A massive tree in Nantu Wildlife Reserve. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
A Contested Vision
The Nantu Wildlife Reserve is located in northern Sulawesi’s Minehasa Peninsula, in Gorontalo Province. Sulawesi is among the largest of Indonesia’s some seventeen thousand islands. Its shape is bizarre: a sinuous sprawling monkey, with lavish tail, poised to leap the straits of Makassar. Sulawesi lies to the north of Bali and Lombok and to the east of Borneo. Alfred Russell Wallace, the nineteenth century English explorer and natural scientist of broad expertise, spent a lot of time in Sulawesi’s northern peninsula, casting his curiosity and observation with such singular acuity that his mind apprehended “Darwin’s theory of evolution” independently from and possibly before Darwin. His work described the zone of transition between the Asian and Australian zoographic regions and was so accurate and thorough in its logic that today, some one-hundred and fifty years later, the zone is named Wallacea.
Tim O’Brien (the author) with business partner, Agus Rofiqkoh, in Nantu. Photo courtesy of: Tim O’Brien.
Dr. Lynn Clayton is the founder and director of Nantu. She has worked twenty-two years to form and protect the wildlife reserve. At the same time, she has become the world’s foremost expert on the rare and idiosyncratic babirusa pig. Nantu is a wonderland of biodiversity and endemism. The babirusa, for example, occurs only in northern Sulawesi and Nantu is its largest remaining undisturbed range. Other iconic endemic species of northern Sulawesi include: Heck’s macaque, the anoa and the maleo.
I’m in the wood salvage business. Lynn invited me to visit Nantu to survey potentials for wood salvage. Lynn wonders if wood salvage operations around Nantu might create some steady local jobs that support a conservation and restoration vision, as well as generate some income for Nantu’s perennially under-funded work. She requested a feasibility study. A few days before I visited Nantu, I met with Lynn Clayton at the Santika Hotel, in Jakarta. Lynn was readying to visit family in England and so couldn’t be present during my visit to Nantu. Lynn appeared exhausted. She informed me that, while Nantu is on paper a strictly protected wildlife reserve (Suaka Margasatwa), several pressures challenge Nantu and erode its physical integrity. Artisan gold-miners, loggers and poachers, rattan-gatherers, slash-and-burn farmers: all are making illegal incursions into Nantu. I know from my own experiences in Indonesia that government administrators at all levels—national, provincial and local—are too often negotiable to graft and thus can’t be counted on to consistently enforce clearly written legal mandates. Nantu is stressed; Lynn is stressed.
Lynn described an incident that occurred at Nantu early in 2009. About seventy rattan gatherers appeared suddenly at Nantu’s base camp, most of them wielding machetes. Nantu’s value as a rare repository of endemic biodiversity, and last anchor of ecological health—including its critically important catchment and circulation of water—that benefits surrounding communities, has earned it, through Lynn Clayton’s tireless educating and lobbying, special protective status. For the time being, nothing can lawfully be harvested from Nantu. Four well-armed guards are employed to patrol the conservation site and enforce this status. But four high-caliber automatic weapons are no match against seventy machetes held by people of barest economic means who are intent on exacting subsistence from immediate opportunity. The rattan-gatherers imparted their intention to act against the law’s clear protection of Nantu. They explained they received full support for their illegal harvest from the provincial Bupati, or regent, who, at the time, was competing for re-election. Apparently, he wagered that his support of their harvest would, on balance, favor his political aims.
Over two days the rattan-gatherers swarmed Nantu and slashed away at its bountiful rattan vines. They hauled away about sixteen thousand four-meter lengths of grade-one rattan. Nobody was arrested.
The bizarrely shaped island of Sulawesi as seen from Google Earth.
I’ve wondered if government administrators in Indonesia are hesitant to enforce many of their written laws because the country’s recent historical memory associates strict law-enforcement with former President Suharto’s brutal and murderous thirty-two year authoritarian rule that ended in 1997. When he was removed from power, and his credibility greatly diminished on both national and international stages, Indonesia slipped into a disarray of political forces competing for power that several times flirted with anarchy. Fourteen years later, Indonesia’s political motion is still struggling to resolve decades of competing and conflicting grievances, and relieve ponderous weights of apathy and cynicism, to achieve a reasonable, uniting vision of civic law and democratic process.
Indonesian history has been hard on most of the country’s citizens. Unsurprisingly, then, the archipelago’s many stunning and unique natural ecosystems have not, generally, fared well under a human stewardship of which a vast majority are bitten by hardness and barely able to scrabble together a living and an enormously wealthy minority depends for its financial prowess on unmitigated extraction of natural resources and conversion of forests into monoculture commodity agriculture plantations. However, a best remaining hope and opportunity to protect Indonesia’s rich ecological heritage is in the hands of the country’s growing rank of well-educated and enterprising individuals whose concern for their homeland’s future has strongly motivated their choice to stay in Indonesia to try to lead a transformation of consciousness, rather than to seek a softer landing for their professional credentials in the developed world.
Finding the Forest
Agus Rofiqkoh, my friend and business partner, and I sat in Jakarta’s domestic departure terminal, awaiting a flight to Gorontalo. The sides of the terminal open on to closely sculpted gardens. Rain came like a hooligan, pounding the roof, charging on the wind and instantly puddling into troughs around trees. Its tumult scattered conversation and delayed schedules. People were sprawled all over, many sitting on the floor in clusters, patiently smoking, chewing on snacks and napping. Some wore billowy clothes that expressed adherence to one or another of Indonesia’s sundry indigenous styles; some women were as lithe, sharply Asian and sartorially edgy as fashion models on a Parisian runway. Swollen grey clouds bullied the daylight to a spooked cast, giving the jumble of sultry weather and logy waiting the feel of an old world quay.
Our flight to Gorontalo departed two hours late and met turbulence that evoked audible prayer from two or three passengers. Jemi and the driver, Amad, met us at the airport and drove us to a hotel in Gorontalo. Everyone seemed tired and conversation was spare.
Ceiling fans in the lobby seemed browbeaten by the heavy equatorial air. In a geographical region renowned for its diverse and brilliant flora and lately upended by the world’s—and especially China’s—voracity for natural resources, Chinese-made silk flowers in a vase on the counter seemed like a cynical jab at beauty. In the room, no hot water and an air conditioner whose only detectable function was lazily dispensing a tepid odor of mold. No reading light; ten minutes of “Rambo, First Blood” streamed from a satellite before I dozed.
Absolute Nature and Resolute Desire: Tension in North Sulawesi
Uniquely shaped vine in Nantu. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
We checked out of the Quality Hotel at about 6:30 am and headed out of Gorontalo toward Nantu. Gorontalo was waking for school and work. I watched young children playing and walking to school along the sides of roads filled with intent and often-impatient vehicular traffic. Some of the traffic consists of families of three or four, sometimes even five, riding together on a single small motorbike, none of them wearing helmets. It would be considered reprehensible if parents in the U.S., my native country, allowed their children to go near similar unsafe conditions. (In any case, such conditions are not allowed by strictly-enforced law.) In Indonesia, though, such dangerous conditions are common. The many high risks that are routinely taken in Indonesia describe the country’s confounding position at the threshold between an old local world and new global world. Many simple people of small means cannot easily afford to participate in a global economy’s demands of technology, infrastructure, organization and efficiency. To soften multiplying financial burdens required to safely keep apace with progress, they cut corners and sacrifice safety: no sidewalks, no helmets, scarce attention to or enforcement of traffic laws. Why do clearly over-loaded trucks hurtle down roads potholed from the rainy season while children walk and play at the side, hardly a foot away from the shock of traffic? Probably, it wasn’t long ago when the same road was unpaved and had for centuries allowed slower, safely navigable traffic of horse and water buffalo carts, goat and geese herds, bicycles and pedestrians. The risks in modern patterns of life aren’t patient with those who are slow to provide infrastructure to minimize them. By my anecdotal lights, modern transportation and technology has not improved the lives of the majority of Indonesians. Though it has transformed commerce and the general pace and sensory experience of life, a majority of Indonesians who possess very modest economic means have limited access to tools to engage and benefit from modern systems. Modernity has brought broad access to buying motor scooters on credit, it has made cell phones as common as rice, and it has dotted nearly every city and town with internet cafes, but wages remain extremely low, food and fuel are on an inflationary gallop and natural systems on which tens of millions depend for clean water, medicinal products, ancillary food caches and a range of materials to answer routine building and maintenance needs are collapsing under weights of mismanagement. It’s difficult to precisely identify all the root causes of Indonesia’s glaring civic failures but some are obvious. Lives with little formal education whose time and efforts are over-burdened from the challenges to answering basic needs like enough food and clean water find it difficult to organize and add to their time and attention the long process of planning, funding and implementing civic infrastructural improvements. Politicians, the people who you would expect to lead in responding to these challenges, are notoriously corrupt and commonly seek political positions to serve themselves and their power-base rather than the broader needs of the community and country. Other civil servants, like police officials, are often under-compensated and thus are inclined to spend more time tending extra-legal income opportunities rather than upholding what might be sensible written laws.
It should be considered, too, that in the world’s largest Muslim country, where approximately 85% of the citizenry are registered Muslims, Islam’s fatalism might impede a community’s focused, efficient, circumspect and safe adaptation to change, as the religion tends to advise surrender to God’s will rather than reliance on man’s ability to shape outcomes.
Gorontalo Province’s population of over a million still pipes its raw sewage directly into its rivers and the sea. It’s not uncommon for simple houses set along rivers to have outhouses that are little more than an enclosed hole in a dock. If you sit beside a river or stream nearly anywhere in Indonesia you’ll observe some people do their laundry in a part of the water as others evacuate their bowels in another part. Still others will wash motor vehicles in the water. In general the water’s current is viewed as nature’s garbage removal service. While this has probably been an acceptable waste-removal strategy through most of human history in north Sulawesi when waste was entirely organic and natural systems easily absorbed the impacts of a relatively small number of people, it’s clear that today’s more environmentally abrasive impacts generated by a large and increasing population threaten the integrity of some natural systems and emphasize a need to change. But, again, if economics fail to offer a leg up to enough people, that they might be able to peer beyond the barrier of immediate need to the range of prospects for improvement, it is unlikely a vision for positive change can attract the unity of action required to realize it.
What more poignantly illustrates our regard for our children—for all those who follow us—than the condition of streams, rivers, lakes and oceans we pass on to them? It’s difficult to believe we will allow conspicuously outmoded economic aspirations—wherein the rein of common sense on material desire is often optional—to persist until we ruin the prospects for well-being of generations who follow us. That would suggest we’re little different from, say, a colony of termites that consumes the boat where they live and then drowns in the sea.
Gorontalo Province is a traditional producer of copra and fish, cassava and sea grass, limestone and lumber. Fish stocks have declined due to a combination of human-driven impacts, including excessive harvests, degraded habitat and effects of global warming, but they continue to be plentiful compared to most fisheries. Irresponsible lumber harvests have devastated Sulawesi’s forest ecosystems, severely diminished sources of clean water and, in North Sulawesi Province, given way to vast fields of corn, that famously adaptable food crop native to Central America, which can be harvested two or three times a year in the equatorial tropics. During the first few years of this aggressive land conversion strategy, bountiful harvests of corn created surpluses. The surpluses were sold at a profit to the Philippines. Fadel Mohammad, the provincial governor who hatched the idea to convert North Sulawesi Province into Southeast Asia’s corn-belt, was later promoted to direct Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, where he currently works. I’m unsure to what, if any, extent he has been involved in Indonesia’s aggressive but misguided efforts to convert its mangrove forests into shrimp farms.
Jemi pointed out that the frequency and bounty of corn harvests in North Sulawesi are already declining because losses of forests have sharply reduced water resources, because monsoon rains are stripping away fertile topsoil, which is no longer corralled by forest root systems, and because soil nutrients are being sapped by aggressive growing schedules. Today, drought conditions affect much of northern Sulawesi, only five or ten years after most of its primary forests were converted to cornfields. It could be that changes in global weather patterns are the principal driver of northern Sulawesi’s drought, but it seems straightforward to wonder if depriving the land of water generated by mature forests’ routine evapo-transpiration might account for some of the drought conditions.
To help where nature fails to be compliant, the Indonesian government subsidizes the cost of chemical fertilizers for corn farmers in North Sulawesi. Chemical fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels. Even when they are used most efficiently, their application requires more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.
A Diminishing River
Coiffed tree in Nantu. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
Our car transport ended about four hours later at a bend in a slow-moving river where we rendezvoused with a forest guard in a landscape noteworthy for its absence of forest and grip of heat. We parked the car in the shade of a copse at the river’s edge. The forest guard was likely septuagenarian and wore a camouflage-patterned tee-shirt that swallowed his slight torso and whose print informed all who might look twice at the shirt’s ill fit: “Komando Security. Anywhere. Anytime.” He had lived near the bend in the river for decades and fondly remembered when the place was covered with wild forest and teemed with creatures that made a home in it. He spoke about a village of native forest people who he counted as friends and whose disappearance he lamented. About twelve years ago a well-organized logging project arrived in the area suddenly, without prior notice, accompanied by well-armed Indonesian military personnel. Whatever might have been the feelings of local residents and landowners, they didn’t risk airing them publicly.
We shared chicken and rice with the old forest guard, smiled with him for a few photos and then stepped into two longboats that had been arranged for the next leg of our journey.
The boat motors were loud and smoky. A pilot steered using a rod attached to the motor. Manipulating the rod, he could turn the boat and raise or lower the propeller. A navigator stood at the front of the boat, using his eyes and a bamboo pole to ascertain depths and try to avoid rocks and logs.
We rode west against the current. The small river in which we started connected to a much wider but shallow river named the Paguyaman. Jemi told me the river was as low as he’d ever seen it during the nearly twenty years he had been working with Nantu. He estimated it was nearly a meter lower than its usual level at that time of year.
The sun baked and I had forgotten to bring sun-screen or a hat. I tied a handkerchief onto my head and sweated in a long-sleeved shirt. Wide swathes of land on either side of the river were cleared to cultivate “productive” species. Corn stalks filled most of the space, followed by cassava and clusters of young teak trees. An uninterrupted stretch of dramatically jagged mountains to the north seemed to regard us like a deliberating tribunal. Dark clouds seeped and then poured from their deliberations until soon the sun was smudged and a light rain relieved the heat. Several times the way was interrupted by water so shallow we had to get out of the boats and pull them over stone shoals to deeper water. Birdlife along the way was lively but limited to several species of herons and smaller shore birds, as well as a couple of types of kingfishers.
A few hours later, the boundary marking entrance to Nantu was obvious from a distance. It is distinguished by walls of towering primary forest stretching to the north and west. Nantu stops at the river’s north edge. The juxtaposition of enormous, wild, vine-draped, bird-and-insect-raucous forest on the river’s north side and a far stretch of monotonous, tired cropland on its south is very affecting to see and, in the startling contrast between the two sides, seems to signal an appeal for more nuanced engagement.
By the time we reached our put-out point the sun had returned with an intensity that seemed desirous of avenging the clouds’ earlier designs to obstruct it. We walked across a beach of bleached and rounded river stones to an opening in the forest. Moving beneath the dense tree canopy, the air was cool as a cave and the squint that had cinched itself around our eyes to repel the sun was spirited away by vivid blue and black butterflies.
The Field Station
The field-station is two simple, handsome buildings built with wood salvaged from the Paguyaman River. A banner hangs between the two buildings. It says: “Welcome to the Jungle.” Most gathering and socializing occurs in an open dining area beneath the visitors’ bedrooms and adjacent to the kitchen. Hard, long, hand-planed benches provide space for eating and talking, card-playing and guitar-strumming, dozing and snoozing. The enveloping forest sounds, their rhythmic swell and ebb, lulls task-weighted lives. The insistent bouying sounds relieve gravity’s grind and compel a mind to meander and inquire.
Guard in Nantu. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
Bowls of food began to come out of the kitchen: steamed rice, grilled sea fish, fried tempe, stewed vegetables, bowls full with spicy-hot sambal—those militantly zingy sauces that are ubiquitous on Indonesian dining tables and well express the kinship shared between life’s pains and pleasures. We ate with our hands and, between bites, employed our hands to emphasize stories and observations. The four forest guards were young and inclined to loud laughter and boasts. One, named Kamal, was fixated on Las Vegas. He professed a passionate desire to visit the place, thrill its beautiful women with his soldierly dash and, employing a charm crafted for him by a powerful dukun, or shaman, become wealthy beyond comprehension seducing the roulette wheel to favor his bets. While his dream fit easily into the roll of badinage, I couldn’t help quietly observing that a place and culture like Las Vegas—which is, by any measure of reasonableness, an abomination to the human spirit’s capacity for wisdom—has succeeded at marketing an illusion of its importance and magnetism the world over.
On my way to bathe, I passed a compost pit where kitchen staff tossed scraps—fish and chicken bones, corn cobs and fruit skins. Two monitor lizards, as large as medium-sized dogs, were raiding the pit, flicking their tongues over the fragrant biota before burying their maws into sweet spots. They were aware of me though not afraid, arching their spines, showing their teeth and hissing as if to communicate their preparedness to do bloody battle against me to protect their scrap cache. They needn’t have worried.
The bathing stall was fashioned by erecting a simple fence of rough boards across a recess formed by the tall, clenching root-knuckles of a giant tree. Along the equator, night shuts on day like a dense, tight door. I bathed by candlelight, using a cup to splash myself with water from a bucket on the floor. My eyes followed the bathing-stall’s palisade-like tree roots, up to where they converged into the tree’s pillar-straight body. Night swallowed the crown and teased a cacophony from it.
Naked and bathing beside—inside—ancient tree roots, candle-flame casting haunts of light onto a centuries-old anchor of life, I felt my own brief exertion in this world and the importance in apprehending and applying its use, modest but sure, to the whole of existence.
Night seemed full of peaceful ghosts. Eight wild pigs, not babirusa, ambled by, grunting and twitching long, leathery snouts. In the tenebrous candle-lambent light they moved like phantasms, appearing and disappearing, freed from the weight of a day’s serial struggles, borne on the ancient forest’s secrets.
Forest pigs in Nantu. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
One of the forest guards, Rais, taught me a card-game, which, though success at it depended almost entirely on luck, I could never manage to win. Agus coaxed a soft melody from a guitar. Stars peeked through tree-tops. Swaggering anecdotes and bursts of laughter gave way to contemplative inquiries about mysteries in Nantu. Most of the guards and camp staff had, at some point during their tenures, sighted or sensed the “Palahi,” an indigenous people who persisted to the present in choosing their traditional life in northern Sulawesi’s forests over ever-encroaching modern life’s organizational systems. In their original language “Palahi” means “running people.” They’re reputed to be leopard-fast: able to run down prey or instantly disappear from predators. According to local lore, rather than confront and defend their territory from the brutally exploitative and colonizing Portuguese and Dutch—who arrived in North Sulawesi in the sixteenth century, subdued whoever endeavored to defend themselves, and then made themselves at home for about four-hundred years—the Palahi ran away so fast that the invaders lost heart in taking chase. Rais, lifting his hands to pantomime pointing a rifle, declared a bullet is useless against their agile darting and dodging. As modern-world impacts on their lives multiplied, rather than try to adapt to a new reality, the Palahi moved deeper into remaining forestlands. Today, there number is greatly diminished; their culture is at the brink of disappearance. Jemi met one of the few Palahi who tried to learn and live life outside of the forest. The man even married a Javanese trans-migrant. Jemi described him as an expert hunter with bow and arrow and blow-gun and genius at understanding and using forest resources. Many seek his counsel about medicinal plants and “magic” concoctions. He is reputed to be often disappointed in behaviors he observes in life outside of the forest—capable of becoming vividly upset, though never physically aggressive. He’s inclined to react to such disappointments by disappearing into the forest for weeks at a time. Amad, another guard, said a small Palahi village is set in a far northern reach of Nantu, about a four days walk away. Kamal said the Palahi have distinctive physical characteristics: including an upper lip that is flat, lacking the two faint vertical ridges that mark ordinary human lips; and he was adamant in characterizing the shape of their feet as being as wide as they are long, like paws. Jemi, who has spent more time in the forest than any in the group and who has made the acquaintance of a Palahi, smiled inscrutably. I asked him if it was true, that Palahi are physically different. He shrugged slightly.
We discussed the Palahi with captivated attention. It was hard to ignore the dichotomy posed by our fascination with the Palahi and their familiar tragedy. Nantu’s singular wonders suggest the Palahi are in possession of a singular knowledge—site-specific scientific and cultural value accumulated over millennia. Yet, the fast, narrow and aggressive calculus of the marketplace rarely encourages patient, circumspect assessments of value. Pursuit of material wealth tends to narrow our interpretation of value until it is so stripped-down as to seem devolutionary. Compelled by this mindset, then, we’re able to blithely trade whole ecosystems and cultures for a generation’s material whims. Even as negative consequences from these trades multiply and, under careful scientific interpretation, grow ominous, our invented market-driven rationale fails to enough heed our inescapable nature-driven reality. We might do well to try to bear in mind that money can shape political and economic policy that assaults and dismisses nature only until nature illustrates the illusory nature of money’s power.
The Palahi have nowhere left to run. They are victims of the marketplace’s failure to integrate with nature’s grace. Their culture and knowledge will, like north Sulawesi’s wild forest, become vestigial, adding to the future’s haunting inventory of lost potential.
We headed to our rooms, where my head-lamp cast a tired light on two thin mattresses laid on rough plank floors beneath open unscreened windows. Insects in the species-lively tropics tend to eat well and live large. On the way up to the room, I noticed a fat spider, as big as my fist, in the rafters. I opted not to dwell on biodiversity’s diverse night-wanderers. Agus slept on the other mattress. He liberated a clamor of snoring that calmed me, as I imagined it discouraged unwelcome visitors. As far as I could observe, mosquitoes did not exist in Nantu. None hummed in the cool night. I figured many natural predators and water inclined to run without pause down numerous mountains and hills made it hard for mosquitoes. Soon Agus’ adenoidal discomfiture harmonized with the myriad night sounds and I spiraled into a far-away slumber.
I awoke to an maleo’s drillingly trilled claims on territory or tail. I suggested to Agus that his snoring might have aroused the maleo’s spirit to propagate. About the size of a turkey, the black and white bird browsed in the leaf-litter at the camp’s edge, hammering dawn with his passion.
Salvageable wood in Nantu. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
We ate fried rice and then readied to explore. We walked first to the Paguyaman River to observe several snags of enormous trees in the water. Agus and I studied the feasibility in salvaging them. Theoretically, we might salvage the trees, mill them into boards and send the boards by container ship to our production warehouse in north Java where Agus manages production for Tropical Salvage, a wood furniture company I own that sources only salvaged woods to build products. Small sustainable businesses started in communities surrounding Nantu might create some steady jobs and thus relieve some of the pressure that exists between the needs and aspirations of local communities and the protected resources that exist in Nantu.
As we watched the river, my eye caught movement in a tree above the bank. A few monkeys were observing us observe the river. I could swear their long, enduring faces poured pity onto us, perhaps for our specie’s tireless inability to apprehend with due grace the responsibilities inherent in the privilege to exist.
During our meeting in Jakarta, Lynn Clayton remembered some of her early encounters along the Pagayuman River. She described traditional fishermen, perhaps Palahi, wading into the water with a spear and sequestering their catch into a woven rattan bag. She also recalled enterprising trans-migrants from Java in motor-driven long boats. The boats were laden with all types and sizes of fish, turtles and salamanders, sometimes even some crocodiles—so many that Lynn could almost feel the earth’s evolutionary record shudder. None of the creatures could endure the dynamite and poisons the fishermen applied to catch them.
As I watched the water flow through and around enormous trees in the river, I felt weighted by dispirit. I couldn’t imagine my wood-salvage work gaining enough financial logic to prove useful to Nantu’s needs. While the trees in Nantu’s rivers are big, good wood, the logistical challenges to salvaging and transportation are daunting. To begin with, the river runs too low to be able to float logs or rafts in order to move the wood to a single pick-up point. Then, it is a very long way, along roads often made impassable by severe weather, to the port in Garontolo.
Still more dispiriting was a sense of the inappropriateness in forcing evolutionary miracles like Nantu to submit to a market system’s oft-proven moral squalor. Yet, the marketplace might be Nantu’s most promising tool for survival. By graphically drawing and clearly communicating and marketing a consumers’ map of consequences, and leveraging the immediacy with which information can be transmitted in this era of nearly universal digital connectivity, there might be hope in guiding more consumers to market choices that actively preserve and restore our world’s splendid natural environments.
A little later, at about nine am, we slipped into a bamboo blind to view a salt lick frequented by wildlife. I heard a squishing sound at the muddy salt lick’s edge. One babirusa hurried away. I glimpsed its rear: a rat-like tail and muscled butt, all muddy. Babirusas are skittish and extremely sensitive to sound and smell. I guess we were pretty ripe there, in the equatorial tropics, and upon entering we might have rustled the lightly constructed blind.
We settled into the blind and waited for more creatures to appear. Four of us—myself, Agus, Jemi and Rais—filled the small bamboo blind. After five or ten minutes Jemi and Rais turned their attention to their cell phones. While no cellular signal reached the area, today’s multi-purpose “phones” seem to communicate more strongly and frequently with our susceptibility to seek distraction than enable communication with those whom we might want or need verbal contact. Forest sounds ranged from dulcet to raucous. Birds darted across the salt lick; butterflies floated and bobbed, riveting in their resplendence. Agus lit and pulled pensively on a kretek, the richly spice-laced cigarette that is one of Indonesia’s renowned cultural identifiers. If the babirusa has grown inured to some human-concocted fragrances, smoke from the kretek is surely one of them.
I watched a pair of brilliantly iridescent green and red forest pigeons wallow in the dark gray mineral mud. I’d seen many bird species splash and bathe in water before but never had I observed birds wallow in mud. I began to ask Jemi about the behavior when an enormous raptor swooped in and exacted the ultimate price for growing too relaxed. The other pigeon flapped a shocked zigzag to a protective thicket.
More waiting while a line of ants marched with their admirable commitment to purpose along the bamboo window sash and a light rain puckered the mud. Rais asked me if I carried photos of my family. I showed him photos of my wife and two children that I carry in my wallet and he showed me photos of his wife and child that he stores on his phone. Jemi handed me his cell phone and encouraged me to have a look. The small monitor played a video. Two guys measured a fantastically long and thick snake. A great mass filled and stretched the snake’s middle. Jemi explained it had consumed a small cow and died trying to digest it. The dead python’s length measured 9.5 meters. It was discovered near the northeast boundary of Nantu nature preserve.
Our Deepest Heritage
Enormous tree in Nantu. Jemi stands in front. Photo by: Tim O’Brien.
Agus slowly exhaled another plume of smoke, pondering it as though its curls and drift were the decipherable answer to a question that had occurred in his thoughts. “Tempat ini,” he said, “ada banyak peristiwanya mistik.” (This place hosts many mystical events.)
As often happens, Agus and I shared quiet concordance. Beneath giant trees that reached for the sun and offered us a cloister apart from all earthly malefaction, we breathed in tropical pungency: life surrendering to decay and decay enthralling life. Original phenomenality, its array of intoxicating observation, upends a mind lulled by ordinary modern endurance. Vast anchored root systems and sheltering canopies, containing countless species, at the thrilled margin where God’s infinite imagination and evolution’s tireless opportunism collaborate to express life. I grew aware of animism’s pulse—the idea that kindred, sentient spirits inhabit all matter and that each of our interactions among nature’s phenomena is an opportunity to project and receive—to share—grace. Nantu’s emblazonment of biological bounty and struggle offers rapture as a routine element of perception. Logic needn’t leap far to consider that some original inspirations for our gods might have derived from bearing witness to—from integrating with—wild nature yet undisturbed by our efforts to convert it into a servant of material innovation.
I felt “at home” in a dense tropical forest on the other side of the world from my place—my culture, ecology and geology—of origin. I have experienced similar feelings of immediate exultant connection to place in other wild areas: the Canadian wilderness, the tropical Andes and parts of northern Laos, to name a few. The rapturous magnetism of undisturbed wild challenges our modern assumptions about life’s purpose. If we contrast original nature’s brilliant coherence of complexity with modern life’s dysfunctional over-simplification in the service of seemingly limitless material choice—its fragmentation, frenetic distractions, multiplying human-generated conflicts and crises, and ever-weighing malaise—it seems a clear basis exists for examining the natural world’s role in nurturing and maintaining our basic well-being. While modern ingenuity provides us countless material conveniences, at the same time it seems our embrace of it deprives us of essential interactions and relationships with the natural world that have guided our evolution and definitively shaped, over eons and through a million cycles of cumulative observation and experiment, our meaning of existence.
Mindful engagement with original nature—its mystical resonance of our deepest heritage—might assist us to gain the perspective to choose and practice a set of values that recognizes, and endeavors to resist and reverse, unchecked material pursuit that increasingly invites tragedy. While our reach of material exploitation has reduced the wild to last vulnerable patches, the manifest power of places like Nantu—both its example of original nature and its stark emphasis on original nature’s precipitous diminishment—is so affecting that it inspires us to conceive of a change in our heart and values.
Strangler fig in Sulawesi. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The enormous sizes and broad diversity of Nantu’s trees seemed like the handiwork of special effects engineers. Walking among them, regarding them and touching them, I felt like a small critter that belonged in their shelter. I was able to walk inside of some gigantic strangler fig trees, to enter folds and holes in their trunks that gave way to labyrinthine root caves. Bats hung inside of one; inside another, a weirdly tiny species of squirrel chittered its irritation with my presence.
A pair of large, dazzlingly multi-colored, long-tailed birds flew onto a limb near me, close enough to touch. They were astonishingly beautiful birds. I imagined their extravagant plumage as another nuance of evolution’s genius, tactically evolved to stun predators with a rare blast of beauty in order to gain a moment to escape. Their existence proposed evidence of a lavish divinity. “This place hosts many mystical events.”
“Put On Earth, A Little Light, to Bear the Beams of Love.”
We contemplate—some of us believe in or hope for—an orderly God who supports—indeed, informs—our moral sense. Some people who I know and respect are drawn through communion with a natural world that is rich with miraculous beauty and invention to the notion of a kind and compassionate God who acknowledges and guides our human experience. Experiencing wild nature’s phenomena releases a purifying resonance; it asserts a sureness and steadiness of meaning to a landscape of modern experience that is distracted and beguiled by effusive material contrivance. Unreined nature offers life’s fragile beauty and finite resources as a set of solemn responsibilities, as a prayer: our active respect for them, our uncomplicated understanding that we are a part of them, our infinite debt for having been allowed to perceive and contemplate them.
Contrast this interpretation of our natural contract with another common theological narrative that promotes human exceptionality amidst God’s material largess. As if at some point during the centuries of manual transcription of the gospels a mead-blitzed, plague-rattled abbot had miswritten subjects into important parables, staging humanity in roles that brigands and locusts were intended to play, it celebrates our divine right and responsibility to try to satisfy—within contexts of inexactly written moral codes—our every material desire. It is merely a matter of “belief,” then, to accept we are entitled by God’s will to practice exploitative behaviors that deplete the earth’s resources and phenomena and diminish the quality of life we will pass on to our children. Arguments against some of “faith’s” seemingly inappropriate positions suffer from faith’s easy dissociation from logic. Surely, though, grace cannot be so easily ignored by faith?
Science clearly articulates Nantu’s importance to global ecology and health. Nantu hosts abundant biodiversity that expresses unusually high species endemism—62% of Sulawesi’s mammals and 34% of its bird species are endemic. Nantu protects a watershed that serves tens of thousands of people in downstream communities. And Nantu contains over 13 million tons of biomass carbon. Business-as-usual is inclined to assign value to Nantu that is based strictly on its finite and immediately exploitable material assets—its timber and ores, oil and gas. Predictable consequences of following through with this perception of value will be depletion of Nantu’s bounty of rare biodiversity, destruction of its life-sustaining catchment and distribution of clean water and release of approximately 50 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere that are currently fixed in its forest and soil. Exploitation would create some jobs, many of them temporary; extraction enterprises might enable a few people to grow “wealthy” in the sense that they will possess and exhaust, through great “external” cost, much more material capital than they remotely need—and expend considerable time in a brief life accumulating and managing excess. Exploitation of Nantu will cause certain, irretrievable loss of phenomena and morale from the human experience. It is a staggering irony: our free will is able to choose what we value and we persist in valuing what impoverishes us. Alfred Russell Wallace put it memorably: he likened the loss of species through careless exploitation of nature (usually in the pursuit of wealth) to the loss of letters from an invaluable alphabet, of sounds from an invaluable language. It leads to a sort of historical and biological illiteracy, a loss of the awareness and sensitivity that we must count on to sustain and improve the way ahead.
I imagine it is 1859 and Alfred Russell Wallace is moving quietly through north Sulawesi’s forests. Everywhere he turns he observes species that exist nowhere else on earth. Some Palahi hunters, moving even quieter, encounter the intrepid explorer and chronicler. The Palahi and Wallace are both standing still, close enough to observe the colors of each others’ feathers—Wallace’s specimens pinned for easy-access to a leather necklace; the Palahis’ handsome headdresses. They are a part of the landscape, each gazing in awe at the other. The Palahi have no inclination to run. The canopy rustles, the forest sounds swell, holding the moment in easy fellowship. They are all of them kindred spirits—the Palahi, Wallace, the towering trees, the entire tapestry of nature.
1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Michael Pollan; copyright 2006
2. Songs of Innocence and Experience; William Blake; 1790s
3. Nantu Forest Conservation Fund Feasibility Report; executive summary i-vii; Starling Resources and Yayasan Adudu Nantu International; S. Conway, T Darusman, H. Horuodono, R. Kusumaatmadja, Dr. L. Clayton, I. Labantu Msc., J. Komolontang, A Bawohan, B. Wowor; copyright 2009.
(12/08/2010) Two groups working with local communities to conserve forests in Sulawesi have won mongabay.com’s 2010 Conservation Award. The Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo), which works in Central Sulawesi, and the Nantu Forest Conservation Program, which operates in North Sulawesi, were recognized for their efforts to protect endangered forests on the Indonesian island, which is known for its high levels of endemic species.
(12/06/2010) More species are threatened with extinction in Indonesia than any other country on Earth. If we are to save them, it will take more protected areas, radical shifts in deforestation, and better anti-poaching efforts, but in many cases it will also take species-specific conservation efforts that work directly with local people. The Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo) is a model organization for this method, founder Marcy Summers describes it as ‘very small, community-based, and efficient, with very low overhead.’ By focusing on the wonderfully bizarre maleo, a ground-dwelling bird on the island of Sulawesi, the organization has succeeded in protecting a vital nesting area while initiating a moratorium on the egg-harvesting, which once devastated the species.
(12/06/2010) The babirusa of Sulawesi may be one of the world’s oddest looking—and acting—mammals. Literally meaning ‘pig-deer’ the babirusa, which includes four species, belongs to its own genus ‘Babyrousa’ in the pig family. Males are especially unique, sporting four tusks, two of which appear to come right out of the animal’s snout. To make it to the top of the babirusa hierarchy, males will combat each other in an activity dubbed ‘boxing’ where they will rear up on their hind legs and club at each other. Despite their many oddities, the babriusa were not formally studied until the late 1980s when Dr. Lynn Clayton spent four years in Sulawesi’s forest observing them.
(12/04/2008) s currently practiced, logging is responsible for large-scale destruction of tropical forests. Logging roads cut deep into pristine rainforests, opening up once remote areas to colonization, subsistence and industrial agriculture, wildlife exploitation, and other forms of development. Timber extraction thins the canopy, damages undergrowth, and tears up soils, reducing biodiversity and leaving forests more vulnerable to fire. Even selective logging — the dominant form of timber extraction in the tropics — is damaging. Once timber of commercial interest is harvested, forest land is increasingly burned to create grazing pasture or land for farming. In Southeast Asia — especially Indonesia and Malaysia — vast tracts of logged forest have been converted for rubber and oil palm plantations. Land that is not converted for agriculture is often colonized by grasses that prevent forest recovery.