nights looking for the Ropen. Our vigils were to no avail, despite the excellent view and our even employing a dead wallaby as bait.”

Lunatic as the CRSers’ quest seems, there was something in Lane’s mission that accorded with the ropen hunters, the Amelia obsessives, the Rockefeller-heads, and all the other seekers after lost things who pilgrimage to this part of the world. But the outsider adventurer who inspired Lane to come here was none of the above. Instead, he was an American World War II reconnaissance pilot, a Minnesotan named Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer. In June 1943, Hargesheimer had been shot down over the Nakanai range, and an Australian cartographic unit during the war named the newly discovered lake in the caldera in his honor.

By mid-1943, the war in the Pacific was beginning to turn. Guadalcanal had fallen, and the Japanese had been driven from the New Guinea mainland. Their largest outpost in the region was the massive airbase at Rabaul, on the eastern end of New Britain, where more than 100,000 troops were stationed. As a photo reconnaissance pilot, Hargesheimer flew unarmed over Japanese-held territory, his machine guns replaced by a trio of cameras. He recorded the landscape for mapmaking in anticipation of an Allied land invasion and kept a constant lookout for signs of Japanese movement across the island: newly built airstrips, hidden supply barges, troop encampments. Then as now, much of the interior of New Britain was a mountainous wilderness; the only signs of human habitation were found along the coasts.

On the morning of June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer flew his twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, named the Eager Beaver, out over the Dampier Strait. He traced along the north coast of New Britain, searching for Japanese movement. He spotted what he thought was a new air strip in the jungle and prepared for a low-altitude pass to photograph it. His plane quivered, and he watched as his left engine burst into flame. He went into a defensive dive and felt bullets ricochet off the armor plate behind his cockpit. When his second engine died, Hargesheimer knew he had no choice but to bail out. He pulled the canopy release and was sucked out into open sky. Drifting slowly down beneath his parachute, Hargesheimer watched the Japanese fighter swing back around, certain it was coming in for the kill. But the pilot veered away. Hargy came back to earth, crashing down through a grove of eucalyptus trees.

He was banged up, with a deep gash on his head, but alive. He bandaged his wound with parachute cloth and took an inventory of his supplies. He had a small inflatable raft, a machete, a compass, a pistol, a packet of matches, a fishing line and hooks, penicillin, two chocolate bars, and a booklet, Friendly Fruits and Vegetables: Advice to Air Crew Members Forced Down in the Jungle. He was in the middle of a wilderness, 75 miles behind Japanese lines, in a region where tribal loyalties were uncertain and rumors of cannibalism still abounded. And although it was ostensibly the dry season, it rained torrentially every day. Hargesheimer decided to make for the coast, hoping to encounter some friendly natives who would shelter him until he could arrange a rescue.

He walked for 10 days, sucking on his chocolate to make it last, sleeping under a tent of parachute cloth, and struggling through a landscape of steep ravines and difficult vegetation. Finally, he came across a grass-roofed native shelter by a small river and set up a base for himself. He managed to start a fire with his final match, and he lived on roasted freshwater snails and a single fish he managed to shoot with his pistol. He was soon near starvation and crushingly lonesome. What if he had survived the crash only to die a slow death in the jungle?

Finally, after a month alone, he heard voices approaching. Before he knew it, a few tribesmen stood before him. He wished he had run and hid: He didn’t know if they were friendly, and he spoke only a few words of Tok Pisin. Then one of them handed him a letter. It was a greeting written by an Australian coastwatcher, a member of one of the small radio teams that hid behind enemy lines and provided early warnings on the Japanese.

Deciding they were on his side, Hargesheimer followed the natives to their village on the coast. There, they made him a feast of bananas and smoked fish. When he contracted malaria and couldn’t eat for 10 days, a nursing mother fed him every day from a teacup filled with her breast milk. In a few months, he became fluent in Tok Pisin and came to care greatly for the people who helped him. They risked their lives by hiding him. When Japanese soldiers approached the village, the natives hustled him into the jungle. He once had to climb high up in a eucalyptus tree to avoid detection. “At the top I found a mossy nest that had evidently been the sleeping place of some animal,” he later wrote. “It was a perfect hideout.”

Finally, nine months after he was shot down, the coastwatchers made contact with an American submarine, and Hargesheimer and several other stranded airmen were rescued. He sent a telegram home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” In two weeks, he was back in Minnesota.

After the war, Hargy thought often of New Britain. In 1960, he returned to the town, now called Nantabu. The villagers all remembered him and were delighted that “Masta Predi” had come all the way around the world to see them again. He wept with joy. Later, the villagers performed an elaborate “singsing” for him. Hargesheimer had brought gifts, but he wanted to do more for the people who had saved his life. He ended up building a school nearby, providing a free education to generations of native children. He even moved to New Britain with his wife and taught there with her for several years.

Ultimately, Hargesheimer retired to a vineyard in Grass Valley, California, and self-published a memoir. At 89, he got a call from a caver who lived in nearby Chico. John Lane was planning his first caving expedition to New Britain, and a friend had recommended he contact Hargesheimer for advice. They soon became good friends. Lane promised Hargesheimer he would go to New Britain and try to find the Eager Beaver.

That first expedition didn’t go quite as planned. After losing all their gear connecting through Tokyo, Lane and his companions had trekked with burlap bags to a village near where they thought the crash site might be. They went to an enormous bat-and-spider-filled cave several hours’ hike above the village, but there was no sign of Hargesheimer’s plane.

Lane left a disposable camera with a villager. The manager of the Hargy Plantation offered a reward to anyone who could find the wreckage. Then, three months later, Lane got an email with pictures of the Eager Beaver. In July 2006, Hargy and Lane traveled back to New Britain. Lane hiked in to the site to cut a helipad, and a group of native Kol tribesmen showed up and demanded $70,000 for outsiders to enter their territory. The Kol are nomadic hunter-gatherers, among the least assimilated tribes in New Britain, but luckily Lane and Hargy had a local missionary with them, one of the few white people in the world who speak Kol. They negotiated the price down to 15 cans of tuna, a tarp, and the plastic chair they’d brought to carry Hargy to the crash site.

A group of villagers carried Hargesheimer up to the Eager Beaver. The wreckage was spread over a quarter-mile area down a steep streambed. They found a section of the tail riddled with bullet holes and one of the enormous propellers stuck into the ground like a javelin. Even the cameras that had been mounted to the P-38 were there.

Hargy died almost a year ago, but the school he built in New Britain still exists, and Lane sits on the board of its nonprofit foundation. He was a different sort of person than Lane, but one who had clearly inspired him deeply. Hargy had led a life that was at once a humble service and an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps there was a way for Lane’s own life to encompass both of those things. “When I met Fred, caving sort of went on the back burner, and this became more of a conservation project,” Lane told me. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had hoped to achieve here, had grown from that strange, serendipitous friendship, and with Hargy in mind he would push on no matter how absurdly long the odds appeared.

Eight

Day after day, we pushed onward into the depths of the Nakanai. Things were starting to unravel. The landscape itself was our biggest adversary, steep and vicious, the air heavy with decayed vegetation. Dylan hacked a route through a wilderness of bamboo and neck-deep tanglefoot ferns. The ferns were so woody and interwoven, it sometimes took 20 minutes to go as many yards. Stinging caterpillars dropped down on our exposed necks. My waterlogged leather boots were nearly sliced through by vines; they smelled like a damp catacomb. I had an angry rash across my chest, and Dylan diagnosed himself with the early stages of trench foot. We were also running low on provisions, with little remaining but corned beef and Hiway Hardman biscuits, but Lane cheerfully assured us we would be fine with no food for a few days. We hadn’t seen so much as a tree kangaroo claw mark or scat pile.

Carrying our heavy packs also slowed us down. On a high forested ridge, we decided to make a base camp. Hoping to capture a still shot of a tree kangaroo, Lane set up his motion-sensing camera trap every evening, but he only wound up taking inadvertent portraits of himself. One morning I heard a loud rustling outside my hammock and prayed that it was a tree kangaroo rifling through my pack. I sat up and watched as an enormous wild boar crashed its way down the ridge. The forest seemed spooky and echoing, and Lane speculated that this was the domain of the Nakanai’s dreaded one-armed, one-legged Pomeo people of local legend. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been to this place, too far for even the most ambitious native hunters to roam. Lane judged from the map that we were above a series of steep ravines that cut into the heart of the Nakanai wilderness.

Fallen logs held their shape but collapsed into compost at a touch. I could see the jungle’s soil being created before my eyes. On one steep section, I clung to a root, then slipped and fell into a rotten log. Thousands of furious inch-long red and black ants swarmed out, and some stung me, white-hot and electric. I was surprised by the sound of my own screaming, raspy and high-pitched, echoing through the forest as I tried to brush them off in panic. Lane looked up from below me, unconcerned. When I made it down to him, ant bites swelling across my stomach, he gave me a look that seemed to say, Suck it upkid, this is part of the deal.

We stumbled down into a dry creek bed, and I suggested to Dylan that he mark a notch in a fallen log so that we would know where to turn back up the ridge. As he swung, the blade of the machete glanced off the wood and sank into his knee, blood flowing down over his shin in rivulets. Dylan sat down, and we looked at the cut, a wide red smile just below the patella, going nearly to the bone. “Uh-oh,” said Lane, in a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Machete owie.” Dylan seemed unfazed. Part of the grand project with our tree kangaroo hunt, it seemed, was trying to make living itself hard work again. Dylan refused to turn back and wrapped a dirty bandanna around the wound to stanch the bleeding: a machete wound would proffer significant bragging rights back home.

We picked our way carefully over the mossy boulders of the streambed. After several hundred yards scrambling along the ravine, we came to an abrupt stop. The dry streambed dropped over a smooth saddle of rock and plunged straight down for 100 feet into an even deeper canyon. Lane told us we would need to return the following day with our ropes. We turned and began the long climb to our base camp, hundreds of vertical feet above us through the jungle.

Back in camp, the afternoon rains pounded down. Dylan tossed me a little envelope dug from the depths of his pack. It was a suture kit. Illuminating the wound with my headlamp, I used a syringe to wash it with rainwater, trying at least to get the mud out. I grasped the curved needle with tweezers and pushed it through the edge of the wound, then drew the suture through. I repeated this process through the top edge of the incision. Dylan directed me as I went, and I tied the thread into a sloppy but passable stitch, the wound closing like a Ziploc bag. With the next suture I hit a vein, and blood gushed down his shin. I tied it off again, and finally it was closed. “That’s a mean cut,” said Dylan, with a hint of pride. “Wicked!”

We returned to the waterfall in the morning, 200 feet of climbing rope looped over Dylan’s shoulder. Lane tied a secure anchor around several boulders. Despite his often laissez-faire approach to safety, Lane took preparations for the descent seriously. He clipped our line into the anchor and tossed it over the lip of the dry waterfall. One at a time, we rappelled into the abyss, kicking away from the mossy rock face and sliding down the line.

Limestone cliffs rose sheer above us and formed a slot canyon, as vertical gardens of ferns and orchids dripped down. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well. The sky was barely visible as we scrambled down the narrow canyon, and it seemed certain that no human had ever before been in this exact place. I was so lost in my ruminations about the wilderness that I almost ignored Lane’s warning to stop. I looked up and saw that we had come to the top of a second waterfall, probably twice as high as the first, and we were out of rope. It would be impossible to go any further. “I guess that’s the end of the line,” said Lane, looking out at the dark jungle valley below the falls. His voice didn’t sound frustrated or relieved, merely matter-of-fact that his endless search would now turn elsewhere, like Ahab with ADD. I wondered if, for him, it was not as much about finding things as looking for them. Not finding them just meant he had a reason to come back and try again.

An immense tangled tree jutted from the cliffs beyond the waterfall. I tried to will a silhouetted tree kangaroo to climb out along its branches and gaze down from its secret world, indifferent to our presence. Ethnotramp or not. Real or imaginary. I knew that wishing for it to appear was just another form of magical thinking. I knew that just proving the tree kangaroo’s existence was not likely to be the most effective way of saving this wilderness. And yet the forest beyond still seemed to glow with mystery and possibility. I did not want a world bereft of such secrets. I thought of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen-like acceptance when he failed to reach his eponymous goal in The Snow Leopard. “I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.” Looking out from the edge, I did not feel ashamed at our failure.

Having literally reached the end of our rope, we turned back up the canyon and scrambled to the base of the first waterfall, where our lifeline of rope hung down. Without it, we would be completely trapped. I attached a set of ascending devices to my harness and clipped into the line, inch-worming my way up the 100-foot rock face. Halfway up it started to rain, a driving vertical torrent, and water began to run down the slick, mossy wall. By the time I pulled myself over the top, the rain was blinding, pouring off broad leaves and filling the dry pools of the streambed. I perched on a log that had braced itself across the ravine.

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan pulled himself up, and by then the stream’s pools had filled and begun to join together, running in a steady flow over the edge. New streams burst in along the sides of the ravine, adding to the fast-rising torrent. The anchor for the climbing line was soon underwater, and the stream below cranked up to a muddy brown roar, cascading over the edge to where Lane was trying to climb up to us. Dylan scrambled up to my log, and we stared at each other, wordless at the chaos that had erupted below. I could not see Lane and feared he had been trapped by the flooding water, maybe swept downstream or pinned against the rock face by the flow. We were both powerless to help him, and we both knew that if he was hurt or trapped, it would take days for us to bring help. I thought of his friend Adam Bodine, drowned years ago. Lane’s adventure-promoting decision not to bring a satellite phone now seemed the height of hubris. A dull panic stirred in my stomach. The water pounded down from above and roared over the falls, the thin lifeline of rope stretched taut.

And then a hand splashed up, followed by another, followed by a waterlogged Sierra Nevada Brewery baseball cap. Lane dragged himself over the edge, stood in the knee-deep flow, and gasped for breath, the water running off him. He whooped, shouting for the first time since I’d met him: “That was epic! Super hairy.” I wondered if this moment of danger and then a last-minute reprieve was what he had been looking for all along.

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A Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo in captivity near Kimbe Bay in New Britain. (Photo by Matthew Power)

Nine

We were out of rope, out of time, and almost out of food. So the next day we made the long, treacherous descent back to the lake’s edge, where the raft waited. We paddled across the lake through driving rain, the mountains of the Nakanai receding in the distance.

When we returned to the camp, we were happy to find that the place hadn’t devolved into Lord of the Flies in our absence: There had been no nasty breakups or petty acts of violence, and no sticks had been sharpened at both ends. Even so, the Chico State students were more than ready to go home. The bois began breaking down the camp. Dylan and Sarah dismantled their lab and packed the specimens, hoping that something new to science was floating in one of the little jars or stacked in Tupperware. (Lane warned Dylan to be careful bringing specimens back through Australian customs. Last time, a giant cockroach had scuttled out from his baggage and customs had confiscated his penis gourd.)

We all stumbled over the shoulder of the volcano, back to the edge of the known world, the oil palms marching across the landscape in formation. In a few months, there would be little sign that anyone had ever been at the camp in the caldera, save a few collapsed stick beds decaying back into the earth. We were just visitors here, the ultimate introduced species.

I got a ride down from the plantation to the coast, into the little town of Kimbe Bay. Hundreds of Papuans bustled among the stalls of a market. A man tried to sell me a baby crocodile, its jaws bound shut with string. There was a small resort in town that catered to tourists, mostly foreign scuba divers who had come to explore the sunken World War II wrecks and coral reefs. A guard let me in the gate, and I walked down a path lined with bougainvillea and jasmine perfuming the humid air. Far to the back of the grounds, in the shade of a spreading tree, I saw it at last. It was perched on curved ebony claws, crouching upon a branch mounted to the inside of a 10-foot steel cage. Its long and impossibly soft brown-golden tail hung straight down, like the pendulum of a stopped clock. The creature turned slowly to watch me as I approached, its face placid, limpid. Its soft brown eyes looked out at the human world through a grid-pattern of bars. Wherever it was from and however it had arrived on this island, this tree kangaroo was a captive now to the dreams of men. It blinked sleepily, slowly turning and curling up on its branch.

Months later, I emailed Lane at home in California. He was back to the routines of ordinary life—his day job, hanging out with his kids—perhaps feeling as much a captive of the modern world as the creature I’d seen in the cage. He was trying to persuade the university and Sierra Nevada to get on board for another expedition next summer. Lane planned to return to New Britain regardless, despite—or because of—the fact that we had found nothing. The Eager Beaver, the tree kangaroo, the grand and noble plan of turning the Nakanai wilderness into a national park: All his obsessions derived from one prime motive. What Lane really wanted was to strike out in search of lost things in our networked, globalized, utterly found world.

Looking back he still felt, given his crippling budgetary limitations and the elusive nature of his quarry, that the expedition had been a success. He recognized all the things we could have done differently in our search for the tree kangaroo: Hired local hunters with dogs, gone from village to village with photographs, or offered a bounty for its capture. But Lane felt that he had made some progress toward the larger goal, building relationships with the native landowners and the plantation. And perhaps some of what Dylan had collected would be new species to science. “The unknowns, the unexpected, or just bad luck can be debilitating,” Lane told me. “At times I wonder how bad can it continue to get, and sometimes I think about throwing in the towel, but overcoming those situations is extremely empowering.”

Lane’s dream now was to persuade the native landowners to build an ecotourism resort where the base camp stood. He envisioned kayaking, canyoneering, cave exploration, and bird-watching. Tourists would come from around the world to see the Hargy caldera. Of course, the logistics would be formidable. Where would he find the money to construct permanent structures? How would they build at such a remote site, miles from the nearest road? How would they train the Nakanai villagers to run it, given Western expectations of creature comforts? And then there were the crocodiles and scorpions and giant spiders. Lane understood all those things, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “It takes time, money, patience, and fortitude,” he said, “but most of all, I have to keep moving forward and trying.”

Next year, he told me, he was going to build a zip line.

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In Memoriam
Matthew Power
(1974-2014)

Blindsight

Blindsight

Simon Lewis was a Hollywood producer on the rise before an accident took his wife’s life and nearly his own.

By Chris Colin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 07


Chris Colin is the award-winning author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93, which GQ magazine called “essential reading” and the National Press Club selected for its 2004 author awards. He’s a frequent New York Times contributor and a contributing writer at Afar magazine. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper, and more for The New York Times MagazineWiredSmithsonianMother JonesCondé Nast PortfolioVia, McSweeney’s, and several anthologies. He wrote the long-running On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, was an early writer/editor at Salon.com, and is coauthor of The Blue Pages. He lives in San Francisco and works and teaches at the Writers’ Grotto, a writers’ collective.

Photographer: Jonathan Snyder is associate photo editor at Wired.com. A regular contributor to Pop-Up Magazine, he has also shot for San Francisco, TheAtlantic.com, and Wired.

Audio Producer: Pat Walters is a producer for Radiolab.

Sound/Video Editor, Fact Checker: Olivia Koski

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Macbeth Film ClipSimon Lewis

Archival Film Set Photos: 

“LOOK WHO’S TALKING” © 1989 TriStar Pictures, Inc.  All Rights Reserved  

“AGE-OLD FRIENDS” © 1989 Home Box Office  All Rights Reserved  

Simon Lewis’s INK talk can be viewed in full online at www.inktalks.com/talks/simonlewis or at on.ted.com/Lewis.

Special thanks to: Simon Lewis and the Lewis family



Published in August 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

Lewis’s path to Hollywood began with plans to become a lawyer. At 19, he’d emigrated with his parents and siblings from Wimbledon, in London, to Southern California, and headed straight to UC Berkeley to earn a law degree. But film and theater were his passions. Even as a boy he’d been a natural producer. He read Macbeth at 12 and liked it, so he sat down, took out some paper, and began adapting it into a screenplay. He wrote for eight months. Then, with Rushmore-ian

panache, he found a camera, corralled his classmates, assigned them parts, and convinced them to spend two years shooting. His mother supplied the catering. There were early-’70s

technical challenges. To add the audio, he projected the footage on a wall at his house and recorded his actors speaking their lines in sync with their moving mouths. A perfectionist, Lewis hadn’t wanted to record the rattle of the projector, so he moved his cast outside, into the yard. They spoke their lines into a boom mic while watching the footage through his living room window. Later he’d finagled a volunteer gig running the lights at the local theater, just to be part of things.

With his degree from Berkeley, he’d maneuvered his way into entertainment law, which led to managing talent, which eventually led to producing. Lewis had thick curls and steady, clear blue eyes. He was that special and simple genre of person who does all that he sets out to do.

The Simon Lewis driving down the road on this early California evening does not make complex or particularly profound movies. He makes small and sometimes cheesy movies. In Slipping Into Darkness, from 1988, three snobby college girls fall into a horror-style revenge plot with some biker dudes. InYou Can’t Hurry Love, from the same year, modern-day dating is skewered: video-dating-service antics, lousy matches, true love at last. The New York Times called it “a very dim comedy.”

The paper had no words at all for 1989’s C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. In it, a science-lab cadaver gets improbably loose early on and a bitchin’ ’80s drum track kicks in. Then a bookish high school student exclaims “Oh,” and his jeans-jacket-wearing buddy exclaims “Shit!” and an insane guitar solo screams. Via lurching plot points, their small town is overtaken by cannibalistic zombie types. Even a tiny poodle becomes a zombie, and the guitar solos keep coming and coming.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Lewis was diligent and professional, and people liked him, and he possessed the mysterious Hollywood gene—part drive, part charm, part genius for packaging ideas—that made things happen. Still, it wasn’t until a particularly hokey project fell in his lap in the late ’80s that he hit it big.

The film seemed destined for instant obscurity: a sarcastic baby whose thoughts the audience can somehow hear. It was one of many films then being shot cheaply in Canada in the hopes of bringing in just enough for a small profit. The actors who agreed to star were hardly A-list. John Travolta was a has-been from the ’70s and Kirstie Alley a little-known TV actress. Lewis loved it immediately.

As co-producer he quickly began pushing Look Who’s Talking to be far more ambitious than what the studio had in mind. It was as though a line cook from Burger King had shown up in chef’s whites and proceeded to set each table with the finest silver. Lewis was sweet and politic, but he could play hardball. At one point, about to fly to Canada to begin filming, he simply refused to take a call from executives, sensing that they might cancel the trip—and maybe the project. He got on his plane and made sure the shoot happened.

The real trouble began when filming was finished and TriStar received the final cut. One must mind-warp back to the late ’80s to accept the following truth: The film was too good.

Having planned for a modest release, TriStar suddenly found itself sitting on a potential hit. The studio’s first impulse was skepticism. When Lewis and his fellow producers market-tested an early cut, the assembled viewers responded so enthusiastically that TriStar seemed to think they were plants. The studio decided to conduct its own test at an undisclosed location. The scores were even higher.

Following a last-minute scramble, Look Who’s Talking was released in October 1989 at 1,200 theaters across the country. It was an instant smash, a record breaker. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally, and The Little Mermaid all came out that year, and Look Who’s Talking beat each of them at the box office; it beat Field of Dreams and Born on the Fourth of July combined.

After Look Who’s Talking, Lewis was never busier. He executive produced an Emmy-winning TV movie called Age-Old Friends and some variety specials starring Howie Mandel. He brought Universal Studios an idea for a don’t-mess-with-nature sci-fi/horror film about a biosphere gone awry. Universal liked it and paid Lewis and other writers to develop the script, though ultimately the project foundered. No matter; Lewis had other irons in the fire. He’d been invited to teach film to grad students at USC, and he had a meeting scheduled with a director and producer at Sony Classics regarding a soon-to-be Nick Nolte film.

But that’s tomorrow. On this night, March 2, 1994, Lewis has an entirely different sphere of his life to celebrate.

He met Marcy by chance—a shared drive to a ski cabin on a vacation with mutual friends—less than two years earlier. By the time they reached Fresno, there had been no question; in a year, they were married. She was talkative and vivacious to his pale British bookishness. On a trip to Hawaii, she sunned on the sand while Simon scrunched into the narrow shadow of a palm tree, bent over scripts. Someone had once predicted Marcy would marry a left-handed Englishman. Simon was ambidextrous. Close enough, they decided. They adored each other.

And now Marcy is in the passenger’s seat. Simon has picked her up from work—at 27 she is marketing director at downtown L.A.’s Music Center—and they are back on the road. The two have been married just five months and are celebrating their first major purchase together: a sleek new Infiniti only two days old. In the way that one splurge begets another, they are treating themselves to dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Had Simon paused to tie a shoe before getting in the car, or had Marcy made one more phone call, everything would have ended differently.

2.

It’s hard now not to see that March night unfolding cinematically—as Lewis himself, at a pitch meeting or on a set, might have described it. Random events are inserted into a timeline, actions imbued with meaning. Hollywood is in the business of making sense of things—a ridiculous sort of sense, often enough, but sense all the same. A two-day-old car bearing a young couple to dinner assumes all the hope and innocence of youth. A white ’78 Chevy van, also bought two days earlier, turns on to a tree-lined residential street, and a horrible plot is set in motion.

Around 7 p.m., Simon and Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard, nearly at the restaurant. Marcy mentions that they are close to her boss’s home, which has recently been renovated, and suggests they make a detour to see it. At that moment the white van screams full-speed through a stop sign at McCadden Place. Maybe the driver is thinking he will miraculously thread the five lanes of traffic. Maybe he is too drunk to think.

The van rams Lewis’s side of the Infiniti at 75 miles per hour, bulldozing it sideways across the remaining lanes until it hits the curb. There is nowhere to go but up. The car flies and spins through the air until its path is interrupted by a maple tree on the corner of Beverly and McCadden. It slams into the tree several feet up the trunk, then comes to rest in a nearby garden.

Neighbors will later say they thought it was an earthquake or a bomb. One couple ducks under the dinner table. When they finally run outside, they come upon a scene of chaos and carnage. The Infiniti is scarcely recognizable as a car. The van looks oddly normal at first, except it is upside down, its wheels still spinning. Witnesses see a young man sprinting up McCadden, presumably to find help.

A screenwriter couple—colleagues of Lewis’s, incredibly—are driving to dinner when they come upon the accident. They park and run over. Lewis’s body has been crushed into the collapsed space between the center console, the driver’s-side door, and the steering column. Standing just two feet away, his colleagues do not recognize him.

Moving to the passenger side, they see that neither occupant can be removed without dismantling the car. The wife hands flares to a meter maid who’d been in the area and waits for help. An off-duty paramedic has already called 911. No survivors, he reports.

It takes over an hour and two Jaws of Life tools for the rescue team to splay the Infiniti open. The car still bears dealer plates, and with no access to Lewis’s wallet, the police scrawl “UNK” on the collision report. The driver of the van is a mystery, too. That fellow sprinting up McCadden was not getting help: He was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the newlyweds whose lives he’d just annihilated.

LAPD detectives will eventually discover that the van has been purchased with cash two days earlier. They’ll find an address for the driver, but he’ll have cleared out by the time they get there. California is the nation’s capital of hit-and-runs, and Los Angeles has the most in the state; half of the 50,000-plus non-highway accidents reported to the LAPD the previous year were hit-and-runs. This night a man in his twenties or thirties joins thousands of other motorists who cause accidents, flee, and then slip undetected back into ordinary life.

The extraction team shears the roof and doors off the Infiniti. Marcy’s face has no blood on it; she looks like she is sleeping. Simon, for his part, is shattered in every way possible. When at last they get to him, rescuers are shocked to discover he has a pulse. They slice through his seatbelt, cut off his clothes, and ease his broken body into an ambulance.

Inside his smashed skull, his brain has begun to swell. Ruptured blood vessels leak, causing more oxygen to be needed, thereby causing the swelling to increase and, with nowhere for it to go, to destroy more and more brain tissue. The paramedics slip on a bag-valve mask and flow meter that feeds oxygen into his lungs, but pressure within his skull is skyrocketing. As the team speeds him to Cedars-Sinai, two miles away, blood begins to trickle from his ears.

Later, a doctor will suggest that being stuck in the wreckage all that time might have kept him alive. Because rescuers couldn’t extract and wrap him in blankets, Lewis’s body temperature fell to hypothermic levels. Death went into slow-motion.

3.

Before the protagonist can be remade, he must lose everything. Before the third act must come the twist. And before a once ordinary man starts saying strange things about a river of time and the slope of consciousness, there must first be just the banal awfulness of a mangled body.

Lewis had been crushed. He was hemorrhaging internally, and blood was filling every available space under his skin. By the time he was admitted at Cedars-Sinai—John Doe #584291, birth date 00-00-0000—his body had swollen to twice its normal size.

His brain was in crisis. Intracranial hematoma—the pooling of blood within the head, caused by a vessel rupture—falls into three main types: epidural (outside the brain and its fibrous covering, the dura), subdural (between the brain and the dura), and intraparenchymal (within the brain tissue itself). Lewis had all three. What’s more, it appeared that a full third of his right hemisphere had been destroyed. There was no time to worry about what that would mean. Blood continued to pump throughout his skull, even into the soft tissue around his eye sockets. His eyes bulged black with periorbital ecchymosis—what doctors call raccoon eyes.

The average human carries about 10 to 12 units of blood—a carton and a half of milk, roughly. Forty-five units of new blood would be pumped into Lewis that night. The transfusions washed right through, but they kept his cells alive. The surgeon pumped surgical gel into the body in an attempt to seal the blood vessels and applied compression around the exterior of the body—a series of tourniquets, essentially.

An emergency craniotomy was authorized next, to remove the hematomas from within Lewis’s skull. But he had sustained a massive stroke and slipped into the deepest level of coma possible, the Glasgow Level 3. His body was shutting down.

In the trunk of the Infiniti, police had found a day planner containing names and numbers. Sometime after eleven on that night, the phone rang at the home of Lewis’s parents, in Sherman Oaks. His mother answered.

“Is this … Mrs. Patricia Lewis?” a voice asked.

“Yes, who are you?”

“Are you alone?”

“No, I’m with my husband. Who is this?” she replied.

A pause.

“May I speak to … Mr. Basil Lewis?”

“Not until you tell me who you are,” she said, British willfulness coming on.

Another pause, and then a new voice.

“This is Detective Pearson, West Traffic Division. Marcy Lewis is dead and your son is critical.”

Lewis’s mother is perhaps the toughest of the family: no nonsense, stiff upper lip, all that. She crumbled. Lewis’s father took the phone and listened to the detective. Then he hung up and took his wife’s hands.

“Our son is still alive, and he needs us to be strong for him,” he said softly. They had no idea what that would mean.

4.

Because we saw too many soap operas as kids, or because its contours are improbable, or because we just can’t bear to believe such a thing is real, there’s something otherworldly about a coma. In reality, of course, comas are simply mundane and awful. Loved ones don’t whisper just the right thing at just the right time, causing the patient magically to revive. More often at this level of injury, all that comes is death or a persistent vegetative state. A few hours at level three and doctors assume permanent damage to the brain, should the patient be lucky enough to wake at all. Lewis’s parents sat by their comatose son for four weeks.

Then one day in April, Lewis’s eyes opened.

He looked around without curiosity. He didn’t feel reborn, as the formulation has it; he had no recollection of even having lived before, no sense of self, no sense of there being anybody or anything dwelling within. Nor did he seem to care. A voice from nowhere asked his name. How could a person just born into this world have a name? More compelling was his new conviction that time was somehow a river, and he was somehow in the midst of it, and it was somehow flowing from the future back toward him.

The voice asked again. What is your name?

“Simon,” his mouth murmured, his first word in a month.

“Do you know where you are?”

Less luck with this question. It seemed … a trick somehow. His eyes closed and sleep came over him. Later, he awoke with a sense of threat. His parents came into the room and he told them, “There are monsters in the mountains, but no one must know.” His mother promised to take care of it.

Later, on the way home, Lewis’s father turned to her.

“I’ve just realized something,” he said. “Simon doesn’t know he was in an accident.”

The next morning, his parents hung a sign on the door to room 7123: “No visitors allowed. Do not refer to patient’s wife.”


The days ran together during those first couple weeks. When awake, Lewis marveled at light and shadow, was staggered by the sparkling of the sun on the blinds. At times he felt a kind of ecstasy. Other times he was immobilized in a physical world he didn’t recognize. He saw an object on a wall and eventually came to remember that it was called a clock. But he didn’t know what it did or how time worked.

At one point a nurse offered to give Lewis a bed bath. His jaw was wired shut so he smiled a yes. He thought she’d offered a bird bath. He wondered why she thought he was a bird, but the idea didn’t seem strange. That spring his mother mentioned the Oscars. “What’s that?” he mumbled. He took to watching shows and movies based on children’s books: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was curious about Toad of Toad Hall. He considered Narnia a natural and real place.

Lewis’s grandmother used to complain of loneliness and boredom, of how all she had were the four walls. With the cruel innocence of youth, he would say, he and his brothers joked that she never mentioned the ceiling or floor. But at the hospital he wasn’t bored or lonely. He could achieve neither state of mind any more than a goldfish could.

One night in April, Lewis experienced a strange feeling of deep, ancient memory. It felt familiar, and he found himself recalling, vaguely, a series of visions from his weeks in the coma. They were primal and rudimentary—different from ordinary dreams. The visions returned frequently during his time in the hospital, seemingly born of a mind far wilder than the one he’d known before the accident.

In a moment of thirst I see a hotel in the desert…. The desert … takes me to … a prehistoric settlement in Israel where I’ve lived for many generations.

A town built on the water during Prohibition… I am helping to run whiskey…. At my wormhole between two universes, of the physical and the mind, my boat sails on, now in Southeast Asia.

It’s cold, wintry cold, and I see a zoo with many animals…. I am traveling with a great opera company….

Time becomes a river that I watch, flowing from the boundless horizon of the future to the present.

Weeks out of his coma, he found himself aware of a river again. He was on a boat, rain drumming the cabin roof. A woman stood by his side. He realized she’d been by his side through other memories, too. All at once, sometime before dawn, he remembered Marcy. The feeling was pure joy, a sense of completion.

He couldn’t wait to tell someone the wonderful news. At last a nurse came to turn him.

“I’m married to Marcy!” he whispered through his teeth.

“That’s very nice, Simon,” she replied, then went to phone his parents. The remaining hours of the night were his last with the full happiness of Marcy’s love. He did not question where she was or why she had not been mentioned. In the morning his parents returned.

“I’m married,” he repeated. “To Marcy.”

His mother looked at him and prepared to do the last thing a parent ever wishes to do: She took her son’s happiness away.

“She died, Simon. You were in an accident and Marcy died.”

5.

Lewis was lost in a fog of grief and medical deluge. In addition to his skull, his collarbone, pelvis, jaw, both arms, and all but two ribs had also been crushed. A third of the right hemisphere of his brain had been destroyed. Each catastrophic injury bore its own constellation of crises. One day while Lewis was still at Cedars-Sinai, a doctor-in-training came to conduct a psychological evaluation. Before leaving, he leaned in with some words of wisdom.

“It’s difficult for you to come to terms with this now,” he said, and then brightened. “But you’ll look back one day and see how this experience made you a better, stronger person.”

Lewis was in no shape to confront the suggestion that his wife’s death would improve him. His mother, though, felt perfectly equal to the job. Stepping up to the man, she said, “We hope one day your wife dies this way and someone tells you it’s for the best.”

The days had turned to weeks for Lewis, and the weeks now turned to months. He would move back into his parents’ house that summer, 1994, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly endless medical journey. No sooner would he recuperate from one grueling surgery than he’d be back for another. The months turned to years. His recovery lasted a decade and a half.

He existed in a haze for much of that time—a one-man city of Los Angeles. He slept and he watched the pine trees in his parents’ backyard, sometimes for hours on end; he felt he could see them grow. He slept some more. Occasionally, he went with his mother to appointments, and after a number of years, he began to read and to appreciate movies again. But mostly he just existed, bobbing in and out of consciousness of the world outside his parents’ front door: the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Unabomber, the rise of email and the Internet, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, cell phones, Bush/Gore. Even 9/11 was an indistinct catastrophe very far from his small, quiet life down the hall from his parents.

In Washington Irving’s famous story, Rip Van Winkle’s epic nap removes him from his life for 20 years. When he finally awakens and makes his way out of the forest, he discovers a world he doesn’t recognize. His wife and friends have died, the American Revolution has been won, and another man now answers to Rip Van Winkle—his son, it turns out. (He’s a little relieved at his wife’s death, and he’s as idle as ever. It’s sort of a weird story.)

Haunting as it is, there’s something tidy about Irving’s tale—the sudden awakening, Van Winkle’s return to his old ways. Lewis’s awakening, by comparison, happened in fits and starts. The fog lifted only gradually. He moved up and down “a slope of consciousness,” as he put it: Some days he neared the lucid peak, thanks to an intense regimen of cognitive therapy. Other days he found himself slipping to murky depths. At one point he could not seem to grasp the concept of a line. At another his mother had to send one of his brothers to deliver a basic explanation: If one person is taller than another, that second person is shorter.

Incredibly, Lewis’s intellect would appear to fully recover over the years, thanks to his relentless cognitive-therapy routine—and the remarkable elasticity of the human brain. (Today his pleasure reading includes articles on quantum theory.) But if his IQ was ultimately shown to be undiminished, his mind wasn’t untouched altogether. Gradually, a thicket of strange new mental quirks revealed themselves, disruptions that shifted the way he processed the world and moved through it.

6.

Lewis recalls his cognitive therapist once presenting him with half a dozen illustrated cards spread out face up in front of him: a broken glass on the floor next to a table, an intact glass on the table, a surprised look on a man’s face, and so on. She asked Lewis to put them into sequence. He stared at them for over an hour. Even after accepting the dubious idea that some kind of order could be imposed on these images, he considered it just as likely that the glass began broken on the floor, then made its way up to the tabletop. It was as if he had lost a connection to linear events.

As the fog lifted in the years after the crash, he began to notice something different about how he himself moved through time. His thoughts were as rational as ever, his recall decent for a middle-aged man. But chronology was scrambled. Remembering that morning’s breakfast presented no difficulty, nor would remembering a conversation from the previous week. He just couldn’t always say which came first. Lewis described his symptoms to his cognitive therapist several years into his recovery. She replied that “flat time” was a frequent consequence of brain injury.

Flat time was paired with another, even stranger, cognitive quirk. Back home one afternoon not long after the accident, Lewis walked directly into a pine tree in his parents’ backyard. His mother brought him to Alan Brodney, a developmental optometrist on staff at Cedars-Sinai. Brodney frequently treats patients with visual impairment caused by traumatic brain injury, and at first he assumed Lewis had simply lost his left visual field, a common consequence of damage to the right side of the brain. Then he ran a test and discovered something astonishing.

Holding up different pieces of paper in the blind area, Brodney confirmed that indeed Lewis saw nothing. But when asked to name the colors of the paper, Lewis got most right. After a slew of subsequent tests, Brodney diagnosed him with blindsight, an obscure and paradoxical condition that might as well have been invented by a screenwriter. Lewis was partly blind—but he could see through those blind spots, albeit without quite being aware of doing so.

The condition was discovered decades ago, and researchers believe it’s something of a workaround in certain traumatized brains. With ordinary vision, visual information follows a sophisticated route from the eye, through the thalamus, to the visual cortex. When injury shuts this avenue down, blindsight can offer a detour: That visual information takes a more primitive pathway through the brainstem. This pathway is typically associated with reflexive behavior and is more prominent in lower mammals, birds, and reptiles.

“It’s not common,”  Mel Goodale told me. Goodale is director of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario and a leading blindsight researcher. “You have to have a brain lesion that’s large enough to cause blindness, but not so large to damage the other pathways.”

In one video of a much-researched patient, a man walks down a hallway strewn with debris. Unlike Lewis’s left-field blindness, this patient couldn’t see at all. But guided by his more primitive visual system, he moves to the left to avoid a garbage can, then to the right to miss a camera tripod, navigating the hall as if he can see. With therapy and training, Lewis became similarly adept. He sidestepped trees, though he wouldn’t necessarily see them—not consciously, anyway. As Brodney put it, an array of visual information was bypassing his conscious mind and going straight into his subconscious.

Driven by his strange new conditions, Simon became increasingly curious about his inner world. Upon his discovery of a stash of notes he’d scribbled in the earlier, hazier days of recovery, a rusty producer’s switch seemed to flip in his head. Doctors continued to work on him, but he insisted that his mother set up a computer in his bedroom. Glacially, painstakingly, he taught himself to write again.

7.

Lewis’s first project would be to piece together the story of his accident and recovery. With help from his mother, he began to get in touch with nearly everyone who’d figured into both, from witnesses to medical practitioners. He became a reporter covering his own life—excavating the intricacies of each medical milepost and insurance absurdity with patience and curiosity. He’d been thorough as a producer, but he now had the mystery of those lost years driving his own kind of production.

Lewis didn’t just want an excuse to recount his own miraculous recovery. An obsessively gentle sensibility took hold after the crash, and any suffering in the world seemed to physically pain him. Maybe his writing could help the other 5 million Americans living with traumatic brain injury. To the surprise of Lewis and his family, a book began to take shape.

In 2010, Rise and Shine was published by a small house called Santa Monica Press. It’s remarkably detailed, a punctilious chronology of Lewis’s medical journey and the recovery of his mental faculties. And though the book is not predominantly about his emotional transformation, an impressive candor occasionally surfaces:

So many moments of our lives are beyond expression, but like everything else, there’s an industry of grief experts armed with terminology that talk about “closure” and cleanly defined “stages of grief.” They repeat the cliché that “time heals.” Many people, I’m sure, find comfort in counselors, but I didn’t feel my grief was something I could define, work through on some kind of schedule, and then move on. I still regard the word “closure” as politically correct fiction, an expectation imposed on people who have suffered by those who have not.

The book didn’t shoot to the top of the bestseller list, but it got things moving in his life—including netting him an invitation to speak at the 2010 INK conference in Lavasa, India, a celebrity-thinker-infused offshoot of California’s TED gatherings. It was Lewis’s first significant return to public life since his accident.

In the talk, he described the strange new perceptions that his brain trauma had delivered, beginning at his long perch on the rim between life and death. “After I returned from the hospital … I felt empty and full, hot and cold, euphoric and depressed,” he said at one point, describing his new reality. “The brain is the world’s first fully functional quantum computer. It can occupy multiple states at the same time. With all the internal regulators of my brain damaged, I felt everything simultaneously.”

Standing on the stage was a man bearing a unique operating system. The talk lasted 18 minutes, and at the end the crowd rose for a standing ovation. To Lewis it was a wonderful success—Deepak Chopra was in attendance and invited him to talk at his event months later. (Just a month after the INK talk went online, it had been viewed more than 240,000 times.) More important, it felt like preparation for something even bigger.

It was around this time that I first encountered Lewis. I’d recently written a story for The New York Times about legally blind visual artists. One of them, a traumatic-brain-injury survivor, said there was someone I should get in touch with.

With a few minutes to spare one morning, I dialed Lewis’s number. I didn’t hang up until an hour later. On the other end was a kindly—almost wholesome—Brit who’d lost everything in ways I didn’t like to fathom. He’d surrendered a decade and a half to a grueling, and frequently horrific, recovery. But none of that was what took me aback. It was that at 53, living in his parents’ house minus a third of his right hemisphere, Simon Lewis wanted to make movies again.

Lewis had no illusions about how absurd this sounded. “I know this industry,” he said. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history. Step out for more than a dozen years and—” he paused. “Well, I don’t even know what you are.”

8.

A few weeks later, I found myself on the same sleepy, near-silent Sherman Oaks street where Lewis had spent almost every hour since 1994. The man who greeted me bore little resemblance to the mangled figure I’d read about in his book. The bones had healed, his patter was quick and witty, and graying hair covered the horseshoe-shaped scar across his skull. At first glance only Lewis’s slight limp suggested anything out of the ordinary. He proudly lifted his left pant leg to show me his NESS L300, an advanced neuroprosthesis designed for people lacking lower-leg control. Lewis has a condition called foot drop, and at precisely the right point in his gait the device sends electrical pulses to his peroneal nerve. The jolted muscles raise the foot, and he is able to walk with just a minor hitch.

Lewis is a talker. He talks about consciousness a lot—the science behind it, common misconceptions, the plight of those living lower on the slope—but these topics bleed seamlessly into macroeconomics, Obama, or media trends. Eventually, I’d see how this tied into flat time: Without a reliably coherent sense of time to provide order, his ideas sprawl. What’s more, they do so unburdened by the normal categorizing most of us do reflexively. A question about which freeway exit to take might lead to ideas about time travel. It doesn’t always make for efficient freeway exiting, I would learn, but as a general route from A to B the entertainment quotient is high.

At some level, Lewis seemed to have realized this. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, the films he’d worked on had mostly been light, even schlocky fare. He does not speak dismissively of them—like many young filmmakers, he was simply someone who said yes to projects, he explained to me, and he had dedicated himself to them. But these kinds of movies no longer appealed to him. What he wanted now was to make an entirely different kind of film: different from walking cadavers, perhaps different from films anyone else had made. But this wasn’t because he’d lost Marcy or because he had a newfound grasp of life’s fleetingness. He wanted to make different movies because he had a different brain inside his skull and a different way of experiencing the world.

“Imagine this in your daily life,” he said to me one afternoon in my rental car. He was attempting to explain what blindsight—essentially, his employment of a reptilian visual system—felt like. “I’m seeing the world, but not consciously. Perceptions are bypassing my conscious mind and traveling straight to my subconscious. As a filmmaker, that’s pretty interesting.”

For most of us, the subconscious is a fleeting state we find ourselves in by accident—that moment behind the wheel, for instance, when we realize we’ve been utterly unaware of the road for the past five miles. As Lewis describes his existence, a small door has essentially propped open that state permanently.

“My entire perception is different: Things that don’t feel … authentic, I suppose, don’t resonate. They almost don’t register,” he told me at one point. He’s come to regard this as a kind of sieve, one that oddly inclines him toward more substantive perceptions and omits the frivolous. The stuff of fluffy ’80s films fell decidedly into the second camp.

As with the blindsight, Lewis’s temporal jumble isn’t so severe as to be crippling. With flat time, time is just flat enough—did he talk to that HBO guy recently, or years ago?—to make things interesting now and then. Perhaps even a narrative asset.

On a certain level, the idea of Lewis returning to filmmaking was as logical as it was baffling. If a storyteller’s job is to make intellectual connections, flat time and a sprawl of ideas sound awfully promising. Meanwhile, if Lewis was walking around with a pipeline from the outer world to his subconscious, that would seem to trump the standard muse. “Picture all the memories from your life as a photo album. Then take out all the photos and shuffle them across a table. That’s my brain,” he told me. “It can be frustrating, but as far as making interesting connections goes, it certainly opens things up in a new way.”

Squint a little, in fact, and you can see signs that Hollywood’s brain is inching toward the trippily meta terrain that intrigues Lewis, betraying a perhaps similar interest in considering consciousness itself. Lewis’s slow reentry into the world of movies coincided with a slew of films—MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInception—that delve directly and imaginatively into the kinds of consciousness questions that have come to obsess him. That much seemed promising. And Hollywood certainly churns out story lines about outsiders rattling the status quo, or about miraculous transformations emerging from unlikely circumstances. In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford’s ruthless trial lawyer becomes kind and loving after taking a bullet to the brain, for instance. But that doesn’t mean the industry actually believes in those stories.

At 53, Lewis lives with his parents. He drives only sparingly. With his infinitely fragmented mind, I pictured him spending weeks digging up an old contact, only to be told by a 22-year-old assistant that Mr. So-and-So was extremely busy these days. The movie business already brushes away roughly 100 percent of the aspiring filmmakers who come knocking. The odds are even worse when a third of your right hemisphere is missing.

9.

Hollywood never calls to tell you your career is over, Lewis told me once. So he had decided to call them and ask. Before my first visit, he’d informed me that he was going to do his best to set up meetings with some of the industry types he’d worked with in the ’80s and early ’90s. Seeing an earnest and kindly widower politely shot down by slick movie people hadn’t struck me as very fun. I’d half-dreaded this part of my visit. To my surprise, Lewis somehow arranged a series of meetings with significant figures throughout the Hollywood firmament, which is how I found myself at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles on a bright Friday morning. Lewis had come here to meet his former colleague David Irving. 

With his prominent eyebrows and clear blue eyes, Irving has the commanding and professorial bearing of a man playing a president in a TV movie. He was on his way back to New York, where he teaches film at Tisch School of the Arts. The two had been young men back in 1989 on the set of C.H.U.D. II, which Irving directed, but this was the first time they’d met for business since.

They found seats away from the piped-in jazz—Lewis’s brain no longer filters ambient noise from the conversation at hand—and commenced a ranging discussion about times past and Lewis’s future prospects. It was as though the two had once taken a road trip together, and Lewis was curious 20 years later whether cars still employed brakes and gas pedals. Irving was laid-back and warm to Lewis’s hands-in-lap earnestness. His answer: yes and no.

The industry bore little resemblance to its early ’90s self, he warned. C.H.U.D. II was made for less than $3 million. Now it would cost $20 million. When Lewis checked out, movies like Speed and True Lies were top grossers—dutifully fast-paced and slick, to be sure, but rudimentary in hindsight. The first feature-length CGI animation wouldn’t come out for another year, and the slo-mo bullet dodging of The Matrix was still half a decade away, to say nothing of a 3-D fantasy about blue creatures on another planet. Securing top stars became ever more essential to getting these massively expensive films made—a salable name abroad could help guarantee the sale of foreign rights, which meant additional cash up front. The distribution model changed, too, and VHS tapes became DVDs.

That was the bad news. The good news: Irving thought Lewis had the innate and timeless talent to surmount all that. “Only one producer in my work ever knew what he was doing—you,” he told Lewis. “You’ve been gone a long time, but there’s a need in the industry for people of your ilk.”

He added that the principles of production had not changed and that Lewis still had many high-level contacts.

“You have it in spades. I could see you working as an agent, a screenwriter, a producer,” he said.

Lewis grinned—but I could see he had something on his mind. Finally he cleared his throat mildly and raised a finger of clarification.

“It’s not just any film I want to work on now. It’s important to me that I find something that feels … true,” he said. He gave a CliffsNotes summary of what true feels like—rooted in that broader conception of consciousness, playing out on less familiar planes.

Irving thought about this for a moment, nodding slowly. “My advice is, take any pictures you can get on now,” he then said. “You can do a dense and more meaningful film later.”


Over the next few days, I joined Lewis for more meetings—meetings essentially designed to inform him whether or not the movie business had saved his place in line. But Hollywood is a strange realm for a fact-finding mission. How do you look for honest answers when nobody says “no,” and “yes” can mean “fuck you,” and a tuna sandwich is Fantastic, just fabulous?

But putting aside the inevitable bromides about Lewis getting back on his feet in no time, it was hard not to notice real doors cracking open for him. At USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris devoted much of a Monday morning to strategizing with Lewis—ideas for getting back into production, possibilities for teaching again at the university. Chris Barrett, head of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, grew emotional talking about the force that was producer Simon Lewis, and pledged to send scripts. Over the phone, Jeff Sagansky, former production president of TriStar Pictures, recalled Lewis’s Look Who’s Talking coup:

“I had a studio budget for $13 million, and you came in and said I can do it for eight, and pay Travolta what he’s asking—a million, I think. The studio said, ‘It can’t be done.’ But the movie became the most profitable picture in Columbia’s history at that point.”

Sagansky didn’t mince words about the health of the industry today. The award-winning studio films Sagansky himself had made at TriStar—Glory, Steel Magnolias—wouldn’t get made anymore, he said, except maybe as independent films. But he went on to discuss how Lewis could make the transition to 21st-century filmmaking.

In all these meetings, Lewis played it straight—no mentions of blindsight or flat time or the prehistoric settlement in Israel where he’d lived for generations. Whatever was going on inside his head, he’d learned to tamp it down when necessary. Indeed, he’d written a meticulously organized book, had put together a wildly successful stage talk seen by hundreds of thousands of people; he could do what it took to make things happen. Still, I found myself oddly relieved when his more unusual symptoms returned later—the unlikely mental associations, the moments in which his subconscious perhaps had the reins. To spend time in Hollywood—meetings, conversations about meetings, Caesar salads in cafés alongside conversations about meetings—is to come away a little desperate for a mightily new orientation, some fresh set of eyes for which the glass is first broken on the floor, then intact atop the table.

Only one question seemed to remain: How would he begin?

10.

At the end of our last meeting of the day, Lewis and I headed back to my rental car and set out for one more stop. A few blocks up from the coffee shop, we turned left on Beverly Boulevard, a five-lane arterial running east to west through neighborhoods with tidy lawns and large homes. At one of the small residential streets we turned right and pulled to a stop. Set back from the adjacent curb was the maple tree that Simon and Marcy’s Infiniti had slammed into 17 years earlier.

I glanced over at Lewis as I cut the engine. In a movie—in one of his movies—this would be where the hero breaks down. But Lewis had never cried in my presence, and he wasn’t doing so now. His feet were flat on the floor of the car and his hands planted squarely in his lap, as they often were. I looked for subtler signs of a reaction—a setting of the jaw, a second’s delay getting out of the car—but he seemed as matter-of-fact as ever. He opened the door, switched on his L300, and in a few seconds we were standing on the corner where it all happened.

It was the overwhelming physics of it all that finally got Lewis talking.

“How did the driver make it as far as he did, across all those lanes? He must have had his foot flat to the floor…,” he began, then trailed off, lost in a grim calculus of velocity and mass.

Lewis does not remember the impact. Marcy was talking about her boss’s renovation, and then Simon was opening his eyes in a hospital more than a month later. We walked to the curb where the Infiniti first hit, then over to the tree, and then to the adjacent garden where the car ultimately came to rest.

Lewis is almost a dozen and a half years into his grief. But he was absent, in a sense, for much of that time. Marcy was buried in her hometown while he was still in his coma. Do his hazier years count against the clock of healing? He keeps mementos of Marcy near though not prominent; a photo of the two remains in the drawer of his bedside table but not on top. He has only recently been able to watch their wedding tape. He wants Marcy to be close but he does not want to prevent himself from moving forward, or to lose himself in despair. He would like to fall in love again.

The sudden death of a spouse would be heartbreaking for anyone, but somehow there’s something particularly awful about it happening to Lewis. If you told the man his shoelaces were on fire, he would look down only after seeing to your safety first. Perhaps because of this, I had treated him like he was brittle at first—a common and ridiculous inversion inflicted too often on those who’ve been injured. In time it became clear that Lewis requires no coddling. And so, as we paced that intersection, I asked about the driver of the van. Maybe he’d left the country. Maybe he was at the Arby’s down the street. At one point, I’d tracked down the couple who’d sold him the van, two days before the crash, 17 years ago. The woman seemed sad to remember the incident—and to remember nothing of the man. “I guess he was the kind of guy that pays cash for a van,” she said.

Lewis, for his part, doesn’t care. Nor does he feel ill will toward the driver. “I just don’t think I feel anger anymore, about anything,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ve felt angry once in the last 17 years, actually. I get puzzled when someone’s dishonest, and I get distressed. But the normal anger that I was capable of before is just gone.”

With a little pressing he conceded that, if the driver was somehow ever caught, Lewis would testify in court. But he said so dispassionately.

“Perhaps anger is a higher-level thing and it’s not present in the subconscious,” he speculated. “If I’m correct that my subconscious is doing a lot of the daily work of my life, it’s not there.”

He and I stayed at Beverly and McCadden for another 15 minutes, then I drove him home to Sherman Oaks, and for the hundredth time I found myself wanting to see what a Simon Lewis film would look like, and hoping it might resemble his own life somehow.

11.

About four months later, in the spring of 2011, a minor media storm broke out, with everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Oprah telling the same remarkable story: a filmmaker builds a career making silly movies, then in a freak accident sustains a terrible head injury that causes him to rethink everything. With his whole-new head, he gets back into filmmaking with a thoughtful, sensitive, anti-Hollywood feature that earnestly investigates nothing less than the nature of our very existence.

The man’s name was Tom Shadyac.

I was stunned. At first glance, the similarities between Shadyac and Lewis were remarkable. Both were born in 1958, both were successes from an early age: Lewis was just 21 when he passed the California bar, and Shadyac was the youngest joke writer on Bob Hope’s staff. Both made their way to movies—but Shadyac to another level entirely, producing such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty. He flew by private jet and lived in a 17,000-square-foot mansion equipped with a full-time gardener and housekeeper, a pool man, a maintenance man, a man to maintain the tennis court, and a house manager, in addition to his business manager, money manager, and career manager.

One day, while bicycling in Virginia, Shadyac crashed and hit his head. The injury paled in comparison to Lewis’s, but he did sustain a serious concussion whose symptoms lingered: terrible headaches, mood swings, and an agonizing sensitivity to light and sound. For a while he slept in his closet, for its total seclusion and darkness. As with Lewis, some new ideas about life began to filter in. Unlike Lewis, Shadyac rolled up his sleeves immediately. Five months after the accident, he began filming I Ama decidedly serious documentary that asked what’s wrong with the world and what we can do about it. In it he consulted Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.

Reception was mixed. Critics seemed to like the story behind the documentary more than the thing itself. Roger Ebert called the film “as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep.” Viewing it, he wrote, “involves the ingestion of Woo Woo in industrial bulk.”

He also, though, conceded the filmmaker’s likability. Shadyac has long, curly hair and looks like a less-goofy version of Weird Al. He had a new approach to living, one he’d begun to pursue even before the accident. He sold the mansion and moved into a 1,000-square-foot trailer home—albeit a trailer home in a gated Malibu community, where units can reportedly go for upward of $2 million.

Shadyac didn’t lack for conviction as he promoted his film. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to be touched by truth,” he said in one interview. He spoke of “a power to these ideas that have animated me … the same power I see in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Saint Francis.” His ideas didn’t sprawl. “Facing my own death brought an instant clarity and purpose,” he says in the film.

I very much wanted to meet this man. He appeared articulate and sensitive, and I thought he might shed some light on Lewis’s story. Part of me even fantasized that Shadyac would reach out to Lewis professionally. I sent him a note, then talked to someone at his agency, who put me in touch with someone at his production company, who put me in touch with the guy who handles journalists, Harold Mintz.

After a few attempts, I got Mintz on the phone. I explained again Lewis’s story, assuming the similarities would be so striking, and Lewis’s story so sympathetic, that the new and reflective Shadyac would ring back immediately. Mintz listened and said he’d explain it all to Shadyac. When I followed up again, he emailed back that Shadyac was too busy to meet but would consider a phone call. This didn’t happen either.

I wrote one more note to Mintz asking whether Lewis’s story had at least resonated when he conveyed it to Shadyac. No reply. I gathered that his focus had turned to his next movie, a biopic about the late comedian Sam Kinison.

So I booked a flight to visit Lewis again. Another man was living a version of his life, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on it.

12.

The drive from LAX into central Los Angeles is a tour of urban restlessness—new billboards and buildings and seemingly new neighborhoods since your last visit, a concrete rainforest that grows 10 feet overnight. But upon entering the sleepy suburban streets of Sherman Oaks, time halts. Save for the newer cars, it could’ve been any decade. Lewis opened the front door of his parents’ home with his usual grin.

He showed me to the living room, and we settled into the wraparound sofa. Immediately, Lewis was leading the conversation in 40 enthusiastic directions—a news item that had caught his eye, some emerging research on intelligence. I wasn’t listening.

While Shadyac was positioning himself these past few months as a remade filmmaker, Lewis had decidedly not been. After those encouraging chats with his Hollywood friends, he had not rushed home to begin adapting his book into a screenplay. He hadn’t reached out to screenwriter friends about possible collaborations. He didn’t schedule more calls and meetings and lunches. I learned that Barrett had sent him scripts to review; Lewis only thumbed through them.

Ever since I got to know Lewis, I’d been waiting for a moment of some sort—an inflection point, I suppose, at which Hollywood would signal its welcome or rejection of this prodigal producer. But another possibility began to dawn on me, thanks to Shadyac: Maybe Lewis hadn’t resolved how much he was willing to welcome Hollywood.

From our very first conversation, he had been clear about his deep desire to make films again. But it wasn’t the same desire he’d felt before the accident; no longer was he single-minded about moviemaking. Since January he’d become wholly consumed by the talk Deepak Chopra had invited him to give on consciousness. For now anyway, this seemed to grab him more than shoving his way into the cracked-open Hollywood door.

As for movies, it was another project that had stoked his passions these past few months, and in fact he’d come to oversee the production of his first film in years. As it happens it was Macbeth, the film he himself had directed more than four decades earlier as an adolescent, long before he came to America. After so many years he had the old reels digitized and overlaid with audio. It was hardly Hollywood, and maybe that was part of the pleasure: a reunion with his earliest, purest love of filmmaking.

I still wanted to hear his thoughts on Shadyac. Asking Lewis for his opinions on anyone rarely turns up anything but praise. In his Jain-like way, he’d be unlikely to point out that your house had been overrun by elephants, lest it come across as insensitive. (His friend, the lawyer Eric Weissmann, lovingly referred to him as “pedantically moral.”) Nevertheless, when I mentioned a quote from one of Shadyac’s interviews—a line about the bike accident knocking him from his head into his heart—something sounding almost like a cynical chuckle escaped from Lewis.

“You don’t have to hit your head to find your heart,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not where your heart is, anyway.”

Regret washed over him instantly. He explained that he didn’t mean it dismissively, and I understood. It wasn’t that Shadyac seemed insincere; he appeared genuinely and impressively serious in his new sensibility. But it was hard not to notice that his ideas tripped off his tongue—and onto celluloid, and into the publicity machinery—with relative ease. Instinctively or through hard work, Shadyac knew how to package his drama into Drama, helpfully formed into bite-size nuggets. “We set out to find out what’s wrong with the world, and we ended up finding out what’s right with it,” he said in one interview while promoting I Am. As Lewis himself noted, it seemed so … movie-ish.

I Am might have been Shadyac’s departure from the formulaic comedies he’d made till then, but at a meta level the idea behind the film simply followed another formula: Mega-successful, high-living artist finds he’s gone astray, fate intervenes, clarity shimmers, and ta-da, meaning is found. To Lewis’s vastly more complex and ambiguous story, Shadyac’s offered a tighter arc and more straightforward message. In short, Shadyac was the Hollywood version of Lewis. Even Shadyac appeared to recognize the appealing arc of his story. Months after failing to secure an interview, I finally got a call from his PR man, Mintz. Shadyac was still too busy to talk, he said. He also didn’t want to talk about his accident anymore. The story had taken on a life of its own, Mintz said; it had gotten away from him.


Instead of penning his next Hollywood epic, Lewis had been drawn into one more not-particularly-Hollywood pursuit in recent months. Over the years he’d gone and thanked many of the people who’d been there for him after the crash, but he’d never felt ready to do so with those who’d been there right when it happened. A few days before my arrival, he gathered the nerve to call the L.A. Police Department’s West Traffic Division.

He spoke to Detective Lee Willmon and mentioned the crash. To his surprise, Willmon remembered that it was on Beverly Boulevard, then the white van, then a pause when Lewis mentioned his wife. “Was her name … Marcy?” Lewis was overcome. He told Willmon he wanted to come visit in person. On a hot and brown June morning, I met Lewis in front of the station, on a scrubby section of Venice Boulevard. We headed inside, and someone paged Willmon.

He had a kind face layered with years of bad news. The three of us stood awkwardly in a waiting area, amid half a dozen civilians there for mysterious traffic reasons. The place was bureaucratic and joyless, but Lewis was on a gratitude-and-wonder high. He told Willmon how remarkable it had been that he’d recalled Marcy’s name after so many years, and then he told him how so many kind people had given of themselves in the aftermath of the crash. Willmon nodded politely.

“You must come into people’s lives at very profound times,” Lewis mused.

Willmon looked at him. “We come in at sad times,” he said plainly.

He didn’t say much else. He was either a man of few words or a man of few words when survivors of tragic car accidents come to chat 17 years later. Lewis gave him two copies of his book and Willmon thanked him solemnly. He started toward a goodbye then paused.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. A little advice if you don’t mind,” he said. “Find love again.”

Minutes later Lewis and I were back in my car. I glanced over for a read. As always he stared straight ahead, a peaceful smile on his lips, more gratitude and wonder in his bright eyes.


What kind of film lurks behind those eyes? In all my conversations with Lewis, I never managed to extract a plot, a set of characters or even a rough premise for the sort of movie he’d one day like to make. What I heard was more like the haziness that precedes those things in a fertile mind.

“I see character motivations as multidimensional spectra of light that flow upward through each person’s, and each creature’s, slope of consciousness,” Lewis explained to me once. What this meant for filmgoers was even vaguer; he spoke of wanting audiences to “sense the flat time in their subconscious that I feel, experience the single moment in which through all of history we live our lives. The moment in which the present becomes our past and everything is now.”

At times Lewis’s abstractedness seems semi-deliberate and perhaps semi-joyful, a lifelong pragmatist enjoying a fuzzier approach. Other times the fuzziness feels like all he can muster now. If his artistic transformation was taking him from C.H.U.D. II to, say, Charlie Kaufman, I came to think of this as Kaufman’s blue-skying period. Maybe the Eternal Sunshines of the world begin with impossible abstractions and blurry riffing.

The most specific vision he ever shared was an idea for the first scene of a film. It was to be shot through the eyes of a field mouse. Many years ago, he’d spotted the creature atop Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Now, in his vision for the film, the mouse scurries along the narrowest of cliff ledges more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor looking for food, and the scene is somehow overlaid with an 18th-century haiku of Kobayashi Issa:

          In this world

          we walk on the roof of hell,

          gazing at flowers.

In a way, it seemed absurd to speculate about Hollywood when clearly Lewis existed on another plane. He didn’t just have a new, non-Hollywood set of eyes on the world. He had a new, non-Hollywood sense of priority, too. Gone was the boundless tenacity, the hunger—bordering on desperation—required to get movies made, or for that matter any epic undertaking. Instead he had the old Shakespeare adaptations to put together, talks about consciousness to give, quiet detectives to thank. Compassion, ideas, and a penchant for storytelling are theoretically what send a person into movies, but Lewis had found that these could be deployed off-set as much as on. The accident may have given him singular new filmmaking sensibilities. It also showed him that filmmaking isn’t the only thing.

13.

That would have been a fine ending for this story: the Hollywood figure who decides Hollywood isn’t all that. But, of course, that in itself is too tidily Hollywood for real life. As it happens, Lewis and I have one more appointment after our stop at the police station. There is one final twist in his story.

The meeting is with another old friend of Lewis’s, the prominent entertainment lawyer Eric Weissmann. Weissmann has long been a fixture in Hollywood—one story that gets told is his role in green-lighting All the President’s Men for Warner Bros. He had been extremely kind after the accident, Lewis says, and he also might have a thing or two to say about Lewis’s future in the movies.

The offices of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall look out over Beverly Hills, with Century City in the distance. We are early for our 3 o’clock appointment, and a receptionist shows us to a conference table with a basket of water bottles and modern art at either end. Lewis sits with his back to the window so his focus won’t get spread out over the streets and buildings below.

At exactly 3 p.m., Weissmann enters the conference room and declares, “Universal has agreed to release Biosphere back into turnaround.” He takes a seat and shakes our hands.

It takes me a moment to remember what Biosphere was. Before the accident, Universal had paid Lewis and other writers to develop a script—a sci-fi film about a large-scale experiment gone off the rails. Evolution gets messed with, somehow, and a menagerie of creepy critters starts eating people’s heads. The project had ultimately gone into turnaround—left for dead by the studio, free to be sold elsewhere for a limited period before reverting back to Universal property indefinitely. Then the accident happened.

A few weeks back, Lewis’s mother had found a copy of the old script and put it on his desk. Prodded, Lewis eventually called Weissmann and asked, idly, whether that limited turnaround period might be extended. Now Lewis—and in time another producer, named Michael Levy—could find financing and some big names to attach to the project and they’ll be in business.

Weissmann spends the next little while outlining details of the situation and chatting amiably about the industry. At one point I ask if he’s read Lewis’s script. It hardly sounds like the revolutionary picture Lewis had long been itching to do. “I sell ’em, I don’t smell ’em,” Weissmann replies.

I look over at Lewis, a man sitting in a Beverly Hills law firm who can still recall sailing, within a coma, in a wormhole between two universes. He’s had two lives, and at this moment two people appear to inhabit his body simultaneously. He is visibly thrilled to be in the game again, beaming more than usual. But what will come of his new orientation to the world, and to filmmaking?

In a way it doesn’t make sense, until I suddenly realize that is sort of the point. If Shadyac represented the Hollywood version of Lewis’s story, Lewis himself is, like the rest of us, living the non-movie version of his own life. He’s survived some agonizingly cinematic scenes—his rise, the accident, the monthlong coma, his rebirth—but then the loose ends have not gathered into an orderly plait. All questions didn’t magically resolve in an explosive third act. Is he returning to the old kinds of movies? Is he carving out a whole new type? In lieu of a clear message, there is ambiguity, murkiness. In lieu of a happy, studio-friendly ending, there is something a little more complicated.

Within three weeks, he will have feverishly updated 40 pages of the script, often outside, behind the wheel of his family’s parked car; afterward he’ll sit and watch the trees. He will go inside and pick up the phone and start making more calls about meetings, and he’ll write some more—notes on turning his book into a screenplay.

Right now, as Lewis sits at a conference room table with his back to Beverly Hills, what life has in store for him isn’t clear. But he seems to accept this. At 3:15 his lawyer friend rises to leave, and Lewis and I drive back through the streets of Los Angeles to his parents’ house.

Before the Swarm

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Before the Swarm

Intrepid naturalist Mark Moffett is tracking an ant species on a march toward bug-world domination. What a controversial theory of insect society may tell us about our own.

By Nicholas Griffin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 03


Nicholas Griffin is the author of four novels and one work of nonfiction. He lives in New York City. His next book comes out in 2013.


Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Cover Photo and Portraits: Brandon Harrison
Additional Research and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Ant Photography: Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures
Original Botfly Video: Paul Thomson, Yale University
Special Thanks: The Evolution Store, New York City, http://theevolutionstore.com/

Published in March 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Embedded

When I shook Mark Moffett’s right hand, I glanced at his left and noticed it was swollen with a distinct red mound the size of a grape. He followed my gaze. “Have you met my botfly?” he asked, grinning. It was late October, and we were standing outside a research station at the foot of the Sierra Nombre de Dios, in northern Honduras. Or at least Moffett and I were standing: His botfly, a white maggot that had been implanted through a mosquito bite and had grown to three quarters of an inch in length, was apparently dead.

“I could see its breathing tube, but then I banged my hand on a door, and I think I’ve killed it,” he said, sounding disappointed.

“Does it hurt?”

“No … it’s dead.”

“Should it be removed before we head into the rainforest?”

“No,” said Moffett. “I’m waiting for my body to absorb it.”

Moffett, one of the world’s leading naturalists, is 52, red-bearded, barrel-chested, and prone to wearing sandals while walking in rainforests or lecturing at New York City intellectual clubs. He spends most of the year traveling. In his closet at his office in Greenport, Long Island, hangs one tweed jacket and a single bow tie with a pattern of orange butterflies.

He had come to Honduras to, as he put it, “look for critters.” Kathy Moran, a senior editor at National Geographic, says that, “in an age when we’re all used to wearing one hat, Mark needs an entire rack.” Moffett holds a Harvard Ph.D. in entomology, is an accomplished scientist, an award-winning author and journalist, one of the best nature photographers of his generation, and an aspiring comedian. Long ago, he left academia to trudge through jungles, occasionally cheating death, drawn by the odd behavior and extraordinary complexity of some of the world’s most neglected creatures.

The northern Honduran climate is so stifling that even the October cold season is hot. The downpours came every afternoon and lasted hours. Honduras is jaguar territory, but Moffett doesn’t care for big cats. Though he’s been shooting for National Geographic for 25 years, the appearance of feline cubs or baby polar bears on magazine covers makes his eyes roll. Moffett’s favorite creature, the ant, is a lot less lovable. (The bullet ant is among his favorites. It sits at the top of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which compares its bite to “firewalking over flaming charcoal with a rusty nail in your heel.”) “Ants,” Moffett tells me, “are melodrama.” They forage and fight, build and destroy. “You can take a box of dirt with a colony in it, stare at it for two weeks, and know the ins and outs of their society,” he says. The fact that ant society is generally dictated by hierarchy and specialization makes it all the more interesting to a man who can’t seem to stand either one.

When Moffett walks, it’s always with his heavy camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, in one hand. It has a short, thick lens and is custom-mounted with additional flashes and batteries. Around his neck is a jeweler’s loupe, a minuscule high-powered magnifier, vital for getting a close look at the tiny specimens he pinches up from the ground. Moffett wanders haltingly, prodding stones, overturning logs, staring up tree trunks, breaking apart rotting wood, snapping dead vines. He’s been known to spend months in the field looking for individual species and then pass entire days sitting cross-legged, waiting to capture a single moment of curious behavior.

Moffett has devoted years to the study of Hymenoptera, the order of insects that includes wasps, bees, and ants. It is a line of work that also kept such men as Charles Darwin and Alfred Kinsey occupied, as well as Moffett’s mentor, E. O. Wilson. Many of the biggest ideas to have rocked science in the past 150 years have come from studying the societies buzzing around us.

On this particular expedition, Moffett is looking for evidence to support a still controversial theory: that ants form superorganisms—colonies that effectively function as a single body. In Honduras he’s in search of two of the most pronounced examples: hyperaggressive army ants, which move in killing columns and bivouac in a living ball on the forest floor, and leafcutters , the agriculturalists of the ant world. The latter, Moffett points out, have been farming on a large scale for at least 12 million years longer than we have.

Last year, Moffett released a book, Adventures Among Ants, to widespread acclaim, lectured across America, including at the Smithsonian, Caltech, and the World Science Festival, and was a guest (for the third time) on The Colbert Report. The media has been dreaming up new names for him: the Indiana Jones of Entomology, the Jane Goodall of Ants, and the Martha Stewart of Dirt. On his Web site he calls himself Dr. Bugs.

Some fellow scientists, however, can have other words for him. The more he crisscrosses the lines separating television, books, lectures, adventure, and biology, the further removed he becomes from the academic world he sprang from. His critics accuse him of passing off observation as science. Reviewing Moffett’s book in the journal Nature, Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, wrote that Moffett “wants to be the first to see a new ant escapade and capture it on film, not to test hypotheses.” Another scientific journal critiqued his “chatty paragraphs.” It noted Moffett’s “willingness to dispense with rigor in the face of a compelling tale” and accused him of “storytelling gone amok.” “He earns a living as a photographer, not as an entomologist,” Gordon told me. “He’s not out collecting data to test hypotheses and establish new results. He’s not asking the community of scientists to evaluate the data. There’s a game we play, and he’s not in that game.”

Moffett, however, values his independence above all things. He calls universities places “filled with nervous people.” He survives on book advances, lecture money, grants, and National Geographic assignments. He maintains attachments to Harvard and the Smithsonian; they are prestigious but unpaid. “That way I don’t have to be indentured to anything,” he says. He has often lived without health insurance or savings, juggling television-news appearances, chat shows, Web interviews, newspaper reporters, magazine columns. He also posts videos to YouTube that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Moffett traverses the boundaries between science, adventure, and journalism, and he believes none should exclude the other. He seems to agree fully with a sentiment expressed by Charles Darwin in 1856, that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” And with his latest theory, he intends to prove it.

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Moffett believes that a new understanding of ant colonies will illuminate human urbanization. (Photo by Brandon Harrison)

2. ‘Pheidole Moffetti’

Moffett wasn’t always outgoing. Like many biologists who spend their lives devoted to an unloved species, he had an introspective childhood. He was born in the tiny town of Salida, Colorado, and his father, a Presbyterian minister, remembers Moffett giving individual names to the ants and insects that passed through their backyard. “Through graduate school, I was very shy and reclusive,” Moffett says. He credits the change to his camera. “Once I learned to tell stories with pictures, I found that people would be interested in me in a natural way, and I would flow into the kinds of stories I tell now.”

During his preteen years, his family moved to Wisconsin, and he started attending meetings at the Wisconsin Herpetological Society, a place populated, he says, by “a mixture of serious scientists and bizarre amateurs.” Max Nickerson, the eminent herpetologist who founded the society, says Moffett was “the youngest member—easily.” The majority were master’s candidates. Moffett was 12 years old.

Three years later, his father left the church and became a career counselor at Beloit College, near the Illinois border. Moffett, never one to let classes interfere with his education, dropped out of high school and began to work casually as a research assistant to the college’s biologists. Liberal Beloit turned a blind eye to his missing diploma and let him enroll. Determined to be an autodidact, he avoided any courses that coincided with his interests, roaming from German to psychology, music to anthropology. To this day, he’s never taken a class in entomology.

His first break came at 17, when Nickerson invited him on a species-collection research trip to Costa Rica. Because he had once caught a black-tailed rattler by himself in Arizona, and perhaps because of a dearth of volunteers for the role, Moffett was given the job of snake wrangler. While biologists with long poles wrested poisonous vipers from trees overhanging rivers, Moffett would stand in the water beneath and catch them. He used one hand to break their fall and the other to grab for the backs of their heads to avoid being bitten. He felt so at home in the jungle that he kept a wild pet in his tent, a Hercules beetle the size of a man’s fist. It ate a banana a day and kept him awake at night with its heavy breathing. Nickerson was soon surprised to find his teenage apprentice pursuing his own fieldwork on insects. It was, he says, “the sort of experimental design I’d expect from a master’s candidate.”

By the age of 20, Moffett’s name was already appearing in scientific publications for work he had done chasing lizards, snakes, and butterflies across Central and South America. Still, Moffett’s heart remained with his “unloved ants,” an affection that had been cemented when he read a book called The Insect Societies, by Harvard professor E. O. Wilson. He still remembers it as “an awesome book full of arcane mysteries.” On a whim, Moffett wrote Wilson and asked if he might visit the world’s most famous entomologist. Wilson replied simply, “Come by.”

If Wilson was surprised to see Moffett when the young man tapped on his office door, he didn’t let on. One was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a high school dropout with a few academic citations. Moffett’s first words were “Hi, Ed.” Until he enrolled at Harvard, Moffett wouldn’t realize how presumptuous his behavior had been. What was important was that the great scientist shared his enthusiasm. “It was like being with another boy who loved ants,” remembers Moffett.

Wilson encouraged Moffett to apply to Harvard’s biology department for his Ph.D., and then selected Moffett as his only graduate student for seven straight years. What Moffett hadn’t learned by avoiding entomology classes he discovered instead in the lab and out in the field. The University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology housed the department, and it was home to the world’s largest collection of ants. Moffett would open compartments at random, searching for a species interesting enough to study. In the corner of one drawer, he spotted an ant whose enormous major workers, the heavy lifters and warriors of the colony, measured 500 hundred times the size of their minor colleagues. He eventually gave the ants their common name, marauders. Their main habitat was in South Asia, an area ideally situated for Moffett’s traveling tastes: hot and cheap.

Moffett left for India the moment he received his first research grant. Most scientists would drift back to their academic home after a few months; Moffett stayed for two and a half years. After three months at Harvard, he left again. Though he admits that the university contained a few “marvelous pools of positive energy, including Wilson’s lab,” Moffett says he spent as little time there as possible. “I’d already figured out that I could live in Asia for six months on $100,” he says. From abroad, he mailed fresh articles to Harvard, balancing remote research with mainstream academia.

Moffett was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Wilson, a man so closely associated with fieldwork that he titled his autobiography Naturalist. Recently, Wilson was asked if there was anyone he considered an intellectual heir. He replied, “I’m especially proud of Mark Moffett. He’s a real naturalist, more than I.” Wilson even named an ant species Pheidole moffetti. According to the professor, its genus is both “dominant and hyperdiverse.” According to Moffett, it’s simply “a bigheaded ant.”

But Wilson’s status as a grand old man of science was achieved in part by tempering the naturalist impulse with the rigors of a university existence, something his protégé has little tolerance for. Moffett admits to problems with “pretty much all authority.” “To have someone tell me what to do in biology never made sense to me,” he says. “I don’t like exams. I don’t like giving exams, and I don’t like meetings.”

National Geographic’s Kathy Moran points to this as “perhaps the one weakness” in Moffett’s diverse career. As a biologist who taught himself to tell stories, a photographer who understands narrative, a man who can entrance audiences, he is obviously a teacher. Moran points to the fact that had Moffett stayed within academia, “he would already have a generation of scientists generating buzz” on his behalf. Wilson, at 81, has certainly benefited from the rise of his disciples to scientific prominence. Moffett chose to find his community in places more remote.

3. Shot From an Inch Away

As a grad student, Moffett thrived in the field. His lodgings in Sullia, India, had no running water, electricity, or toilet, but he was delighted to be on the ground with the marauders. To document his observations, he began taking photography seriously. He spent time with a species of swarming ants and immediately noticed something about them that seemed peculiarly Indian: Minor workers hitched rides on the back of the giant majors like mahouts and their passengers being ferried by elephants.

Moffett bought a book on how to shoot supermodels and shrank the process down to ant size, using three $15 flash attachments that jolted him with electric shocks. He’d received a small grant from the National Geographic Society, and Moffett, saving money by pushing his luck, mailed six rolls of film to the magazine and asked if they could be developed on his behalf. In response he received a Telex announcing that a staff writer was coming to India to meet him. As Moffett recalls, the cornflakes at the hotel breakfast in Bangalore cost more than he spent in a week.

The magazine had developed the photographs on the off chance that Moffett had produced a single usable frame, and the prints soon found their way to Mary Smith, a National Geographic editor who had worked with Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey. She fell in love with Moffett’s work; he was, she said, the only person who could make ants “look glamorous.” Moffett was baffled by the attention, since he hadn’t seen the developed photographs. To his surprise, he was made a National Geographic photographer, and he has taken pictures for the magazine for 25 years. (Moffett photos have appeared in several anthologies of the magazine’s best work.)

Moffett’s success as a photographer springs from a combination of technique, patience, and doggedness. No matter how aggressive the species, most of his photographs are taken from an inch away. He has spent hours sitting in dirt or dangling from a rope tied off against a tree branch, 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy. Sometimes he’ll stand six feet from an ant hill, binoculars pressed to his eyes, losing track of his surroundings. In Thailand, he once crawled after a trail of ants for hours, until he bumped his head against the foot of a bull elephant. It stared at him, blinked slowly, and moved away.

Elephants aren’t the most dangerous thing Moffett has run into. In Iran he was part of a group of American biologists who had been targeted by kidnappers. But the group was running late, and a bus of Italian tourists was seized by mistake. “It was our loss,” he says. “They were fed well, kept in a very interesting mountain habitat, and released in a few days.” Searching for the world’s most toxic frog—a side project—in Colombia’s Chocô region, Moffett hired a suspected narcotics trafficker to lead him into a rainforest valley. Not far from what Moffett describes as a “slimy coastal town,” he found himself negotiating between his armed guide and the valley’s residents, the latter carrying blowpipes.

In his 1994 book The High Frontier, Moffett recounts attaching his harness to a tree by using a crossbow to shoot ropes around the limbs. Suspended at 150 feet, he lost control of his line and cartwheeled into a surprise discovery—an ant’s nest. During a rapid descent from the canopy in a rainstorm, he was electrocuted by his own camera equipment. As Wilson once said, “I don’t know how he’s still alive.”

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A leafcutter worker transporting a leaf with smaller ants aboard to defend against predators.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)
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Moffett photographs a researcher inserting transmitter in viper in Tam Dao, Vietnam.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

4. Nature’s Risks

For safety as much as for company and cost, Moffett occasionally coordinated his perpetual fieldwork with biologists from other disciplines. One such companion was the herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a cobra specialist and the founder of the herpetology department at the California Academy of Sciences. The two biologists had become friends during a lecture stint Moffett accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, and they bonded over their mutual fascination with “disrespected creatures.” Slowinski called Moffett “bro.” Moffett believed they looked alike. They shared a passion for intrepid research, and Moffett would later write that he was captivated by the fact that Slowinski’s “habitual expression of sheer uninhibited wonder was matched by a precise and agile mind.” Over pizza at La Val’s in Berkeley in the summer of 2001, Slowinski invited Moffett to be part of a team that would conduct a general species inventory in the mountainous region of northern Burma.

In early September, the group began their walk near 1,400-foot Machan Baw village, an old British outpost, with a plan to climb to 10,000 feet. From the beginning, Moffett says, the journey was “tough going.” It was monsoon season, and the trails had turned to mud. Every evening they would pick leeches from their legs; every morning they would spit tobacco juice onto their skin to keep the bloodsuckers away. Moffett remembers that the rain puddles they walked through “were red with blood.” Slowinski, the expedition’s leader, was the only biologist who stuck with shorts and sandals.

Slowinski grew increasingly frustrated. Most of his energy had gone into coordinating food and research supplies. He suspected he’d been overcharged, while Moffett suspected his friend was being worn down by minutiae and the trail of bickering biologists, “each one with his own agenda.”

A week into their trek, when the team was still treading through subtropical forests, a Burmese field assistant returned to camp with a small cloth bag. As he passed the bag to Slowinski, he told him it contained a harmless Dinodon snake. Slowinski, like Moffett, had always been inclined to examine a specimen up close. He reached in and removed his hand, a thin gray snake attached to the tip of his finger. “That’s a fucking krait,” he said.

Moffett watched as Slowinski examined his finger closely, trying to determine if the tiny fangs had fully punctured his skin. The herpetologist knew that a krait’s poison is 15 times more potent than a cobra’s—the safest thing to do this far out in the jungle would be to cut the digit off. Slowinski opted not to. Within the hour, he realized he had made a serious error.

When Moffett thinks back now, he knows that both of them were comfortable “accepting the risks in nature.” Slowinski had been bitten in the field before, and sometimes a snake can bite without injecting toxins. Years before, when Moffett had been studying marauders, he had sat on the head of a fer-de-lance, a snake even more poisonous and many times larger than Slowinski’s krait. Moffett had jumped up, and the terrified reptile had hurled itself away from him.

Slowinski gathered Moffett and the rest of the biologists together and explained what would happen to his body if the neurotoxins spread through his system. They radioed for help as Slowinski advised them how to keep him alive. His mind would remain sharp, he explained, even as his body began to shut down. Moffett listened as his friend described how he would first lose control of his arms and legs, until he’d be forced to signal with a toe. Then he would appear comatose, and they would have to do his breathing for him. It was September 11, 2001. Their radio operator had heard the news from New York and Washington and had kept it to himself. They waited for a rescue helicopter to arrive. “Much of the time,” Moffett would write, “was spent in simple exhausted witness,” standing over Slowinski’s body.

The biologists stared at the sky. It rained heavily all afternoon, and the last hope of a helicopter rescue disappeared. Moffett and his fellow biologists continued massaging Slowinski’s heart for hours after he died. I asked Moffett if he changed his behavior in the field after what happened. “It’s not worth the trouble in life to become panicked about things,” he said. Then he paused. “We’re surrounded by the wondrous all the time.”

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A trap-jaw ant prepares to catch its prey, in Tiputini, Ecuador.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

5. When the Small Idea Is Big

The path Moffett chose has precedents, albeit from another century. Like all biologists, he’s an admirer of Charles Darwin. But he is a disciple of Darwin’s great rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. The two 19th-century giants had traveled separately and arrived at their theories of evolution simultaneously. To Moffett’s mind, however, Darwin had it easy; family money enabled him to devote himself to his ideas. Wallace, like Moffett, was lower middle class and spent a lifetime scrambling to support his calling as a naturalist—working as a civil engineer, teaching mapmaking, grading government examinations, and editing the work of lesser colleagues.

A hundred and fifty years later, Moffett has sought richer possibilities without wandering from the naturalist’s path. Yet the more he has insisted on creating his own world, the further he’s moved from the strictures of modern science. In his published work, for example, he doesn’t present a single idea at a time. In Adventures Among Ants, Moffett took the unusual step of including, by my count, nine hypotheses. He writes of the origins of army ant attack strategies and ponders how the practice of slavery among species in California might have originated as a form of food hoarding. Woven into his adventure narrative rather than explicated in peer-reviewed papers, his hypotheses have mostly been ignored by his fellow scientists.

Moffett, however, desires to be more than just an adventurer or a scientific journalist with a camera and a Ph.D. from Harvard. These days he isn’t merely looking to discover new ant species, though that’s always a pleasure. He wants to change the way humans regard our own world, and he wants to do that by pushing his mentor’s ideas into uncharted realms.

E. O. Wilson began his career by observing insect societies, and in his 40s he pioneered the idea of using those societies to help explain humankind. Among his most original, and most controversial, suggestions, laid out in 1975’s Sociobiology, was the idea that evolution plays a strong role in our own social organizations. According to Wilson, after hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we aren’t so much a tabula rasa as an accumulation of inherited experiences. He argued that there were limits on how much our behavior could be altered. At a time when America was passing from free love to disco, he argued that free will was partially an illusion. Though he devoted only the last chapter of his book to humans, Wilson was accused of biological determinism, as if humans shouldn’t be considered part of nature alongside the ants, wasps, and termites.

Thirty years later, Moffett is taking Wilson’s reverse anthropomorphism a step further and using ants to explain the design of our urbanized world. It’s Moffett’s contention that all societies, be they ant or human, follow the same rules as they grow in size and complexity. Highways and infrastructure, public health and safety, market economics, assembly lines and teamwork, division of labor, warfare, slavery and terrorism—all tend to emerge among ants, as they do among humans, not because of genetic similarities but because their vast societies require them.

It is both a fresh idea and a simple one. The 21st century is marked by ever increasing urbanization: 79 percent of Americans live in towns or cities, while China has 150 cities with more than 1 million people, all of which are still growing. When it comes to organizing millions of individuals, however, we’re rookies. Ants are the veterans.

A hundred years ago, a predecessor of Wilson’s at Harvard named William Morton Wheeler was considered one of the great scientists of his day. Among his contributions was the idea of the superorganism: the notion that in species such as ants, a colony should be considered a single being. Among other varieties, Wheeler concentrated his studies on the army ants that Moffett and I are pursuing in Honduras. The workers act as brain cells, Wheeler surmised, roving for intelligence; the queen is the womb; soldiers are the hands that defend and attack. Superorganism theory was forgotten until the 1970s, then resurrected, co-opted, and debated.

Moffett is looking to move beyond simple metaphors about ant colonies developing like organs in bodies, and he has adapted the superorganism concept to his own ends. A colony, Moffett believes, is fundamentally like an organism because it behaves as an absolute, unbreakable unit with a common identity. Ants literally wear this identity in the form of pheromones, as a scent. It signifies to their colony mates that they are connected to one another and simultaneously implies that all other organisms are foreigners to be avoided or attacked. The arrangement is similar to white blood cells that combat bacteria and other intruders in our bodies based on the absence of a recognizable biochemical stamp.

One particular species, Moffett believes, is leading the superorganism theory into new territory: the Argentine ant. Argentines are the only animal species other than humans that have learned to manage societies with billions of members. They have turned their superorganisms into what some scientists, including Moffett, call supercolonies: Argentine nests have expanded by territorial conquest across four continents, devastating other ant species along the way. When they reached the United States by steamer in the 1890s, there wasn’t a true competitor in sight. A hundred and twenty years later, the unimaginatively named Very Large Colony of Southern California has approximately 1 trillion members. It is one of four Argentine-ant colonies in the Golden State, and they are constantly warring with one another; each one derived from a separate, tiny colony back in Argentina. In Southern California, biologist David Holway of the University of California, San Diego estimates that the Argentine wars claimed as many as 30 million lives last year, between two of the colonies alone. Their bodies lie three-deep in piles in San Diego suburbs, hidden under the grass of mowed lawns.

The Argentines’ taste for warfare is aided by a key evolutionary adaptation. Instead of producing queens that fly off to form new colonies with new identities, they gamble on related queens that remain and breed together. In an average colony, a queen takes flight, mates midair with a male from another colony, and quickly looks for a place to establish her own nest. Once settled, she makes no decisions, focusing exclusively on the task of producing offspring. Her workers feed her, clean her, and dispose of her waste. And when she dies, the colony dies with her.

The Argentines’ outrageous success depends partly on their production of broods that can mix freely with one another: The ants, despite being born of different mothers, still consider themselves kin. Moffett contends that with this strategy, Argentine ants have rewritten the rules of life. “What it means is that their colonies have broken the usual ant cycle of birth and death,” he told me. “In a way, they’ve learned to never die.” Holway has spent ten years of his life studying Argentines and has written nearly 50 papers on the subject. “At a supercolony level,” he says, “they’re essentially immortal.” The genetic differences within the vast colony are small, and those tiny variations don’t prevent the ants from recognizing their common identity as the colony expands—even as, in the case of the Very Large Colony, it has expanded for more than a century. The ants’ loyalty applies only within their own society, however. Other Argentines are as much of an enemy as any other species of ant. (The species also evolved another specialty: Because of the rigors of their Argentinean habitat, they adapted to fight all day long. They have formed an army that never sleeps.)

In his description of supercolonies, Moffett again finds himself running afoul of at least part of the scientific establishment. Stanford’s Deborah Gordon sums up the opposition: “There is no functional supercolony of Argentine ants, no single giant colony stretching for miles, much less across the globe.”

Holway counters that Moffett’s is an unusual but valuable perspective, based in part on his desire to explore beyond the academic realm. Moffett considers his theory a parallel to human experience. “Imagine coming to this world,” Moffett says, “and looking first at a group of a dozen Bushmen around a campfire, then going directly to China with its population of over a billion. You’d think there was something fundamentally different between the two, but a child could be taken from one society to the other and survive without a problem. The key for the Argentine ants remains the strength of their identity, the ability to recognize their own society despite living miles apart in different environments and never having met.” Concludes Moffett: “The Argentines are just as versatile as we are.”

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A leafcutter ant cutting a papaya leaf, Guadaloupe.  (Photo by: Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

6. Empire State

Back in Honduras, Moffett was looking to observe the superorganism phenomenon in two collections of ants that hadn’t yet had to face the Argentine menace: leafcutters and army ants. Though climate change could expand their horizons, the Honduran rainforest remains too tropical for the Argentines’ tastes. When night fell, we spent an hour sweating our way up toward the cloud forest to a leafcutter nest Moffett had identified the day before. He estimated it contained around a half-million ants, a modest community in Moffett’s experience. In daylight the nest had been quiet, but Moffett suspected the ants would be hard at work at night. He moved around it with his flashlight, explaining the leafcutters’ agricultural life. The scene looked like a football stadium after a late-night game—thousands pouring out into the darkness, lit as if by floodlights.

With the beam of his flashlight, Moffett followed a column returning from a tree 60 feet away. If you were a leafcutter, he said, you’d be humping the equivalent of 750 pounds of vegetation. That would be a weight lifting record, except that instead of holding it for a few seconds, you’d have to jog three miles, including straight down the side of the Empire State Building. Luckily, once the ants reached the ground, their colleagues had cleared a vast highway to ease their progress. The roads leafcutters pave through the middle of the rainforest are wide and smooth, with sharp, well-defined curbs. Humans often mistake them for man-made paths and follow them into the rainforest, only to find themselves lost.

The ants don’t eat the leaf segments they carry. Instead, they chew the foliage into a mulch, and that mulch is fed upon by a fungus—the ants’ true food source. The nest works to keep the fungus properly fed, watered, and free of pests, making leafcutters the only creature other than humans and a few termites to farm on such an elaborate scale. Moffett explains that as ant societies grow larger, the need for organization and specialization increases. Among the ants are specialists in hygiene, sanitation, road building, defense. There are ants that carry a strain of bacteria to fight off pests that attack the fungus, and those that use their mouthparts to manually groom the crop. Traffic regulations are introduced in the larger colonies, where ants keep to one side. To follow the trail, they need a chemical scent. The smell is strong: One milligram of pheromone would be enough to lure a column of workers around the world multiple times.

A heavy rain began to fall without any warning drizzle. The rain itself was the signal, no chemicals necessary. The leafcutters dropped their cargo and, in a stream, poured toward the safety of the nest. Moffett stood looking down at the abandoned leaf segments.

While many biologists confer only with their colleagues, Moffett explores freely across disciplines. When he wanted to challenge the belief that leafcutters must be in constant communication while they harvested leaves, he turned not to other myrmecologists but to Henry Ford’s biographer, who explained that once efficiency had been established, Ford deliberately designed his factories to maximize productivity and minimize communication. Moffett believes leafcutters evolved to behave similarly.

Moffett also corresponds with Luis Bettencourt, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who, with his colleague Geoffrey West, created the field of urban science, developing rules and formulas for our own ever expanding cities. West and Bettencourt can predict, for example, exactly how much electricity a city of 1 million will need to sustain itself or the surface area that a city of 500,000 devotes to transportation. It doesn’t matter whether the city is in South Korea, Germany, or the U.S.—according to West, “Every city is the same.” He argues that “every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating.” West applies the principle to humans, but Moffett believes that ants, too, abide by it. Basiceros singularis are Ecuadoran ants, hunter-gatherers that live in small groups of a dozen, including their queen. They move only a tiny bit faster than their prey: snails. Yet in larger groups, as with leafcutters and army ants, the speed of their movement and productivity is stunning. “To me it’s obvious,” Moffett says. “Any New Yorker has much more in common with a leafcutter society than with any primate society. Chimpanzees don’t have traffic pileups or public-health issues. They don’t need to organize assembly lines to make their food. Leafcutters do.”

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An argentine ant (bottom) grabs the leg of a fire ant during a battle.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

7. The Hunt

We were not alone at the research station. Every once in a while as we walked through the rainforest, a flash would suddenly go off, and Moffett would grin. Three young Honduran biologists, part of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, had been setting camera traps for jaguars along the jungle paths.

The field biologists were working 18-hour days in rain and mud. Moffett sympathized. He knew exactly what it was like to go without a hot meal for months. While treating them to dinner one night, Moffett used what he calls his “ice breaker.” During our walk, he’d gathered a couple of trap-jaw ants. Their mandibles are controlled by trigger hairs activated by any object brushing against them. They snap shut at 145 miles an hour, the fastest muscle action of any animal on the planet. Under threat, such as sitting on a dinner table and being prodded by a bearded naturalist, the ant will deliberately dip its head and snap its jaws shut, launching itself backward to escape. If they were human, they’d be setting records for the high jump at 44 feet and the long jump at 132 feet. The laughing biologists plucked the from their dinner plates.

After dinner, Moffett was invited by the team’s young herpetologist, Mario Solis, for a walk in the rainforest in search of poisonous snakes. Solis carried three flashlights. “Once,” he said, “I had to make it down the mountain with just the light from my telephone.” Though Moffett was 52 and Solis still in his 20s, the age difference melted away through common interests. The two men would pause behind me, seeing what I missed: wolf spiders spread across a leaf, milk and rat snakes looping from trees branches. At one point, a tarantula shot across the trail. “They’re fast,” I said. “They have to be,” said Moffett, “otherwise the females eat them.”

The two men shared stories as they walked. Solis talked about setting a camera trap and feeling a sharp pain in his hand, then recoiling to see an army ant scout cutting into his skin. He looked ahead and saw that the green jungle in front of him was turning black. Tens of thousands of ants were rushing through the undergrowth, plant by plant. Army ants can travel at five miles per hour in columns of millions. Solis turned and sprinted down the jungle path.

Solis promised us that his team would keep their eyes open for army ants during the next few days. Moffett smiled at me. “They’re out here somewhere,” he said. He wanted me to share the excitement. As a scientist, he’s unlikely to gain anything from finding yet another army ant column, but as a man who appreciates stories, he wanted me to have one of my own. The science of entomology is driven by statistics, but for Moffett its as much about emotion.

In a sense, Moffett is caught in a trap of his own making. By maintaining his independence, he has to move at an extraordinary pace: researching, writing, photographing, and making appearances to earn enough money to continue his work. He calls it “a marginalized existence in one way.” His best hope for stability—a grant or book advance large enough to allow him an extended period of study and reflection—would come much more easily had he stayed in academia. But his aim is discovery, not stability, and each journey into the field builds to the next. In just six months in 2009, he worked in India, Panama, Bhutan, Yemen, Mauritius, Hawaii, and Madagascar.

Moffett has a simple rule for travel to foreign countries: Never look at what the State Department is recommending, otherwise you’d never go. For instance, the day he landed in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, 14 men were murdered on a local soccer field, victims of a drug war between rival gangs. On our last day together, he was still anxious to share with me the experience of witnessing an advancing army ant column. We searched at dawn, on either side of the afternoon downpour, and were out again in the dark. When we returned to the cabin, one of the Honduran biologists, Sandra Pereira, passed Moffett a vial. It had a pair of army ants in it. We leaped into her small silver Honda and bumped our way down a dirt road until we could cross the Rio Corloradito and double back to the foot of the mountains where she had collected the specimens. The town we drove through was poor, consisting of a few shops selling sodas, flour, and tinned foods. The buildings were made of concrete blocks and lit by bare lightbulbs.

Heading back up toward the mountains, we stopped by the last farmhouse before the land rose sharply and the rainforest took over. Dim light leaked from its windows 100 yards away. We left the headlights on and walked the path, looking for the ant column. The sides of the road were covered with barbed wire and thick vegetation, and I could see that Moffett was frustrated by the long odds against finding the bivouac. By this time, the ants would have created their living fortress for the night, impeccably ordered. The queen would lie at the center, surrounded by her unborn brood. The ants creating the outer layer would be the oldest—female pensioners are always the first line of attack or defense.

Pereira seemed nervous, odd since she often spends weeks at a time in dense jungle. As the de facto translator, I told her in Spanish not to worry, that with army ants, as long as you see them coming, you can get out of the way. “I’m not worried about ants. We’ve had two murders around here recently,” she said, pointing toward the light coming from the farmhouse. “And the suspect, he’s a lodger in that house.” Moffett tramped back to the car, shaking his head, and proposed a final early morning search.

Perhaps Honduran army ants have a sense of humor. The next morning, when we returned from our final hunt, the security guard looked sheepish. An army ant column had passed through minutes after we’d left. He had stepped away from his guard post and watched as it was engulfed. Generally, the ants are welcomed by home owners. Their assaults are easy to spot: The rest of the rainforest runs before them, and they’re escorted by ant birds, which pick off those that take to the air. The insects enter in a stream and cleanse the property. Scorpions, spiders, lizards, and frogs are attacked and dissected, their bodies passed backward along the column. Moffett once witnessed a legless grasshopper being shipped to the rear. For days afterward, he dreamt of being passed limbless through an ant column.

After missing the army ants, Moffett was moved to act. “Does anyone have an old-fashioned razor blade?” he asked. I knew what he wanted to show me. He still had the vial containing the two army ants, their pincers sharp enough to puncture human skin. The mandibles cross to form a fishhook once they pierce and are almost impossible to remove. That’s why the ants continue to be used by certain South American tribes (and certain American naturalists) to close wounds in the absence of a needle and thread. Moffett carved a small slice into his hand with the razor blade, grabbed the army ant, and snapped its jaws shut on his skin.

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An army ant major worker biting Moffett’s finger, Barro Colorado Island, Panama.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

8. The Endgame

Life became more complicated for Moffett in 2008 when, at 50, he married. Marriage is normally a strain for field biologists. Either they wed other biologists and risk competition or are drawn away from fieldwork by the needs of families who demand a more regular life. Moffett’s wife, Melissa Wells, is a rare exception. She’s a health care consultant, and she’s entirely supportive of Moffett’s work. In fact, she often joins him in the field as an assistant and videographer. Moffett calls her “fluid and fearless.” At his lectures, he sometimes drags her out of the audience and makes her share horrifying anecdotes about how he almost got her killed in Africa or South America.

When Moffett spoke at the 2010 Boston Book Festival, he was paired on the podium of the Trinity Church Sanctuary with Dan Ariely, a best-selling author and behavioral economist. Ariely specializes in how human irrationality can override logical thought. Irrationality, he contends, is a deeply ingrained part of human behavior, rendering us less individualistic than we suppose. Ariely’s is another discipline catching up with work pioneered by Wilson in the 1970s—namely, that our free will might be on a tighter rein than we suspect. For instance, according to Ariely’s experiments, humans tend to cheat in equal measure regardless of their sex, nationality, and other factors. The bugs in our moral code that compel us to be dishonest are not cultural, in other words. They are an outgrowth of being human, controllable but also inevitable. Ariely’s talk reminded me of something Moffett once told me: As much as he admires ants, he’d said, he is relieved to be human. There is still room in many of our societies to pursue our own dreams. Not so the ants. There is one absolute rule in ant life—you can never leave the colony. As T. H. White put it in a 1958 short story, for ants “everything not forbidden is compulsory.”

But that doesn’t stop Moffett from seeing shades of humanity in them. When, in Boston, he explained his belief in ant patriotism, their division of the world into us and them, Ariely was barely a step behind. He turned to the audience. “I could give half of you red T-shirts and half of you blue,” he said. “We know that within two minutes you will start to feel morally superior to the other side.” Together now, they were on a roll, and Moffett was embracing territory that his mentor Wilson had only tiptoed into. “We come from hunter-gatherer groups,” said Moffett. “We are in a very awkward social situation, living among millions where we haven’t before.… We’re learning how to do this for the first time.” Is it really so foolish to look to those who’ve been dealing with similar problems for millions of years?

Having seen Moffett in the field full of sweat-soaked enthusiasm, and having twice watched him lecture to large crowds, it struck me that he never changes his style. The last time I visited him, we discussed his ideas on supercolonies. This time, he said, he was shaping them into a journal paper. He also mentioned that he had just signed a contract to write an article for Scientific American, a magazine with a reputation for mixing the popular and the academic. I had thought that, if and when he reentered the competitive arena of academia, that entrance would be loud. Instead, he talked quickly but calmly as he attempted to dismantle Gordon’s ideas challenging the existence of Argentine supercolonies. It made me think of Moran’s prediction that soon Moffett will be “vindicated as a big-idea guy.”

In December 2010, to finish a trip that had taken him from Honduras to Botswana and Tanzania, Moffett traveled north to Harvard for a meeting of the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Moffett sat across from the 81-year-old Wilson, part of an international group of biologists and anthropologists committed to preserving diversity in the service of conservation. He felt a sharp pain in his left hand. To his amazement, his presumably dead botfly had decided to emerge. His fellow scientists gathered around to watch the maggot break through the skin of Moffett’s hand.

One had a smartphone and recorded the scene. Moffett later posted it to YouTube; within days over 300,000 viewers would share his experience. At the time, a Brazilian anthropologist asked Moffett why he hadn’t smothered the maggot with Vaseline and had it removed. “What kind of statement would that be for biodiversity?” asked Moffett. He placed it carefully in a vial of moist soil and gave it to the museum’s curator of ants. In early 2011, Moffett would be back in Boston to give a lecture at the Harvard Travellers Club, and he hoped to visit the fully formed adult fly.