In early afternoon, San Francisco lay washed with grey dullness, her warmth 10°C, the dry hills beyond her airport runways screened by pollution’s haze. With six and a half hours to kill before boarding our Air New Zealand flight to Auckland, Vilis plugged his laptop computer into an electrical outlet and carried out mathematical simulations of animal movement paths, with the aim of elucidating what information is lost if a movement path is sampled at intervals rather than continuously. He produced angular graphs with green, arrowed lines that doubled back on themselves to form tortuous, overlapping displays of data which resembled polygons heaped one atop another. The graphs were interspersed with disconcertingly lengthy mathematical equations and the occasional bemused or enlightened grunt from my husband.
I, meanwhile, fended off restless hips, to which I am prone, by repeatedly walking up and down the Gate 94 seating area reading a copy of Sean Carroll’s Into the Jungle. Periodically, I paused to pass on some anecdote to Vilis – Charles Darwin describing his nauseated transit of the equator aboard the Beagle as akin to being “stewed in… warm, melted butter,”1 Alfred Russell Wallace’s insertion of dead snakes and lizards into his supplies of liquid preservative – in this case, local Singapore booze called arrack – to discourage the natives from stealing it.2
It seemed fitting, as we set off on a year-long adventure into Australian ecology and culture, that I caught a glimpse of what early naturalists had experienced. Viewing our airborne excursion from Halifax, Canada, to Townsville in northern Queensland with the perspective of the modern traveler, I anticipated exhaustion and the temporal disorientation associated with jetlag, yet this seemed a small price to pay for adventure when compared with the unrelenting seasickness Darwin never escaped during his five-year odyssey, causing him to write home, “I loathe, I abhor the sea.”3 And I could hardly liken my inspiration to write this blog while battling airport boredom and restless hips to Wallace’s battle against the ravages of malaria, during which, amid bouts of fever and chills, he came to the realization that “The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence.”4 That led him to propose, borrowing a phrase from anthropologist Herbert Spencer, that the fittest survive.5 Perhaps great hardships breed great thoughts.
Our peaceful airport time was such a contrast to the previous month of hectic preparations and poor sleep, during which Vilis finished his teaching responsibilities at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and chased bureaucrats to obtain Australian visas so we could embark on this sabbatical. I juggled Christmas baking and decorating with packing 95% of our personal belongings into boxes and storing them in the basement, since we found a tenant to rent our house during our absence. Throw into the mix vaccinations and medical and dental exams, our sons coming home from university for the holidays, and attending various Christmas parties and events, and the result was stress spelled with black, pulsating letters. Now, with all the preparations behind us, life suddenly felt so much simpler. We had each checked two suitcases and brought laptops in our carry-on luggage. That was it. It was like starting out all over again, and it felt good.
Heightened security measures following the Christmas Day failed bomb attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit caused an hour-long delay in our San Francisco departure as we waited for eighteen connecting passengers. Then we vaulted out over the Pacific evening darkness, leaving behind San Francisco, leaving behind Toronto’s crowded airport with its double security checks, leaving behind the cozy sitting area at the Quality Inn Halifax Airport, where at 2:15 a.m. we had waited for a shuttle bus in deep easy chairs near a Christmas tree too heavily decorated and standing beside artificial flames in a fireplace flanked by Christmas stockings that would fit a giant – rich, thick, burgundy-red of fabric, with silver bells at toes, and the stockings. They bordered poinsettias that stood on a mantle like red flames above orange flickers cloistered within the fireplace. Despite the uneartly hour, a thrill of excitement had Vilis and me smiling. We were on our way to Oz.
1. Quoted in Sean B. Carroll. Into the Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution. 2009. Pearson Education, Inc., San Francisco, California, p. 13.
2. Carroll, p. 40; 3. Quoted in Ibid, p. 26; 4. Quoted in Ibid, pp. 47-48; 5. Ibid, p. 48.