40. A Gloomy View from Google Earth: The Waning of a Lovely People

I first saw the lovely valley at Ulu Berenang in 1974. That surely seems a long time ago. And yet, even after nearly four decades, I can close my eyes and recapture that scene.

Looking southward from the narrow bitumen road which pierced the tiny village of Berenang, I was rewarded with an idyllic view of rural, tropical Malaysia. Stretching into the distance the narrow, well-watered valley adjacent to the town was covered in an unbroken field of waist-high rice. The stalks with their heavily laden, golden grain-heads waved rhythmically to and fro with the wafting breezes. Along each side of the valley there stood a phalanx of coconut palms. The tall trunks sought the sun, their life force, and arched outward over the clearing that held the ripening padi. Each palm was crowned with a lush chapeau of bright green fronds. These were pinnately divided into leaflets which projected outward from the central vane of each frond. Each leaflet was a stiff, lanceolate blade which fluttered in the wind and gave each tree its voice; a soft, whispered tapping of leaflet upon leaflet.

Behind the ranks of palms there stood row upon well-ordered row of Heavea brasiliensis trees. Each tree bore the familiar, sloping, parallel grooves of the rubber tapper’s awl. A small cup rested upon each trunk, ready to capture the dripping latex spawned by the tapper’s delicate gouging of the bark. Plantations such as these made Malaysia one of the world’s top exporters of natural rubber. Down the valley, interspersed between palm and rubber, were sprinkled the kampong houses of the Malay rice growers. These houses, beautiful in their rustic simplicity, stood above the ground on stilts. Not only did this keep the home above a potential flood, such a design made entry rather more difficult for unwelcome house guests such as scorpions, centipedes, and Indian  cobras. Built above the ground, the homes were also more likely to catch cooling breezes. In a home with no electricity, this is no small matter. After all this is a land where the daily temperature hovers in the mid-nineties and the humidity approaches one hundred percent. The houses often featured a high-pitched roof covered by attap palm thatch. This design rapidly shed the rain and allowed hot air to rise above the floor-level living spaces. All in all, the houses’ clever designs gave a distinct quality of bucolic beauty, minimalism, and comfort.

Beyond the valley, as one stood looking down its length, there rose the rainforest covered mountains of the central massif. Rendered a hazy blueish by their distance, the forest appeared immense, limitless. These heights emitted their own aura, this being the Siren call of mystery and exploration. Back there, at the base of those mountains, rested a little world hidden from those who would view the valley only from the road. This secreted realm concealed a tiny village inhabited by Temuan aborigines. It was a piece of the world which clearly conveyed to me the realization that I was in a realm totally alien to anything I had previously experienced. It was a microcosmic piece of planet earth totally foreign to me in every way. The language, methods of procuring food, mode of dress, habits of hygiene, and spiritual beliefs of the Temuan were all utterly novel to me.

Walking the worn trail that meandered from the town to the Temuan village, one eventually left the parcels of Malay kampong houses and passed through rubber plantation. Beyond the well-ordered human woodland there grew patches of secondary forest. Approaching the Temuan village, I became aware of a human presence due to a pleasant sounding, harmonic tune emanating from the forest canopy. In the tops of a few of the taller trees, the Temuan had lashed long pieces of giant bamboo. Near the top of these twenty feet lengths of bamboo, they had cut a notch much like the sound hole of a wooden flute. As the wind played over the bamboos, they emitted a sonata of melodic, keening resonances which gave a mysterious atmosphere to the surrounding forest. What an ingenious invention I thought. These were wind chimes taken to a whole new level. These Brobdingnagian bamboo flutes were but my first indication of the deep spiritual connection the Temuan had with their rainforest home.

I found the Temuan to be attractive and fascinating in so many ways. The men, such as my friends Dodong and Oha, were generally less than five and half feet in height; the women closer to five feet. Their small stature was an expression of Bergmann’s Rule. This zoological principle holds that mammals (humans included) which live in the tropics tend to have smaller bodies than those that live at higher latitudes. This is because smaller mammals, somewhat counter-intuitively, have more surface (skin) area than larger ones. Having greater surface area allows for more efficient radiation of body heat and thus a greater ability to stay cool in the tropical heat. I can attest to the efficacy of this body form. On multiple hikes, I would find myself wearing sweat-soaked clothing so wet it looked as if I had fallen into a stream. Meanwhile, the skin of my Temuan companions always seemed to stay amazingly dry. Several thousand years of natural selection can work its adaptive genius on humans just as well as any other species.

What a lovely people the Temuan. Though diminutive in size, they were large in openness, humor, and hospitality. From the first time I walked into their village until three years later, when I had to bid them a reluctant adieu, they were ever gracious and accepting of my presence among them. Their skills in traversing the forest were unparalleled. How, I wondered, did they avoid becoming disoriented and lost in this vast, green world? To my eye, the forest appeared uniform in every direction I looked; dangerously so for a solo novice. I once asked them how they accomplished their amazing navigation. Their answer, while patently obvious to them, did little to illuminate this uncanny ability for me. “We just know where to go,“ was their cryptic explanation of this incredible orienteering ability.

Their skill in starting fire using sodden wood defied belief. Deciphering the claw marks left upon a tree as those made by a Malaysian sun bear, identifying the scat of a clouded leopard, or stalking a silvered leaf monkey were as routine for the Temuan as finding the dairy products aisle in a Publix supermarket would be for us. Contrary to what one might think, the tropical rainforest is not a lush, fecund realm where food and drink are to be had by merely stretching out the hand. With thousands upon thousands of plant species, knowing which ones are edible is not a given for the neophyte. Also, much of the production of fruit is out of reach high in the canopy. Even something as seemingly simple as finding water – it is the rainforest after all – may not be easy. I recall one trek with Dodong when I found my canteen empty and no water in sight. Not a stream or pool had we seen in hours. When I told him of my intense thirst, Dodong simply said he would find water for me. Within a few minutes he had located a climbing vine, hacked out a three foot section, and showed me how to tip the vine upward and hold it near my mouth to receive the coolest, most thirst quenching drink of water imaginable.

On another overnight jaunt, I informed Dodong that I had forgotten anything to hold my vital jolt of morning coffee. He returned shortly with a cup he had fashioned from a section of giant bamboo. The skillfulness with which the Temuan were able to manipulate objects in their environment into articles of utilitarian use simply defied imagination. Never before had I encountered a people so connected, so resourceful, so intimately coupled with the natural world.

But in spite of all that was right with the Temuan and their way of life, a dark shadow loomed upon their world. Dodong, with powerful foresight, could see his people’s future. I could sense it too and was injected with the same mood of foreboding that already troubled my friend’s soul. Already the Temuan had been forced to establish their villages outside of their preferred location, the deeper forest. In an effort to deny any possible assistance to the communist insurgents who plagued Malaya in the late 1950’s, the Temuan and other orang asli (“original people”) groups had undergone wide-scale resettlement. By the time I reached what had since become Malaysia in 1973, communist guerrilla activity was almost extinct. The Temuan however still languished in their new villages. In a pitifully sad nod to their ancestral life, the little village where I shared their communion was located as far from the road and as close to the forest as was allowed.

My friend lamented the fact that the younger people in his village were losing touch with the old ways. Their reliance on padi rice as a staple and the products of the local Chinese dry-goods shops had grown. The baubles of modernity lured them from the old ways. Consequently their skills as trackers, hunters, herbalists, and story-tellers atrophied. Caught in limbo between the old way of life and Malaysia’s rapid ascension into the modern world of commerce, the younger generation of Temuan was not adept at either. Ten thousand years as slash and burn agrarians and hunter-gatherers leave one ill prepared for a job in the contemporary world. Starting work at 7:00A sharp means little to a people who have never had a clock. The eight hour shift is incomprehensible to a people who have for millennia eaten, slept, hunted, and socialized in accord with rhythms not of the clock but of the corpus and the forest. Dodong had no need for literacy to fully understand all this. His innate intelligence and sense of place told him all he needed to know.

And now, over forty years later, I can with the click of a computer mouse, look down on the world I once briefly shared with Dodong. Except, of course, that world is gone. Granted, I can find a place called Berenang, but it is unrecognizable to me. Gone is the beautiful valley. Nowhere do I see a tiny village of stilted, palm-thatched huts; the lovely kampong houses of the Malay rice farmers. Gone is the smoke from the cooking fires, gently rising into the still, humid air. Nowhere do I see evidence of a gentle people, a happy people, a people wedded to their forest home.

I do see the cities of Kajang and Seremban swollen to ten times the size they were when my Temuan teachers and I trod the forest lying between them. Instead of jungle, I now see oil palm plantations, factories, golf courses, a new international airport, expressways and cloverleaves where none existed. What has happened to Dodong? He was old enough when I knew him to relate frightening stories of the Japanese soldiers who invaded his rainforest home in 1941. He likely now rests with his ancestors as do Oha, Selopang, and Pakok. What has become of their children, their grandchildren? Have they been able to assimilate themselves into modern Malaysia or do they languish still in the netherworld of lost traditions, lost identity?

Dodong and his descendants were not the first people of the natural world to suffer the consequences of what we humans call progress. I fear that they may be among the last. It is becoming more and more difficult to find tribal people who still maintain their culture. Thus has it always been. Superior numbers, superior technology, or superior firepower; one way or another, those deemed primitive always lose out.

Some have pointed out to me that my feelings are too romantic, too far removed from reality. I have sentimentalized the aboriginal way of life they say. There is no charm in a lifestyle that involves cooking over an open wood fire; eating snakes, monkeys, or insects; dying from an infection easily cured by an antibiotic they say. Doubtless there is merit to their argument. Who am I to say that the forest may be a better home than one with plumbing and electricity? What privilege have I to suggest the young Temuan shouldn’t have at least a chance to wear Nike® running shoes, own a smart phone, watch television, or clad themselves in Outerwear® when these things are readily available to me? I have no reasoned answer as to why my aboriginal friends are not equally entitled to have more.

Nevertheless, something just doesn’t feel right. I have the lingering feeling that, despite the challenges of their way of life, maybe the Temuan already did have more. So much seemed good about their lifestyle. Perhaps they possessed things more valuable than the clothes, electronics, and vehicles by which we in the “modern” world measure success.

My mind harbors the memory of a contented gathering of Temuan hunters at their evening fire. The blackness of the surrounding forest loomed at our backs. Tales of the day’s hunt were shared, critiqued, and relished. Children sat among the adults and absorbed the lessons and mythologies offered by their elders. A deep spirituality fed by their profound, mychorrizal-like connection with the forest was nurtured. Often bamboo nose-flutes and crude stringed or percussion instruments appeared and the night was enriched as ancient melodies floated off into the humid night air.

I recall the affection and attention they directed toward their happy, good-tempered children. I hear the laughter and feel the companionship within the small, closely knit village. I recollect a society in which theft, assault, and homicide were unknown. Yes, I do have much myself. But, I am still burdened by the suspicion that the Western notion of progress may not be the panacea for happiness many would propose. I am left to wonder; have we, in the name of progress, traded for things of lesser value?

I have seen what the displacement of an ancient culture looks like and it isn’t pretty. Recognizing the pain etched in the face of my friend Dodong, as he helplessly watched his world disintegrate before his eyes, was tormenting. For tribal peoples, the results of being displaced geographically and culturally are incredibly devastating.

(Satellite image of progressive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon 1975-2001)

Over the years, group after tribal group has succumbed to the on-rushing tsunamis of colonization, population growth, blossoming infrastructure, and progress creeping over our planet’s wild places. It is though I stand on a peak watching the inexorable creep of a pahoehoe lava flow as it voraciously consumes all that is living, all that is good, all that is beautiful in our world. These things I see courtesy of Google Earth and the view is disheartening.

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Photo Credits:

Malay kampong house by Bin Gregory @ commonswikimedia.org
Deforestation in Brazil: Landsat satellite image USGS

All other photos by the author.