My Journey to Borneo began with a feeling — a deep grief that through meditation and careful tending, I had allowed into my conscious mind. It had been underground for most of my life, like a dark river that ran into me through my indigenous, forest-dwelling ancestors. Then last year while on solitary retreat, I heard of the indigenous people of North America protesting the XL pipeline in the bitter cold; read of the standoff between rainforest tribes and the companies that came to take their homes; and saw the photo of a weeping Brazilian chief whose ancestral forest was to be flooded for a dam. My heart broke open into a howl, and then a profound, tender grief. I couldn’t just sit by myself and meditate anymore. I felt a deep, visceral need to do something — anything — to help.
A few months later, that feeling led me to a panel discussion about Indonesian forests at a 2014 writers conference in Bali. On that panel, I heard an unusual voice for such a setting: clear, humble and introspective. Ruwi spoke not of statistics and stakeholders and tactics, but of his adopted Dayak family in Muara Tae, Borneo, whose ancestral forest was being illegally bulldozed for palm oil.
He spoke with such compassion and respect for all involved that I was moved to tears. When the moderator asked him “Who is to blame?” his answer was: Not the government or the palm oil companies, but the greed in my own heart that wants more comfort and new things. I felt a deep recognition when he said this, and under my breath whispered, Thank you.
After the conference, I immediately wrote Ruwi a heartfelt email. I was hungry to find some way to offer support not just to the Dayak tribe as they lost their forest, but to him as well. I felt such profound gratitude for his efforts on behalf of the forest and its guardians, and it troubled me to sense the deep sadness in him over what he saw as a failure. Together I thought we could find a way to turn this terrible situation into a life-affirming story rather than just another distant, depressing victim story. How we would do that, I had no idea, but I wanted to try.
We first met face-to-face when he ducked out of a retreat for environmentalists that he was attending to meet me outside of a temple in Bali. We sat on a platform in a leafy area to talk, and our conversation was urgent, full of hope. At one point, our wet eyes met in profound recognition and it was clear that we were feeling the same deep heartbreak.
Then he told me that the Dayak Benuaq tribe was in the process of deciding whether to give up on their last bit of ancestral forest and move. I felt it as a pain in my chest. I couldn’t stand that they would be alone with that terrible choice. It had to be shared – to be witnessed. However small this would be in the face of this loss, I wanted them to know that someone cared.
“Let’s go to Borneo,” I blurted out, and he immediately agreed.
After years of activism that included being held hostage and beaten by illegal loggers, he had received the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, but for Ruwi, it was an empty honor. The forests he had worked so hard to save were nearly gone. He had come to believe that only by connecting people in the industrial world personally to the indigenous people on the ground in these devastated areas could there be any hope of change, and asked this room full of writers for someone please to come forward and help build the bridge. I knew then that he was talking to me.
I have long lived with a haunted sense of exile and displacement that I attribute to my own ancestral loss of forest. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Menominee Tribe in central Wisconsin, who lost all but a small portion of their forest and then had their culture devastated by tactics meant to assimilate them. My grandmother was one casualty, taken from her family at age 10 and put in a compulsory boarding school where the children were brutally punished for speaking Menominee. My paternal grandmother’s family immigrated to the US from a tiny village in Alsace, Germany, fleeing war and the economic difficulties that resulted when their forest was taken from them in a similar vein to the Menominee and the Dayak. Undoubtedly, my visceral pain over the loss of forest and land-based culture is connected to these ancestral traumas.
Eight weeks later, we were in a taxi, driving 11 hours from the Balikpapan airport through miles and miles of degraded forest to Muara Tae, where much of the forest had been freshly clearcut and planted with scrubby little palm oil trees despite the unified objection of the tribe, who have been tending these forests since ancient times. Ruwi had been adopted into the family of Asuy and Layain, who were leaders in the village, and it was this deep familial love that he had spoken from at the conference which had touched my heart so deeply and sparked our connection. Now, we were all linked in friendship and in a common purpose to do what seemed impossible given the powerful forces at play: head off despair and preserve what little remained of the forest.
We sat on benches around the wooden table in the kitchen of Asuy’s house and with Ruwi translating, I learned about the vow ceremony that the elders said was the last real hope for the forest, where the shaky faith of the tribe could be renewed and balance restored by the ancestors. The 64-day ceremony would invite more than 1000 people from five villages, plus companies and government officials, to address disputes and iniquities, reconnecting all involved to their purpose of caring for the health of the forest and people. At stake was not just the life of the Dayak people and their homeland, but the balance of life on earth: The rainforest has been called the lungs of the planet and here was a fast-spreading tuberculosis of great concern to all of us — not just in Indonesia, but everywhere.
“What happens to Muara Tae happens to the world,” Asuy said.
I felt a chill at the truth of this statement, and it was clear to all of us that we had to somehow invite the world to join the ceremony, as traditionally, all concerned needed to be invited. While those of us living in the industrial world may not know anything of Muara Tae or other villages like it, we are nevertheless intimately connected to them. The trees that are fast being clearcut supply our oxygen, as the rainforest of Indonesia is the earth’s Eastern lung, second only in size to the Amazon. Our supply of packaged cookies, cleaning products and organic microwave popcorn comes from the palm oil now growing where the forest used to be. And our desire for the latest model smartphone or laptop requires ever more precious metals, and so companies scrambling for new sources of gold want to dig right under Muara Tae village to find it.
Together we decided to invite the industrial world to participate through the internet, asking for donations from participants around the world so that the tribe could afford the scale of ceremony needed to address the direness of the situation. In creating this open, virtual invitation, we would also be building a bridge between paradigms and cultures so that people in the industrial world could have a rare opportunity to learn from the Dayak the methods they have used to keep things in balance for many thousands of years. Tribal leaders hoped sharing the ceremony would inspire fresh, creative thinking so that together, we can find ways that work in current circumstances to keep us connected to one another and to our larger purpose as humans—to serve and nurture life.
The paradigm we live in — the one that makes bulldozers and mines — right now seems opposed to the indigenous way, but it doesn’t have to be. A creative inquiry into integrating the best of these world views holds great promise for the future of our forests and all of us beings who depend on them.