Penans and global experts testify that trees in a Borneo rainforest have spirits and merit legal protection. The second installment in a five-part story.
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Then Ledong sought to establish that the Penans lived in harmony with the forest, how their livelihood depended on the forest and how they only took what they needed.
Ledong put three Penans on the stand. They weren’t the dayong who would later commune with spirits, but ordinary folks, who Ledong hoped would explain what their daily life was like.
It was the “noble savage” argument of countless conservation presentations.
Unfortunately, the Penans were not the best witnesses. At the best of times they had difficulty in explaining their customs, termed molong, which characterized their relationship with the forest. Ledong asked them simple questions to elucidate how the forest provided them with food, medicine, shelter and spiritual sustenance.
Despite Ledong’s coaching, it didn’t go well. The Penans answered in monosyllables. They were intimidated by the formal courtroom setting and exhausted by the strange food, smells and noises of the city.
* * *
Ledong asked for a break.
He had anticipated that the Penans would need support, so he called on five foreign expert witnesses. These men and women were prominent Singaporean, Indonesian, Japanese, British and German ethnographers and anthropologists. They had written books about how the Penans lived. They had spent years with the Penans documenting their customs, myths and cosmology.
This part of the trial got off to a hesitant start with the testimony of Herr Doctor Doctor Professor Helmut Friedrich von Bulow.
When asked by what criteria the German professor with two PhDs considered himself an “expert witnesses,” the scholar reviewed the dynamics of his academic specialty: Contra disciplinary solipsism. Ontology as an example of a “toss and turn” dynamic that succeeds interpretive, postmodern, cultural materialist, componential analytic, structural-functional, historical particularist and unilinear evolutionary turns.
“It’s an easy question,” Judge Aithihyamala said. “Where did you study? Did you live with the Penans? Did you write books? Do you teach?”
Judge Aithihyamala, along with his four colleagues who were sharing his burden of judging the case, was eager for lunch. He told the expert to get on with it.
Heedless of his scolding, the European offered views on the varying importance of describing the Penan situation: Animistic, totemistic, analogistic and naturistic modes of relating to the environment. And through it all, the defense lawyers smirked.
Multi-syllabic jargon flew like debris during a tornado.
Charging like a determined rhino, von Bulow continued: The Penan situation is affected by the biogenetic structuralism that accounts for the structure of experience. You might know it as the phenomenological “reduction” in the Husserlian sense.
One of the defense lawyers leapt to his feet. Objection. The witness is addressing the court as if we are children.
“I will determine the intelligence level of the court,” Judge Aithihyamala replied. Then he addressed the witness. “And your point is?”
I will make it simple. There is a liminal warp that mediates two cognized steps of experience – if you would like a simple analogy, consider it a doorway through which various forms of consciousness move from one room to another. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Of course, a defense lawyer said under her breath.
There are, as you are aware, four agents of warps, often to the point of evanescence. For example, the warp between the waking phase and the dream phase …
* * *
To Ledong’s relief, after a lunch break (spaghetti bolognaise for Judge Aithihyamala, Hainanese chicken rice for the Penans), the four experts who followed were easier to understand and their presentation style more welcoming.
Ledong asked the British academic expert to describe the Penans’ perceptions of nature and their perceived place in the natural order of things. Life flow, life force. Acculturation. The inversion of the material world with that of the spirit world.
“Can you summarize in simple English?” asked an exasperated and tired Judge Aithihyamala.
The anthropologist did her best. The Penans had a complex and inter-dependent relationship with the natural world. They were not “conquerors” of nature, but part of the whole. They follow numerous explicit behaviors so as not to antagonize the spirits of the forests, including specific tree spirits.
“Thank you,” a relieved Judge Aithihyamala said. “Wish you had said that earlier. Could have saved us quite a bit of energy.”
* * *
Ledong saw the judges were getting tired, and he hoped his other expert witnesses were competent communicators.
According to the Indonesian expert witness: The Penans use their resources sustainably. They call that behavior minut. The spirits insist that people are gentle when dealing with nature. Otherwise bad things will happen to wrong-doers.
Not for the first time, one of the defense lawyers jumped up and shouted, just as he had learned to do by watching American courtroom dramas on TV. Objection your honor! Hearsay! Unreliable witness!
Samuel Aithihyamala generally overruled such objections.
(To read the third installment of “Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court,” click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include “An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles,” “Distant Greens,” “Curious Encounters of the Human Kind,” “Redheads,” “Share Your Journey” and “Soul of the Tiger” (with Jeff McNeely). This story is excerpted from “Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia,” which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in early 2018. The author can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.