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Nathaniel Tarn, 1979.

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Photo: Nathaniel Tarn, 1979. Photo Janet Rodney.
Back to the Nathaniel Tarn feature Contents list

Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36

Nathaniel Tarn Feature

Nathaniel Tarn

Extracts from the Sarawak (Borneo) Field Journal

The following is a slightly edited transcript of some field journal entries covering the period which mainly brought about the poem “Ins & Outs of the Forest Rivers”, published in Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers (New Directions 2008). The editing arises out of a concern to protect the privacy of individuals and communities involved. Dates have been changed and some place names are not recorded. Ornithological “triggers” tend to go directly to poems, much less to the journal. Comments on later data in square brackets [ ].

May 11th, 2005.


Still in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, after bird-watching by myself on the Kinabatangan River. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of traveling in the back country with an experienced colleague/guide belonging to a small bunch of people I have volunteered to work with on indigenous problems. During eighteen days, we are to visit several communities belonging to different ethnic sub-groups and may be able to attend a forest council of the groups which are still nomad among the Penan people: a rare chance indeed!


Little wonder that people are concerned at my traveling alone. Got to the airport and realized I had totally lost track of my passport. Check in. Luggage goes off. I tell Immigration that the p. is in my luggage. No go: you will be in trouble at your destination. I’m taken off by an old officer who turns out to be kind. Try to get the bags back and suddenly find the damn thing in a side pocket of my vest. Did not lose my cool – visibly at least. Good for the anti-depressants. [On a later occasion half my fortune dropped out of my pocket at an airport.]

Sarawak photo 01


On flight back into Sarawak, mostly over the sea looking down at the coast. Did not see as many oil installations as when going over. Bite of lunch on the ground floor of the airport: ironically it is the nicest of all those I’ve seen. Taxi to the little hotel and get a less noisy room on a corner. The hotel is grungy but simpatico. (I name this town “Base.”)


Call S. my colleague. He’ll come round to the hotel. He had not read his e-mail so he thought we were off to see some caves tomorrow as originally arranged: in the e-mail I had admitted a one-day mistake in planning. Very short and stocky with weathered face and hands, ragged mouth, bad teeth, a rough diamond. Helps me decide what to take and what to leave at his house. When he called from reception, he did not want to come up. Why? OK if you insist. After this things went swimmingly. Extremely savvy.


Checked out the Indigenous Crafts Center. Pretty sad. Did buy a few magnificent Argus Pheasant feathers with the extraordinary eye feature (later realized they could not be exported and gave them away). Little man who says he is from the Immigration Department and had seen me at the airport. Car broken down. etc.: could he have 35 RM? Sounded like pan handling and alcohol. Ah well. Gave him the 24 I had in change. Ran into a couple from Bario in the Highlands: we waxed nostalgic. The usual Internet Café full of noisy kids playing computer games. Look at Sports on T.V. People crazy about U.K. football here: kids sporting Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United t-shirts and badges. Dinner at a Chinese seafood place close by. Ordered sweet and sour “local” crab and double-broiled ladies’ fingers. Took some time. Then this huge plate arrived and I made a royal mess of it. First class stuff.


A Chinese man asks if he can share my table. The usual questions, then more. Very interested in travel. He sells heavy machinery parts for the logging industry although he claims there is less of this now and more for construction. Seems to think ill of deforestation. Complains of terrible air pollution in this town from the country being burned round about: supposed to be by natives cultivating vegetables etc. but he does not believe it – it is the oil palm people. All, in all seems a decent guy, moderately concerned about the future, though a more paranoid reading is, I guess, possible. I cannot, alas, play the zombie any more come what may.


Just now, on TV3, “Misteri Nusantara” a documentary about spirit trancers in Malaysia. Including hobby horse riders possessed by their horses (origin Java). Mostly healers (? bomoh) male & female, identified. Psychologist butts in and Islamic preachers: this is a sin for Muslims, adds to confusion and may prevent you from achieving success.


Everyone here addicted to bettering themselves and above all “succeeding.” T-shirts proclaim this ad nauseam but the mottos & logos are always a shade out of whack.

May 12th, 2005.


Raining again. S. comes over to the hotel. Taxi to airport. Flight in an F50, much cloud. Many tourists going to the fancy hotel at the Park. Get embroiled in this and loose track of luggage for a while. My umbrella, forbidden on board, does not show up from the aircraft. Common problem.

Sarawak photo 02


To the Park. High fees for room in a guest house, entry, various taxes. Rest. Lunch at a friend of S.’s, an old activist who liked the place, came back here and opened a small snack joint. Great guy, great face, eyes askew and growing very wide, sardonic sweet smile: the eternal face of “I told you so.” Bitter complaints that business has been very bad-- taken by the fancy hotel and the Park establishments. Pretty girl waitress. Some good folk carving near the kitchen.


[Details of visits to the Park omitted].


Long walk back. S. crashes. I get organized a little. Perpetual problem of where one has put item X, Y or Z. The tedium of it! S. expects a friend. The friend’s brother comes in. A member of the Berawan group of Dayaks. Has no suggestions as to what else one can see in the Park. Then starts a rant about the struggle, the land dispossessions etc. and the fact that the CC. will not rest. It seems there is little new from what I have read. He mentions a place he knows near the Park where there is still a wooden pole (carved?) which proves possession. Of course he will not take us there.


Late now. The snack place is closed but our friend reopens it for us. General sense that the Park has spoiled life for the people around – apart from the service jobs. “We don’t hear the gibbon anymore and all the wildlife we used to hear.” At the moment S. is very concerned about the people displaced on land and housing by large engineering works at a Bakun mega dam. [In November 2006 a large number of Kayan and Kenyah Longhouses sued the government over these displacements. I do not know the outcome as yet.] Sleep well – with earplugs.

May 14th, 2005.


The dream-like emerald Rajah Brooke butterflies!


We go “to see a relative over there.” S. gets a man to drive us over and pays him 6 RM. Thread our way through a village beside the river near a church (to which S claims to belong). Dead opposite the fancy hotel. A substantial bunch of Berawan houses with carved canoes, including a long, lean racing item which competes in area races. Interesting prow carving. The relative is S.’s via S.’s wife whose grandfather was Kenyah Dayak but had Berawan relatives. A man and his wife with eight kids, the eldest is the young man who waxed so eloquent yesterday. He is very impressive, maybe a future Sarawak prime minister. He has risen several steps to being a freelance guide and offers day climbs. There are a lot of Rhinoceros Hornbills up there he claims: so it is not extinct in Sarawak! Sacred Buceros!

Sarawak photo 04


He says that Sarawak still has some 60% of its forests whereas Sabah has lost most of its trees (the famous Kinabatangan Refuge is of course a thin slice of forest wedged among the oil palm plantations which is why you see so much wildlife there: they are squeezed in). Why Sabah? Because Indonesians get in there more easily (from their part of Borneo – Kalimantan I guess?) and accept wages that Sarawakians would not take. It is also easier geographically to get logs out. But oil palm is growing apace in Sarawak now.


Ask if people were interested in Communism in the time of the Emergency. Some at first, yes, but they got fed up of being killed when a Longhouse was asked for food too many times and refused. But it is as if the government wanted the people here to go red the way they took land away from them. Argument comes up that Indigenous chiefs were made to sign Sarawak & Sabah over to Malaysia but were ignorant about what they were doing. This has been written about. There are still some around who would have preferred the Brits to stay. (Sarawak had the same name in British Times; Sabah was “British North Borneo”). The Singapore prime minister had argued against Sarawak and Sabah joining Malaysia.

Sarawak photo 03


Back by canoe. No seats. The thing sways like mad. Speed’s OK but the swaying dismays. At our bridge, I cannot get up from ground level: my old legs again. I am given a strong arm. Someone’s canoe goes off all along the stream by itself. Rest. Lunch at our snack bar. The host is playing his sape tapes very loudly. S. gets enthusiastic, dons dance clothing hanging by the kitchen and does a few turns. The pretty girl does a few turns but hates photography.


Keep on an on losing and/or forgetting things, leaving them behind: small backpack, glasses, pens. This is getting thoroughly worrisome.


When I close my eyes at the moment, a kind of video of the river banks around here kind of plays like a video, going from scene to scene. Very curious. Certainly not unpleasant.


In the Park, I ask S. about a Dayak party. Yes, there is one but it is always splitting and is not effective. As it happens, I find in the Park café a copy of Borneo Post with an article on a possible re-incarnation of such a thing and an account of previous splits. I also learn that, after secondary school in his area capital, S. was a palm oil plantation supervisor for 19 years! I talk to S. about Picard’s work in Bali and his notion of people being transformed into commodities. Which is what is being done here. He appreciates the argument – which he does not seem to have thought about much – and asks for documentation.


Evening at our snack bar. Our friend cooks a big fish dinner. He get in the mood by drinking many beers with a group of Belgian tourists and dances the warrior dance very well indeed. The beauty in a silver on black dress dances the first steps of the Hornbill dance.

May 15th, 2005.


After breakfast at the Park café, the young guide’s father fetches us in a canoe to go to where the brothers keep a Toyota truck. Clamber up the steep bank which is muddy on account of flooding. The water levels change so much and so abruptly that arrival and departure from communities are always an ordeal. Then, half an hour of spine-breaking abandoned loggers’ road; then three hours on much better logging roads. Horribly untidy sides on some of these roads which criss-cross the landscape mile on mile as can be seen on any flight. Signs of erosion on the hillsides coming from roads built on ridges. Wonderful scenery but no big trees. Only small ones. This whole area belongs to the S.Y. Co., one of the big ones. Also pass a huge quarry from which they get road stone.


Break at a small place with a number of shops.


Later, stop at L.L., a Chinese community, administratively important. Buy supplies. I am charged 40 RM for the boat and 360 for the ride. At least we avoided renting a vehicle for five days at 1900 or so. The five days of the trip on which a vehicle could be used.


Crawl into a small boat with a roof after setting up the Crazy Creek travel chair-bed which I had bought on advice from the group. It works. Feet up to ankles in mud. The boatman turns out to be a brother of S.


One hour up the main river to U.B. The boardwalk from the semblance of a jetty is drowning. Crawl up mud again, then up the rest of the broadwalk and finally manage to stand up. A number of ugly huts begin the street. Up to the “Old Longhouse” divided by a church from a “New Longhouse” painted a different bright color. Some beautiful old rice barns with rat baffles.

Sarawak photo 09


A lot of delightful small kids. Some old ladies with pierced very elongated earlobes (but no earrings) and tattooed hands and lower legs. All of this is said to have gone out in the 1960s and 70s. Small walk along the platform talking to various people. Turn back for lunch. Mess of greens and some wild boar. Kids and adults watching asinine Indonesian comedy on a TV set which can only be used for DVDs.


“Shower.” One small enclosure with a tank of water; washing machine, squatting toilet. Get everything wet and sticky.

May 16th, 2005.


I am writing on the 14th. Life is already getting more difficult & stressful. Everything is wet and sticky. Heat and humidity godawful. Packing, unpacking, endless losses, endlessly finding that things put in one place turn up in another. Bang my head on overhangs again and again. Discomfort on all levels at all times. Getting too old for this?


In the evening conversation of the 12th, it comes clear that people here remember the old symbolic systems Adat Dipuy and the revivalist Adat Bungan. It sounds as if S.’s father (“even he converted to Christianity”) may have been a Dayong priest at one time. In any event, he knows all about it. All of this fits in with the work of J.J. Rousseau and other anthros.


The struggle this place is now facing is oil palm sequenced after logging. Sometimes it is the same company, sometimes another. The Longhouse Association to which half the community is claimed by these guys to belong has gotten a concession of a small amount of land for its own use. The rest will have to go to oil palm.


The overall hideousness of oil palm and its plantations! It is valuable, it sells for a lot but the mangy trees all more or less of one size in endless rows, the dustiness of the whole scene compared to forest! And godawful for wildlife: talk of baby orang utans lost in there after a mother is shot.


Shown two objects which look like cannon balls in a wood and wire cage in front of an important person’s big house. [At this moment of writing, S. was found to have died. Continued later.] There is a story that, when going headhunting once, the people found one of these two in the river (? floating). On another occasion the second was found and declared to be the spouse of the first. Before Christianity it was believed that anyone touching these objects might well die.


S. came out at one point with the fact that headmen, even when appointed by the government, could only be maren, nobles (the local word seems to be a little longer, having a suffix).


On the 17th, took photos of some of the adults - I had taken kids on the evening before. One fine looking widow put on the brass earrings especially. She and another woman sat with arms on thighs and skirts lifted to show the tattoos which have all run together by this time into a grayish mass. They have obviously taken up this pose on request many a time.


We launch out on a canoe manned once more by S.’s younger brother, L., helped by G. (a tall young guy, very cool, could have been a Navajo) and another young man sitting behind him. Soon after, we enter a tributary of the main river. At first, all goes smoothly. Then we encounter rapids after rapids. L. tries to rush the canoe through but, usually, G. and his friend have to pole as well and vault into the water to pull the craft. This is always economically and expertly done. They are very soon up to their asses and eventually dive in completely at times to cool off or sit in the river smoking. I am in constant trouble with the craft which tips at the breath of a dragonfly and, though I try to go with the flow, it cannot be kept up when the tip is too strong. So the body is continually tense. Apparently the boat is the wrong kind for these river conditions, too deep and lacking a rounded keel. Mud marks on the bank make it clear that the water can rise and fall by 6 to 8 feet here in two or three days.

Sarawak photo 06


Fish had been bought from a woman we passed and a stop was made on one of the frequent sand bars. A fire and three kinds of fish: boiled in an acrid soup; half-boiled and fried. S. through all this is at his most autocratic, issuing sarcastic comments and a quantity of orders to the boatmen, very much the old man and older brother. I had begun to notice some of this from the start. He was like this all day: rather hard going.


Marvelous cascades of a tree with small yellow/red flowers – the branches fall dozens of feet right to the river. A white-necked Kingfisher and a grey brown Eagle seen, a rare Greater Egret but, for the most part, “the birds are no longer here.”


The trip which should take 2-3 hours took 6 ½. We arrive at L.L. a settled place of the Penan group which had originally been nomadic – after passing another place named after this river where the L.L. kids go to school. There is a Longhouse with a lot of separate houses including one that the Headman is putting up. Everything looks very dull after U.B.: plain gray wood, nothing painted or decorated. Sit with the Headman and are fed. Then we are taken round some fenced-in seed plots for vegetables which our group had kicked off during their visit in April: beans, corn, squash, leaf greens, melons, eggplant, okra, papaya, bananas, cassava and cukes. Things looked good though perhaps not watered enough and the cucumbers have been attacked by ladybugs. A great deal of vociferation about problems here. I flounder a bit not being exactly an agricultural expert but S., in lordly mode, mutters to me “well, we have shown some interest.” Has he been souring on his long career?

Sarawak photo 05


In the evening, there is a meeting of the Women’s Association in order for them to discuss their present situation. The woman that the group especially wanted me to talk to is absent at the area head town – which is very unfortunate. Eventually, after much prodding (and some sarcasm from S.), two women sit on either side of the Headman, whispering to him, and a few comments and simple requests emerge which I am to pass on. I take notes and try to look sagacious. They would like to have some long term planting of fruit trees. Local oranges. Also rambutan. They have the land to do this and experience from the former Longhouse days. Seedlings are 15-20 RM: they would like 50 of each for a start. They would also like another water pump. They would appreciate another 20-30 weeding tools and 20 to 40 more parang – the ubiquitous machete-like field knife. Also: three people, all women, from here are ready to go to Sabah to get some computer training with a group associated with ours. Regarding the fields, I point out that in the old days people spent a very great deal of time at the fields guarding their crops from insects and other predators. Perhaps that should be copied here to whatever extent possible. Duly noted.

Sarawak photo 08


A rather formal speech by the Headman. Everyone had been looking intently at the native American dance pictures and animal pictures I had brought along. Trotted out one of the very large New Mexico archaeology posters (one was left at U.B.) and this is well received. “It shows the old Longhouses of indigenous American peoples and heir crafts.” A tall man with eyes going every whichway like Robert Duncan’s who had greeted me with great ceremony declared that we should be brothers and passed one of the rattan bracelets over my right wrist. He also insisted on what sounded like a pantun, a welcome song, singing it not very melodiously but with feeling. There were some general questions about how Western people had managed to become so much more evolved than the Penan. Questions about Iraq and the number of American soldiers killed. Iraqi deaths were of no interest: “the Iraqis have never visited here. We are for the Americans and their allies.” The isolation of the place is incredible: no T.V., no newspapers. I forgot, dammit, to ask about radio.


Pretty tired by this time but S. feels that the talk must go on as long as the hosts desire it to. Eventually, we get out around 10.30 and I bash my forehead hard in the dark against a loose beam sticking out of a woodpile. S. kindly applies a wad of antibiotic stuff on the “wound” which I do not clap eyes on until we are back at Base.


We sleep at the Headman’s house run by his son and wife who sleep upstairs. Son… or relative. We are on the floor downstairs. I fiddle with my bags a little, pack and repack. Asked if we would like a hot drink. I abstain but S. accepts and he and the host talk until I fall asleep doubtless longer. I had taken a Sonata sleeping pill.


There was a proposal during the evening that we should go the next day into the forest and experience the traditional life of Group D. sleeping in a shelter on a river bar. But it was raining when we lay down…

May 18th, 2005.


Wake around 7.30 and find that S. is sleeping on his back, a little askew with legs crossed, in underwear, very slightly indecent. Looks very peaceful. I drink Milo with the host and eat a few dry crackers – the local breakfast, joking with the host about S.’s failure to wake. The headman comes in and asks me about my plans. I suggest we wake S. and call to him. No reply. The headman goes over to him, talks to him, touches his neck, recoils saying he is dead.


Very soon, the room is full of women and children sitting and staring. Little by little the men show up, including a fine looking elder with pierced upper ears, the traditional round haircut and a wealth of bracelets on his right arm. All sit and stare. Occasionally someone looks at me, draws his hand across his throat, shakes his head. (Death in headhunting!)


The Headman starts organizing. S.’s brother L. is brought in, sustained at both arms by friends and throws himself weeping on his elder brother. Comes over to me “What shall we do?” I said I supposed he should be taken back to U.B. or to Base.


Another hour or so. Phone calls: there does seem to be a phone! The influential uncle at Base is away in Penang on the mainland: this is J., S.’s boss as well as uncle.


For a time, there is question of a helicopter coming to take the body to Base.


I give my “brother” a little camping pack which he seems very pleased with. An old woman slips three more bracelets on my right arm. Everyone has been looking at me rather stonily but the Penan are warmer than the Kayan.


No chance of taking the photos I was asked for, either of the place or of individuals, or of the seed beds, and, of course, the proposed show of crafts – so that the famous mat a woman wanted to sell for 1000 RM (!) did not make an appearance.


Eventually, L., G. and the others wrap S. in blankets and foam mats. S. had borrowed my new mosquito net from Kuching and I had covered him with it while everyone was running around (he had actually asked me if he could have it “when you leave.” –“No problem.”) S. is then carried down to the boat we came in. I am shifted to another boat, at first without the protecting Crazy Creek inflatable seat-bed, with my backside on the floor and spine against a cross-bar, acutely uncomfortable.


A three hour trip back to U.B. with one stop during which I am able to put up the seat. Rapids again. At one point, we very nearly capsize. Everyone is soaking but I have given up caring by now.


At U.B. (a family party had come out to us on the river) there is some wailing from the women, some of which sounds distinctly ritual. There had been Christian prayers in A. language at the bedside and before leaving the house. I began to feel very uncomfortable when the people I had talked with so relaxedly two nights before looked through me as if I did not exist. But this was shock I think: the stoniest of them gave me a big smile when helping me.


Never got beyond the landing. A whole party of people arrives and crowds into boats. Though my bags are with S. no one can sit in that boat with him.


On the way to the cars, have to negotiate a couple of impossible climbs, shin deep in squelchy mud. Eventually clean this off before the cars but I become increasingly separated from my things, eventually losing track of this and that fairly vital equipment.


Various transfers along the way. At first in the front with a driver, then in the back with an older woman, L.’s wife and lovely little daughter, my special flirt at U.B. Age two or so.


Some three and a half hours over the catatonically foul logging and plantation roads – not fit for pigs and dogs let alone humans. “No, there will never be any use for these roads after logging is over – the government will never do anything to use them.” I protect my spine by hanging suspended with one hand between roof and seat. Stop for drinks and food. I manage to buy a soy drink and two dumpling cakes: the only food today apart from the breakfast crackers.


A palaver at the junction of the road with the Base highway. At this point we are covered in dust from the clouds put up by the logging trucks and other cars. Throats full of it also. I find myself in a small bus with a nephew of S.’s and related to two or three more men with the same name as the important uncle’s. He talks a lot in semi-English, with a lot of Malay emphatic la attached, OKla; Yesla; Surela; Oh Godla; – rather like our young folk’s “like,” “cool” etc.


The procession gets to the base hospital. I fear an interminable night. There is talk of having to visit the Police. A woman reporter interrogates me and keeps on coming back and back, then a woman medical receptionist. Women arrive, including, I believe, wife and daughters. A great deal of very loud crying. People in grief are held and hugged and supported at the elbows by friends and relatives. Many people, bystanders, stare at the truck with S. in it. It is said that the postmortem will be two days from now. All this eventually disperses. Though unwilling at first because of the distance, the nephew agrees to take me to the hotel.


First, various moves. people to pick up. Constant cell phoning. Many of the incoming party actually work at Base and were on a visit back home when I met them, at U.B. We pick up G. I continue to try to get the nephew to take me to S.’s house at the other end of town in a huge development and get him to recognize my bag, boots etc. Though I may well have been welcomed, I have no wish to disturb the family now. The Argus pheasant feathers stay where they are, so does an umbrella.


Finally get driven mile after mile to the hotel. I had spoken to L. who apologized for my position in all this and told him to contact me at the hotel for whatever might be needed. The nephew also apologized. All in all, the folks, given their shocked surprise, treated me as well as they knew how.


Thankful to get, unexpected by my hotel, a small corner room, ugly and smelly. Told I should stay several days because of some extremely important upcoming festivities. Purlease no! Fried buttered prawns and ladies’ fingers next door. Examine face and a variety of “wounds” in mirror, pretty grim-looking but no damage.


Fifteen days of the trip go missing. But, indeed, what to do now?


I stayed three days more in order to talk to members of S’s. family, (who told me sadly that he had never once looked after his health – he was around 50 years of age and he died of a massive heart attack), to arrange for the settling of some transportation costs – including the return which was not forgotten – and to attend S.’s funeral. Then I went on to another great river and further travel.

Sarawak photo 07


In October 2005, a devastating flood had washed away garden, nursery a village house and all tools. In August 2006, it was reported that the women of L.L. had resituated their gardens in family plots behind each room of the Longhouse. They have also planted 200 grafted fruit trees – six trees per family – of durian, rambutan & sweet lime. The fruit will eventually supplement the income of the women and their families. The trees have been planted on individual family plots in order to confirm or “prove” claims to lands that are threatened by further exploitation – the whole problem of identifying and getting invaders to recognize and honor native land claims being a major one here as elsewhere in the world. Attention has been also focused on steep slope erosion by the planting of trees.


In June 2007, it was announced that a grant of $50,000 from a major foundation to U.B. had allowed the restoration of degraded rain forests, the planting of native trees for wildlife habitat, rattans for crafts and medicinal plants. As many as 8,000 seedlings of Shorea macrophylla (engkabang) had been put in as food to encourage wild boar. A long standing ambition to build a traditional Longhouse with high-ceilinged, wood-shingled roof had also been realized.


Note that, in 1998, S. and a colleague had traveled to Berkeley, California to receive a major Environmental award and to meet the many friends of Borneo in the U.S.


U.B. has actually been a “sister city’ of Berkeley for many years!


Those who wish to work for environmental protection and indigenous rights have many choices before them at this time. For some who might become interested in the magnificent island of Borneo and its legendary and extraordinarily attractive indigenous population, a very fine portal for extensive links and information is that of the Borneo Project which can be Googled or reached at

Photos by Nathaniel Tarn

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