Encountering the Wild in the Trobriand Islands

It never occurred to me to go to Papua New Guinea. I wanted to go to Paris. I was in love with the world of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. However during a demonstration in Sydney in support of the Gurindji people who had claimed the right to live on their own land, I met and fell in love with a beautiful fellow university student from the Trobriand Islands of PNG. It was through my encounter with Trobriand Island culture, made famous in the West through the works of Stanislaw Malinowski, one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Anthropology, in his The Sexual Life of Savages and Argonauts of the Western Pacific, that I first encountered a sense of the ‘wild’ in all its forms.

When we visited my future husband’s family in Port Moresby, his father, Tomwagalisu invited us to fly to the Trobriand Islands to stay at their family home of bush material at Losuia on Kiriwana Island. My boyfriend quietly informed me that the wife of the headman who was living in the house was a well-known witch, but I noted with bemusement that this did not seem to alter the way people related to her. The next day we went with his father, the local MP for the Trobriand Islands, to a land dispute hearing in another village. I was not only the only white person there, I was also the only woman. I found myself surrounded by men dressed traditionally with a pandanas palm loin cloth, woven arm bands decorated with perfumed flowers, their lithe brown bodies gleaming with coconut oil, decorated carved combs in their hair, and wearing shell necklaces and earrings. It was the most breathtaking display of male beauty that I have ever encountered. My boyfriend warned me not to make eye contact with anyone or they would take that as an invitation to go off into the jungle for a sexual encounter. When one approached me, offering coconut juice from a sliced fresh coconut, both my boyfriend and his father looked at me mischievously, saying: “Watch out Barbara, he is waiting for you.”

Despite clinging desperately to my ideas of ‘objective fact’, I gradually learned that I was ‘heavy’ to things that were clear to the eyes and ears of my Trobriand in-laws. It is a world where the canoe builder not only has to know what sort of wood to build a canoe from, but he has to employ the skills of a garden magician to ask permission of the forest to remove such a tree. He must sing songs of enchantment to the log as it is carried to the lagoon foreshore for the carving, telling it of its future life mastering the wild seas of the ocean during the journey of Kula Trading that connect islands across the whole archipelago. It also requires the services of the canoe magician during the carving of the beautiful canoe prow. In this way the experience of making a canoe is not only an exercise in the material skills of canoe building, but it is also an experience of communion with the natural world.

I remember vividly the time I attended a mourning ceremony at the home of my husband’s cousin, a doctor at Port Moresby hospital who lived in a house in the hospital grounds. Another cousin had been involved in a dispute with his wife over betal nut, a mildly addictive narcotic chewed by one and all. In the course of the dispute, which became physical, she collapsed and later died of a burst spleen already swollen from malaria. With such a death, the relatives of the in-laws must cry demonstrably to show their sorrow, while the relatives of the injured person bring food to feed those who cry. At the house we went inside to cry with the now bereaved husband who sat with his two children. Afterwards we gathered with relatives outside. Suddenly an older woman started talking in a strange voice. Everyone was silent, then started talking excitedly. I asked my husband what had happened. He said she was talking in the dead woman’s voice saying: “Do not blame my husband Dargi. It was not his kick that killed me. The betal nut was poisoned”.   Then everyone remembered that the pilot who had bought the betal nut across from the Trobriand Islands was the son of a woman who was famed for her witchcraft skills. This then caused them all to discuss a major land conflict between two clans. I said to my husband, “Of course it was his kick that killed her. Ask your cousin the doctor.”

But here I saw the conflict between my cultural norms of cause, effect and blame, and the higher cultural requirement in Trobriand Island culture to re-knit the fabric of relationships that hold the society together. Death is common in a land of high levels of malaria and minimal health services. No death is regarded as ever purely accidental. Even when you can explain its material cause, there is always the question, ‘Why that person?’ Causes are found in breakages in the network of relationships that maintain the society. Each death requires several ceremonies of gift exchange to reknit this fabric. Nearly every weekend in Port Moresby I would find myself accompanying my husband to a mourning ceremony and participating in this gift exchange process that involved food, clothing, household goods and ceremonial goods.

Some year later after separating from my husband and living back in Sydney, I was visiting the Melanesian Collection in the Australian Museum with my two small children. As I wandered through the section with artefacts from the Trobriand Islands and Amphlett Islands, I found my mind drifting back to a wild canoe journey in an outrigger canoe, powered by a small outboard motor that had taken a group of us back from the southern Vakuta Island to the district capital, Lousia. As we approached the channel that separated Vakuta from Kiriwina Island, a storm was approaching rapidly from the east, full of lightening, thunder and wind, as rain began to fall. My father-in-law, Tomwagalisu, bare -chested in his tattered shorts, stood defiantly at the prow and shouted magic incantations to ward off the storm. My mother-in-law sat serenely nursing my two-year old son. The rest of us bailed water furiously as we pulled across to take shelter at Gilibwa Village.

Caught in these memories, suddenly strong waves of energy seemed to pour out from the artifacts in their glass cages—the beautiful clay pots of the Amphletts, the carved canoe prows of the Kula outrigger canoes—through me. The foundations of my materialist worldview shattered, and I felt myself drawn into what I called the epistemological abyss. What did knowing mean? I could no longer pay attention at my day job in the not-for-profit sector. I felt as if a door had opened in my mind and one that I must walk through. I quit my job and went to live in a house in the rain forest on the Illawarra escarpment at Stanwell Park with commanding views out over the ocean, and began my journey into the mystery of knowing.

All those years ago, when Tomwagalisu had teased me saying, “You Europeans are heavy to these things”, I realised that indeed I had been heavy to them. That my Trobriand Island family saw and heard things that I could not—that reality is indeed a cognitive construction, shaped by our cultural conditioning. We live in perceptual bubbles and yet we assume what we see, hear and feel is objectively ‘real’, the same for everyone.

Encountering the wild is to know that the objectively real world of materialist science is but one turn of the kaleidoscope. Yet the power of its prism, which it has exported to the world through its science and technology, now confronts us with its dark side. Building on the Greek inheritance, the philosophy of Descartes that underpinned the mechanical world of Newtonian science created a dualistic worldview that pitched ‘man’ against ‘nature’; human versus animal; pure reason of the mind against impure bodily functions; morality against sexual energies; reason against emotion and feeling; man against woman; the civilised against the native. This is the other side of Western Civilisation and the Enlightenment.

The natural world, and humanity itself, became subject to an instrumental rationality whereby the ends (knowledge and/or material benefits) justified whatever means could be harnessed to the task. Already presaged in human slavery, this distortion reached its apogee in the scientific experiments carried out by German doctors on Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps and similarly by Japanese doctors on their prisoners in the Manchurian prisons. The taboo that hitherto separated animals from humans was crossed—humans who were not ‘one of us’ had joined the lab rats.

As the environmental philosopher, Freya Mathews, notes:

the separation of active, world-constructing subject from the merely acted-upon, constructed object, is the origin of the famous mind/body or mind/matter dualism that has systematically inflected Western thought.

She suggests that the bifurcation of the world into subject/object or mind/body will implicitly block any outlook, which attributes subjectivity, agency, mentality, purpose or presence to the world at large. The sensibilities of animism that attribute spirit to the natural world was therefore banished as utter nonsense, surviving only in children’s stories. Animals became food to be subject to scientific productivity measures, ultimately resulting in the intensive factory farming of animals, pets to be protected as extension of their human owners, or vermin to be eradicated. The Earth, once our ‘mother’ became a thing to be probed and analysed, its resources exploited for human benefit in an endless quest to increase the material comforts of the human population in the name of economic growth and progress. The extractive mining industries (oil, gas, coal, gold, copper, iron ore) became the source of some of the most powerful economic and political interests across the world.

As a result, so pervasive has the impact of the human population been on the planet Earth and all its creatures and resources that scientists have declared that we are entering a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Since the advent of agriculture, followed by the industrial revolution, there has been an accelerating impact on the Earth systems resulting in the present cascading events of global warming and climate change, mass species extinctions and major threats to water and soil resources across the planet. These in turn are having socio-political consequences, which include increased armed conflict and desertification resulting in mass human migration from the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. The UNHCR estimates that in 2017 an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 asylum seekers, over half of whom are under 18 years of age. The result has been increasing border protection policies by the rich countries in Europe, North America and Australia and increasing levels of religious and ethnic discrimination impacting displaced persons. Rising ocean levels threatening to inundate low lying coastal areas and islands will significantly exacerbate these trends.

For some the solution lies in a reliance on the ‘tech-fix’—technologically sophisticated mega cities. Or it is the dream of defeating death through the constant extension of human life and the possibility of transhumanism (the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology). Another dream is defeating time and space, by facilitating time travel, and conquering the limitations of Earth by colonising the planets in our solar system, or at the very least, exploiting them for how they might enrich us.

For others the Anthropocene requires a change in consciousness. It requires a reconnection to the ancient sense of inter-being with the natural world, a lived visceral sensibility that we are part of the Earth’s complex life-giving systems, not a technological master-species. The sciences of ecology have already told us what is required. The sciences of complexity and quantum physics already tell us that the dualistic instrumental rationality of the Euro-American philosophical tradition is profoundly out of step with how the world actually works. But so much of this science is powerless against the political and economic interests that are shaping our world. Only a bottom up change in human consciousness has the subversive power to help us change gear.

This is why I have become a member of the Wild Mountain Collective, joining with a group of people who wish to explore a different ethos for how we might relate to the natural world around us, and to one another—though the rich variety of the creative arts.