Arresting metaphors enrich a Batek shaman’s views of nature: “Our Souls Live upon the Trees. The forest is the veins and tendons of our lives.”
Lye Tuck-Po, in her new book Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia, describes a lengthy discourse one evening by a Batek shaman whom she calls “Tebu.” His comments, which he clearly hoped the anthropologist would spread to a wider audience, are poetic, eloquent, and profoundly important for understanding the Batek—and, more broadly, the human—dependence on the natural environment. Lye uses his comments as the springboard for her discussion of the Batek relationship with their forest.
Tebu describes the Malay practice of converting the forest into a monoculture of oil palm plantations: “they kill the world.” He adds, “we miss the times of peace. We remember, we miss. We show how.” The healthy environment of the past, he seems to be saying, fostered a state of peace. Furthermore, the Batek, with their continuing ability to live nonviolently in their forests, can show the vastly larger surrounding societies how to live peacefully.
Lye builds upon the Tebu speech, and her own recent observations, to develop an effective analysis of the Batek and their forest world. Many of the Batek patterns described earlier by Kirk and Karen Endicott remain quite valid: the Batek people still tend to retreat into the forest when they feel threatened by potential enemies, such as outside villagers and government agents. The forest is still a refuge that allows them to return to their freedom; it provides a venue for them to withdraw from others as a way of resolving conflicts.
The Batek and the Malay concepts of forest differ. For instance, Batek words for “lean-to” and “house” have very different meanings. Lean-tos are up-river, homes in the forest where Batek live. Houses are downriver where Malay slave raiders use to live. Houses are to be feared as symbols of negative associations and, frequently, misplaced trust. The Malay people clear the land in and around their villages so everything can be neat and ordered, with the forest kept as a boundary in the background. The Batek camps are in the forest, with only patches of vegetation “folded back” (Lye’s term) to make room for their lean-tos. With the lean-tos open on three sides, a Batek person steps out of the dwelling directly into the forest. There is no attempt to clean up the natural environment.
The Batek certainly have closer relations with the forest than they do with outsiders. Until about 100 years ago, Malay slave raiders came up the rivers and decimated their communities. Batek caution towards outsiders, even today, is understandable. While the Batek usually avoided confrontations in the past, Lye says that they “were capable of aggression,” (p.101), though she doesn’t provide further details.
Batek fear of outsiders persisted through the 1960s. They would flee settlements along the rivers at the sound of an approaching motorboat. These attitudes persist: they socialize their children to conflate fears of strangers with their fear of tigers. While barriers and suspicions are gradually diminishing in communities where Batek and Malays live close to one another, the Batek realize that they are always the subordinate people. Periodically tensions will flare up, particularly when the Muslim Malays become intolerant of the animist beliefs of their neighbors, who continue to resist converting to Islam.
Lye explains how the Batek prevent overcrowding and competition for forest resources by spreading out along the different tributaries of the rivers. They discuss their plans for future group movements with relatives among different foraging groups, so everyone is aware of the intentions of others and people can minimize competition for forest resources.
Peace, to the Batek, also means the absence of noise. They are attuned to forest sounds, which may carry signals of danger, so they habitually prefer a quiet environment. If they are congregating in a large group, many people will erect lean-tos off by themselves in the forest a distance away from others, so the dense surrounding vegetation will muffle sounds. Those living in the group campsites will individually leave in the daytime just to find solitude and quiet. Some adults even have a hard time talking with visitors, such as an anthropologist, if their own children are making a lot of noise nearby.
The author, who grew up in Malaysia, lives not too far from the forests of the Batek. She supplements her formal fieldwork nearly a decade ago with frequent return visits to see her friends. Thus, one of the virtues of this book is that it is based on very recent information. Many Batek continue living nomadically in forest camps, hunting and gathering in traditional fashions, and cherishing their peaceful relationships with the forest and each other. While they are very clearly aware of the material culture in the Malay villages that surrounds their forests, they prefer their hunting and gathering lifestyle. Changes continue to occur in Batek society, of course, but this book reassures us that much of the peaceful forest culture of the Batek persists.
This gracefully written, scholarly book deserves a wide readership. Lye’s sensitive, thoughtful analysis of one small society has implications for anyone concerned about human disregard for the environment or for peaceful human relationships. The author has quite effectively lived up to the expectations that the shaman Tebu placed on her. The pathways that she describes for forest life, for environmental sanity, and for peaceful coexistence should entice us all. The major pity is that the publisher is selling the book at a price that will be beyond the means of most private book buyers or libraries. Otherwise, it is a wonderful work.
Lye, Tuck-Po. Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia. New York: Lexington Books, 2004. $80.00. (Note that some sources list Dr. Lye’s surname incorrectly as “Tuck-Po.”)