Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Year

Ghosts of the Rainforest

I’ve commonly encountered the belief while here in Malaysia that the forest is full of ghosts and I saw something tonight close to inspiration for such a belief.


Huntsman spider just after the rain. It’s been raining heavily here lately, making insects scarce.

I went night hiking finally after previously being prevented from fear. Since arriving in Malaysia, I have been warned about the forest as a scary place and how women are often targeted and attacked or robbed. One story of how my host was beaten with a rock by a naked man in the forest behind her house left a particular impression on me and my hikes soon became accompanied by a large German Shepherd for protection.


Water reservoir that feeds the waterfalls and rivers below.


Sunset at the top of the hill (Bukit Ampang) with Kuala Lumpur in the distance.

But tonight was different. I was miserable without my freedom of exploration in a forest. Primary rainforest was just at my doorstep, but I was unable to explore it and seek out the insects which brought me to this country. Putting fear aside, I ventured into the rainforest with my headlamp and camera. Scurrying beside a rushing river, I wasn’t having much luck in finding insects. Many spiders were about along with tiny crickets and a few forest cockroaches, but they were all species I had seen before. I decided to clamber furthermore into the forest. The pulsing sounds of cicadas and strange churrups of hidden frogs began to fill my ears and suddenly something flew past! Having become a bit feral, I snatch it out of the air with my hand: it was a small beetle, a lightning bug – a firefly (family Lampyridae). Immediately I switched off my headlamp and as my eyes adjusted, little lights appeared drifting through the forest.

Some shone brightly with a slow fade. Others flashed frantic glows in the night as though they were more desperate to find a mate. Many made predictable flight patterns as they glided over a certain area, thoroughly searching these spots for a mate or maybe ensuring she had a good look. It was a sight that made my heart expand. I’ve seen fireflies glowing before on summer nights in Arkansas, but this time was different. I wasn’t home. These beetles were orange instead of black and I watched them while standing in the mud with gooseflesh, worrying someone might creep out of the forest behind me. Back home, I’d watch them and wish I could hold onto the moments left of summer. I’d watch and try to catch them with friends, passing down the knowledge of these incredible insects to the younger generation.


Firefly (family Lampyridae)

img_0153Here it’s strikingly different. It’s not just the tropical rainforest or other side of the Earth. It’s also me. Back when I first found fireflies, I had no idea I would one day travel to Malaysia on the simple motivation to look for insects. I only knew I wanted out of my circumstances, to see more of the world and find more of these natural wonders which it holds. Now I’m getting to do just that. I’m free. This freedom has not come without fear though. As I learn more about the world, I find more to grieve over and more to fear. Alongside these dark sides of the Earth have been gems of stunning nature: glacier lakes and cloud forests, giant Hercules moths and peppermint stick insects, rainforest waterfalls and drifts of fireflies. I feel the trouble in the world and mourn was has already been lost, but relish what is left and chase an understanding of it all. Pursuing insects has guided me through culture shock and homesickness to a beautiful world of discovery. Sometimes I forget this, and then a glowing reminder glides across my path. Hauntingly, the world is full of life despite our destruction and we have the privilege of understanding and protecting it.


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