Working with the botanist Monsieur Nicholas

Don’t you meet certain people who you think would be a perfect caricature piece? Monsieur Nicholas is one of those people.

Monsieur Nicholas is the oldest among all the guides that the station works with. At 56, he stands at about 5 feet 7 inches (I am told that the average Gabonese man is 5 feet 5 inches) with bulging eyes and almost balding head with speckles of grey hair.  He is always dressed appropriately with his small backpack, binoculars (schemel), hiking shoes, full-sleeved shirts and machete.  His speech is expressionless, showing absolutely no delight or sadness in various occasions and he rarely smiles.

Despite his age, he is a strong hiker maintaining a good pace in the forest. He is a quiet man and extremely vigilant of his surroundings, knowing exactly where to look when we hear the crumbling of branches and leaves and also can cleverly distinguish between elephant trails and forest trails.  He hardly ever takes support of branches and trees while crossing marshy swamps or while climbing up a steep slope indicating his experience and skill.

Being a botanist, Monsieur Nicholas knows how to identify many floras in the forest, not only by their general structure, but also by their leaves and fruits.

He collects leaves, flowers and fruits while hiking and I have always wanted to ask him the reason. I assume that he doesn’t know what they are and looks it up, but that is just as assumption.  As a botanist who has been working with students, both international and domestic, he tries to teach me the names of trees that we come across while hiking. He then proceeds to quiz me when we come across the same trees or fruits. I fumble and mutter the wrong name and see that expression of disappointment that makes me feel so ungrateful and stupid. He repeats the scientific name again in his monotonic voice, drops it down and moves ahead without saying anything else.  But then there have been instances when I have identified a fruit correctly and have heard him say tres bien (very good in French) in that same monotonic expressionless voice that makes me feel content, until I fumble again with the next fruit or tree.

Monsieur Nicholas has this tendency of staring into space when in the forest, especially when I am doing my tree measurements and making notes. I guess he is used to the unexplainable wonder of the forest, the sounds and the smells that allow him to think about his life outside of the forest. There have been moments when I have been unable to control my laughter looking at him staring into space and suddenly smacking his head to ward off the flies. That is the caricature that I one-day hope to draw.

Communicating with Monsieur Nicholas is a joy to watch for an external audience, I bet. As I am still a long way from conversing in French, we resort to a lot of hand gestures that makes this middle-aged man comical and also shows his patience.  I know for a fact that he is amused as well as those are the rare moments I have seen him smile.  Working with this man of few words has been an interesting experience. I not only get to learn how to identify flora and fauna by sight and sound, but it also is giving me a chance to listen to the forest, something I rarely get to do otherwise. I look forward to working with him more in the coming months.