It’s dusk on the eve of yet another departure from Madagascar, and I find myself once again in my ever-present state of leave-taking. A year ago—true to my fomba—I quoted Steinbeck on this subject when I said my last goodbyes in Madagascar: “It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing …” At the time, I did not understand Steinbeck’s words; it seemed hard to me, this life of constant transience, this perpetual in-betweenness, but I think I understand it better now.
I’m headed back to America for eight weeks only, a length of time that is both long and short. It is long enough that I will feel settled in the U.S. and short enough that I’ll be back on the Eighth Continent before I know it. At present, this in-betweenness makes me happy, for I feel as though I am never really saying goodbye to either place that I love so dearly. Thoreau and Emerson and the rest of the transcendentalists believed that it is only from the perspective of civilization that one can relish the wilderness, and only from the perspective of wilderness that one can value civilization. I wonder if there is some aspect of this duality in my life, too: I cherish Madagascar for how unique it is from America, but I love America, as well—perhaps more than most—because of how rare and precious my time at home has become.
It’s the time of day in Madagascar that a friend of mine once called the “golden hour” as we wind our way home from our last field mission in the nearby District of Manjakandriana—that hour when the last rays of sun make the red brick houses glow in the highland villages, when the fields of rice turn a thousand vibrant shades of green. The golden hour comes late these days, for it is December 21 at the time of this writing—the longest day of the year on this island continent, floating alone in the southern Indian Ocean. It’s raining, of course, but only intermittently, and a rainbow spreads with the lightning over the Malagasy sky. I find myself startled by emotion as I glance around at my companions: Tojo, the smiling village boy who charmed me here a year ago, and Christian, of course, and Miora, who has rejoined us with her companionable boyfriend, Gaël. Gaël tells me he wants to join Ekipa Fanihy for his Master’s degree, too. “Hohitantsika,” I say. We’ll see. But I am very bad at telling people “no.”
I am so proud of how much we have all learned in the past few months together. Watching Miora expertly draw up a milliliter of blood from an Eidolon dupreanum, which Christian restrains in his hands, I tell her, “You guys don’t need me anymore! I guess I’ll just stay in America next time …”
“But we want you here!” she cries, and I laugh, touched.
Occasionally, I still wake up from nervous nightmares in which my classmates are coding at Princeton while I am waiting for a bus at the ends of the Earth, but for the most part, I feel blessed at the course my PhD has been allowed to take. Like Miora, I have learned an impossible amount in the past six months in Madagascar, and I know there will be much more learning in the five months still to come. I can now rig a pulley system in a eucalypt canopy, extract a lower premolar tooth in less than ten minutes, and tell you, “The net is tangled!” three different ways in Malagasy (Mikorontana ny arato! Misaringotra ny arato! Misaritaka ny arato!). I can tell you a whole lot of other things as well.
But, for the moment, it is time to flip calendars once again—to days that are short and packed with meetings and science talks and modeling exercises. I’m excited, I admit, to go home—mostly, I am eager to see many people whom I have missed. I am told that my eighteen-month-old niece now speaks English to rival my Malagasy. But I’m excited, too, that my return will be the easiest by far of any I have yet known, more homecoming than leave-taking once again.
For now, it is a long journey ahead. I fly home to California first, a gentle easing into cold before I face the chill of a New England midwinter, but I should be back again on the Eighth Continent before the snows get too fierce. Los Angeles, California, and Toliara, Madagascar are antipodes—exact opposite sides of the Earth—and though I fly from Tana to San Francisco, not Toliara to L.A., the distance is mitovtovy. It seems wholly fitting that the time itself, like our bat nets, should flip upside-down.