I’m still having a hard time writing this book. I wish most days that it weren’t “this book,” that I could just write without the obligation of “this book” hanging over my head. So many people have supported this book, have supported me in the writing of it. So many people have said encouraging words about how they can’t wait for the book and the book will be so important. I feel a little bit like I’ve been trying to get pregnant for three years and there’s still no plus on the stick.
My inability to write the book I want (I’m writing, I’m just not writing enough to get past the writing I hate), is making me doubt my ability to write with any lengthiness at all. I think of all of the things that I have given up these past three, four, five years—like job (or really, any kind of long term) security, like reading or road trips for fun and exploration, not weighted down with the need to do double-duty, to be “productive” first, fun second. I can’t justify visiting friends (unless they live near vultures), because every piece of spare change goes to funding these research trips that… I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing, some days. You know?
Part of this frustration has come about because I’m having a hard time fact checking some of my earlier writing. I have become crippled by the fear that I’m going to write something and some expert (who never answered my emails; who I never found; who wouldn’t let me record our conversation and now wants to clarify my “misunderstandings”; who won’t give me the name of the person who knows because that means admitting not knowing) is going to say, “That’s wrong. How could you write that?”
Right now, I’m working off a bunch of newspaper articles for this one piece, and no scientist or reliable source will confirm that the news is correct. But they won’t tell me what IS correct, either.
When I asked a Forest Officer how many leopard attacks have happened in and around Mumbai since 2011, he replied, “SGNP Borivali have density at least one leopard per each 2 and half square kilometer. Means here is huge population of leopards. As before discuss encroachment made by surrounding population as well as increase in population of leopards is the main reason of clashes between leopard and human.”
When I asked a biologist who studies leopards in India about the increase in attacks since 2011: “there was no “increase” in 2011, earlier there were about 30 attacks each year and 2011- 2012 had about 4-5 attacks and likely to be caused by one animal as it was very localised.” But another expert said there were no attacks between 2009-2011. So what’s up with “30 attacks each year”? Then, a Guardian article from November 2014 that quoted that same expert reported: “Yet, since November 2011 there have been six fatalities; the last three deaths were all reported in Aarey Milk Colony, to the south of the SGNP.” Not all attacks are fatal. How many attacks? How may deaths?
I understand that it is risky (and at present, not especially scientifically rigorous) to tie the near extinction of one species (vulture) to the increase of another threatened creature (leopards), and it is especially unwelcomed to correlate the increase of a threatened species with an increase in human conflicts with that species (see also: wolves in the US).
BUT FUCK. If it’s true? How can more leopards not mean more attacks? How can more dogs not mean more leopards (when the leopards’ bellies are more full of dog than any other animal)? The link between dogs and the vulture decline has been noted in several peer reviewed papers, but another leopard biologist wrote to me: “I think the link between vultures and increased dog numbers is total speculation and I do not believe in it at all. I think it is a really bad idea to emulate guardian or Indian papers which are absurdly sensationlizing the issue. I hope you will not join the bandwagon.”
I don’t want to be sensational. I don’t want to be a part of the terrible group of “people who talk about science badly.” I don’t want to do leopards or vultures a disservice. But I believe they are connected, and I don’t think it’s a conspiracy-theory type belief. But if no one tells me the same story, what the hell am I supposed to do? Not tell any story? Risk discrediting all of my other experts by believing the wrong one?
And this is just one little story in “this book.” Most of my time in Europe was spent with experts who refused to speak on tape. They have sent me their papers and the papers of others to quote. How easy it is to create a rich, sympathetic character from the scholarly papers of others! These folks would say, “But I’m not the character! The birds are!” Because they don’t understand that readers fall in love with people who love animals, not the animals themselves. We love our reflection in animal eyes. We love how they make us feel.
(Which is where the risk is, right? I’m scared about writing a book about me. I’m scared that it will be full of doubt and fear and anxiety instead of vultures and beauty and wonder and the sublime. I thought I was writing a conservation book about vultures, and then I thought I was writing about death and scavengers and maybe myself a little, and then a travel memoir about caring enough about a type of bird and its place in the world to go to half a dozen countries trying to learn more about it, and now I don’t even know. I have no clue how to make these last three years into an interesting story. Why me and why now? I have no clue.)
Anyway. I am trying, you guys. I am trying to find the story. But I just feel like I am failing at every step.
Now, I’ve written and re-written to a half dozen people trying to find an expert in Peru on vultures, and no one is responding. The kid in me who wasn’t invited to the parties everyone went to, and who was picked last for every team ever (except in-class trivia games, heyyyy), is convinced that it’s me. That I’ve asked the wrong questions of the wrong people and now everyone else knows not to answer, that not everyone wants a general book about vultures written by me, because it means writing about people as much as it does the birds.
So then I think, fine. Maybe I’ll just go to Peru and have fun. Maybe I’ll just be a tourist. Maybe I’ll eat guinea pig and climb Macchu Picchu and take pictures and buy a clay pot and get a tan. And when someone points out a condor in the sky, I will look up like people who don’t care about birds look up and just say, “Wow!” And who cares if it means nothing to anyone except me and my lover?
I can’t find the Peru story. It’s a huge country, full of vultures, and … nothing. I don’t feel like any of this is any easier or that I have any more idea what I am doing now than I did when I mis-booked my first hotel room in Antwerp and let my first whole week of “research” go unrecorded. Like I’m going to write a book now about what I sort of remember happened, a book about all the stuff I still don’t know. About the people who wouldn’t answer my questions or who turned out to be racist or sexist jerks even though they have committed their lives to saving endangered species. (And too, the wonderful, kind people who can’t get funding, who don’t have corporate sponsored vans, who don’t have a uniform, who are doing good work that some do and some don’t consider “valid” based on whether or not there is a government logo on their front door.)
Which makes some stupid desk job and an essay or two a year maybe, about breakups and the places I’ve lived, so attractive. It would make many things easier, to just put this down. It wouldn’t make me feel better, but if trying to write “this book” won’t either, shouldn’t life at least be easier? I am tired of scrambling every fall for a spring of defeat. I am tired of trying so hard and failing over and over. I am tired of pitching a story in the hopes of getting some exposure for an amazing project, and then watching the rejections roll in, or worse, the story never go to press. I am tired of not knowing how to work harder so I get it more right. I am letting people all over the world down by even considering this, I know. I know it every day and it is such a weight to hold up. All those people and all those birds.
I know that the difference between people who succeed and those who fail is this exact moment. But for fuck’s sake: it’s just so huge. The whole world. All the vultures. I can’t find the story that connects them all. I know that this is where everyone who is going to quit, quits. I have persevered and hung in there and done the hard things before. I just don’t understand how to make this book the thing I can’t give up. What I mean is: Why me and why now?