Morning singing

I opened my eyes and peeked out of my hammock. A faint orange glow lit the camp scene. At first I thought it was the first rays of sunlight spilling over the mountain ridge but then I realized that the glow came from the campfire. Two figures, hazy in the rising smoke, were hunched over the flames, stirring a large metal pot. They sang softly as they worked. I looked at my watch. It was just 5:00 am. It was odd that I would wake up before breakfast. Something must have woken me up. Yes, I thought, something had jolted me awake. A noise. But what? Was it the singing of the local guides? Or the scraping of the spoon against the pot as they stirred the rice? Then I heard it: A long, mournful call that reverberated through the forest. It sounded almost human but at the same time I could tell that it was not. It was haunting and plangent. The call started out low and then crescendoed to a high-pitched howl that peaked with the energy of a taught violin string on the verge of snapping and then just as it seemed that it would split open the still-dark sky it faded back into nothingness and the forest was silent again. For a few seconds I lay in my hammock, wide-eyed awake now, staring into the blackness of the surrounding jungle. I couldn’t believe my ears, or my luck. I had just heard gibbons singing for the first time.

I wasn’t going to go back to sleep now. I climbed out of my hammock and sat down by the fire. Kaikeo and Knin smiled. They had boiled water in a bamboo stem. Kaikeo handed it to me and I prepared a cup of instant coffee. I sat by the fire, sipping the coffee, wondering if the call would come again. It seemed too otherworldly to be real. When it did come I got goosebumps. I was awe-struck. Then the naturalist part of my brain kicked in and I tried to remember all that I could about the gibbons that lived in the Annamites. All species in this area were from the Nomascus genus, known as crested gibbons because of the long tuft of facial hair that runs along the cheek. I remembered reading somewhere that the early morning singing is often the back and forth calling between mated male—female pairs, and that this duet is believed be a territorial display. And of course I knew that all gibbons in the Annamites were threatened due to hunting and habitat loss. These and other facts floated through my still-sleepy head. But then the naturalist part of my brain shut off and I let myself fall back into rapt wonder. I marveled, without the clutter of mental fact-finding, at the beauty of the singing echoing through the treetops. I had learned long ago to savor moments like this on a visceral level. And so I did.

White-cheeked gibbons
White-cheeked gibbons


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: