Chapter 5: To Care For the Forest
Chapter 9: The Woman Who Was Born a Boy
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Chapter 5: To Care for the Forest
Often at night I would stretch out on my back with Mo-Baug, one of the older men in the settlement, in the cleared area in front of my house while he patiently described the Teduray star constellations and their stories.
"Look, there," he said on a particularly lovely evening. "Those three bright stars. That is Seretar, the hunter. And those two smaller ones, they are the jaw of a wild pig, called Bakà, that he killed."
I was learning about their zodiac because forest Teduray used the night sky as a calendar. They believed that, like all of nature, the stars in the sky were put there for them, a gift to help them live. People carefully noted the movement of the constellations as the months passed, and from their position they calculated when the rains would come, or the dry season, or the best time to plant. I wanted to know how they did it, and little by little Mo-Baug told me. He was a fine old man of the forest and a specialist in storytelling.
On this particular night the sky was a deep black and the stars shone more brightly than I had ever seen them shine before. In Figel there was no smog, no luminance from nearby cities--just the quiet of night and the incredible brilliance of the star-filled sky. Mo-Baug's Teduray diction was a bit hard for me to understand because the old storyteller had very few teeth left, and his mouth was always full of betel quid. "And that one, that bright star with its three little cousins, that is Fegeferafad, a man known as a brave defender of his family's honor." Fegeferafad was made up of the brilliant star we call Procyon (his head) and stars we in the West consider part of Orion's dog and the twins, Castor and Pollux (his arms). My friend now began recounting the stories he knew about Fegeferafad, just as so often before he had spun out the myths associated with the other constellations.
As Mo-Baug was talking I saw a satellite crossing the sky. I interrupted the old man in midsentence and, using the polite kin term, used for relative and non-relative alike, said, "Grandfather, do you see that star that is moving?"
He watched the bright dot move slowly across the sky for a few seconds, and then said in a hushed voice, "Yes, I see it."
I was just delighted. I thought to myself that surely I was about to be told an "instant myth." I was going to see the myth-making process in its very inception. He would tell me it was a young man going to his forest garden, or, perhaps, a hunter chasing a wild pig. I said to him, with great anticipation, "What is it?"
"Mo-Lini," he said softly, "it is a satellite."
Mo-Baug had learned about satellites once when he was at the Lebak market and heard a launch described over a vendor's radio. He had no idea how--or why--people put a star up in the sky, and he assumed that it carried a pilot, which it more than likely did not, but he knew the English word. I was totally astonished and must have grinned from ear to ear--it was the first English word I had ever heard from him. But I merely replied, "Oh, yes, it is a satellite, isn't it."
* * *
Traditional stories--myths about nature and the spirits and the beginnings of the world--were something everybody in Figel delighted in. And everyone above adolescence was aware of the general outline and thrust of the most common creation and nature myths, even though there was lots of variation in the particulars of how different people remembered them. Knowing them in detail and telling them with verve and suspense and humor was a specialty. Mo-Baug was a specialist in "the old stories," as were Mo-Bintang and Mo-Sew, the two principal Figel neighborhood shamans. During my stay in Figel I spent many a fascinating evening in the big house listening to them and other storytellers visiting from other communities tell their tales. But it was not just the specialist storytellers who spun yarns; almost everyone knew some stories and enjoyed telling them.
In the local version of Teduray creation stories, Tulus, the Great Spirit who created all things, actually made human beings four different times, but in each case the purpose was "so that they could take good care of the forest."1 In the fundamental Teduray cosmic scheme, the forest--or nature in general--was created to supply humans with abundance of life, and they were here to live harmoniously with it and to see to its well-being.
I never heard how the Great Spirit originated. Whenever I would ask, people would say something like, "Well, I have no idea. The Great Spirit was just there at the beginning of things." But most people in the Figel area seemed to know the following version of the story of human creation, which I first heard told by two fine storytellers, Mo-Bintang and his wife.
First of all, the Great Spirit created the forest (the world) and then human beings ("the people you can see") and the spirits ("the people you can't see"), both out of mud. The Great Spirit was without gender, neither male nor female, and in making the first man and woman the Great Spirit made them somewhat different, in one key respect, from people now: the man had a penis like men today, but he was the one who gave birth to babies. To keep his penis from bursting in childbirth, therefore, he had to wind it many times around with rattan lashing. But childbirth was, of course, still horribly painful for him. So it was not long before the man who birthed the babies and the woman who suckled them agreed that the situation was unworkable. How could the men care for the forest if they had to endure such agony and indignity?
Because both of the first humans were shamans and so could see and speak to spirits, they pleaded with the Great Spirit to change the way babies were born. The Great Spirit wanted to help them out, of course, so, gently packing the two of them and all their children back into one big mud ball, the Great Spirit tried again. The Great Spirit made two persons, each with a head, body, two legs, and two arms just like before, and then thought the situation over carefully. Finally the Great Spirit took a bolo and put a mighty slash between the woman's legs, such that henceforth she would have the babies. But the handle flew off the bolo and stuck to the man, between his legs. So that's how we got to be like we are now. Childbirth was still somewhat painful for the woman, but much less so than it had been for the poor man. That was the second creation.
Then there were four people: a "black" man (meaning the color of the Teduray) who was married to a "white" woman (the color of Chinese and Europeans) and a white man who was married to a black woman. They were very careful to respect the spirits and honor nature by scrupulously caring for its well-being. But one day the white man eloped with the white woman, and they sailed off in an outrigger and went to Sung-Sung. (Sung-Sung was often identified with Hong Kong by Upi Teduray when I was there, but originally it was just some vague place "far across the sea.") The remaining black man and woman therefore married and became the ancestors of the Teduray. When she eloped with the white man, the white woman was pregnant by her previous husband, so her first child, born across the sea, was dark. From then on, all her children were white. The firstborn became the ancestor of all black people, and the others multiplied into the Chinese, the Spanish, and the Americans.
One day, after the Teduray had grown to be a numerous people, a great shaman named Lagey Lengkuwos visited the Great Spirit "beyond the sky to the east"; he returned deeply impressed by the great beauty of the Region of the Great Spirit. In fact, he decided that it was much nicer than the forest where he and the Teduray lived, and so Lagey Lengkuwos led all the Teduray people on a great journey to relocate in the land of the Great Spirit. This journey was described in a long epic poem called the Berinarew, which in its entirety required some eighty or so hours to chant. That evening, though, Mo-Bintang and his wife sang just one short section. It came from near the end of the epic, where the Great Spirit welcomed Lagey Lengkuwos and his people and gave them a place to live beyond the sky. This state of affairs, however, meant that no one remained to care for the forest, so the Great Spirit once again created a new group of Teduray.
This was still not the final creation. There needed to be one more, after Lagey Sebotan, another great shaman, used the Berinarew as a guide to replicate Lagey Lengkuwos' feat of leading everyone beyond the sky. Once again, the Great Spirit had to create more Teduray, and these were the ancestors of the people alive today.
These myths were consistent with all I knew of the Teduray people of the forest. The Great Spirit created people to enjoy and care for the world. When the first creation didn't work well, like a good helper the Great Spirit made the humans another time, in a way that allowed them greater contentment. It was a quintessential Teduray myth, with no hierarchy, no coercive power, no violence. How unlike our Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden by an offended monarch God!
* * *
The world the Teduray believed they were created to care for did not "belong" to anyone. It was a kind of grand public domain, there for everybody to use and enjoy. To illustrate this, I need to explain a word that named a very common concept in their thinking. The term is géfê.
To be géfê of something was to have exclusive rights over its present use. A couple was said to be géfê of their house, the man géfê of his wife, and the wife géfê of her husband. People were géfê of their tools and indeed of any object, person, or even any ceremony over which they had legitimate personal use and interest. Although the word could be loosely glossed into English as "legitimate owner" or, more simply, "owner," the essence of the Teduray concept in fact suggested nothing more than present right-of-use. Thus a forest garden site "belonged" to the couple who were its géfê, only from the time it was first chosen and publicly marked until it was completely harvested. After that, they no longer "owned" it--were no longer its géfê.
To steal something to which a person had this right-of-use was, of course, wrong and would cause a bad gall bladder. But that seldom happened. Teduray didn't compete to own things any more than they competed over anything else. The world that sustained them was simply too full of fine things for everyone. The main stealing that took place involved other spouses. That was commonplace, and I will be discussing this situation later on. Making off with anything else, however, was rare. I saw no sign of greed in this community, no urge to enhance one's own property at the expense of another person's, and no gloating about having more than someone else. Competition, greed, and self-promotion were simply alien to how Teduray understood the good life.
* * *
The intimate interaction with nature that traditional Teduray enjoyed was reflected most clearly in their economic practices. One evening in May, just a few days after we had returned from our first trip home to Mirab, Mer, Aliman and I were eating some dinner with Ideng-Emét and Mo-Emét, the young couple who fed us and helped us out in many domestic ways. Mo-Emét said to me, "Mo-Lini, come with us tomorrow to our garden in the forest. We are all going to plant rice."
"Yes, just-right," I told him.
I was delighted because I knew that rice planting was one of the most important--and most festive--events in the annual cycle of forest gardening. I had already been to Mo-Emét and Ideng-Emét's forest garden several times since Mo-Emét first claimed and marked it off some four months earlier. "Swidden" is the technical term for the field cleared in the forest for a family's annual cropping. Every year, Mo-Emét, like the other Figel men, chose a new swidden site while out hunting in the "off season" following harvest. He would scout for such positive factors as suitable kinds of growth, availability, and soil type. Each family's site from the previous year was then allowed to lie fallow and return to forest, not to be cut and burned again for many years.
Earlier, in January, all the Figel men had gone with him to mark his choice of site. This event involved their doing a small amount of ritualized clearing of undergrowth but, most important, it was the occasion when Mo-Emét formally expressed his respect for the spirits of the forest and asked them for permission to work that site. At that time, the men erected a small bamboo rack at one corner of the proposed swidden, while Mo-Emét listened carefully for the call of a small forest bird believed to communicate omens from the spirits to the humans. The moment he heard the sound of the omen bird, he was to point in that direction and interpret whether the spirits wished to let him use the area for his garden. After several minutes we heard a sharp cry from the bird, and Mo-Emét pointed directly in front of him--one of the directions that meant the spirits were agreeable. If he had heard the call behind him, or in front of him but at an unfavorable angle, everyone would have gone to a different corner and tried again.
Each man now lashed a tiny tube of cooked rice from which he had eaten a single grain to the little offering rack. This was to honor the spirits, whose cooperation throughout the coming swidden cycle would be important to the success of everyone's site. Mo-Emét's site was the first one to be ritually marked that year, because by watching the stars he had chosen the earliest day of any of his neighbors. All the neighborhood men joined in on the first ceremony, waiting until the next day to go off and mark their own sites individually. They would not make any offerings to the spirits, but they would carefully attend to the call of the small bird.
The cooperation of all Figel neighborhood men in marking Mo-Emét's site was just the first of many times they would work together in neighborhood swiddens in the months to come. The next step was to slash the underbrush and the Figel men had did as a group, proceeding day by day from one new plot to the next until all of the neighborhood's swiddens were slashed. Then they made the same one-after-another rotation to cut down the large trees on every family's site. The size of the swiddens, about one hundred yards square, was too large for any one man to have done the hard work of cutting the underbrush and then the big trees himself; but by working together, they got the job done in good time. Each man then burned the cut-down debris on his own field. When the burned swiddens had all cooled down, the neighborhood women went from one to another and planted corn.
After the corn was in the field and growing, each family spent time studying the sky to determine the best time to plant rice. This was the most sensitive calendrical decision of the year. Mo-Emét had reckoned the position of the constellations with great care and chosen what he believed was the most auspicious day by interpreting the phase of the moon.
At daybreak on the designated morning, the entire Figel neighborhood--women and men, adults and children--gathered at Figel settlement. As we headed down the trail to Mo-Emét's plot, several people played gongs, partly to alert the spirits to what was happening and partly because the Teduray loved music and played it often, especially when, like today, they were engaged in a jovial and communal activity. Mo-Emét and his brother, Mo-Tong, carried baskets of rice seed from the previous year's harvest of Mo-Emét's swidden. Ideng-Emét and several other women carried some chickens and other foods destined for the day's feasting. Planting rice was a hard but happy job, and there was much joking and laughing and, especially among the young people, erotic teasing.
As soon as we arrived at the site, everyone formed a circle around what would be Ideng-Emét and Mo-Emét's ritual plot in the center of the field. About twelve feet square, it had been marked off with poles that were decorated with many items having spiritual meanings. A small saucer with some rice seed from the previous year's ritual plot was placed in the middle to signify the continuity of people's need for food. A comb was hung on one of the poles, representing the wish of all that the rice stalks would grow neatly and abundantly like well-cared-for hair. A mirror ensured that the spirit-guardian of wild pigs would see his own reflection and be too frightened to encourage any pigs to attack the maturing grain. The last item to go on the poles was a necklace that symbolized womanhood and fertility. The gong players led everyone in single-file procession around the ritual square four times, then continued playing as Mo-Emét and Ideng-Emét planted the seed from the little saucer in the plot. The rice that would grow from that seed would provide the saucer seed for the following year.
When the ritual plot ceremonies were finished, all the planters prepared to sow the swidden with rice. The rice the forest Teduray cultivated was dry rice and went directly into the ground, in contrast to the wet rice varieties grown in the lowlands in flooded paddies. The men cut six-foot long sticks from hardwood poles found among the burned debris on the field and sharpened one end to a symmetrical point. These "dibble sticks" were then used to poke a hole in the ground so that the rice could be planted. Each woman hung a woven rattan basket from her left shoulder by a carrying strap. Along with the seed, the women carried a few small wisps of kapok (a cottonlike substance) in thier baskets, so that the load would magically seem as light as the kapok.
Starting at the top of the field, Mo-Emét and his male companions went first, roughly abreast, back and forth across the entire width of the swidden, driving their stick into the ground every foot or fifteen inches. For a little while--for the fun and companionship of it--Mer and I put down our notebooks and joined in the dibbling. "You'd better watch out, Mo-Lini! The spirits will take your books!" someone called out. Awkward though I was, dibbling was fun.
Ideng-Emét and the women followed, also forming a flanking line, dropping seeds into the holes. Ideng-Emét told me later that fifteen to twenty seeds generally end up in each hole, but that expert seeders could place fewer than ten, a highly appreciated talent. I had often seen young girls, back at Figel, being trained by their mothers to plant rice and corn seed. They devoted many hours to practicing with small pebbles or sand. I noticed, however, that in the actual seeding of a field no one criticized anyone for doing a poor job.
As the planting proceeded, no one stopped during the sweeps across the swidden to urinate, prepare betel, or resharpen a stick. But every so often, a break was called to take care of such necessities. All through the planting the atmosphere was festive with much playful shouting. The men called out encouragement to each other, such as "Hurry up!" or "Watch out! You will be overtaken by the women!" The women would respond with, "Don't be slow. We're coming up on you."
I was always somewhat surprised at the bawdy humor of the Teduray. Ideng-Emét once yelled at Mo-Emét, "Husband, the way you are poking that stick into the ground reminds me of last night, when you did some splendid thrusting and poking as well!"
And he shot back, "Wife, if you had as much seed in your loins as you have in that basket, we would surely have too many children!"
Another woman chided her husband that she wouldn't mind if his erections got as big as his dibble stick, and he promised her that she would soon be surprised and happy. This lively repartee went on all through the day. Everyone had great fun, and the time passed quickly.
Throughout the planting, some prohibitions were scrupulously observed. Workers never husked a rice seed with their mouths, for fear that rats and rice birds would do the same thing to the coming crop. They didn't blow mucus from their noses, since seed-stealing insects are sensitive to that sound and could be attracted. They never picked any of the small weeds growing along the planters' path, as the rice might be similarly uprooted by wild pigs. And they never ate anything within the swidden's boundaries, lest rats, pigs, insects, and birds do the same to the rice. Several of the children were given the task of broadcasting sesame and millet seeds around all four edges of the swidden. A good portion of these grains would grow and be used for food, but the main rationale for the practice was that it provided a distraction to ants and lured them away from the newly planted rice seed.
About midmorning, Ideng-Emét and several other women were replaced on the planting line so they could prepare a simple but hearty meal near the perimeter of the swidden. She and Mo-Emét had brought all the food for this meal from home, and they shared it with all the workers. In subsequent days, when helping the other families plant their fields, Ideng-Emét and Mo-Emét would be similarly fed by the owners of those swiddens.
The field was fully planted by late afternoon, when everybody again gathered around the ritual plot in the center. Led by Mo-Emét and Ideng-Emét, each man poked one hole and each woman planted a few seeds. The men then left their dibble poles stuck in the ground within the ritual plot; Mo-Emét took some of each of the various types of rice seed that had been planted and set them aside to use for reseeding areas that "took" poorly, while Ideng-Emét divided up all the remaining seed among those present. This rice was taken home, where it was pounded, cooked and eaten that night so that, even if someone who had helped in the planting were to die before harvest, she or he would still have eaten from this field.
Mo-Emét and his wife then cleared away all the ceremonial items from the ritual plot. The procession formed and, as a familiar tune was hammered out on the gongs, everyone walked four last times around the center plot and headed back to Figel. From there, the families from other settlements in the neighborhood went home.
This working together on one another's swiddens defined the "neighborhood." The twenty-nine households in seven settlements that made up Figel's neighborhood referred to each other as "people of Figel" or "people of the same inged"--a word that in general means "place" but specifically refers to the home territory of those who share in swidden work and associated rituals. Neighborhood cooperation in shifting cultivation activities didn't end with planting rice. Although Ideng-Emét and Mo-Emét went on by themselves to establish a great variety of secondary plants in their field, amid and around the sprouting rice--fruit trees, root crops, vegetables, spices, and the like--and Ideng-Emét and her son would work alone on their own to keep it as weed free as possible, the whole community would return in early September to harvest the mature rice. At that time again, each family's swidden would be harvested one after the other by the whole neighborhood.
Harvesting was characterized by sharing. The reaping of the rice itself was done by the women, who cut off the panicles and gathered them into bundles while the men stacked the accumulating bundles in piles beside the swidden. Before hauling the rice back home, each participating woman received one-fifth of all she harvested as her personal share. Such sharing was an insurance policy assuring that, even if their own swidden's crop failed or was totally eaten by rice birds, every family would end up with plenty of rice from other fields they had worked on, rice they needed both for food and for seed the following year. The numerous other crops that the swiddens yielded were not formally shared in this way, but no one would have considered letting a neighboring family to go hungry, so informal sharing of just about all kinds of food was common practice. The attitude was clearly that there was always enough for everyone.
Ritualized sharing happened four times during the year, when all the families of Figel neighborhood came together for a sacred meal called kandulì. These ritual meals marked significant points in the cultivation cycle and were characterized by every family eating some rice from every field they worked on and serving some rice to everyone who worked on their field. I will be discussing kandulì in a later chapter; here I want only to note that these simple community meals gave powerful expression to the interdependence and mutual aid of everyone in the neighborhood and to the necessary help of the spirits, who were given food offerings as well. Figel people had no other major communal rituals: the kandulì testified eloquently enough to the essence of their life together.
Once the principal crops of rice and corn had been harvested, Ideng-Emét and Mo-Emét's swidden would continue to yield fruits and tubers and other foods for many years, but it would not be recut, reburned, or replanted. People knew that any additional cropping on the plot would put it in serious peril of transformation into savanna grassland, which could never be cultivated, and they did not want that to happen. So they allowed their harvested swiddens to lie fallow, gleaning what continuing bounties as they could while the forest reclaimed the land and restored itself. True, the forest would not come back just as it had been--the huge trees of the primary forest took centuries to grow--but within a decade it would become mature second-growth rainforest with much the same general structure and ecological characteristics it had had before it had been worked. There was no set rule about how soon an old swidden might be cultivated again, but in practice no one ever returned to work one for a long time.
* * *
The various tasks associated with swidden work were only one part of the total economic activities of my Figel friends. While the Figel people were swidden cultivators to be sure, they were at the same time accomplished hunters, expert fishers, and keen gatherers of wild food and other necessities from the forest they knew with such intimacy.
During my stay in Figel one of my neighbors, Mo-Santos, kept hunting dogs, and I became fast friends with one of them. He had no name--the Teduray didn't give names to their dogs or cats, which they thought of mostly as hunters, guards, and mousers. I somewhat furtively--I didn't want to cause trouble--began privately calling him "Datu," but stopped speaking to him entirely when Mer reminded me that it was against the customs to give animals human names or to speak to them as though they could speak back. In Teduray logic, to do so was disrespectful of their true nature and would bring serious punishment upon the disrespectful person. I honored that, but I did think of my little chum as Datu in my mind and wordlessly fed him scraps of food whenever I had a chance. He, in return, lavished on me the sort of affection that his species gives with such abandon.
In addition to Datu and Mo-Santos's other hounds, there were a few dogs and cats in the Figel settlements. Several families kept pigs for the meat, and just about every house raised chickens for food and eggs. With the exception of these few domesticated animals, however, it was wild animal life that occupied people's attention.
All the men hunted regularly, and in certain seasons--notably from June to December, after the major work of clearing the swiddens was completed--hunting and fishing constituted their main activities. Even I took to going hunting almost daily. I believed in those days that I needed some meat each day, so the first thing I usually did each morning was make a brief trip into the forest or along the river to shoot a monkey or large bird with a .22 rifle Hammy Edwards had loaned me. I would feel no such compulsion today and, indeed, would be quite content just to eat the splendid array of fruits, grains, fish, and vegetables that Ideng-Emét regularly prepared for us. But I remember, as a colorful part of my two years in Figel, that I hunted for some of my own food. The problem is, I didn't really have the stomach to be a hunter. The meat tasted just fine, but monkeys were too much like people for me to face up to the hunter's task of cutting them up and cleaning them. I left all that to my research assistants, something I doubt very much they had expected to be part of their job description.
The most prized game animals for the Figel men were wild pigs and deer, but they didn't turn down smaller catches like monkeys and a variety of fowl. A kill was always accompanied by a short speech to the appropriate spirits, in which the hunter respectfully asked their permission to kill that particular animal and expressed his gratitude for its role in sustaining him and his family. I made the same little speech to the spirits myself, whenever I shot any game. It seemed the right and respectful thing to do.
Much of the hunting was done at night, when many kinds of prey were most vulnerable. The darker the night the better--except that hunting was forbidden on the nights when there was no moon at all, at the request of the spirit caretakers of the forest animals. The first three nights of a new moon were thought to be great times to hunt, and the fourth night the best of all, a time of especially good luck. The sixth night after a full moon was also held to be particularly auspicious.
Figel men had a wide range of hunting techniques, from bow and arrow or blowgun to group hunts. They knew how to erect numerous kinds of cleverly devised traps and snares. Many of the more technologically complex methods, such as spiked pits, log falls and spring spears, were considered, like storytelling, to be specializations. Although women seldom participated in hunting, which often included running hard though the forest, the men were on the whole superb and resourceful hunters who knew the forest and the habits of game intimately.
People enthusiastically augmented their diet with fishing, too. A number of relatively large rivers flowed down from the mountains, and all traditional Teduray neighborhoods were located within easy reach of some stream rich in fish, eels, crustaceans, and other aquatic foods. Because the watercourses were slow, shallow, and clear during the relatively dry season from November through April, and often flooded during the times of peak rainfall in July and August, there was a certain seasonal quality to the dozens of fishing techniques the Figel people used. Some methods required clear water, while others, like large stationary fish traps built right in the middle of the Dakel Teran, depended on the river being swift and flooded.
Men and women both worked the streams and brought in significant catches. People ate most of what they caught, whether meat or fish, fresh, although large catches could be preserved by salting and drying or by smoking. As with hunting, so too with fishing: good luck was generally shared with settlement mates. No strict rules applied to fish, in contrast to the requirement that wild pigs or deer be equally divided among the entire neighborhood, but I saw lots of informal sharing. It just seemed to come naturally, one more piece of the mutual help which Teduray valued highly and practiced earnestly.
It would be hard to overstate the extent to which Figel families looked to the wild plants of the forest as a major source of food and other necessities. Even when blessed with superb harvests on their swiddens, a sizable portion of what they lived on came from gathering wild resources. The forest provided starch staples such as wild sweet potatoes, manioc, and taro, a vast assortment of vegetables, seeds, nuts, and pods, and a multitude of wild fruit for snacks as well as meals. Moreover, occasionally men but especially women--for gathering was one of their specialties--would bring home all sorts of goods needed in daily life, from construction materials to firewood, from medicines to a cosmetic oil for softening dry skin. For the plants that came from the forest, as for the catches from hunting and fishing, the spirits were always sincerely respected and thanked.
Just as women occasionally hunted, so men would cheerfully join in foraging for wild plant foods from the forest when needed, but gathering was primarily a specialty and expertise of women. Children of both sexes often went with their mothers to gather, and women taught the young ones from an early age to recognize edible fruits and plants. They showed them which barks served as soap and which could be pounded into bark-cloth, as well as the materials best suited to weaving baskets and traps, the plants that yielded beauty aids and pillow stuffing, and those that could be made into water containers. Children learned to identify and cut firewood, and came to know the best bamboo for house or trap construction. They learned to recognize and prepare rattan and suitable vines for lashings, to know which saps provided lamp fuel and which were effective in poisoning fish. The time spent gathering food also served as school. The years of childhood, and especially adolescence, were the principal time when traditional Teduray attained their easy and deep familiarity with the forest--their friendship with the forest. The forest was by no means just the scene for making swiddens; it was itself, like the river, regularly and richly harvested. The Teduray all believed what Mo-Emét once told me: "When we work with each other and with the spirits, there is plenty for us all." Much more than the market in Lebak, where they occasionally trekked for needed iron items, cloth, salt, or various sorts of exchange goods required in legal settlements, the rainforest all around them was the Figel people's true provider.
* * *
Actually, there was precious little they needed from the outside world. Other than certain items that had symbolic legal significance, such as necklaces, gongs, and betel boxes, the most important things Figel people got from the Lebak market were their iron tools. They didn't use money themselves, or know much about it, so they would take with them on the hike to the coast just enough rattan or other forest or garden product to sell to a vendor for the cash they needed to make their necessary purchases. Everyone knew how much rattan or tobacco was required to be able to buy a bolo or an ax blade. They would simply sell what they needed to sell, buy what they needed to buy, and go home. This limited relationship with the market, where they often were treated with little respect anyway, was part of a nearly total ignorance of the marketplace as an institution for maximizing advantages or profits. Economic competition was simply outside their experience, and their taste. When they went to market it was not to "do business," but to meet the few needs of their family that nature did not supply directly.
* * *
On balmy evenings when most people had stopped working for the day and there was still light enough to see, the men of Figel often played sifà, a game similar to hackysack, in the clearing in front of the big house. Standing in a large circle, using the inside of their bare feet, six or eight men would kick a woven rattan ball about the diameter of an American baseball from one to another. The idea was to keep the ball off the ground for as long as possible. I watched many a game of sifà and was always amazed at how expert Teduray men were at kicking the ball high in the air so that it came down in perfect position for another man, across the circle, to kick it further on its way. A number of women would generally watch, visiting with each other about the events of the day and cheering the men on. Sifà was a game of skill, but a cooperative, not a competitive one. Teduray did compete with each other in any aspect of their life; it simply was not seen as respectful. As the Teduray would say, "That's no way to live." Cooperation, in contrast, was part of the good life and highly valued. "The important thing" I heard many times, "is never to give anyone a bad gall bladder. That is what makes life good. Help each other live."
One evening, I sat on the little porch in front of my house watching a game of sifà and pondering how well it symbolized a huge difference between the Teduray notion of how to live and the one I had grown up with in the United States. Sifà was a splendid metaphor for Teduray life, because the way to win was for everyone to win, and the object of the game was to help all the other players do well. Sifà was a homey little drama of cooperation. On the other hand, I thought to myself, the game that best captured American life would have to be football, where competition and winning are everything. With its exalted stars, its institutionalized violence, its military vocabulary (quarterbacks throw "long bombs" and "march" the "offense" down the field to "victory"), and its ever-repeated drama of winning and losing, the NFL is "as American as apple pie."
Games reflect culture. American children may play hackysack, but much of our adult world is the setting for relentless, grinding competition to achieve and maintain what society holds to be good, a struggle for the highest of stakes, in which the aim is to defeat the opponent (as in warfare or similar rivalries), or to put the opponent out of business (another sort of warfare. A sense of scarcity, not abundance, underlies all we prize and do; that's "simply the way the world is." Indeed, for many of us our understanding of fundamental economic reality starts from the premise that there is not enough to go around. The resources for success and happiness are limited, so people cannot thrive equally--and many, our leaders tell us, don't deserve to anyway. In our society, worrying about someone else's feelings or being indiscriminately helpful might be nice, but "everybody knows" that nice guys finish last; for many Americans a gall-bladder rule would seem like "no way to live."
There are many excellent sides to being American; I love my country and would not choose to live anywhere else. But we tend to be an NFL, not a hackysack kind of country. As I watched the sifà ball lofting back and forth, I thought about how uncongenial the forest Teduray would find my native culture.
To Mo-Emét and Ideng-Emét, to Balaud and Mo-Baug--to all the Figel women and men--the forest was not just their "environment" or some "eco-zone." It was their world, their home, the place where their lives took place. They knew it intimately and they knew from their old stories that they had been created to care for it. That notion was the context for--and a fundamental part of--their spirituality, their understanding of what the world was like and how they ought to live in it.
They didn't own any part of nature the way their Maguindanaon neighbors believed they owned their land; they were merely user-owners, géfê, of whatever part they needed for however long they needed it. They shared the wealth of existence but they didn't possess it. Their lives were simple, but not poor, and life was a journey, not a battle. One of the women shamans once told me that the Great Spirit was the real owner (in our sense) of the world, but most forest Teduray would not have said even that. Such proprietary rights and privileges were so foreign to Teduray ways of thinking that she had to use the Maguindanaon word for "owner." Rather, they saw themselves as stewards, as caretakers of all that was.
This stance was manifest in every aspect of their lives. People took meticulous care to preserve the forest environment, even, as we have seen, to the point laboriously clearing mature forest to make new swiddens rather than recropping the previous year's. As a result they had lived untold generations in the forest--since "the beginning of time," they believed--without its becoming destroyed and replaced by grassland. They carefully protected certain forest trees, which they valued for fruit or other potential gifts. They avoided overcutting bamboo stands that they considered particularly useful. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were all carried out with care not to overexploit the natural resources on which human life depended. The traditional customs contained rule after rule of respect for the integrity of the environment: "Don't foul the river with excessive (fish) poison"; "Take only what you need from a fruit tree"; "Never cut or burn a swidden two years in a row, so that the forest can grow again." The forest was home and would always be home. It had to be guarded and conserved for future generations, even if that meant greater expenditure of labor in the present. But care of the forest was, after all, what the Teduray believed humans were created for.
1 The actual name of the creator spirit is Tulus. Wherever a Teduray spirit or cosmic realm does not have a translatable name I have assigned it an appropriate English title so that the massive number of Teduray names and titles do not become overwhelming to the reader.
Chapter 9: The Woman Who Was Born a Boy
In the evenings, when it got too dark for sifà, families usually gathered under their houses to eat and talk. Before long, musical instruments were brought out and the air began to fill with the sound of gongs, flutes, drums, and zithers of several sorts. People danced and human voices lifted in song. I loved the music of the Teduray, and they clearly did too.
One of the instruments that I particularly enjoyed was an eight-string zither, carved from a piece of large bamboo and often decorated with brightly colored bird feathers. When played by an expert, the bamboo zither made a sound similar to that of a harp.
One evening I was listening to my next-door neighbor, Ideng-Tong, play her zither, and I commented to Mo-Tong how lovely I found his wife's music. He said to me, "Mo-Lini, you should hear Ukà from Lange-Lange (a place several mountain crests away from Figel). She is the best of all Teduray zither players. Perhaps, she will come and play for you, and you can put that on your radio." He used the English word, but was referring to my tape-recorder.
I said, "Just-right, cousin. I would love to hear her play."
I might have known when I made that reply that word would get to Ukà and she would come when she had a chance. About two weeks later, one of the Figel men told me he had been in Lange-Lange and that Ukà said she would come play for me.
Not long after that, the celebrated musician came to Figel, and we had a most memorable bamboo zither festival. Ukà stayed for ten days, every evening playing for a couple of hours to those of us gathered around the still-burning cookfire under the big house. Ukà played several different kinds of pieces. Some were slow tunes of well-known love songs; others were fast, intricately repetitive traditional melodies. Some were her own compositions. Other people played their zithers or other instruments from time to time, and there was a bit of singing and dancing, but for the most part people knew that they were hearing the finest zither player of their day, and they urged her to play piece after piece. I made tape recordings and took some photographs, but mostly I just joined my companions in total enjoyment of her music.
One evening as Ukà was playing I asked the man next to me if she was married, because she had come to Figel accompanied by her brother, and her name didn't indicate any children. He replied, "Oh no, Mo-Lini, she can't be married. How could she have children? She is a mentefuwaley libun."
I had never heard that term before, but it was perfectly clear Teduray and meant "one-who-became-a-woman." I said, "Oh, so she is really a man?"
"No," he said, "she is a genuine woman!" His word for "genuine" was tentu, which means "real" or "actual."
But if she were really a woman, what did it mean that she became a woman? I was confused. (Remember that this whole conversation was in Teduray and therefore was without pronouns like "he" or "she," "him" or "her.")
I asked my companion, "Well, then, when she was born was she a boy or a girl?"
When he replied, I detected a slight in incredulity that I could be so dense concerning a perfectly clear situation. "She was born a boy, Mo-Lini. Don't you remember? I just said that she is one-who-became-a-woman!"
"So then, cousin,"--I, the dense stranger in his world, forged bravely on--"she is really a man, just dressed like a woman!"
My friend's disbelief at my inability to see what was right before my eyes seemed to go up a notch, edging toward a puzzlement equal to my own. He said, "Can't you understand? She is really a woman! She is one-who-became-a-woman."
So I played my trump card, sure it would clear up all this silliness: "Well, does she have a penis?"
"Yes, of course she has a penis," he said. "She is one-who-became-a-woman."
Finally I stopped quizzing him. In my world what identifies a man as "really" a male and a woman as "really" a female are their genitals, but evidently this was not so for the Teduray. In the months following this revelation, I asked several people about this phenomenon. I learned that in their view of things, what made you really a certain gender was the social role you played: how you dressed, how you wore your hair, what you did all day, how you were addressed by people, what gender you thought of yourself as being. And as far as Teduray were concerned, you could be whichever one you pleased. I later met a man who had been born a girl but who had chosen to be male and had lived a long life as a man. Most boys grew up wanting to be men and most girls grew up wanting to be women, but if anyone didn't and wanted to switch, nobody cared a whit. He or she was not thought of as strange or eccentric and, except that marriage was considered inappropriate, was treated just like everyone else.
Seeing my interest and opacity with regard to these people who changed gender, someone asked me, "Mo-Lini, don't you have ones-who-became-women and ones-who-became-men in America?"
"Well," I said, "we have women and men who wear the other's clothing, and we have men and women who would like to be the other gender."
"So, you see," he said, "it's just the same with you."
"No," I had to reply. "Many Americans give such people a bad time. They despise them and consider them bad people."
"Just because they want to be a different gender?" he asked, amazement on his face. And his next question still rings in my ears: "Why is that? Why are you people so cruel?"
* * *
This willingness to let people decide on their own gender took me completely by surprise. The whole notion that gender is a matter of social and cultural definition and not a biologically given fact began to be considered and discussed by feminist anthropologists in the mid-1970s, and today has become a commonplace within the discipline of anthropology as well as among feminist women and men. It is now clear that in every society being "male" or "female" is a question of who is understood to be what and for what reason--a piece of a given society's take on reality--rather than a straightforward question of anatomy. But I met Ukà almost a decade earlier and had never heard of such ideas. If I had, I would have been much less naive about gender.
Through persistent inquiry, however, I did come to some conclusions about gender in forest Teduray society. The reason the Teduray could casually and happily allow people to choose their own gender was that being a man carried no higher status than being a woman; men had no power to protect and defend.
When I first encountered this attitude on the occasion of Ukà's zither festival, it struck me as truly odd. But as I discussed it with many people over the following months and thought analytically about what they told me, the notion of freedom to change genders began to seem quite logical. So many features of Teduray life--their very positive attitude toward erotic pleasure, their concern for families as the context for economic viability, their strong commitment to the bearing and raising of children, the often-stated belief that people who chose to change genders were excluded from and irrelevant to marriage because they were irrelevant to procreation, and the total absence of gender politics--provided a social and cultural climate in which anxious concern about gender role-switching had no need or reason to exist.
* * *
I knew that in my culture, transvestites and transgendered people were sometimes homosexual and sometimes not, but I was curious whether Teduray ones-who-became-women and ones-who-became-men might be gay. Ukà had a family because she was part of her brother's pot. But did her choice of gender mean that she was cut off from physical love? I tried to ask about that too, but with less success. I concluded, though, that since they were considered irrelevant to the conception of children and thus didn't marry, and since persons who changed gender surely would not be denied love partners, ones-who-became-a-woman like Ukà probably had sex with men.
I made several attempts in different ways to get at the matter of sexuality, and in every case I was met with a complete lack of interest in the issue. I thought that perhaps I didn't know how to ask the question, but I eventually discovered, when Mer and I were doing concentrated and systematic work on the dictionary, that the Teduray language simply had no terms for homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. They knew such categories existed in other Philippine languages but, as with the distinction of spouses or siblings by gender, had apparently never thought them useful or necessary for their culture.
I didn't think to study homoerotic behavior in Figel; like gender, it was not something I had been sensitized to in my training. I never learned--never asked very clearly or directly--whether women had sexual relations with women, or men with men. I think they did, and I would be willing to bet that people considered erotic pleasure between persons of the same sex as fully acceptable.
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