Isn’t it ironic that my brain started making it’s own free associations at a time that social free association is proscribed?
It started again when there came a pier walk first thing this morning. And with that came a waft of stale urine from long closed public conveniences.
That waft invoked a strong memory of pungent ammonia on a track in a Sumatran jungle. There, the locals horde their micturitions in small ponds beside their stilt-supported, plank-wrapped, balconied homes. They cure the rubber they harvest, forming large blocks before selling them for further processing. They could call for the blocks to be collected because their mobile phones worked. This was courtesy of a wire run up to the top of the tree canopy as an aerial that they could rent from a local entrepreneur for the duration of a call. The stench was so overpowering passing at 30 kmh that I wondered how anyone could live with it. Meanwhile overseas moguls were making calls to other local folk to clear the same forests in order to expand their already extensive palm oil plantations.
I visited some of the southern Sumatran plantations out along the Musi river to the west of Palembang in 2005. Their scale scared me. I was doubly scared having overflown provincial scale plantations in Malaysia cultivating the same single exotic plant. However, palm oil is considered to be a risk for the human arterial system since more than 80% of the fat from the kernel is saturated. So I was triply scared because I had lived in Burma when an alarming rise in the rate of heart problems had appeared to correlate with a government initiative to import and distribute vast quantities of palm oil as a cheap cooking ingredient. Only a military junta would placate the population with plaque was our grim take at the time.
And then, another topic change. From nowhere surfaced different memories of women moving through tea plantations among hills on Java, as I saw on an excursion from Jakarta almost thirty years ago. I probably recall the scene all the better for the disappointment of having run out of the film needed to render the scene indelible. The background skies were heavy with black cloud before the coming rains. The green-grey tea bushes were luminous as were the brightly coloured neck-scarves under conical straw hats as picked out by the sunlight in the foreground. And I kid you not, these hard working women were laughing and joking their way through their afternoon, their woven baskets hung from shoulder straps behind them. Of course, the coming deluge may have cheered them up, promising them an early dash home to provide for their men and children.
Thinking of that tea plantation reminded me of Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward who invented a hand portable, sealed greenhouse called the Wardian Case. I learned of this invention when visiting The Chelsea Physic Garden in London 18 months ago. They say that the novel Wardian Case changed global horticulture forever. That’s how the ancestral palm oil trees, rubber trees and tea plants made it to Indonesia in the first place.
This transportation of commercial plants around the world was happening when the pier we were walking was being constructed from granite quarried from where I live. That construction started in 1817 and took four decades. It’s odd that I should have ended up having to itemise a biosecurity budget for our geophysical projects in order to pay for the cleaning of geophysical ships that roam the globe. The last thing any nation wants is for an exotic species to arrive on the hull or in the bilges of seismic survey vessels. Isn’t it strange that while biofouling is unacceptable, historical biofouling continues to enable palm oils to circulate in the world more freely than blood circulates in the arteries of some of the worlds poorest consumers?
Now that it’s written, I can see that today’s journal has become a foray into relocations and dislocations, for better or worse.
The good(ish) news for Sumatra was that in 2008 the government decided it was time to protect the forests. I had no expectation that I would see a Sumatran tiger or a Sumatran rhinoceros or a Sumatran elephant or a Sumatran orangutan. All of these species remain some of the most critically endangered animals on the planet. The best I could hope for in my brief trip is that these animals might still be there if I could ever make a return visit. That may still be true. I was very moved by Douglas Adams’ book Last Chance to See and his co-author Mark Carwardine has returned to monitor the progress of those endangered species. As Adams reminded us, it’s not just species that are endangered:
‘We flew to Bali. David Attenborough has said that Bali is the most beautiful place in the world, but he must have been there longer than we were, and seen different bits, because most of what we saw in the couple of days we were there sorting out our travel arrangements was awful. It was just the tourist area, i.e., that part of Bali which has been made almost exactly the same as everywhere else in the world for the sake of people who have come all this way to see Bali.’
Caveat emptor: my free associations may be incomplete and incorrect.