By Jason Gray
Peace Corps Writers, $14.95, 288 pages
Jason Gray’s memoir, Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon, defies the widely held image of the Peace Corps that assumes it spends its time in regions far from civilization as we know it. During his time in the prospering West African country of Gabon, the author set out on his mission to promote the importance of protecting natural resources.
In 2002, the Gabonese president designated vast swathes of land to National Park status making it imperative to demonstrate how to preserve and conserve this bounty. Gray worked towards this end primarily by developing programs for children and their schoolteachers and working alongside the Smithsonian and other natural history research groups.
The book’s appeal lies not only in the information that it imparts, but more in the poetic and imaginative quality of Gray’s writing. It is divided into two sections and is an absolute pleasure to read. In the first part, Gray details his experience as a ‘newbie,’ learning the ropes with the help of his local Peace Corps buddy.
Despite a ferocious climate so unlike his home in Montana, Gray focuses on the positive. He write about his day to day life in Gamba, the small coastal town where he is centered. He details the task of learning the fundamentals of regional languages. And once the introductions are over, he describes a growing expertise of the natural surroundings. He highlights an overnight trip to the beach with high school kids to watch leatherback turtles lay their eggs, forest elephants swimming across the river and rosy bee-eater birds winging up from their nests. Above all, he is enthralled when he sees “…a five-fingered leathery shiny black hand, thick fingers grasping at a leaf. The amazing single sighting … a gorilla’s hand.”
In addition to the narrative and photographs (readers will wish there were more), Gray provides excellent lists for further reading and highlights the species mentioned in the text. Grammar errors may occasionally trip up the reader (the title of Chinua Achebe’s celebrated book has suffered a typo) but otherwise, full marks.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster