Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) writes incredibly compelling, impeccably researched non-fiction. His latest book, The World Until Yesterday, is a fascinating exploration of the world’s few traditional societies that are still living as our ancestors lived hundreds and thousands of years ago. He’s traveled far and wide to determine how these cultures have survived, and what modern societies can learn from their practices.
I asked Jared to reminisce about one of his most memorable encounters during his decades of research. In today’s exclusive blog post, he describes a harrowing encounter that dispels any myth that writing is a cushy job.
During my first year in New Guinea, I often heard a beautiful, loud, clear, liquid, bird song of four descending notes. Natives called the singer the Userépo. I guessed that it might be the Shovel-billed Kingfisher. But the singer was always invisibly far in the distance.
One morning during my third year in New Guinea, I finally heard the Userépo song nearby, evidently from the top of a tall tree. I quietly walked towards the sound until I was under the tree. I glimpsed, silhouetted high in the canopy, the dark shape of a bird jerking its tail at each note. At last, I was about to solve the mystery!
Alas, I was also about to be driven crazy by scrub mites. These tiny red mites burrow into the skin of one’s ankles, crawl up one’s legs to one’s private parts, burrow in again, and cause an itching and swelling that for me is completely uncontrollable. I almost had the Userépo in my binocular field, but I couldn’t stop itching. Desperately, I staggered off to the nearest river to bathe, and to try to wash out the mites. By then, the Userépo was gone.
It took me 10 more years before I finally succeeded in seeing a singing Userépo. To my astonishment, it proved not to be a kingfisher at all, but a parasitic cuckoo. I now know that it’s one of the most characteristic and widespread bird species of New Guinea hill forest. In my 48 years of travel to New Guinea, while I’ve heard the Userépo thousands of times, I’ve seen it only three times.
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