Thursday, 2nd July 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Why Travel Far?

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Alfred Russel Wallace, Articles

Why Travel Far?

Wallace’s rite of passage and the teenage imperative

BATANG AI, Sarawak, Malaysia

Why travel far (and treacherously), leaving behind comfort, friends and security?

This question turned in my mind as I looked for orangutans while following the trail of Alfred Russel Wallace, who travelled some 22,400 kilometers in the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862.  He made some 90 distinct camps, most of the time in inhospitable jungle clearings.  He was not mobile – he usually needed at least 13 men to dismantle and carry his camp to the next location. Why did Wallace put up with bedbugs and alienation and tropical sores and upset stomachs and frustration and poverty and loneliness and malnutrition and leaky boats and thunderstorms and risk of drowning and malaria?  Why travel far?

I asked Peter Kedit, director of the Sarawak Museum (which was constructed at the suggestion of Wallace), whether Wallace’s odyssey was comparable to the concept of berjalai among the Iban tribe, the rite-of-passage for young men which in previous generations often ended with the taking of a human head.  Kedit, an Iban, thought Wallace’s drive was more attuned to a combination of English drives: the Protestant work ethic, missionary zeal, socialistic tendencies.

I’m not so sure.

I stood on a ridge near the border between Malaysian Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan in Borneo.  I had been gone half the day and had not brought food.  Time to return to camp, a damp grouping of leaky impromptu shelters made out of saplings, leaves and a few scraps of plastic fashioned by Iban tribesmen who obliged me in my desire to sleep rough. But then I got distracted.  “What happens if I go down there instead?” I asked myself, heading towards a steep, trackless hill that my instincts told me would eventually connect to a tributary of my campsite river.

So I scampered, glided, bounced, scrunched and thoroughly dirtied myself down the side of the mountain, finally reaching a meter-wide stream and a series of ridiculously-pretty, pristine small waterfalls, which I slid down, with otter-like joy, but without otter-like grace.  Chasing waterfalls.  I was making no contribution to humanity in doing so, but I was fulfilling one of my basic needs — to get away from the crowd.

Alfred Russel Wallace said that the reason he went to Asia was because of his “vocation” as a collector and naturalist.  I suspect he was driven to leave England, first for the Amazon, then to Southeast Asia.  He argued that he was in it for the money, but reading between the lines of a letter he wrote while in Indonesia to his friend George Silk back in England, I sense a passion, a drive:

Besides these weighty reasons [for my staying in Southeast Asia] there are others quite as powerful — pecuniary ones.  I have not yet made enough to live upon, and I am likely to make it quicker here than I could in England.  In England there is only one way in which I could live, by returning to my old profession of land-surveying.  Now, though I always liked surveying, I like collecting better, and I could never now give my whole mind to any work apart from the study to which I have devoted my life.  So far from being angry at being called an enthusiast (as you seem to suppose), it is my pride and glory to be worthy to be so called.  Who ever did anything good or great who was not an enthusiast?  The majority of mankind are enthusiasts only in one thing — in money-getting; and these call others enthusiasts as a term of reproach because they think there is something in the world better than money-getting.  It strikes me that the power or capability of a man in getting rich is in inverse proportion to his reflective powers and in direct proportion to his impudence.  It is perhaps good to be rich, but not to get rich, or to be always trying to get rich, and few men are less fitted to get rich, if they did try, than myself.” [italics Wallace’s]

Wallace left something unsaid.  I think it is this:  by leaving home and going off to the distant corners of the world, Wallace put down a marker.  Wallace announced to his friends and family that when he returns, he will have been changed.  It is a desire to move towards individualization.  He left and did exciting things that our left-behind friends can only dream about; they stayed and worked in the post office.  Think of Kipling:  “All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world — those that stay at home and those that do not.”

Anthropologist Robert Sapolsky discussed exile in the context of young male primates leaving the nest. “Another key to our success must have something to do with this voluntary transfer process” he wrote, “this primate legacy of getting an itch around adolescence.  How did voluntary dispersal evolve?  What is going on with that individual’s genes, hormones, and neuro-transmitters to make it hit the road?  We don’t know, but we do know that following this urge is one of the most resonantly primate of acts.  A young male baboon stands riveted at the river’s edge; an adolescent female chimp cranes to catch a glimpse of the chimps from the next valley.  New animals, a whole bunch of ’em!  To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in your stomach.  Curiosity, excitement, adventure-the hunger for novelty is something fundamentally daft, rash, and enriching that we share with our whole taxonomic order.”

Although it is risky to attribute motivation to another person, particularly a dead explorer, Wallace travelled, in part, to prove himself.

After spending four years in the Amazon and collecting thousands of animal, bird fish and insect specimens which were going to make a substantial amount of money and help him establish his name in Britain’s rarefied scientific community, Wallace lost much of the priceless collection when the brig on which he was returning to England caught fire and sank 1,100 km east of Bermuda.   As the ship foundered Wallace managed to grab a few notebooks and his watch, and then spent a painful ten-days aboard a lifeboat waiting for rescue.

Amazingly, with few notes and with about 1,200 specimens which had been sent earlier, within ten months of his return Wallace still managed to write two books on his travels.  One volume, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, gave hin a foothold in the literary world while the other, Palm Trees of the Amazon, helped establish him in the scientific community.

Although Wallace hated sea voyages, he quickly made plans for an even more ambitious trip to Southeast Asia.  Would he have gone on that epic journey if his Amazon collection and documentation had arrived safely in England?  Perhaps he would have earned his stripes as a serious and effective researcher, and like Charles Darwin, whose only foreign trip was the voyage of the Beagle, Wallace could have stayed in England for the rest of his life, writing books from the comfort of his study.

But something forced Wallace to get back on the horse after he had been thrown.  Only then could he return a hero.  His Amazon “failure”, as he described it, must have caused him great turmoil, reflecting what Nietzsche said: “You must have a chaos inside you to give rise to a dancing star.”

* * * * *

People collect matchbooks, stamps and phone cards. They collect numbers on locomotives and first edition books. They collect rare Greek vases and beer mats and countless other things.

As a boy I collected rocks – I preferred the gaudy quartz varieties which shone with color and mystery.  I collected insects. I collected baseball cards and comic books.  I collected Roman coins.  None of this is exceptional.  Of all those collections the only thing that has remained is my collection of ancient Roman coins. I was a bit of a nerd – the first article I ever published, at age 15, was about these old Roman denari.  Imagine, I thought, somebody 2,000 years ago used this coin to buy lunch, or rent a donkey, or pay off a bet.

Collecting gets interesting, at least from the psychological angle, when it becomes obsessive, when a person’s entire life is taken over by, say, Elvis Presley memorabilia, or Star Wars toys, or golf balls with logos of famous courses.

Sigmund Freud, himself an avid and sophisticated collector of classical, Egyptian, oriental, near-Eastern and South American antiquities, suggested that collecting with great intensity was an outlet for a frustrated libido.

But Freud, who was born while Wallace was in the middle of his Asian trip, recognized that collecting couldn’t be dismissed easily.  “The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures,” he wrote.

Janine Burke, author of The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection, observes that a person’s collection can reveal hidden personality traits. “The popular image of Freud as austere, remote and forbidding is contracted by the collection,” she wrote, “which reveals a very different personality: an impulsive, hedonistic spender, an informed and finicky aesthete, a tomb raider complicit in the often illegal trade in antiquities, a tourist who revelled in sensual, Mediterranean journeys, a generous fellow who lavished excuquisite gifts on his family and friends, and a tough negotiator for a bargain. [Freud’s] own therapy was shopping. Arranging choice items on his desk, Freud confessed to Carl Gustav Jung, ‘I must always have an object to love.’”

Wallace’s collecting — part financial, part scientific, perhaps part “love-object”, made sense to him.  But it caused much bemusement on the part of the local people who sold him specimens.  What did the strange, gangly Englishman do with all those butterflies and birds? What possible use could he have of a spider or beetle? He was a white man, after all, whose civilization produced bright textiles, iron machines, glass bottles and printed books.  Wallace would be watched with amusement by local folks as he went about his taxidermy, his mounting of specimens, his never-ending safeguarding against ants. Wallace wrote that one old Dyak man said to him: “They all come to life again, don’t they?”  Wallace answered with a joke, but the old man was convinced that Wallace was a magician, a sorceror, a dukun. The only possible use for such a collection, the barely-clad man must have thought, was to use the dead creatures in a witches brew, a ceremony for the spirits.  But the old man didn’t care too much; after all, the crazy European had just paid him handsomely for a useless butterfly.

* * * * *

We modern boys and girls lack rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies where we clearly shift from childhood to adulthood.  Instead our life-passages are fuzzy.  Girls in western societies begin to menstruate many years before they are old enough to bear children in a socially-acceptable context.  Boys might be old enough to drive but not old enough to drink, old enough to kill/be killed in the army but not old enough to vote, old enough to father children but not old enough to leave school of their own volition.

Maybe Wallace’s butterfly-chasing and my waterfall slushing were aspects of our own modest rites of passage, rituals which we created ourselves because our society gave us few hints and forgot to stage a ceremony just for us.  We were denied the vigil in the desert, where we were expected to kill a lion, fast for three weeks, have a vision, return to the village to get circumsized, become cleansed in a sweat lodge and decorated with feathers and body paint and invited, finally, to eat with the grownups.

Wallace was not only dealing with physical transformations, of course. Through his work on island biogeography, anthropology and evolution he helped people re-think the structure of the world and our place in it.  And he sailed off on less serious tangents, exploring spirituality, mysticism and the supernatural.  He was a dreamer, but a rêveur who stood curious and straight, and accomplished large.

As T.E. Lawrence wrote:

All men dream: but not equally.

Those who dream by night in the dusty

recesses of their minds wake in the day

to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers

of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

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