Adapting to life's unexpected nature
Adapting to life's unexpected nature
About Forrest Galante
From the closing meditation
— ROHAN GUNATILLAKE
Every Meditative Story ends in a closing meditation from our host, Rohan
Every Meditative Story ends in a closing meditation from our host, Rohan
FORREST GALANTE: One day, I’m walking along the track at Tilden Park when I see this beautiful, glimmering bit of orange. As a wild kid who grows up in the African bush, my eyes are trained to pick up things in the environment that look different. I know immediately: that orange flash is the underside of the Taricha torosa.
I hop off the boardwalk and into the murky pond water to get a closer look. I am chest-deep in muck in a public park. Hikers walk by in their expensive North Face jackets and stare at me – but wildlife fascinates me. And I’m determined to rekindle my connection with nature, even if it means looking like a lunatic to everybody at Tilden Park.
ROHAN GUNATILLAKE: A friend of mine, when naming one of her daughters, gave her the middle name “Adventure,” so that when she’d say in the future, “Adventure is my middle name,” it would be true, literally. Now I don’t know if Forrest Galante has a middle name but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is “Adventure” too.
Forrest is a wildlife biologist, survivalist, and the television host of “Extinct or Alive” on Animal Planet. He has an uncanny instinct for tracking elusive animals and halting their descent into extinction. In today’s Meditative Story, Forrest describes a life firmly planted in the wild, an upbringing that few of us can imagine. As you hear his story, consider how you adapt, especially when the unpredictable nature of the world inevitably gets in the way.
In this series, we blend immersive, first-person stories with mindfulness prompts to give you a deep sense of wellbeing at any time of the day. From WaitWhat and Thrive Global, this is Meditative Story. I’m Rohan, and I’ll be your guide.
The body relaxed. The body breathing. Your senses open. Your mind open. Meeting the world
GALANTE: I grow up on a farm in the African bush, constantly surrounded by majestic African elephants, the largest living terrestrial animal. They tower over me at a looming 13 feet. Lions, jackals, and leopards abound in the fields around me. The sound of a lion’s roar fills the night sky. The sound carries for miles, echoing as it rolls over the plains of my childhood home.
Our home is built on top of a kopje. In Africa, a kopje is a granite outcropping that sticks up on top of the mountain. From there we can oversee the whole farm. Wildlife is in the house, around the house, on top of the car, even in the car. It’s everywhere. It’s all I’ve ever known. We live among the animals. My bedroom houses fourteen terrariums. Yes, fourteen. A monkey with a heart murmur sleeps in a mosquito net hammock above my bed. His name is Chippy. When I wake up, he jumps on my face, messes with my hair, and sticks his fingers in my porridge. As I take off down the trail towards school, he disappears into the trees for the day. This is our parting ritual. When I come back home, Chippy returns from his day in the canopy to greet me by chewing on my ear.
We’re always getting calls from across the region where someone pleads through the telephone line, “Forrest, there’s a cobra in my kitchen, can you come right away?” Whether we find a poisonous spider in our house or are foiled by a cow blocking the road, it’s not a cause for alarm. We figure out how to adjust, how to recalibrate, how to carry on with our day even as our plans are scrambled. Our lives are sewn together with nature’s unpredictability.
On the side of our house, there’s a set of rock stone stairs leading out to a terrace. We have a beautiful swimming pool built into the side of a hill with acacia trees and mopane trees overhead. On any given day you can see a serval cat or a jackal drinking water from it. Monkey’s swoop down from the trees trying to take a sip of the water. It’s a wild area overlooking our rugged farm.
On one particularly hot, sunny day when I was about 12, a group of friends are over and we’re splashing, joking, and laughing in our pool. And then a Mozambique spitting cobra slithers in to join the pool party; a beautiful, seven-foot-long snake with dark black and grey bands all along its body.
I’m in my little board shorts, waist deep in the water. I decide to take on this cobra – it’s my first time taking on a big venomous snake by myself. I go to grab him and he lunges at me, a ripple of waves giving him a glimmering sheen as he comes towards me. He puffs himself up with air to look bigger, which gives me the advantage in grabbing him. You have to grab a snake as far down the tail as possible, you see, best to stay away from the sharp end. There I am, running out of the pool with a hissing, striking cobra in my hand laughing, making sure I don’t injure it. The other 12- and 13-year-olds scream, running in the opposite direction.
And that’s just daily life, a Wednesday in Zimbabwe. One day it’s a cobra in the swimming pool and the next day it’s a leopard in the chicken coop. Your plans are not really plans. You go through your day and, as things pop up, you handle them.
GUNATILLAKE: A cobra in the swimming pool, it’s a striking image. Can you see young Forrest holding the snake, and his friends rushing the other way? How do their bodies reflect their minds? Concentration and alertness on one hand, panic on the other.
GALANTE: This is my childhood. At age 14, I drive a truck to school and run tractors in our fields. I manage a few hundred farm workers and spend my days solving problems.
It is a beautiful place to grow up. But in 2001, the economic hardships in the country lead to political unrest and conflict. There are several uprisings. We ultimately have to flee the country. For my mom, a fifth-generation African, this means leaving her entire life behind to start over. Almost overnight, I go from living on this massive farm with 200 workers, to being on welfare in Oakland, California, crammed in a 600-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. I’m with my little sister and my mother, who’s working double-time to rebuild our lives from scratch. We’re in a new country without the plentiful resources we used to know.
Just as species adapt, we must, too. Sometimes that means adjusting to a new environment, other times it just means refusing to give up. My mom rebuilds our life with the same determination she had running her business in Zim. She does what she needs to support her family. She is resilient and adapts – and she makes damn sure my sister and I do too.
When I first land in Oakland, I behave no differently than I did in Zimbabwe. I run down the streets barefoot in my safari shorts, a little nature-boy talking to everybody with my funny African accent.
At school, there are no uniforms. No greeting teachers as you arrive. There is no rigidity. No discipline. On the first day of class, I stand up when the teacher walks in, and say, “Good morning sir.” The other students laugh, not one of them stands up. There’s no respect or honor for the teachers.
I get in fights constantly. I can’t stand the lack of manners and respect. I don’t understand why I no longer fit in. I don’t want to let go of who I was in Zimbabwe to become more like the students in my class. But I know that somehow, just like in Zim, I must adapt.
I start spending time at Tilden Park, a green space in Berkeley that’s just a short bus ride away from our apartment. I wander down there a lot during the summer, this little white boy from Africa with skinny legs in safari shorts.
I’ve been to the local library to scour field guides. And I know I want to see the rough-skinned newt, the Taricha torosa. It’s this stunning little orange lizard-looking newt that’s part terrestrial, part aquatic, with brownish, bumpy skin. Its pores excrete a highly toxic substance that will kill almost anything that eats it. Its underside is this brilliant, fiery, orange color.
In the late spring, the newts get into mating clusters. There’ll be 30 newts in a big ball, about the size of a volleyball, all clustered together. One day, I’m walking along the track at Tilden Park when I see this beautiful, glimmering bit of orange. As a wild kid who grows up in the African bush, my eyes are trained to pick up things in the environment that look different. I know immediately: that orange flash is the underside of the Taricha torosa. I hop off the boardwalk and into the murky pond water to get a closer look.
I am chest deep in muck in a public park. Hikers walk by in their expensive North Face jackets and stare at me, not understanding why any kid would ever go off trail, let alone hurl themselves into mud on the hunt for small creatures. But wildlife fascinates me. And I’m determined to rekindle my connection with nature, even if it means looking like a lunatic to everybody at Tilden Park.
Later that summer, I come across a mask and snorkel, a wetsuit, and pole spear at a garage sale. The mask is made of cheap plastic but it’s enough to get me started free diving. My family has moved to California’s Central Coast, and the next day, I’m out near Morro Rock. I step out into the water with my new gear and the pain of cold water shoots up my ankles. My breath disappears as I submerge my whole body into the water. My head feels like it’s enduring one of those headaches you get from eating ice cream too quickly.
But as soon as my face hits the water, I see a barred surfperch, this beautiful brown fish with oscillating fins and big rubber lips. I think to myself, “Wow, this is amazing. I don’t know nearly enough about this habitat and these animals.”
I stay in the icy cold water until my body shivers and I can’t physically hold my breath any longer. I get back out on the rocks, wrap myself in a towel, and lie spread-eagled as my core temperature rises back up. Then I hop back into the water. I do this back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – and I’m hooked. Just that first day I see 15 or 20 species of animal I’ve never seen before in my life. This discovery surprises and delights me.
GUNATILLAKE: With Forrest submerged in the freezing cold water, what is the temperature you can feel on your skin? Let it into your awareness. And how is your attention?
GALANTE: From the land, California doesn’t feel very “wild.” But once you get below the surface, it’s pretty incredible. I see sea lions and elephant seals. I chase fish around. Underwater, that thrill of the wild returns to me, and I feel at home among the quiet murmurs of the ocean. Slowly, I find myself again. I’m determined to not let this passion of mine go extinct.
People don’t realize North America used to be covered by more megafauna than the African plains. There were giant sloths, bears, lions and countless other species that roamed across the continent. If you rewind the clock a few thousand years and looked at Africa compared to North America, you would have thought Africa was empty. You used to be able to look outside and see huge herds of elk and deer, and an abundance of great animals.
But North America, like parts of Asia, is suffering from Empty Forest Syndrome. In Northern California, you don’t hear leaves rustling or crickets chirping like you should. When you go for a walk in the redwoods, and you say, “Wow, look how beautiful it is. Listen to how silent it is.” Something is wrong. It shouldn’t be silent. No beautiful landscape rich in vegetation, should be silent, anywhere in the world. It’s a sign that something’s wrong, when a place is void of life.
I start to realize that I can bring this awareness to other parts of the world, that I might be able to help save other continents from a similar fate. It ultimately leads me to my life’s work: Searching for species that are thought to be extinct.
In 2019, my team and I are flying to the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam looking for an animal on the edge of extinction. We hike around the outskirts of the mountains, and eventually head into the heart of some of the most impenetrable jungle on Earth.
The animal we’re seeking is called the Saola. One of the rarest large mammals in the world, it was only identified once in 1992 and never seen again. Many wonder if it was discovered too late to be saved. But I know I have to get out and look for it. If I can find it, maybe we can preserve what’s left of the species.
The Annamites are an incredible mountain range that borders Laos and Vietnam. They are an ecological hotspot. They have some of the highest species diversity in the world.
My crew agrees to push themselves further than we believe any of the native Vietnamese or Laotian poachers have ever been. We’re hiking through jungle. You might call it a cloud forest. The climb is green and lush. Every step is on what feels like virgin ground, covered in new vegetation. With every step you’re hit with a wave of heat and moisture. Your skin prickles because it becomes so wet. You start to see condensation in the hair on your arms. Sweat accumulates on your brow just from breathing. Everything smells like wet earth.
We hike for almost a week and at the end of it, my crew is miserable. The paths are entirely vertical. Muddy. So slippery. We take two steps forward and one slide back. Over and over, day after day.
We keep thinking we’re getting further away from any area that poachers have ever visited, any area that scientists have ever been, into the true heart of the Annamites. We stop seeing any signs of other humans. No trash left behind. No signs of foot traffic. This is good.
We reach the top of this incredible climb and come across… a poacher’s snare. This is my breaking point. This heartbreaking moment where I see signs of poaching deep in the center of the wild Annamites. And I know: There’s no real hope for wildlife in this environment.
I’m forced to say to my crew, “Pack it in, guys. We have to go somewhere else, even though it’s different from what I originally planned. We have to go somewhere that no poachers could ever physically access.”
We trek for five days out of the jungle. We need a new plan.
There’s no playbook for finding a species on the razor’s edge of extinction. Instincts prevail. New plans are inescapable. You work with what you’re given, forging new roads, and shifting with conditions as they change. Extreme heat and stinging cold; swamps and bugs; rough terrain and formidable obstacles; injury and illness. You adapt. You have to.
Back in our hotel rooms, we start making calls. We’re trying to gain access to a region in Southeast Asia that’s truly untouched: a remote, isolated forest within the world’s largest cave, Son Doong.
We hear a countless string of “no’s.” No, you don’t have the right permits. No, the team won’t stay. I don’t even feel disappointment anymore when I hit a “no” – because it’s expected.
Finally, we get the “yes.” It’s a day’s walk to get to the entrance of Son Doong cave. The entrance is about the size of a single-story home. Once you’re inside, it opens up into an absolutely incredible cavern. The only way to get down is to rappel almost 900 feet to the floor of the cave. We then start a six-mile walk through the world’s largest cave to get to an uninhabited forest.
As we get down to the bottom, we encounter a dank, wet mud smell. We leave all light behind and plunge into complete darkness, relying entirely on our headlamps and flashlights.
There are stalagmites all around us as high as New York City skyscrapers. As we shine our lights around, there’s an incredible iridescent sparkle from the mineral deposits in the wall. It feels like parts of the cave have been covered in glitter. We’re underground, but it feels like being in outer space. It’s completely magical.
GUNATILLAKE: Can you imagine being here with Forrest and his team? From his description what most comes to mind: sights, sounds, smells? What of the sense of space around you? Aware of this place and what is most alive here, otherworldly yet absolutely of this world at the same time.
GALANTE: We trek for days without sunlight. Until eventually, in the distance, we see beams of light coming in from an opening. As we get closer, the sunlight illuminates a brilliant greenery. We’ve reached a point where the roof of the cave has collapsed, and this isolated primordial jungle we’re searching for comes into view.
It’s completely unimpacted by man. As we enter, the light feels harsh. After being in the darkness for so many days, I squint for the first 20 minutes. My body begins to adapt to the sunlight, to the vegetation and to the lush green ecosystem.
I wish I could now tell you a happy ending. I wish I could say “We found the Saola!” and that we took the first steps to save the species. We didn’t. But we don’t learn from success. We learn from what we often think are our greatest failures. Once the dust settles, they’re what helps us be more adaptable.
For me, I don’t define a mission in which we’re unable to locate an extinct animal as a failure. We expose the world to an incredible habitat. We give everything to the cause of preserving our biodiversity and wildlife. It’s a successful mission if we figure out how to become more adaptable to the challenge before us.
Life is no different. With each and every phase of our lives we cultivate a unique skill set for being adaptable, and being communicative, and slowing down, and being respectful, and taking a breath. That allows us to see everything from a bigger picture, and navigate whatever comes our way. This is how we are meant to evolve as humans. This is how we adapt.
GUNATILLAKE: There is a lot to Forrest’s story, but the thread I want to pick up for our meditation together is when he arrives in the U.S. from Zimbabwe. Steeped in the natural world he is still so hungry to connect with it, and learn from it when in California. So, inspired by that safari-shorted boy, that’s what we’ll explore.
While Forrest is barefoot, contacting the Earth with each step, can you do the same? If you’re moving, know that you are moving, the ground being pushed away as you move. If you’re still, know that you are still, in contact and connected with the earth.
And with eyes open and senses open, notice what nature is here to be known and enjoyed. What is here to be known and enjoyed? Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, it might be a tree, a plant, some greenery, or the sound of movement, or the vastness of the sky above and around you, or it might just be the feeling of the air on your face. There is always something. Nature can be big or it can be small, but it’s always here when we tune into it.
And as we start to wrap up, letting the attention be close and intimate. Resting with our animal body, its instincts and its needs, its habitat and its relationship with its habitat. Observing ourselves in this way. Just as an animal breathing. An animal evolving. An animal adapting. Thank you Forrest, and thank you.