Wednesday, 24th July 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Exceptional Encounters

Posted on 31. Jan, 2018 by in Books

Exceptional Encounters
Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia

ISBN: 978-2-940573-29-5


Can an army of orangutan guerillas save the Indonesian rainforest? Why is China creating a retirement haven in the South China Sea for rich despots?  What happened when the descendant of the over-sexed first White Rajah of Borneo returned to claim his throne? Did Filipino “love sorcerers” help swing a U.S. election?  Can an American pilgrim find enlightenment through carnal escapades? How can Asia’s first “shaman university” repel attacks by rogue black-magic wizards?  And why is Indonesia’s Mermaid Queen really angry and not going to take it anymore?

Exceptional Encounters takes the seeds of true stories and applies the classic fiction-writer’s aerobic exercise by asking: What if?  These enhanced-reality fabulations draw the reader into tales of just over-the-rainbow Asian kindness, greed, ambition, passion, and dreams.


Critical Praise (some enhanced)


“One of those rare books where fact and fantasy first clash and then merge. Explosively delightful.”

Harry Rolnick, author of Spice Chronicles


“At turns outrageous, hilarious, thoughtful, and darkly satirical.  Once again, Sochaczewski has pushed the frontier of personal travel literature into a new dimension.”

Simon Lyster, chairman World Land Trust


“Sochaczewski has lifted an Oz-like curtain on the “factual” world of politics, business, and culture and given us insightful (and bitingly satirical) glimpses into a mischievous enhanced reality of Southeast Asia today.”

James Clad, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia Pacific Affairs


“A touch of George Orwell for our challenging times.”

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, explorer, author of Finding Eden


“Elevates germs of true events into memorable folklore leavened with bursts of tongue-in-cheek satire.”

Anthony Sebastian, former international chairman, Forest Stewardship Council


“Paul Sochaczewski is a Literary Shaman.”

Gavin Gough, international travel photographer


“Reminds me of the satire of Catch-22 combined with the insightful travel memoirs of Bill Bryson and Mark Twain.”

Benedict Allen, BBC presenter, author of Into the Crocodile’s Nest


“With a wry eye and a mischievous sense of humor, Sochaczewski smuggles literary contraband back and forth across the border between fact and fiction.”

Tim Hannigan, author of Raffles and the British Invasion of Java


“Sochaczewski has some Mozart in him — he makes the world a better, and more thoughtful, place.”

Jon Ferguson, author of Jesus and Mary


“Through Sochaczewski’s rich and distinctive style, the mysteries of Asia stand revealed, if not explained.  Great fun.”

Lawrence Blair, author of Ring of Fire


“Fairyland castles raised up on a solid bedrock of deep, personal experience of Southeast Asia.  They resonate scarily with the voice of prophecy.”

Nigel Barley, author of Snow Over Surabaya


“Story-telling alchemy.”

Lesley S. Pullen, art historian at SOAS, University of London


“The mysteries of Asia stand revealed, if not explained. Which is as it should be.”

Lawrence Blair, author of Ring of Fire: An Indonesia Odyssey

* * *

“Travel writing evolved to a new dimension, full of wit, insight, and take-no-prisoner fabulations.”

William Shakespeare, author of Titus Andronicus


“The reader enters a rabbit hole with visions of Asia that are based on fact but seen through a brilliantly diffused looking-glass.”

Alfred Russel Wallace, bug collector


“Exceptional Encounters rolls along like a runaway truck full of magic potions, scattering whimsy, acumen, and oft-hidden Asian truths along the way.”

Somerset Maugham, author, Of Human Bondage


“What wonderful stories.  Sex, violence, greed, ambition, and charisma.  They remind me of me!”

Sukarno, first president of Indonesia


“The Asian story-telling of Somerset Maugham, the satire of Joseph Heller, the reality check of Foreign Affairs, and the dark humor of Roald Dahl.”

Valmiki, author of the Ramayana


Sample Chapter


This chapter is excerpted from Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia. © Paul Spencer Sochaczewski 2018


Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court
Rainforest numina accuse the Malaysian government of crimes against nature.



“Your honor, I call our ethno-witnesses.” At a signal from Andrew Ajang Ledong twelve men and women stood, hesitatingly.

The chief justice, a bemused ethnic-Indian Malaysian named Samuel Aithihyamala, stared over his half-glasses at the plaintiff’s lawyer, Andrew Ajang Ledong, then at the large group of men and women who had just risen. “Just how many witnesses do you have, Mister Ledong?”

“One for each of the large old-growth trees in the Penan homeland,” Andrew Ledong answered. “We’re not sure of the precise number, but probably in the region of six thousand.”

“You’re planning to call approximately six thousand witnesses?”

“No, your honor.  That might challenge the patience of the court. I’ll keep the number down to a dozen.”

“The court appreciates your consideration, Mister Ledong.”

* * *

The witnesses for the plaintiff had Penan names, but they were not recorded by the court stenographer, a bored civil servant who was tired because she hadn’t been sleeping well – she was worried that her husband was cheating with their widow neighbor.  The stenographer described the defendants as “Penan witness A, male,” “Penan witness B, female,” and so on.  I did get their names, though: Katong, Ruth. Paya. Melang. Tingang. John.  Nari. Gisa. Aiau. Along. Jemal. And Sega. They were shamans, or dayong, who could heal and communicate with the spirits.  And they represented the Penans’ last hope to save their forest.

* * *

It was the toughest case of Andrew Ajang Ledong’s career.

Andrew Ledong is a member of the Kayan tribe, one of several indigenous ethnic groups that live in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. I was friends with his father, Avalon, a chief’s son who years earlier had hosted me in his longhouse on the upper reaches of the Rajang River.

Avalon was a keen secondary school student and I was an idealistic Peace Corps volunteer just out of university.

Avalon went on to have just one child, Andrew, and made sure the boy got a solid secondary school education at St. Thomas’s in Kuching, the Sarawak capital.  By virtue of his brains, friendliness, and financial help from a large environmental NGO, Andrew went to Washington, D.C. where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree at George Washington University. He was Sarawak’s first, and is still the state’s leading, human rights lawyer. For decades he has argued on behalf of indigenous Sarawakians who have had their lands confiscated by timber operators, who have had their traditional forests stolen by conglomerates wanting to plant oil palm, who have seen their Native Customary Rights ignored.

* * *

In Ledong’s case, “The rainforest of the Tutoh/Apoh/ Baram rivers ecosystem versus the Government of Malaysia, the Government of Sarawak, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Asia Pulp and Paper, Double Bintang Oil Palm Plantations Limited, and Numerous Local Officials,” his plaintiffs were the trees themselves, or, to be more precise, the spirits, or penakoh, that live in the trees.  According to the Penans, who were told so by their shamans, each large tree is inhabited by a specific spirit, described as a numen (plural: numina) by anthropologists. Each numen has a right to exist.  It was the numina that occupied the trees that would speak through Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang, and the seven others.

Ledong said that the trees should be granted juristic personhood by the court, just as corporations, governments, and ships at sea are also considered juristic persons, with inherent rights and responsibilities.

* * *

Such philosophical concepts are fine, but a legal case requires a specific plaintiff to claim that a specific crime has been committed by a specific defendant.

The crime, in this case, was considered a violation of the innate rights of nature, akin to a basic violation of human rights.

And the specific request? That the entire river catchment area of the Tutoh, Apoh, and upper Baram rivers be preserved for eternity and that application be made to UNESCO to designate the area a biosphere reserve in which the Penans and other resident indigenous groups would have freedom to live in the forest where they could cohabitate peacefully with the forest spirits found therein.

 * * *

The Penan dayong didn’t testify immediately.

First, Andrew Ledong presented the conservation problem.

He called on scientists, conservationists, and biologists who presented attractive charts and sobering films showing the extent of forest destruction related to oil palm cultivation.

Several of the scientists gave testimony heavy on numbers and statistics – the extent of river pollution and estimates of biodiversity loss. One researcher even tried a “numbers overload,” a conservationist’s tactic to overwhelm a listener with profuse and complicated statistics – he came up with a dozen different ways to present the statement “since I began my testimony rainforest half the size of Andorra has been destroyed.”

Some of the conservationists chose the emotional (some might say sanctimonious) approach.  One of the world’s last remaining rainforests is being destroyed! A rainforest one hundred million years old is being destroyed!  A crime against both humanity and nature!

Such testimony went on for a day, often interrupted by angry interjections by the defense lawyers.  That study has not been peer-reviewed! Conjecture! Emotional blackmail!

The witnesses shamelessly played on the heartstrings of the judges using poignant appeals that work so well with donors, by showing powerful photos of orangutans which had been hacked to death by oil palm farmers elsewhere in Borneo.

Objection your honor! There are no orangutans in the upper Baram.

“Poetic license,” Ledong replied.

“Sustained,” said a weary Judge Aithihyamala. “Stick with photos of dead animals from the region in question, Mister Ledong.”

* * *

Then Andrew 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.  In spite of 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 Munchausen.

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, Herr Doctor Doctor Professor Helmut Friedrich von Munchausen 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.

* * *

The trial continued; the experts testified another full day.

The Japanese ethnographer, a strong-willed but softly-spoken Japanese lady, offered dozens of examples of the competence and yes, the humanity, of the Penans. Trees bloom in response to the peacock’s song. Dozens of wild plants used for everything from curing hangovers to treating snake bite and upset stomach.  The Penans predict the time by the sound of the cicadas. They carve precision blowpipes from tropical hardwoods, and make a poison for their hunting darts from the sap of a forest vine. Deceased ancestors are buried in the forest so their spirits could take root as saplings.

Western idealization! The defense attorneys roared; they were, after all, paid high fees for defending the leaders of the nation. Paternalistic arrogance! Fear-mongering! Primitive folk superstitions!

Most tantalizing, was the comment by a Singaporean anthropologist: During important festivals shamans enter a “dream wandering” trance in which they speak a language only the gods can understand.

The audience listening to this testimony had no alternative but to feel that the modest Penans were Masters of the Rainforest.

* * *

The most touching testimony came when John, one of the Penan elders, who had the triple distinction of having received a secondary school education and who was both a Penan shaman as well as a lay Christian preacher, took fifteen minutes to explain how the forest featured in the Penan origin myth. The first man and woman, created from trees themselves, learned about sex by watching a branch from a tree entering a hole in a second tree during a storm.

* * *

Then came the time for Katong, Ruth. Paya. Melang. Tingang and the other Penan men and women to appear before the court. They were simple people. Ledong had wanted them to wear traditional dress, but the plaintiffs felt that they would be mocked in sophisticated Kuala Lumpur if the men wore loincloths and the women went bare-breasted. So they were dressed in ill-fitting western clothes – dark trousers and inexpensive batik shirts for the men, and dark skirts and equally bright batik shirts for the women. Their appearance was like rustics wearing their children’s school uniforms. They wore distinctive woven rattan caps decorated with large black and white rhinoceros hornbill feathers (an endangered species, but Ledong didn’t think anyone would notice). They couldn’t eliminate their tattoos, of course, and the men didn’t alter their hair styles, which featured a bowl cut in front and a narrow pony tail in back.

* * *

Ledong’s case depended on the testimony of Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tinggang and the others. Would the nature spirits cooperate?

The numina in this case were other-than-human entities that lived in large rainforest trees. These spirits were at the heart of Ledong’s case. He needed to prove three things – that the spirits existed, that they had a basic right to exist, and that they would cease to exist if the forest was destroyed.

* * *

Over the years Andrew Ajang Ledong fought the good fight on behalf of native peoples and their ancestral homes.  His first major case took place in 2001, when Chief Justice Lucas Chin of the Malaysian state of Sarawak decided on behalf of the Iban community of Rumah Nor in a land rights case.  Chin realized that his decision would be both criticized and much-cited, and he made the effort to explain the history proving that the Ibans had ownership of the land.  Chin started by analyzing historical tribal ownership patterns, then chronologically dissected the legal situation of indigenous land ownership under the Sultanate of Brunei, the rule of the three White Rajahs of Sarawak, the British colonial period, and finally under the Federation of Malaysia.

One of the defense’s arguments was that the Rumah Nor longhouse was virtually uninhabited. When I visited Rumah Nor, shortly after Justice Chin’s landmark decision, only a few old folks were in residence; the remainder of the people who gave Rumah Nor as their permanent address actually lived in the nearby city of Bintulu, where they were able to more easily find work in Bintulu’s huge liquefied natural gas complex.

There were other legal hurdles that Chin had to address. One was that Rumah Nor’s property boundaries were neither clearly defined nor mapped. Chin addressed this by accepting the plaintiff’s claim that oral tradition, coupled with natural markers (a stream, an old tree, a waterfall) could serve as legal proof of ownership.

Another problem was the defense’s interpretation of Malaysian law that stated that a community could only claim ownership of land if the land was used for farming. The Ibans of Rumah Nor, like the tribal communities in the rest of the state, generally practiced “static” farming only near the dwellings – fruit, vegetables, rubber. But much larger areas further afield were devoted to shifting cultivation to produce “dry rice” in which the growing area was moved every year, leaving large blocks of land fallow in order to allow secondary vegetation to grow and thereby restore fertility of the soil. According to the defendants, such land was not “used,” and hence not “owned.”

Chin’s decision gave a boost to the now-commonly used term Native Customary Rights, or NCR.  His decision was over-turned on appeal.  The forces of what Ledong termed “dark greed and unstoppable ego” were too powerful to overcome the arguments of the simple folk of Rumah Nor longhouse.

* * *

But no matter how you looked at it, all previous legal cases were based on a Western model of jurisprudence. Spurred on by the cultural and religious beliefs proposed by the three stern, paternalistic desert religions, Western-Jurisprudence basically takes the view that man has dominion over nature, man has both a responsibility to protect nature but also a right to “make nature productive,” and that land ownership has to be proven by Western guidelines.

Andrew Ledong was taking a different view.  He was promoting a revolutionary way of looking at our relationship with the natural world. He was challenging the pervasive status of Western-Jurisprudence with a threatening new legal concept based on ancient truths – Ethno-Jurisprudence.

* * *

In a way, this was a last-ditch effort by Ledong.  Nothing had worked previously.  Blockades.  Negotiations. International pressure. Civil disobedience. Not even the Robin Hood antics of Bruno Manser, the daring Swiss who lived with the Penans for years and had helped them earn international awareness for their cause, had helped.  The forces of “development” were just too strong for the beleaguered Penans and their tree-spirit-brothers.

* * *

Over a weekend break during the trial I invited Andrew Ledong to lunch so he could explain his audacious legal approach.

It was not uncommon for indigenous groups worldwide to argue that they had ownership of natural areas that dated back centuries, he explained.  Indigenous groups also argued, often successfully, that some natural sites were Sacred Natural Sites, or SNS in conservation jargon.  These folks made the case that a particular forest, lake, mountain, meadow, river, or grove had special cultural and religious importance, and therefore should be saved not only for conservation reasons (and there are many such reasons) but also because they are, as Ledong said, “important and, well, sacred.”

But that wasn’t the tactic Ledong was using in this case.

* * *

During the trial Ledong introduced a new legal argument based not on standard Western-Jurisprudence but on the opposite concept of Ethno-Jurisprudence. It would not be humans who were fighting on behalf of nature, but rather nature fighting for itself.  If you accept that spirits occupy a place or natural feature, you are de facto granting that their abode has an innate right to exist.

Put another way, Ledong’s argument was that nature, in various forms, is a “juristic person.”

Many (well, to be truthful, most) legal experts scoffed at the Ethno-Jurisprudence argument giving legal to spirits.

Balderdash! shouted one defense attorney who had learned his courtroom dialogue by watching BBC period dramas.

But during the trial Ledong calmly cited numerous examples of case law in which Western-oriented courts upheld his approach.

In their national constitutions, Ecuador and Bolivia have recognized Mother Earth as a “legal person.”

River systems are often protected through Ethno-Jurisprudence decisions.

Indian courts have granted “legal person” rights to the Ganges and Yamuna river systems.

In at least two cases in Ecuador involving pollution of rivers the courts have stated that the rights of nature prevail over other constitutional rights.

In 2017, after some 170 years of litigation, a New Zealand court recognized the status of the numina that inhabit each of the more than 240 rapids on the Whanganui River.  That judgement, Ledong pointed out, has particular relevance to the Penans’ case. Ledong cited the decision that acknowledged the spirits of the river provide guidance and insight “in times of joy, despair, or uncertainty.”

And in 2014 New Zealand became the first nation on earth to give up formal ownership of a national park when it declared that the area, Te Urewera, has “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”

In 2010 the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first city in the United States to declare nature a “legal person” during a case to ban “fracking” within the city limits.

The State of Hawaii heard a case in which a Native Hawaiian shaman testified that the numina that occupy the Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island would be furious if a telescope was constructed on its slopes.  The court ruled in favor of the Native Hawaiian petitioners and the telescope was not built.

(Such protection is not limited to natural sites.  Even inanimate, man-made objects can be protected provided they are “proven” to be inhabited by spirits. During the British Raj colonial judges granted juristic personhood status to some deities and their abodes (idols and temples), as long as the deities were consecrated and enspirited during a religious ceremony.

* * *

Shaman Katong was first up. He gave his name, his occupation (“farmer”), age and place of residence.  He was one of the last few hundred semi-nomadic Penans, and the question of where his home was located was tricky.  “Upper Baram River” was the best he could do.  When asked he confirmed that when he went into a trance he wasn’t speaking for himself, but merely relaying the voice of the tree spirit. “I have no idea what the spirit is going to say,” Katong said.  “And I never remember what happened after I return from the spirit world.”

Samuel Aithihyamala was a large contemplative man with thinning hair who was proud of his legal prowess and humanitarian approach to the law.  He had prepared for this kind of testimony, and before the trial began had whispered some suggestions to a friend of Ledong’s.

Two medical technicians, wheeling a table of medical instruments, strode to the witness box. They applied sensors to Katong’s scalp and chest to measure changes in brain and heart activity. He was also hooked up to a polygraph that measured blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity.

“Please explain these gadgets,” Judge Aithihyamala said.

“I wish to medically prove that the witness is entering a trance state and is actually speaking with the tree spirits,” Ledong said.

“Objection!” roared the defense counsel. “Cheap mechanical charlatanism.”

“Overruled,” roared Aithihyamala.

Ledong was slightly optimistic, because Aithihyamala was nearing the end of his career and had displayed courage in his recent decisions, sometimes finding against the government and big business.

“Whenever you’re ready Mister Katong,” Judge Aithihyamala said.

* * *

“What have you got there, Mister Katong?”

Andrew Ledong intervened.  “These are the accessories he needs to enter a trance.” He pointed to the supplies Katong had just unpacked.  Clouded leopard’s teeth.  A smooth stone with a band of quartz running through it. A sliver of petrified wood. A kingfisher feather. Incense made from the sap of a forest liana. Kindling.  And a bright orange Bic lighter.

“Sorry Mister Katong,” Judge Aithihyamala said.  “No smoking inside a government building.”

‘Your honor, these, er, things, are essential to help Katong enter a trance,” Ledong said.

“Improvise, Mister Katong. Improvise.”

* * *

Katong held a clouded leopard tooth in his hands, closed his eyes, mumbled some prayers, breathed deeply, and entered a trance.  When he spoke his voice had changed into a gravelly, rich baritone.  He spoke in the Penan language, a simple but rarely heard tongue. His words were mixed with birdsong, whooshing wind noises, and crickets.

He emitted a woodpecker’s hammering dtak-dtak-dtak into a tree trunk.

“I don’t like this place,” Katong said in a deep voice.

Judge Aithihyamala tried to ask a question, but was aggressively waved off by Andrew Ledong, who signaled just wait a bit.

“Who are you?” Andrew Ledong asked Katong.

“Tree. Leaves. Air. Roots. Flowers. Insects. Moss.” Then a slow whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, the rhythmic locomotive-like sound of a hornbill in flight.

“Do you know what this is?”  Andrew Ledong held up a small chainsaw, pulled the ignition cord and the aggressive buzz of the tool shook the courtroom.

“Turn it off.”

And Andrew Ledong did so.

The nameless spirit spoke in short bursts, sometimes incoherently, sometimes in what sounded like hornbill cries.

The judge wrote a few questions on a notepad and passed it to Andrew Ledong.  They were typical “Western” questions.  Where are you?  Are you alive?  Do you want to be chopped down?

And the spirit gave indirect “Asian” answers. “I feel the wind.”  “Squirrels scratch me.”  The coughing call of a barking deer. The wheezy growl of a clouded leopard.

And so it went until it Katong shuddered and slowly opened his eyes.

* * *

Not all the shamans went into a trance.  Some of them repeated a liturgy, which they called ha’ tara, that assisted them to enter a beta state by which they could communicate with spirits.  However many of the shamans remained fully alert and lucid and clearly told the court about prophetic dreams they had experienced, or specific bird omens they had seen, which they interpreted as predicting catastrophes, plagues, and disasters if the forest continued to be destroyed.

* * *

Throughout the testimony of Katong and other shamans, the defense counsels, well-dressed men and women with impressive college degrees and a higher hourly rate than Katong and the other shamans earned in a year, shouted their favorite combative phrases. This is a mockery of the law! Next thing you know the plaintiff will be channeling Bruno Manser!”

And they had a point. If you boiled it down they were objecting to the complete reversal of the legal system.  If the trees’ testimonies were allowed to stand it would threaten the very principles that formed urban Malaysian civilization.

* * *

During the trial I sought out the defendants — men and women who were accused of cutting the forest. They were ethnic Malay and Chinese Malaysians, powerful people who had been raised on the idea that man has an in loco parentis right of control over “wild” nature, and, by extension, the right of control over the “savage” people who live in the forests.

They had all drunk the “We’re doing what’s best for the nation” Kool-Aid. The lectures I received were similar to scoldings I have received by people in power throughout Southeast Asia.

You Westerners built your great civilizations because you cut your own forests.
Don’t tell us what to do.
We have to help our poor naked cousins the Penans become civilized and enjoy the benefits we city dwellers enjoy.
Don’t tell us what to do.
Oil palm is one of the country’s greatest foreign exchange earners. We need that money to develop.
You care more about orangutans than people.
Don’t tell us what to do.
Our farmers grow oil palm following international sustainability guidelines.
You tell us to protect the “lungs of the Earth” but you Westerners do all the polluting.
The rainforest left alone is unproductive.
Don’t tell us what to do.

* * *

Eventually Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang, and the seven other men and women completed their testimonies. Some were loquacious. Others couldn’t go into trance at all. Few made coherent statements. All, apparently, were sincere. We exist. Don’t kill us. Bad things will happen.

* * *

The verdict came the following day.

“I empathize with your arguments, but my personal feelings are irrelevant,” Samuel Aithihyamala said. “The law is clear. Spirits have no legal standing in Malaysia. Decision for the defendants.”

* * *

The defendants and the defense lawyers punched the air, packed their files and made plans to celebrate that night at a large and garish Chinese seafood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, where the brandy would flow, the sharks’ fin soup would be ladled, and the men in the group would smoke large cigars, as they had learned to do from watching Boston Legal.

* * *

So that should have been that. The Penans, used to generations of disappointment and being ignored by the powers that be, packed up their few belongings in simple but elegant rattan backpacks, and prepared to return home.

Except just then, as people were filing out of the air-conditioned courtroom into the humid heat of a Malaysian afternoon, Ruth went into the deepest trance witnessed during the trial. She stood rock-still, arms outstretched, and roared. To say it was an unearthly roar would be misleading; it was a roar of the Earth.  To the Penans, it was a sign, surely.

* * *

I wish I could say that Ruth’s lament of the tree’s discomfort led to a hurricane that destroyed a timber camp, or a deadly accident for one of the government officials, or a plague of venomous snakes that attacked non-Penan intruders in the forest. I wish I could say that Bruno Manser’s ghost appeared, Banquo-like, to shake things up.

As far as I know, none of these things happened.  The forest is still being destroyed.  Ruth, it is said, still wails, but with less vibrancy than earlier.