Posts Tagged With: wilderness

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.”

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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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