June 9, 2014

A letter to my mom, from Nyaru Menteng, Borneo Indonesia

I just found this letter I wrote to my mom while working in Borneo with the Orangutans at Nyaru Menteng. My mom passed away in 2002, but I find writing letters to her helps me get out thoughts, etc. Helps, me figure out what i’m doing and what I should do next.

Here’s an image from that project.

and here is the letter.

Dear Mom,

I miss you, a lot. It’s boiling hot here, but I’m living my dream so I can’t complain. I’ve been in Palankaraya, Indonesian Borneo now for two weeks, two more to go. The situation here is worse than I imagined. Flying in on the plane we could see the small dots left of pristine forest and the dramatic split where the palm oil plantations have splintered and almost consumed the landscape. As the plane descended I imagined the fires burning, driving out the orangutan families from the land they had lived in and loved for thousands of years, homes where their mother’s had taught them to forage for food, to play and love nature, nearly the same tools you taught me as a young girl, they had to give up due to over consumerism and human’s rejection of nature and need for more resources like Palm oil. Palm oil is used in many junk foods, most of the foods you kept out of our cupboards, are now being pushed heavily onto the consumer, surprisingly it’s in almost everything, even lipstick, body lotion and bio diesel. The burning of these forests is not only making Indonesia one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide but is also destroying bio-diversity on a mass scale.

As you know, a year ago I learned about the plight of these gentle red haired people of the forest and wanted to help them. I contacted the sanctuary in Borneo and after a year of red tape, thousands of emails, security breaches, 10 vaccination shots and 3 blood serologies, I arrived here on April 18 2009 with Hillary Rosner, a very talented eco writer and my best friend and assistant Amy Anderson.

I’m going to attempt to describe the feeling upon meeting my first orangutan friends in Borneo, it’s hard because it’s so visceral, like I was basked in an aura of love. It was extremely emotional for me because of all the struggles they are up against. looking into their frail, moist eyes brimming with sadness, I could feel their pain of being neglected, losing everything, all they had gone through and seen had been left for dead, their precious forest, their families.

Being in the nursery, I was surrounded by 40 or so little creatures, ones Lone (manager at Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary) calls “Humans in Fur Suits”. They all approach me with big wide eyes full of wonder, they hold my hands and pulled themselves toward me from all sides, most of them looking for a surrogate mother come into my arms and wrap themselves around me, running their fingers over my face, feeling my hair, stopping to look into my eyes and make a connection, a very important one that I had never felt before.

I became sure of this project’s importance after spending 4 days with the orangutans, venturing into the woods for Forest School 101, rolling around and letting them swing from my arms, hugging, feeding, learning and finally helping the babysitters to tuck each one into bed at night all snuggly and warm, just like you did to me mom.

There are many humans putting their lives on the line to save these precious creatures, Willie Smitts has built Samboja Lestari along with Nyaru Menteng, where he has created a new highly evolved ecosystem where humans live off the land and save 200, 000 trees a year, it’s fully sustainable and no animals lose their lives in the process. Still so much needs to be done to help, and I want to be a part of it, I want to continue to photograph the progress and the devastation, I want to make the world realize what we are doing to these highly evolved, beautiful animals that unless we stop consuming on a large scale, they will be gone forever, never to return.

Newsweek bought the story and published Hillary’s words and 11 of my pictures in the August 9th Issue. I was very elated and also sure that I wanted to pursue this issue further, I want to help save these very important animals that share 97% of our dna. If we do not do something to help them immediately, scientists believe they will be extinct by 2012. Nyaru Menteng houses 700 orangutans at the moment and in sept released 50 fully rehabilitated adults back into the wild, such an incredible place!


You can see more of these images on my website at