Earth tones

Voices of the Rain­for­est

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

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