By: Nonie Arora
All of the wildebeest died. The cattle died. The zebra died.
The people starved.
“Someone once told me that as we live, we either become broken or we soften,” says Courtney Fitzpatrick, a graduate student in evolutionary biology who conducted fieldwork in Kenya’s Amboseli basin during 2009, the worst drought in living memory. “In hindsight I see that making Maji Moto was a panicked attempt not to break.”
Maji Moto, Swahili for “hot water,” is the name of the watering hole Fitzpatrick encountered every morning going from camp to the baboon study range. Her work of creative nonfiction, Maji Moto: Dispatches from a Drought, is composed of lyrical essays and photographs that detail the protracted suffering of the ecosystem imposed by the drought. Fitzpatrick says the experience truly tested her ability to protect her empathy.
Fitzpatrick was there to study sexual selection, mate choice, and reproduction. While humans have “concealed ovulation,” many old world monkeys like chimps and baboons have an exaggerated signal of fertility called an estrous swelling. It has been hard to fully understand the evolution or function of this trait in the past, according to Fitzpatrick. Her hypothesis was that estrous swellings evolved like a peacock’s tail – as a consequence of sexual selection pressure. She set out to answer the question of whether males prefer females with larger swellings.
Fitzpatrick is a field biologist at heart. To study organisms in their natural environment, she spent about eighteen months obtaining measures of swellings in Kenya’s Amboseli basin through the Amboseli Baboon Research Project. The project is ongoing from the 1960s and has rich longitudinal data. For Fitzpatrick, measuring thousands of swellings was tedious and required careful attention to detail. But in the end, she says now that “it’s just fun having all that data.” Along with measuring estrous swellings, she observed mating behaviors such as how close males stayed to females and how they groomed each other.
Maji Moto originated organically as Fitzpatrick compiled essay blog posts and photographs she had shared with friends and family during her time in Kenya. She was “seeing incredible sights I couldn’t not photograph.” As the drought became more serious, so did her writing. By the end, her creative nonfiction was as serious as the science. Fitzpatrick said she couldn’t analyze the data free from distress until after Maji Moto was finished.
Fitzpatrick brings a unique background to her scientific endeavors: she studied studio art as an undergraduate student and taught photography for a New York social service organization before pursuing graduate school. She grew up in naturalist family, and so was always interested in evolution and behavior. When she started missing the sense of intellectual engagement from an academic environment, she decided to pursue graduate school at Duke.
Her studio art background had practical implications – comfort with the camera made it easier to collect her data, which involved taking pictures and making careful measurements. But even more so, thinking about the world from an artist’s perspective informs the way she thinks about and does science. Fitzpatrick says the process of generating hypotheses often requires relaxed creativity, like a painter conceiving an image on a canvas. Moreover, many scientists are loyal to particular methods, like artists, as they “arrive closer and closer to an unknown truth.”
The book and photographic prints from Maji Moto are on display in the Foyer Gallery (401B Foster Street) every Friday from 11am to 2 pm. The hand-printed, limited edition art book is also available for purchase from Horse and Buggy Press. Now that Maji Moto has been published, Fitzpatrick’s next steps are finishing her dissertation and beginning a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, studying theoretical models of sexual selection.