Sunday, May 22, 2022

Home of Rainbows ~ an excerpt from TANAH TUJUH (updated)

ABOUT AN HOUR’S HIKE from where I live there is a sacred waterfall whose virgin waters cascade some 300 feet in three tiers into a womblike cauldron. 

At midday with the Sun directly overhead, I once ventured into the seething cauldron. And there, trembling from the cold and from an overwhelming sense of awe, I found the Home of Rainbows. 

I beheld dozens of baby rainbows - hanging magically in the misty spray - dancing with the sunbeams. A sight such as this transforms one forever. I felt the presence of the goddess Gaia - not as hypothesis, but as a vivid reality.

And when I gazed at the sky beyond the shimmering column of water and the rocky lips of the cauldron, I was struck by a vision of the Vesica piscis: the fish-shaped form of the primeval vulva from which all life issues.

MEANWHILE, in another Dimensional Universe not so far from where the rest of humanity lives, nine Orang Asli of the Jahai tribe from Sungai Manok (about 200 km from Kota Bharu, Kelantan) suddenly found themselves on trial for homicide. On 26 April 1993 they had been embroiled in an ugly struggle over land, which left three Kelantanese Malays dead. They had allegedly been shot with poisoned blowpipe darts. According to some reports, the Malays had shown up in a van one day to inform the Jahai that their land had been sold and that they were to leave their village within 24 hours.

The Jahai called called a tribal council and decided to stand their ground. Violence erupted when the Malays arrived at the village brandishing parangs (machetes) and one of them kicked the batin (headman). A young Jahai who rushed to his chief's defence was slashed.

In court the Jahai were defended by seven of the country's leading lawyers, all of whom donated their services and paid their own expenses. For months, Colin Nicholas of the COAC (Center for Orang Asli Concerns) was kept busy commuting between Subang Jaya and Kota Bharu, helping the Jahai cope with the disruption to their lives and looking after their personal needs. The legal proceedings took on farcical proportions with the prosecution tying itself up in technical knots. So much so the case was eventually thrown out after three years of senseless to-and-froing, without a single essential question being raised.

For instance: how did land reserved for the Orang Asli get “sold” in the first place? Was the Orang Asli Affairs Department completely in the dark? Or were a few officers in the know? Why didn't the Jahai headman report to the authorities immediately? And how do we reconcile the Asli concept of tanah pesaka (ancestral land) with legalistic definitions of real estate and private property?

According to lawyer friends of mine, the Orang Asli have absolutely no land rights as such - and they mutter something about Section 134 of the Aboriginal Act of 1954, which classifies all Orang Asli as “tenants at will of the State.” They explain that the Orang Asli have been occupying areas “approved for gazetting” since the mid-60s - but not formally gazetted yet (even as we enter the new millenium). In the 1960s the official excuse for leaving matters unresolved was “the Communist threat.” In December 1989 the Malayan Communist Party surrendered and dissolved itself. Until the designated areas are constitutionally gazetted as Orang Asli reserves, the only protection the “First Peoples” have against fortune-hunters and land-grabbers is the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli or JHEOA (which later became Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli or JAKOA - although the Orang Asli still call it JOA - “Jual Orang Asli,” they hasten to add,“Orang Asli for Sale.”).

The question is: who can protect the Orang Asli from their own Protectors? The JAKOA officials I've met are hard-core, card-carrying Mahathirites and compulsive enemies of the environment. They charge around in Pajeros and hobnob with prominent loggers and daredevil developers. Orang Asli Affairs are perceived as their personal fiefdom and, in recent years, JAKOA appears to have turned into an extension of JAKIM (the federal government's Islamic Enforcement and Missionary Agency).

Bidar Chik in 1999
I WAS TALKING to Bidar Chik, batin of Kampung Pertak, about the difference between “tenure” and “tenancy.” Of course, our terms of reference were far more concrete.

“Our people have been living in these parts since time began,” Bidar said, “We belong here, but we don't say the land belongs to us.”

“The land belongs to Tuhan,” interjected Bidar's brother-in-law Nadi from the doorway, where he had been quietly listening to our conversation. “All land is God's. We're only the Guardians of this area.”

Nadi Pak Empok had a certain dignity about him and a friendly twinkle in his eye. I was impressed by his sincerity of belief. Bidar took this as a cue to get his wife to serve up some Milo.

Nadi & Lumoh
I told Nadi I was in full agreement wih him. I, too, felt it was my sacred duty to safeguard the wild beauty of the forest and the pure joy of its rivers. Many years ago, when I first “discovered” the invigorating splendor of the Pertak foothills, I had felt a profound sense of homecoming. When in April 1992 I finally moved to the area, I found myself living in a “heavenly hologram” where magic and mystery ruled.

THE VERY FIRST NIGHT I took up residence as Ceremonial Guardian of Magick River the jungle came alive for me. I shall never forget the solemn grandeur of the trees and the invisible assembly of spirits that greeted me as I stood humbly before the timeless power of raw nature.

I heard no voices, no flesh-crawling siren calls. I saw no wraiths, no fairies; only the starry twinkling of festive fireflies. All I felt was a deep reverence for and spiritual kinship with the elven folk, and the elementals, and the animal devas I sensed all around me like a fragrant mist.

The Ceremonial Guardian's official residence in 1992

The next two years of my life were the most idyllic I can recall. And I'm sure the hundreds of people who day-tripped at Magick River or who stayed a week, or a month, or three (so many of whom have since become “family” to me) will happily attest to that. It was during those heady days that I met and befriended the Temuan from the village down the road. So when it came time to shift house, my first choice was Kampung Pertak.

Rasid washing dishes in the river
First I asked Rasid and Indah if they liked the idea. They seemed delighted and honored that I should be so keen to dwell among them. They said they would be happy to build me a hut as long as I paid them for their labor. But there was a snag. There was no one in the village with the authority to welcome me as a resident. Rasid explained that one would normally approach the batin for permission - but the previous one had died the year before and no one had taken over the job. “Perhaps you should get clearance from the District Officer,” he advised me.

The D.O. was fairly easygoing. When I explained my interest in setting up a sort of cultural exchange with the Orang Asli and indicated my desire to live close to them for a while, he shrugged and said he had no problem with that. But I ought to check with the Jabatan Orang Asli first. So I did. The JOA officer in charge of Ulu Selangor heard me out and then declared that he had no objection to my request. However, I would have to seek permission from the D.O.

“I just came from the D.O.'s office,” I said. “He told me he had no objections either.”

The long-suffering “Encik Lah” (not his real name) forced a sigh and stood up to conclude our interview. “Well, er... in that case... er... if you have already spoken with the D.O., then I think... er... it should be all right.” Then he added triumphantly, “But you will have to apply in writing.”

About three hours later I was back in his office with my official application in triplicate. My friend and musical collaborator, Rafique Rashid, had helped me draft and type the letter in impeccable Bahasa Birokrat (Bureaucratese).

“Encik Lah” took my letter and nonchalantly chucked it on his desk. I reminded him that one copy of the letter was for him to “chop” and return to me.

When I asked “Encik Lah” about the letter a few weeks later, all he could manage was: “Huh? What letter?” He rummaged in his files for several minutes before concluding that no such application ever existed. Since I appeared reluctant to leave the matter at that, he suddenly remembered that I was required to report to the Special Branch before moving in with the Orang Asli. I said: “Okay, so who do I talk to?” The police officer he mentioned was on long leave.

By now a firm decision had to be made. The rainy season was approaching and Rasid had asked if work could begin on my hut. His motorbike was undergoing a costly overhaul and he needed a cash advance. I waited another fortnight before making another attempt to speak to the police officer. Couldn't be reached. Tried “Encik Lah” again. Not in the office. Left message. No response. Gone to Shah Alam. A whole month passed without a word from either the Jabatan Orang Asli or the Special Branch. I knew the move was mine to make and nobody else's.

I told Rasid, Utat, Diap, Indah, and Minah that they could start gathering bertam leaves and weaving them for my roof. I had identified what I felt was an ideal spot for my new “official residence” as Ceremonial Guardian. After six months of delays caused by prolonged rains, damaged atap (roofing material), squandered funds and petty bickering among the workforce while I was away for a few weeks, the realization grew that I would have to personally be present at the site or the hut would never be completed.

Finally, after a burst of intense work by Rasid and Utat (the chief architect), my home sweet hut was ready for occupation. Standing nine feet above the ground (which effectively made it a two-story affair), “Jabba the High Hut” turned out to be the grandest looking private residence in the area - and I now had the rare distinction of living in the only thatch-roofed traditional Orang Asli structure in Pertak. Was I in danger of developing an “Aslier-than-thou” attitude?

ABOUT A MONTH after I had become a de facto member of the Orang Asli community in Pertak, Bidar Chik, the newly appointed batin, introduced himself to me at the wanton mee shop. After ascertaining that I was indeed the fellow who had just built a hut near Lubok Pusing (a popular swimming hole and picnic spot), Bidar dropped a bombshell: “Oh, by the way, Encik Lah wants to talk to you about your hut. I think he wants you to demolish it. You should go and see him tomorrow.”

I looked Bidar in the eye and said very diplomatically, “I definitely would have gone to see you first before building a hut in your village. But at the time you weren't the batin. In fact I was told there was no batin. That's why I went to see the D.O. instead. Now that I know who the batin is, I would be grateful for your belated permission to continue living in Pertak Village.” I pressed on: “If you as the batin do not approve of my staying on, I will respect your decision and move out. Your Encik Lah can't tell me what to do.”

Bidar looked mighty pleased to be addressed as batin. He quickly declared that he had no personal objections, but “Encik Lah” had instructed him to pass on this message.

“He has my postal address and my friend's phone number on the letter I left with him. And he's welcome to visit me at the hut anytime. Please tell him that.” Needless to say, “Encik Lah” never did get to meet “Jabba the High Hut.” Pity, really. It would have been appropriate to serve him a cup of teh susu (milky tea) - straight from the river - since he was the key facilitator of so many logging projects in Ulu Selangor’s Orang Asli reserves.

TO BIDAR I must have seemed more than just “a new kid on the block.” Indeed I must have been (and probably still am) a complete mystery to him. Every other “outsider” who bothered to drop in on the batin of Pertak Village was invariably there with yet another tempting business proposition. All I had to offer was a bit of goodwill, genuine interest, and some idle chatter.

I asked Bidar if he had any plans or problems that I might be able to help him implement or resolve. I really did want to be a good citizen of Pertak Village.

“We want to improve our living standard,” Bidar said matter-of-factly. “And for that we need material assistance in the form of tools, vehicles, hardware supplies. We've been waiting for electricity and a telephone line for nearly twenty years, but they keep saying the budget for that hasn't been approved.” Kampung Orang Asli Pertak is about 400 meters from the nearest power and phone lines.

In the 1950s an Asli township - in truth a concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire - was built on the edge of Kuala Kubu Bharu "to encourage them to integrate with their more urbanized compatriots." That was the official excuse. The real reason was to stop the Orang Asli from helping the remnants of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (led by Chin Peng) obtain food and other essentials. A few years later, after hundreds of trauma deaths, many Asli chose to return to the jungle, rebuilding their bamboo huts along the banks of clear mountain streams.

A special school was set up for the Asli - but after four decades, the number that can actually read and write is very small. I asked Bidar why this was so. “In the beginning the children are keen to learn. They put on their school uniforms and wait for the bus. But after a few months, or a few years at the most, they get fed up and drop out.”

I wondered if the teaching methods were custom-tailored to the needs of Orang Asli children. Perhaps they were unable to accept regimentation and external discipline, growing up free as birds as they do.

“So why did you stop going to school?” I asked Sembo, a bright and perky 13-year-old from Kampung Gerachi. She grimaced and gave me a graphic account of the difficulties she had encountered with the education system: “The other kids were fond of teasing those of us who were bused to school from distant villages. They would scribble in my exercise book when I wasn't looking and I used to get punished for that. Once the teacher tore a page off my book and stuffed it down my throat!”

It didn't take me very long to notice that a large number of Asli teenagers - some no older than Sembo - are forced by circumstances to stay home and look after younger siblings while both parents are out collecting bamboo or cutting grass with the bushcutter brigades. Asli literacy was hampered by a classic, vicious circle of poverty, exacerbated by inconveniences like not having any light to read by at night apart from kerosene pelita (wick lamps) that produced only a flickering glow. Very cozy, it's true, even romantic. But hardly conducive to reading and writing (unless one has pale green eyes).

None of the Asli homes I visited had any books. Perhaps a few crumpled pages from last week's newspapers, salvaged from the shopping. Was it really all that important for the Orang Asli to acquire literacy, I asked myself. Most people in the cities are literate - and yet the quality of their lives isn't significantly better. More comfortable, perhaps. My Asli hut with its springy bamboo floor and well-ventilated bamboo walls was to me the height of comfort - but definitely not designed for a middle-class lifestyle.

The big difference between my “lifestyle” and that of the Orang Asli was simply that my interest in books and my ability to read gave me almost limitless access to many different levels of the mind. Was that such a great asset, I often wondered, or our greatest liability? If I knew less, would I be happier? And if I spent less time in abstract thought, might I not find myself living more in the here and now?

This seemed to hold true for the Orang Asli. Even with only crackers and sweet black tea for dinner, they could enjoy a good hearty laugh among themselves. And when they struck paydirt - for example, after a bumper durian harvest or when someone caught a wild boar and roasted it on the spot with a sprinkling of salt - their life was closer to heaven than any urbanite could experience. Apparently, the secret ingredient in the Orang Asli recipe for good living was a childlike innocence that even the elderly retained. For the most part, anyhow.

WHENEVER LOGGERS muscle in on the Asli homeground, some of the Guardians' “guardians” make a fortune in unofficial commissions. All they have to do is appoint headmen they can remake in their own image. I watched with a heavy heart as this happened to Bidar Chik.

Ours was an ambiguous relationship, to say the least. He resented the fact that most of his anak buah (kinfolk under his “fatherly protection”) regarded him as bodoh (stupid) and came to me with little problems instead of him. (Perhaps they liked the way I served milky tea with my “post-Mowglian” metaphysics - but more likely they were fed up with the new batin's habit of threatening all and sundry with on-the-spot fines for their “transgressions,” mostly imaginary.)

Bidar certainly wasn't bodoh. Far from it. A bit demented, perhaps. But in view of the untimely death of his teenaged daughter (in a gruesome love triangle murder) the year before his appointment as batin; and the fact that his only son Bidin had grown into a sullen, uncommunicative, and friendless social misfit (people said Bidin was possessed by spirits) - it was difficult not to feel a measure of compassion for the man.

So it didn't surprise me to learn that Bidar no longer believed the land was sacred. He could see no real future for the Orang Asli and therefore became blind to his tribe's past. When he got involved in a scam to log the slopes of Bukit Kutu, I made an attempt to remind him that the future well-being of Kampung Pertak was in his hands. Bidar replied like a true pragmatist: “If I don't take this opportunity to make some money, others will. Why let the Malays and Chinese hog all the logs? Better the Orang Asli themselves get a share of the loot. After all, the way things are going, I believe the world is about to end. So why worry about a small patch of jungle?”

After a while I gave up trying to reason with Bidar. With his share of the logging profits he purchased a spanking new Honda motorbike, keeping the rest in the bank “against the day electricity is installed and we can buy all kinds of appliances.”

His younger brother Sem was very different. It was well known that the sibling rivalry between them had often led to fisticuffs, especially when both had had one drink too many. Sem had no qualms about putting his name to a police report we lodged against his brother's logging company. Nothing came out of it. The police interviewed Sem who said Bidar had breached tribal adat (customary law) by “cheating” his own people. On paper, it appeared that Bidar's sole proprietorship, “K.O.A. Enterprise,” was legitimate, and that his application for a logging permit was more or less in order.

Lawyers informed us that under existing Malaysian law, there was really no way we could win a case against the loggers. The crux of the problem, again, was that the area wasn't officially an Orang Asli reserve; and that even if it was, the headman had the right to “develop” it in any way he saw fit. The question of popular consensus did not arise. Participatory democracy had yet to arrive in these parts, and Kampung Pertak was a perfect microcosm of the entire country.

“Everybody thinks we're stupid,” Sem told me with a craggy grin. “We're not fools, maybe not so aggressive. That's the problem.”

It's true. I've yet to see an Asli parent inflict grievous corporal punishment on a child. Asli kids tend to be all over the place, laughing and joking with the adults, eavesdropping on serious council sessions. Do they stand a chance in the face of the competitiveness and ambition and rapacity that urban economies breed?

Sem said, with a trace of deep hurt in his voice, “Those who scorn and exploit us now will later be brought low. We believe that if the Orang Asli are wiped out, that's the end of the whole world. That's what our ancestors said.”

He could be right. The aboriginal peoples of the planet represent the roots of humanity - the point of deepest contact with the nourishing spirit of the Earth. The younger and more venturesome races - the ones that sailed forth to discover, trade with, and colonize distant lands - represent the branches and leaves. The planetary citizen is the flowering of the human family.

But will we bear the fruit of the Divine Child? The Earth-Star Child whose home is the entire Cosmos? Can the Tree of Life continue growing if its roots wither from neglect and forgetfulness? Must nature's amazing diversity give way to systematic homogenization in the name of Economic Growth? Surely the human imagination can come up with a workable, alternative scenario of “development” that integrates the best of both worlds? This is what spurred my decision to quit the big city and “live close to the land” for a while.

APART FROM finding myself in much more congenial surroundings, I've been through an unsettling spectrum of internal shifts. Initially I was prone to fly off the handle whenever I saw a styrofoam lunchbox or plastic bag in the jungle. I took on the role of eco-policeman, admonishing picnickers about the mess they were leaving and getting terribly worked up at the sight of graffiti. Soon I was an unpaid garbage collector, never venturing into the jungle without emerging with a bag full of litter.

After a while I realized that my getting pissed off with Malaysian “pig-knickers” and “the whole goddamned junk-consuming-junk-producing human race” wasn't really helping the environment at all. Truth is, the Orang Asli themselves are compulsive litterbugs. Their only excuse is that for hundreds of generations, the stuff they chucked on the ground was 100% organic. I regularly found myself sermonizing to them: “Things made by Tuhan (God or Nature) aren't filthy, you can throw them in the river. But things made by the Towkays (factory bosses) become rubbish, so be careful where you dispose of them.” Somewhat simplistic, I admit, but how else could I explain why I would conscientiously hold on to an empty plastic container till I found a garbage skip - while happily hurling rambutan skins and peanut shells into the river?

Another rude awakening: one day I mentioned to Utat the famous pig-hunter that I had spotted a pair of eagles nesting across the river. Utat's only response was, “Are you going to shoot them?”

“What?” I said, thinking I must have heard wrong. “In the first place I don't have a gun. And in the second place, why would anyone want to shoot an eagle?”

“They steal our chickens.”

Well, I don't know if Utat is partial to roast eagle. (When I asked if he would consider an eagle good eating, Utat shook his head: “Hardly any meat, and much too stringy.”) The Asli seem to feed on anything that moves and quite a few things that don't - like mildly putrid bamboo rat. Just as well, I suppose. I'd have monkeys breaking into my hut if the Asli hadn't hunted them all the way to Ulu Klang.

After Anoora and I were engaged, my family-to-be began offering me various delicacies they had trapped. I thought Diap's stewed python was delicious, though a little greasy; and afterwards it made me feel like coiling up and sleeping for a week. They kept the snake's semperu (gall bladder, hempedu in Malay) in a secret niche, waiting for it to dry before soaking it in drinking alcohol. Utat and Rasid assured me that I wouldn't be disappointed with the result. Alas, the precious morsel was spirited away by a household rodent before I could savor its promised delights. I also found the braised jawak (monitor lizard) fairly tasty, though a little too chewy for someone with limited dental equipment. Once I arrived too late to sample Indah's famous landak (porcupine) curry; and at my wedding feast, I pleaded over-excitement to explain why I only tasted a few atoms of the grilled pantim (leaf monkey).

IT HAS TAKEN ME an enormous conscious effort to mitigate my visceral dislike of industrial loggers and fast-buck “devilopers” - and the cynical power elite that fattens itself off their cannibalistic dark rites. So what if “Conquer, Penetrate, and Dominate” is their credo? So what if they are eco-rapists? They're only acting out a millennia-old scenario of anthropocentric self-interest, sanctioned by priesthoods created by the ancient colonizing “gods.” Their only real crime is that they have access to heavier-duty machinery than our grandfathers.

And since most concessions are granted for only three to six months, their eagerness to maximize profits leads to reckless, wholesale destruction of huge tracts of irreplaceable rainforest. (What I find even more disturbing, however, is that many, if not all, loggers are so used to offering “special incentives” to human officials to obtain their concessions and permits, they tend to do the same with the much-feared datuks or spirits of the trees.

In lieu of cash the loggers offer bribes of white chickens' or black goats' blood, which corrupts the elemental kingdom and results in many hapless humans being taken over by drunken and dispossessed datuks on the rampage. I doubt if any study has been done on the psychic after-effects of logging - but I personally am convinced that the physical carnage is invariably accompanied by years, even decades, of negative metaphysical fall-out manifesting as psychological and physiological diseases. The Revenge of the Jungle Spirits, as Utat would call it.)

Transmute that righteous rage into positive action, I kept telling myself for three months, even as I was being rudely awoken every morning (including Sundays) punctually at seven-thirty by the diabolical racket of revving bulldozer engines and the heart-stopping thump-kerumph-whump of logs being stacked up by the mechanical payloader. I confess that the compulsion to sabotage the loggers' machinery was almost too strong to resist. Friends who came to visit - and were greeted by the sight of freshly cut trees piled up like corpses in the loggers' yard near my hut - broke into tears or began to rant and rave. But anger doesn't resolve anything except itself. Indeed it can only divide the world further into Cowboys and Indians, Good Guys and Bad Guys, White Hats and Black Hats. And as far as I was concerned, that sort of dualistic stuff was Old Hat.

(Occasionally, while waiting for their lorries to be loaded with logs destined for the sawmills, a few drivers would wander up the footpath to my hut. I made a point of serving them tea, and most of them seemed at pains to convince me that they disliked helping to destroy the rainforest. “I've been driving log lorries for fifteen years and I have five kids to feed. Tell me, what else can I do?” One driver from Kerling was so keen to demonstrate goodwill he insisted on buying a copy of my book of poems in English - a language he couldn't read. “It's for my wife,” he explained. “She's a school-teacher and enjoys reading English books.”)

It dawned on me that most urbanites have been conditioned to fear nature in the raw. Orang Asli kids seem pretty spooked by the jungle after dusk, but for different reasons. Town-dwellers are fundamentally afraid of snakes, scorpions, mosquitoes, centipedes, and tigers (yes, Virginia, there a few still ranging the foothills of Ulu Selangor and Pahang). Forest-dwellers are more afraid of the bi'hiang - the unseen: hantu (ghosts, spirits, vampires), halus (elves), bunian (fairies), and the penunggu (guardian spirits) of certain power-spots, reputed to manifest as 60-foot tall specters when antagonized.

But their fears aren't paralyzing ones. Many of the older Asli still feel the periodic need to go on solo jungle walkabouts. Sometimes they return spouting gibberish and have to be ritually exorcized by the village dukun (medicine man). Most aboriginal peoples seem to be genetically predisposed to slipping in and out of Dreamtime (the Astral Plane or Fourth Dimension) - but that's probably because their reluctance to deal with written language frees them from the left-brain dominance the rest of us have to unlearn, if we want to fully comprehend the nature of our being.

Me? I'm afraid of fire ants. And the buzzillion other virulent varieties of biting bugs - some microscopic to the point of invisibility - that sometimes make me wish I was back in the permanent poison fog of the Klang Valley. But as I feel that chemical sprays are far more repugnant than insect bites, I've had to devise non-polluting ways of discouraging ants from building highways across my living space. Hot water and flaming newspapers seem to have done the trick. Nothing like a bit of fiery journalism to flush out the creepy-crawlies.

(My geomancer friend and star-sister Soluntra King once suggested I deal with the problem in a more enlightened manner, by reasoning with the devas of the “offending” insect or animal species. In other words, by striking a deal or coming to a special understanding with the gang leaders. Well, this approach appears to have worked with a few varieties of ants, especially the kerengga (weaver ants). The wasps rarely sting except when inadvertently sat upon. However, I've given up trying to be diplomatic with the ruffian rats of Taman Tikus (Rodent Park) who are my immediate neighbors!)

But there's another way of looking at it: perhaps Nature has produced these “irritants” in response to the irritation she must feel when humans burrow and blast and befoul the Earth with their unheeding busyness. Perhaps, as the sages of today would say, the external world is really a hologram projection of our inner states. Or, as the Dalai Lama says: “To live in a peaceful world, you need a peaceful mind.”

BEHIND MY HUT is a series of hills that bear the scars of human intrusion. In the 1900s businessmen logged the area (they used buffaloes to haul the logs in those days) and then proceeded to dynamite a 3-mile-long tunnel through the mountains, ostensibly to mine for tungsten (though I suspect they were after silver or gold). Huge landslips put paid to the mining operations, with tremendous loss of human life. Some say 300 died in the great tunnel collapse of 1907 - which the Temuan of course attribute to the wrath of the Penunggu of Bukit Suir, former residence of the langsuir or jungle sirens of Pertak.

In 1990, when Bidar Chik's father was batin of Kampung Pertak, loggers brought in bulldozers to finish off the surrounding hills. Today the terrain is one enormous scab - laterite baked to a crumbly black crust where only ferns and hardy scrub will grow. True, a scattering of young trees is starting to green out the view, but it could take another thirty years for these poor hills to regain the look of majestic jungle-clad mountains. And probably another three hundred before the magical vitality of the area is fully restored.

A most distressing sight is the proliferation of mud gullies - some nearly 60 feet deep - the result of rainwater rushing down old logging trails and washing tons of red earth into the rivers, which ultimately end up flooding the low-lying districts. So a few chaps get to be instant millionaires and Tan Sris (an honorific title equivalent to knighthood) - but who picks up the tab at the end of the ecocidal debauch? It's one thing to read about the deleterious effects of deforestation. Quite another to feel the desolation and ruin of a once-verdant ridge after humans have violated it.

Some evenings before dusk, I would climb the nearest scabby peak to bask in a panorama of ethereal beauty and serenity. The hill I usually stand upon and the ones adjacent are sad and wounded - but the faraway peaks still look pristine, at least from a distance. Ironic that such a vision of eternal promise can only be enjoyed from the vantage point of grim destruction - for if the brutal logging hadn't denuded the spot, I wouldn't be getting this 360-degree overview of heavenly perfection. Somehow I know that my being there, and feeling moved by the indestructible grandeur of it all, and sending the spirit of the place total love, must have a healing effect.

More and more I've become aware how painful and savage the history of this planet has been. It's reflected in our own lives. How many of us have escaped unscathed by the negative imprints of our parents - and their parents' parents in a sequence of trauma that can be traced all the way back to Adam? Expulsion from the Garden... The so-called Fall... Hurt and humiliation... Rejection...The Extermination Program... Revenge! We shall annihilate God's bloody Garden and replace it with one of our own making: 100% synthetic, air-conditioned, designer-landscaped at budget-boggling expense. And this time... NO SNAKES!

And no one can ever expel us from it - because we hold the title deeds. (Our lawyers have been working on it since Hammurabi established the Legal Code.) Show me your Secret Handshake, Boys. Long live the Plutocracy of Patriarchal Panjandrums!

The longer I live out here in the Wilderness, the more clearly I can see where my Shadow Self has been hiding. Fame and Fortune. Power and Prestige. Don't worry, we have everything under control. The land has been assessed, the property valuated, and soon it will be converted into Real Estate...

ONE SUNNY DAY beneath a clear blue sky, I sat on a rock, feet immersed in the fast-flowing, healing waters of my favorite river. (A rock of some distinction, I might add: a veritable Throne of Stone I had fondly named Le Fauteuil du Diable or Armchair of the Devil, after an obscure landmark in the south of France.) I was particularly receptive that afternoon, thanks to the lovely cup of black tea I had just imbibed. For the record, it was Boh tea - laced with the juice of freshly-picked sacred mushrooms (ritually used by shamans as a catalyst to enhanced awareness).

Soon I could feel my ego membrane dilate and my perceptual range ballooning out to include everything around me. I was now an integral part of the scene, a protean/protein extension of the Devil's Armchair. Indeed, I was the embodiment of the nature deity some call Pan. I became acutely aware of the ferns on the opposite bank of the river. It was like sitting in the center of a natural amphitheater. I nodded in acknowledgement of the ferns, and a gentle breeze rippled through them, making them wave courteously back in greeting.

We began to converse telepathically... and suddenly it wasn't just the ferns that were present. I found myself plugged into Nature's own Etheric Web and participating in a symposium conducted with multiple-channel, multi-dimensional, interactive hook-ups. The experience was sublimely insightful and uplifting, though very difficult to report in logical, linear terms. Let's say it is delightfully liberating not to be trapped in one's “skin-encapsulated ego” (as Alan Watts, my favorite rascal philosopher, once put it).

“Individuality” was the key issue. Neither ferns, nor rocks, nor fish, nor birds, nor worms, nor the wind and water dancing ceaselessly in rainbow spirals through cycles large and small, had any notion of being separate, discretely defined individuals. Only humans were blessed, or cursed, with this strange condition called Me-hood.

As such, we are perceived by Nature as an Ecosystemic Virus. But what exactly is a “virus”? A crystallized thought-form: a restructuring agent with the power to mutate and transmute and permute - in creative as well as destructive modes. Anabolic, catabolic... and now, with access to the 64 codons of the Genetic Code, we could wipe out eons of cellular memory with a mere toss of yarrow stalks, or the click of a mouse, or the flick of a balance sheet...

“No way!” the goddess Gaia spoke, her voice a gentle breeze on my goosebumpy skin. “I need you to plant the kiss of True Love on my lips, to wake me from my evolutionary slumber. You are the reflection of my spirit, the mirror of my beauty. I need you around to admire and adore me, and help me ascend to true Stardom.”

“Me?” I momentarily transformed myself into Robert De Niro (a pretty remarkable shapeshifter himself). “You talking to me?”

“Not you as a manufactured personality, silly. I mean YOU as a species. You, Human, are the completion of my neural circuitry, the quintessence of all kingdoms - mineral, vegetable, animal, angelic, and demonic. When wholly human, you are godlike.”

So what is God like?

IT DOESN’T REQUIRE very much. All we need to do is change our perspective, unify our polarities, shift our paradigms, reverse our priorities.

The untidy bits of plastic and styrofoam and rusty metal we can clear up and recycle in a jiffy. No problem.

Noxious gases and toxic wastes are a measure of the ethical and aesthetical inadequacies of those who produce them. Treatment is available for anyone who seeks it - and it's quite painless. Confidentiality assured. JUST TURN IN YOUR ARMAMENTS AT THE DOOR. No one will be punished.

And we'll introduce you to a bacterium that will devour all the pollutants and die of bliss. Or a new breed of super-yogis and wizards who can stuff industrial gunk in their corncobs and transmute it into multi-colored smoke-rings of divine incense (all the while cracking lewd leprechaun jokes).

Trees we may respectfully remove from the forests according to need (and our need will dramatically decrease when we discover that quality paper products can be obtained from swift-growing species of hemp and other fibrous weeds) - but we shall have to use heavy-duty tweezers, not bulldozers.

And the extraction of non-renewable resources will have to be supervised by independently funded ecoscientists - not the chief minister's sister-in-law (unless, of course, she happens to be a true-blue Greenie).

And the Orang Asli will let us introduce them to the joys of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic - if we open our hearts to their spontaneous songs of freedom, and their genetic memory of Heaven on Earth... not in the Hereafter.

[Originally published in The SUN Megazine, 28 October 1994; expanded draft published in Men’s Review, April 1996. First posted 4 January 2016, reposted
21 October 2019]