Life and Death on Shiva's Beach
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Pulau Enu, Aru Islands, Indonesia
A newly-hatched green turtle wanders into my tent this evening, attracted perhaps by a lantern that he thought was the reflection of the moon on the sea.
A few hours later I wander the beach on the windward side of this small island, blown sand gritting my contact lenses, looking for the tractor-like tracks that indicate an adult meter-long turtle has visited the low dunes to lay her eggs.
It is a night with stars like I've rarely seen, and I half expect Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist-explorer-philosopher to appear out of the shadows, gaunt and curious and quietly eager to join me. I've been on his 150- year-old trail for some time now, and I feel his presence as I examine small piles of sand that mark where one of these green turtles has laid her eggs. But, perhaps in too much of a hurry, she has deposited the eggs below the high-water line, where they are certain to become water-logged and spoiled. I finally unearth her sixty fresh eggs, still slimy with turtle juices, and transplant them into another hole I dig a few meters beyond the reach of the high tide.
Yet, amidst this exuberance of life I smell death. I wander the beach and, like a dung beetle, am drawn to the rotting carcasses and bleached skulls of turtles which have been slit open by fishermen, after the 200 or so eggs in the reptile's egg cavity, fishermen either too impatient or too greedy to be satisfied with catching the 50-odd eggs as they plop out during the normal cycle. The tasty turtle flesh has been left uneaten to rot; the only part taken is the stomach, which makes a fine bait.
Earlier today the research group I was with chased reputedly vicious Indonesian fishermen away from Sulawesi, men who lay nets to capture green turtles in the waters of this unguarded nature reserve. From a distance of a hundred meters we saw that their boat was full of live turtles, perhaps a hundred of the animals, all destined for Bali. Another Western conservationist and myself urged the Indonesian captain to give chase. We made an attempt, but the captain's heart wasn't in it.
"Those men are armed and dangerous," said a frustrated Ating Sumantri, the person in charge of the Indonesian government's efforts to conserve sea turtles. "We don't have any soldiers, no weapons."
Just then, Fata, an Indonesian game warden, jumped overboard and swam ashore to rescue the turtles which had been abandoned on the island when the poachers first spotted our boat. He flipped over eight of the 100-kilogram animals and watched them escape into the sea before the three grounded poachers caught up with him. Fata himself had to hide in the woods until we could rescue him. What is a turtle worth? Worth getting stabbed for? Worth shooting someone for?
I've been thinking about many things on this trip. How is it, I asked the memory of Alfred Russel Wallace, that we humans will travel halfway around the world and suffer physical discomforts in order to study a beach where green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs? Why do we watch another creature's life cycle--laying and hatching--with such emotional intensity and intellectual curiosity? Why should it disturb us that others of our race--the Balinese in this case--enjoy eating this ancient reptile? Why do we have such protective attitudes toward another species?
Later, in Bali, I wanted to find out just how important turtle meat is to that island's Shivaistic Hindu culture. This was not merely a question of being environmentally/politically correct. It's also good conservation to understand what emotional and spiritual values lie behind what seems to outsiders to be senseless consumption--some 18,000 turtles a year, according to one estimate.
"Turtle meat adds something to our ceremonies," explained I.B. Pangdjaja, head of public relations at the Bali governor's office.
"But it's not essential to the religious ceremony?" I said.
"It's like you eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Except it makes us strong."
Odd, isn't it. Transported to Bali for barbecue, or worse, slit open for their eggs and then left to die on the beach. And then, against all odds, life goes on--more turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Because we happen to be present on Pulau Enu on this particular night, the bad guys stay away, and just maybe tonight's crop of eggs will hatch. I call this contradictory place Shiva's Beach. A beach of destruction and creation. Shiva dances on a beach of skulls. Ecstatic Life breathes below.
Alfred Russel Wallace travelled some 14,000 miles in the Malay Archipelago during the period from 1854 to 1862. Why did he put up with bedbugs and homesickness and upset stomachs and the risk of drowning and malaria? Why travel so far for that? I asked Peter Kedit, director of the Sarawak Museum which was created by Wallace as a favor for James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, whether Alfred's odyssey was comparable to the Iban concept of berjalai, the rite of passage for young men which often ended with the taking of a human head. Kedit, an Iban, thought Wallace's ambition was more typically British: the Protestant work ethic, missionary zeal, socialistic tendencies.
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, my inner-mother admonished. "What happens if I go down there instead?" I thought, heading towards a steep, trackless hill that my instincts told me would eventually connect up with a tributary of my campsite river.
I scampered, skidded and bounced down the side of the mountain, finally reaching a meter-wide stream and a series of small, ridiculously pristine waterfalls, which I slid down with otter-like joy. Chasing waterfalls. I was making no contribution to humanity, but I was fulfilling one of my basic needs--to get away from the crowd and spend time with myself.
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:
"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."
Alfred left something unsaid: By leaving home and going off to the distant corners of the world, he put down a marker. He announced to his friends and family that when he returned he would have been changed. It is his expression of a desire to move towards individualization. He left and did exciting things that his left-behind friends could 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."
Alfred, you are driven. You are Odysseus and Rama, Don Quixote and Lancelot. You live and breathe adventure but, paradoxically, you equally long for stability and inner peace:
"As to health and life, what are they compared with peace and happiness?" you wrote, adding that happiness is best obtained by "work with a purpose..."
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."
Here's a wild theory, based on no evidence whatsoever. Alfred, had you returned from the Amazon with your entire collection and notes intact instead of losing virtually all your new species, all your sketches, drawings, daily journal and three massive notebooks (and almost your life) when the ship burned at sea in 1852, you would never have gone to Southeast Asia. You wouldn't have needed to. By virtue of your Amazon collection you would have earned your stripes as a serious and effective researcher and, like Darwin, could have stayed in England for the rest of your life, writing books. You could have dined out on that single mission just as Darwin dined out on his travels aboard the Beagle. But the fact is you came home from the Amazon empty-handed, except for the few hundred specimens (400 butterflies, 450 beetles, 400 "others") you had previously sent to Samuel Stevens, your agent.
Amazingly, with few notes and with a niggling number of specimens, you still managed to write two books on your travels within ten months of your return. One volume, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, gave you a foothold in the literary world, while the other, Palm Trees of the Amazon, helped establish you in the scientific community. You could have stopped there. But something inside you forced you to get back on the horse after you had been thrown. Only then could you return a hero. Your Amazon "failure" must have caused you great turmoil. Remember what Nietzsche said: "You must have a chaos inside you to give rise to a dancing star."
While you go out of your way sometimes to appear drearily practical, I know you were a dreamer. Only a dreamer would have written: "Strength grows in one who grasps the skirts of happy chance/And breaks the blows of circumstance/And grapples with his evil star." What is the dream that forces some people to travel hard? Bruce Chatwin found that "'Travel' is the same word as 'travail'--bodily or mental labour, toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature, exertion, hardship, suffering, a journey."
Let's play with this a bit more. We travel to test ourselves, to cleanse, to rejuvenate. This could be termed 'catharsis', which is Greek for 'purging' or 'cleansing'. According to Chatwin, one controversial etymology of the word derives from the Greek katheiro, 'to rid the land of monsters'. We want to 'rid the land of monsters'? External and internal demons? Sounds to me like we're trying to relive the great epics.
We modern boys and girls lack rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies where we clearly shift from childhood to adulthood. Our life-passages are unclear. 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 to drink, old enough to kill/be killed in the army but not to vote, old enough to father children but not old enough to leave school of their own volition. Alfred, maybe your butterfly-chasing and my waterfall-schussing were aspects of our own 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 circumcised, become cleansed in a sweat lodge and be decorated with feathers and body paint and invited, finally, to eat with the grownups. The vision, for me, is the most important part of the rite of passage. The illumination of a higher purpose. The dream. Martin Luther King and all that. 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. "
I awake before dawn the following morning and watch a bunch of just-hatched turtles, shorter than my thumb, scamper like reptilian puppies to the sea. After they all reach the sea safely I strip so I can wash off the sand and bathe in new-turtle water. Back at the nest site a straggler emerges from the quickly-heating sand half an hour behind his nest-mates. I follow his clumsy but determined flipper steps into the sea, and swim with him for maybe thirty meters. He paddles aggressively, sticking his little head out of the water every four seconds. The water is clear and warm, free of hungry fish or crabs, the sky blue and free of birds of prey. The little fellow swims towards a group of seven fishing boats. I tell him not to, but he doesn't listen. The sea is big, though, and perhaps he will pass his life free of hassle. Eventually I let him find his own course and he paddles out of sight. Just a boy. He isn't going to listen to me. He doesn't really know where he is going, but he knows he has a journey to make. I wish him well, as much for my sake as for his own.
(Paul Spencer Sochaczewski lived in Indonesia for twelve years and writes regularly on nature conservation. The latest edition of his co-authored book, Soul of the Tiger: Searching for Nature's Answers in Southeast Asia, was published by University of Hawai'i Press. This essay is taken from a forthcoming book that traces the travels of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian explorer, naturalist and philosopher.)