Voices of the Rainforest
THE KALULI PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN the remote Bosavi rainforest in Papua New Guinea believe that the voices of the rainforest echo those of their ancestors. The opening images of the new feature documentary, Voices of the Rainforest: A Day in the Life of Bosavi situate us in a rainforest, with a Haido palm poking out from a rich canopy of tropical trees, and the gurgling of a waterfall or the patter of rain mingled with the calls of numerous frogs, birds, and insects. The songs of the Bosavi people suggest that spirit relatives appear to them as birds. Nature is not a thing apart for the Bosavi; she might be a conduit to a great-grandmother.
Director Steven Feld, a School for Advanced Research Senior Scholar, first went to Papua New Guinea and Bosavi in 1976-1977 to do research as a doctoral student in anthropology and linguistics. His 1979 dissertation became the book Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. In 1991, he released the popular CD, Voices of the Rainforest, with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
In the first 60 minutes of the documentary, Feld uses still images from his research trips between 1976 and 1999 to visualize the original sound concert, which is redolent with birdcalls. Some 20 minutes into watching the film, a Townsend’s solitaire, a songbird, began to repeatedly graze my window. In my years as a birder, I have rarely witnessed such behavior, and I thought this was some fluke, but the solitaire persisted. It came around to another window and perched there, incredibly, for 20 minutes more, perhaps wondering about the rich birdsong it had just heard.
“The concert was recorded at all height and depth layers of the forest, with sounds of some 75 birds and dozens of insects all part of the everyday experience of Bosavi people,” Feld said. “These sounds are equally ‘natural history’ and ‘cosmology’ for Bosavi people; all of them are ‘voices’ that tell time of day, season of year, forest conditions, but also signal the presence of ancestors who speak.”
In the context of the Bosavi belief system, which personifies elements of nature, the documentary’s tree-cutting sequence feels especially brutal. When the pith inside a tree trunk is repeatedly hacked, it feels akin to a crime being committed. The insides of trunk upon trunk are exposed, until the trees fall and there is no going back. When the Bosavi cut down their trees, they are ostensibly destroying bits of their past. The first hour of the documentary has a mysterious feel, and only when I read the chapter summary did I realize that this section is titled “Cutting Trees for a Garden.”
Rainforests have famously been logged and decimated around the world, shrinking the diversity of animal species, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and hastening climate change. Papua New Guinea is no exception. While a later interview in this documentary suggests that the Bosavi try to keep commercial loggers at bay, the logging in neighboring areas makes one worry about the fate of the region and the exquisite birds that live in this tropical jungle.
In a later sequence, Bosavi men being painted for a dance are superimposed with still images of birds. It is as if the birds, hidden though they might be in the forest canopy, are also taking in the activities of
Priyanka Kumar For The New Mexican