Osa Johnson’s Jungle

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

When she walked through the tropical forest, adventurer Osa Johnson found the nature of the jungle troubling. In Last Adventure, her account of her last expedition to Borneo in 1935-6 with her husband Martin, she describes hacking through a “solid jungle wall of tangled foliage . . . nature’s last and strongest defense,” and being struck by the coexistence of the “beautiful and defiant.” To her, nature was a “riotous range of green,” containing a “mystical and silent aura of black-green gloom,” and the forest “a dazzling quiltwork of sinister and alluring palms.” But she also appreciated the beauty of the jungle because of its threatening mysteries. In Borneo, she observed, “the beautiful and the unaesthetic lived side by side.”

37_68_H1139_houseboat04 copy

The Johnsons’ houseboat afloat on Borneo’s Kinabatangan River.

When she made her way through the dense tropical forest, its foliage swept against her. It was, on experience, running counter to her ideal, organized, nature. It didn’t penetrate the walls of her home or the fences around her garden, like the scavenging elephants she had previously encountered, but forced itself onto her body. The touch of the jungle tore. On one trek, she discovered the “soft, slimy anatomy of a leech” on the back of her neck. As soon as she located one, she and the rest of the expedition realized they were covered with leeches. “I yielded to my first impulse, which was to scream,” she wrote, but then “I turned to the immediate practicality of removing the annelid.” While the experience initially disgusted her, leeches then ceased to be horrifying creatures and became objectified elements of the natural world she called by their scientific name.

Osa turned moments when the jungle appalled or threatened her into practical lessons about the ecology and wildlife of the region. Just as Martin’s films juggled education and science, Osa’s writing alternated between narratives of her own emotional encounters and practical advice for living in the jungle. While the “unaesthetic” or “defiant” may not always be made “beautiful,” it might at least be dealt with efficiently by the rational thinking of an American housewife.

In a recipe for soup, Osa further reveals the sometimes unpleasant duties of a self-made woman in the wild–this time in East Africa. “The point about Gazelle Consommé,” she confided, “is to first catch your gazelle. Then, having caught him, to make soup out of him. It is almost impossible, to bring yourself to the soup point when gazing into his large, soft, limpid eyes that beg you to open up a can of soup instead!” This “recipe” revealed her ambivalence about killing animals, yet she clearly felt that killing to satisfy her desire for a good consommé was a better alternative than consuming a mass-produced canned product.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Although Osa enjoyed hunting, she claimed never to have killed an animal without cause; either she and Martin was in clear danger of an attack or they needed meat. While the roles of protector and provider fell within the prescribed duties of female homemaker, acting out these roles through hunting exotic game was a novelty. To her audience, Johnson’s work in her home and garden fell within the expected realm of female work and the acceptable forms of feminine interactions with nature. As a hunter, Johnson had to carefully position her reasons for killing in order to retain her image as not just a female adventurer but a distinctly feminine one. She left the boundaries of home and its closely related garden and entered a landscape not controlled by male or female.

Throughout her life and adventures, Johnson considered her ability to create a home in the jungle among her greatest accomplishments and downplayed her excellent marksmanship. She saved Martin’s life countless times with her ability to act in moments of imminent danger, but she cast these moments as elements of chance. Osa hardly ever wrote of trophy hunting (though she did plenty of it) and portrayed her love of fishing as a childlike amusement. When she did brag about a kill, her pride was not in besting the animal, but in providing an elegant meal for her husband and guests. One of Martin’s photographs showed her grinning with pride holding a freshly killed turkey meant for Christmas dinner. When Osa wrote of this episode, however, she did not describe this posed moment but rather the moments after the kill, as she watched blood splatter from the bird and realized “as never before that there was more joy in shooting with a camera than a gun.” Still, she confessed, “this wild African turkey would taste mighty good on Christmas Day.”

Fur and animal prints were part of Osa's signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Animal elements were part of Osa’s signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra-patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Every kill was used in its entirety. Regarding her penchant for wearing animal products, Johnson maintained that she was not promoting the wasteful and exploitative fur industry. When asked by a reporter if she liked to shoot animals for attire, she replied: “Whenever we kill a bustard (African wild turkey) we always save the wings for a hat. And whenever we kill a guinea foul, we say ‘The pompon for a turban, the breast for a roast, the legs for soup and the other feathers for a pillow. Perhaps this is a survival of my western pioneer ancestral thrift.”

Adapted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Archives of the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas.

Osa Johnson, Last Adventure (1966).

___I Married Adventure (1940).

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Mountain lion in Connecticut: the re-wilding of eastern forests

Earlier this month, a mountain lion wandered through the campus of a private school for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut. Staff snapped a quick photograph through a window and, though a bit blurred, even skeptical experts agree it appears to be a mountain lion.

This photograph taken by school staff in Greenwich, Connecticut started talk of mountain lions in the region earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Time/Greenwich Police Department

Mountain lions have not lived in significant numbers in the eastern states since at least the 1930s. Viewed by early Americans as a threat to domestic animals and competition for wild game, mountain lions were relentlessly hunted. In addition, their forested habitat became deforested for lumber supplies and farmland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently reported the native subspecies, eastern mountain lion, or eastern cougar, extinct. Their study, released in March of this year, maintained that despite nearly six hundred reported sightings in northeastern states, the subspecies itself is unlikely to exist. The USFWS recommended removing the extirpated animal from the endangered species list.

Last Saturday, a woman in an SUV crashed into a mountain lion on a highway near Milford, Connecticut. There it was—evidence in the form of an actual animal body that mountain lion roam the forests of the Northeast. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene and took the corpse for further study. They insist it is the same animal seen in Greenwich and will be comparing scat found at the previous site to the DNA of this animal. They will also be determining if the mountain lion had escaped from captivity by looking for signs of veterinary treatments and its relationship to the South American subspecies, which is normally the type kept as pets .

The DEP insists that the animals are the same solitary cat who must have escaped captivity, despite evidence to the contrary. The dead mountain lion had not been declawed or neutered. What’s more, on Sunday—the day after the dead animal was found—sightings continued around Greenwich. Even physical evidence in the form of cougar prints around a deer kill, did not seem to be swaying the experts.

A healthy skepticism?

Why do experts doubt the ability of locals to identify creatures in their own backyard? Some of their skepticism comes from mistaken identities. Bobcats and coyote are known to live in Connecticut and officials have found several reported sightings of mountain lions lead only to evidence of these other wild critters.

The nearest established populations of wild mountain lions are in Florida and Missouri, both different subspecies than that which was native to the Northeast. However, reported sightings have increased in the last decade in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. People have also seen mountain lions on U.S soil, east of the Mississippi in the states around the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Connecticut is now more forested than it has been in historic times, perhaps creating a welcoming environment for wandering species.

Mountain lions in Connecticut--a thing of the past? This photo by D.D. Burnham, "A mountain lion in the wild," depicts the western subspecies in Colorado.

The controversy has garnered several stories in local, as well as national papers, including the New York Times. Headlines have called the mountain lion both “beautiful,” “elusive,” and “mysterious.” Though many Connecticut residents are fearful, the image of this large, wild cat roaming only seventy miles from the sprawling Manhattan metropolis also inspires wonder.

The sublimity of re-wilding

Whether or not it is the original native species, or simply the western species migrating to new territory, in its juxtaposition of urban and wild, a mountain lion in Connecticut is a sublime sight.

The recent report of the USFWS begs the question: why are there so many reported sightings now? Is it an odd coincidence—or is there more to the story? While we await the results of the necropsy of the dead mountain lion, we are left to wonder if the news of eastern cougar extinction hit someone (or some group) so hard, they launched a plan to reintroduce a related subspecies, secretly, into Eastern forests. The other, more likely possibility, is that people who had previously seen mountain lions had been too unsure, or too afraid of being called crazy, to report their encounters.

There are several “ghost” species roaming (or not roaming) American forests. We saw an uproar just a few years ago when scientists in the swampy forests of the South reported seeing ivory-billed woodpeckers—a species long thought to be extinct. While some doubted the veracity of the sighting, many locals admitted to knowing the birds inhabited their forests. Those who had reported such information previously had been dismissed as ignorant of the very landscape in which they live.

Sightings of supposedly extinct animals have become a dialogue between outside “experts” and local peoples. Anthropologists have studied traditional environmental knowledge in remote corners of the globe. Now, such studies might be needed in America’s own wild, or in the case of Connecticut, re-wilded landscapes.


“Eastern Cougar,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Mosi Secret, “Claims of Mountain Lions Roaming in Connecticut Drew Groans…Until Saturday,” New York Times

Barbara Heins and Ronald DeRosa, “DEP: Slain Mountain Lion Was Held in Captivity,” TollandPatch

MariAn Gail Brown, “DEP’s stance on mountain lions disquieting,” Connectictut Post

Connecticut Mountain Lion: Cougars of the Valley

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“The Mississippi River is out of joint”: fusing floods and poetry

There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature,

But the Mississippi River is out of joint.

Still image from The River shows a familiar scene.

As the Mississippi River flows well beyond its usual course, I cannot help but think of the poetry of Pare Lorentz’s documentary film, The River (1938). When I first saw the film, I was mesmerized by its hypnotic narration. Today, I find the poignancy of its images remarkable. Rushing muddy water, houses half-covered in stagnant ponds, dogs on the roofs of homes, and refugees in small boats drifting along what were once dry streets are all images I’ve seen in recent newscasts about the 2011 flooding of the same river.

Pare Lorentz was a film critic when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired him to oversee government films. After his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Farm Security Administration commissioned a film that would highlight the improvements to the Mississippi River and its valley since the devastating 1927 flood after which they created a series of locks and dams, levees and spillways, and harnessed the power of the river to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas.

With this pragmatic mission, Lorentz instead made poetry:

Pare Lorentz' 1938 film, The River.

From as far East as New York,

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies

Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf

The Mississippi River is a central environmental feature of the North American continent. Lorentz, inspired by a spiderweb-like map of the river and its tributaries, identifies every droplet of water that flows into its course:

The map that inspired Lorentz.

Down the Rock, the Illinois, and the Kankakee

The Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum;

Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking and the Green

The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee;

Down the Ouachita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo.

Lorentz’s lyrical listing of ordinary rivers and streams rolls off the  tongue and builds a momentum akin to flowing water itself. Clips of such powerful white water that Lorentz filmed during the 1936 flood accompany the narration increasing in speed as they reach the main artery of the Mississippi.

Combining the environmental history of the Mississippi with its cultural past, The River captivates viewers through its juxtaposition of fact and emotion. Lorentz portrays the depletion of resources, the coming of steam power, and factory production with a mixture of patriotic pride and regret. Agriculture and deforestation depleted the valley’s topsoil and it washed easily away with the river. Harnessing its power for electricity made the river “work.” Even as Lorentz praises that mission, he mourns the continuing consequences of human activities along the river’s natural course:

1903 and 1907.

1913 and 1922.




We built a hundred cities and a

thousand towns –

But at what a cost!

  • Watch the full thirty minute film, The River, on the Internet Archive.
  • Read Lorentz’s Pulitzer Prize nominated script of The River at UVA’s American Studies Crossroads.
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