I have had the good fortune of living with the Orang Asli, Malaysia’s Aborigines, who are renowned as forest Indigenes. They are remarkable storytellers and from them, I learned that telling a good story is an effective way of conveying one’s thoughts or ideas. As humans, we are hardwired to communicate through stories. A story enlivens the abstract, whether it is about a fact or event, by giving it a personal touch.
My story is about how I became what one might disparagingly or affectionately label a ‘greenie’. When I was in high school, I was aware of environmental issues, but I was not terribly concerned about them. I read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin,1962) and learned that a seemingly routine act of spraying crops with chemical pesticides like DDT would culminate in the disappearance of birds and concomitantly their singing that normally heralds the arrival of spring. This book, and the others it inspired, forewarned that what we were doing to nature with impunity will come to roost with vengeance. Silent Spring kindled my interest in ecology, but it was only in my second year of university when I took a course on human ecology that I began to understand better the science that informed it.
I also learned more about how our assault on nature was compromising the future of humanity, taking us to the brink of total collapse. Ecology was in my head a lot then, but my heart was still not in it.
In 1976 in my final year of undergraduate study, I joined a team of two other students and a professor to an Orang Asli resettlement called Rual to conduct a six-week long field study. Located in a rainforest clearing close to the Malaysian-Thailand border, Rual was set up by the Malaysian government in 1972 as part of its ‘civilizing mission’. Several nomadic bands of hunting and gathering people from the surrounding areas were persuaded to settle at this patterned ‘village’.
On one fine morning during our stay, we heard the jarring sound of a chainsaw coming from the surrounding forests, disrupting the serenity of the usually idyllic setting. I set off into the forest with several of my Orang Asli friends and the professor to inspect what was happening.
I enjoy walking in the forest. The spectacular sights, smells, and sounds of this cathedral of nature make it an incredibly phenomenal place. I am always in awe of the bewildering diversity of plants, foliage, vines made visible by the rays of the sun piecing through the recesses of the green canopy. I would pause to marvel at the huge ants, massive millipedes, and the butterflies of all hues and sizes crawling or darting across and along the path. The evocative sounds of the occasional calls of wild fauna, the babbling brooks, and high pitch humming of the cicadas never fail to mesmerize and create a soothing and uplifting effect as if Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony were playing in my head.
But on that day the melodic forest ‘symphony’ was harshly drowned out by the tumultuous and visceral noise of the chainsaw.
We soon made it to the logging site. There at the centre was a man, small in stature, with a large chain saw wedged into the trunk of a tall tree. Around him were several other workers and onlookers. I watched intently the tree felling operation, marvelling at the way the chainsaw operator was slicing through the huge tree trunk with incredible dexterity and deftness. I was nonchalant about the tree. Did not feel a thing for it. In my mind then, it was just a tree and there were plenty of them around. Then suddenly the chainsaw operator yelled out “lari, lari, pokok tumbang” (run, run, the tree is falling). I bolted from the scene and dived into a marshy shallow gully close by. Soon afterwards, I heard a thunderous crash and felt the ground reverberating as if an earthquake had struck. Several minutes later, I arose from my curled position to sit up. I wondered, did the falling tree hurt or kill anyone? A quick survey of the surroundings from my vantage point confirmed that thankfully none of the workers or bystanders were injured. Then I spotted not far from me a massive tree trunk flat on the ground and the undergrowth around it crushed and squashed. Once a towering titan of the forest now laid lifeless on the ground like a sleeping giant. Upon gazing at it, I felt a tear roll down my cheek, my heart was filled with sadness. The scene that was lively a few moments ago turned into melancholy. I could not help but notice the look of despondency on the faces of my Orang Asli friends.
I remember that moment with intense clarity despite the passing of time. It is deeply engraved in my memory. The initial concern I had for my fellow humans at the scene and not for the battered nature was indicative of my anthropocentrism. But being overwhelmed with grief upon the death of a tree and mourning its loss was a startling revelation that something had changed with the way I perceived and felt about nature. It signalled that like my Orang Asli friends I have become eco-centric. From then on, ecology was not just in my head, it was firmly in my heart. What was apprehended from an intellectual point of view took on an empathetic perspective. I began to appreciate why the Indian women in the Chipko Movement ran up the slopes from their villages to hug the trees as a way of stopping the encroaching loggers from destroying the forests. And why Indigenous peoples around the world protest the destruction and degradation of their ancestral lands and rivers by people, governments and corporations that put profit before planet, economic wealth ahead of ecological health.
A widely subscribed view is that the felling of a tree will benefit many: the workers of the timber company are able to earn a wage while the profits of the company is purported to benefit many more through the so called ‘trickle-down effect’. Part of the trunk of the tree will be fashioned into furniture for the homes of people in many parts of the world, some of the timber will be shaped into windowsills or home frames, and some of the wood will turn into disposable chopsticks so that people in some parts of world will have the convenience so expected of their consumerist lifestyles. In Malaysia, we were made to believe that natural forests (or commonly referred to as jungle) were simply large wastelands that the country had to convert into plantations, mines, towns, land development schemes, residential ‘gardens’ (taman), ‘nature’ parks, airports, and even golf courses. We were told that the road to modernity had to crisscross through the vast areas of this purported ‘wasteland’. Besides, the jungle is fabled as the abode of menacing fauna, from the large ones like the elephant and the tiger, to the minute mosquito, a vector of such diseases as malaria and filariasis. In short, the ‘jungle’ is perceived to be a worthless, foreboding, and hostile place.
We now know that a tree standing tall in all its glory in a pristine forest offers much more than being butchered and converted into logs, timber, and wood. The air we breathe is cleansed by the forest of trees in a wonderful cycle of life that scientists refer to as the forest ecosystem. As we pollute and contaminate the atmosphere, we need more living trees standing with all its luxuriant foliage. Scientists tell us that in our quest to address the climate crisis, the greatest existentialist threat to humanity, we need more forests that are deemed invaluable as carbon sinks which naturally sequester the excessive human-induced carbon emissions. Forests play a significant role in the carbon cycle as well as the Earth’s hydrological cycle. The Orang Asli, like Indigenous peoples around the world, do not need scientists to tell them this. They have known it all along, but not in the language or vocabulary of science.
The anthropologist, Kirk Endicott, has revealed that among the Batek, a Malaysian Aboriginal people, forest-human relations are metaphorized in ritual and everyday discourse as an ‘adult-child caring’ with the forest as a parent to be treated with affection and gratitude for its nature’s ‘gifts’. Hence, ‘killing the forest’ is tantamount to parricide (killing one’s parent). In stark contrast, traditional western or modern conception posits humans as detached from nature and having dominion over it. The forest as a foreboding place is a long-standing perspective in western civilization. In Greek mythology, one of the many deities is Pan, the Lord of the Woods. It is believed that this playfully malevolent deity which lurks in the forest will harm or kill when encountered. It is a deity to be feared and it has found its way into the English language in the word ‘panic’ which means sudden, unreasoning, hysterical fear. The fear of the forest and its creatures is also mythologized in the many Western fairy tales—Hansel and Gretel, Little Thumbling, Little Red Riding Hood and the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
One could say that people these days are more conscious of the myriad ecological problems. We have a stack of books and lots of documentaries on how humans are damaging ecosystems. There are many environmental organisations and ecological heroes like Greta Thunberg, Vandana Shiva, and David Attenborough urging us to stop destroying the planet. But what has come out of all this? While many are doing the right thing ecologically speaking, there are some who turn a blind eye on human abuses of nature. Most elites are pushing such solutions as sustainable development that validate ‘business as usual’ and corporate greenwashing. This is shallow environmentalism and to save humanity from ecological apocalypse, this will not cut the mustard. We need a deeper form of environmentalism, one that is inspired by Indigenous wisdom. I have trekked into the rich forest of Indigenous knowledges and cosmovision, and what I have gleaned from my intellectual journey is that the eco-centric perspective of Indigenous peoples– the way they honour and respect nature, their principle that nature does not belong to them, but they belong to nature– is the only way we can repair our rift with Mother Earth. I learnt from my Indigenous sisters and brothers that we must live within the limits of our planet. It will be to our peril in the face of existential threats like the ecological crisis if we continue living our lives as if nature does not matter. In my personal story it took the felling of a tree to instigate my epiphanic moment. It was a profound and transformative event in my life, one that has inspired my conviction to put my hands to work towards fostering a peaceful and ecologically regenerative world.
About the Author
Alberto Gomes is an Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University and has held several university administrative positions, including head of department and the director of the Centre for Dialogue in his twenty-five years at the university. Apart from Australia, he has taught at universities in Austria, Finland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Spain, and Vietnam.
An anthropologist by profession, he has had the privilege of living with the forest-dependent Orang Asli (Malaysia’s Indigenous peoples), from whom he learnt to appreciate peaceability, nonviolence, egalitarianism, and respect for nature. He is an author of several books and numerous papers. When he is not engaged in his scholarly and activist pursuits, you will likely find Alberto pottering around his ecologically regenerative home garden.