Last fall, Lye Tuck-Po launched a new blog in which she sometimes reports recollections of her anthropological field work among the Batek. On Sunday this week she posted an interesting story about a week 12 years ago when she camped with a Batek band on a high ridge along the spine of the Malay Peninsula.
She moved with her host families to the top of the Bumekel Ridge on January 8, 1996, to accompany them while they collected rattan. Most of the Batek had never camped there before, and it was not the most comfortable place to live, even briefly. There was no water nearby—if the author wanted to bathe, she had to scramble down a very long slope to the nearest trickle. Mostly, people used water from springs they encountered during their wanderings in what was left of the forest.
Many of the trees had been logged off some time before, so the redeeming feature of the campsite for Dr. Lye was that she could awaken at dawn and watch the sun come up over the distant ridges, an unusual experience for forest dwellers, where sunrise comes slowly and softly, filtering ever more strongly into the woods until full daylight. She admits to even getting up one day before everyone else, just to walk out into the clearing and see the daylight views emerging.
Lye describes the ways the people adapted to the somewhat unfamiliar, ridgetop, environment. In most of the Batek camps, people come and go, but Bumekel Ridge was so isolated that there was only one visitor during the week they stayed there.
In the evenings after the work of the day was done, while the women sat around casually watching their children playing nearby, they would talk, reminisce, and remark about particular places they could see in the landscape. Although the author could only see forested (and deforested) ridges into the distance, the Batek would see stories and images of past adventures and events.
Lye writes evocatively of the scene. “Where I could see nothing but an expanse of forest and a distant line of low hills, they could reach back to images of past travels, past campsites, past adventures, favourite rivers, former landscapes.” It was obviously a good time and place for the young anthropologist to learn more about the Batek worldview.
She writes that, so far as she is aware, the Batek have never gone back to that ridge, and to judge by satellite imagery, it appears to her as if they never will. The ridge has been converted to an oil palm plantation.