Why? Naturally!

My interest in the natural world goes back to before I knew there was anything else.
I was born in the spring, a few months before my parents embarked on a three year adventure to Borneo. It was quite brave and probably foolish of them to take my two year old sister and me on such an expedition. However, my father, the last generation of explorer-anthropologists, had far more imagination than he had practicality. My mother, by virtue of the fact that all the mundane aspects of life were thrust to her side of the marriage, was stoically practical and always too busy. But she was not born with the parental instincts or her parents’ guidance that might have raised red flags about the journey. They both had been brought up camping, and the primitive natural conditions in the great out-of-doors were a part of their shared romance. I have seen pictures of myself as an infant learning to sit up by a large canvas tent at a rough campsite on the shores of Lake George. That was the summer before I set out with my family to the interior of the great rain forests of Borneo. I didn’t stand a chance against the embrace of nature.
I can’t accurately say that those first years changed me forever. It’s not as if there was anything to change. I just started right off that way. In a place where there are no doors or closures on the windows, it wasn’t likely that my sister and I would develop a keen sense of “indoors”. In the wet tropics, outside is everywhere. I can’t remember any detail from those first years, just the profound sense that everywhere was home and I loved being home.
I was awakened gradually from this Eden by my reentry into the modern world at the age of about three. As in a dream, not all the features of my first memories make sense, only one thing is in focus at a time, and it seems to be ripe with mystery and higher meaning. Like a dream, there is one memory that always plays back in the present tense:
I am in a long, flat-topped hallway with no windows and no outside. A small set of two buttons is standing out from a raised rectangle on the wall. The top button is capped with an iridescent circle of mother of pearl. The bottom button is jet back and it sticks out a bit more from the wall. I reach up and push it because that is an important thing to do; it should be even with the more beautiful button above it. As I push it, it recoils back into the wall as if it were alive. All of a sudden, everything goes black! My father speaks in mildly admonishing tones and presses the pearl button. The hall comes back to life again.
As we walk down the hall I see another set of buttons and immediately escape from my mother’s grip to push the black one. Black again! I press the pearl one. Light! I start to do this again but a heavy hand on my shoulder stops me. “Don’t play with that” clearly means that this is one of those mysteries that is too important for me to explore. Adult mysteries are dangerous and strange, but very intriguing. (Later, my mother helped me to place this incident in a Kowloon hotel in 1957, on my way out of Borneo.)
But not everything had been too dangerous to explore, or I would have never been allowed to roam the way I apparently did. Growing up, I regularly heard about my venturesome exploits at the edge of the bornean jungle, in a time before I have memories to back up the stories: My toddling mishap with the horse who nosed me over and ended up stepping on my chest; the feverish aftermath of my curious exploration of a hive of tropical hornets. These are only the exploits my parents told me about. I have often wondered about little escapades, too mild to be mentioned or too clandestine to have been noticed. My parents protected me against the searing heat of world mysteries but not the hooves of horses or the sting of hornets. At two and three, I feared nothing.
One day, my parents related, that they lost track of my whereabouts in the late afternoon. They called and searched for me to no avail as the short tropical twilight approached. In the tropics, the sun sinks through the sky like a stone and disappears into the pool of night. By the time they found me, sitting under a tree looking at a trail of marching ants, night had fallen in earnest. My father told us this story when we were a bit older, and added that it was so dark, he never knew whether he had found his son or picked up a baby orangutan for adoption. I was too young, upon hearing this, to suspect that he was joking, and I remember sincerely wondering about my origins. “Orang”, as I had always known, means “man” in Malay. “Utan” means “of the jungle”. The many layers of this prophetic metaphor keep unveiling themselves as I live out my life. I never have been able to trace in my own mind how I feel so comfortable in trees or know the distinctly tangy taste of ants.
Story-telling was my father’s art-form. Every evening, when we were older and living with my grandmother in Long Island, we children, now three of us, would sit around listening to him recount the adventures of the day, events of the past or observations he had made in Paramaribo or Penang. Everything in life was a story. Up there with story-telling was his photography. When we were indoors, sometimes his slides would prompt a spontaneous story. But around the campfire, his stories came alive, in full-color, against the awesome mystery of the night. I hold images of myself and my sisters more vividly from his stories than from my living memory. Sometimes I can’t remember whether I recall the actual incident or just his retelling of it. But I grew up thinking of life as an unfolding story.
My grandmother had a black and white television. But it wasn’t for me. It didn’t have anything to do with the story we were living in. It was a tiny tube set behind a door in a massive piece of furniture. Television was the first thing I remember fearing. I hid behind the couch rather than watch it. There was something terribly wrong about it. It was the first story in which I didn’t belong.
When I was tricked into identifying with a character by the total immersion of the cinema, things became truly frightening. At some point, quite young, my parents took us to see “Tom Thumb”. The characters filled my sight; the sound was all pervasive, as in life. I thought “Tom” was me. Wasn’t this another one of my dream-stories that I just couldn’t recall from the sleep out of which I had only recently awakened? I was in a lot of danger in this story. Stolen by two giants; Perched precariously on a wall like Humpty Dumpty or in a bird nest in a tree. It might even have been a Disney movie, and in cartoons, but it was very, very real to me; and I didn’t like it at all!
I remember being frightened by the image changing from one view to another. Instantaneously! A face is there, and then in a split second, it disappears, nowhere to be found, and is replaced by another scene. This happened so rapidly, did I doze off and miss something? There is no way I can look at the face again to read it for clues about the story; it’s all happening too fast. I am confused; I can’t ask the story to stop and explain, the way I could with my father. I am missing something important. This was part and parcel of my panic: I couldn’t explore under my own power. I couldn’t sit and watch the fate of poor little Tom Thumb. The memory ends where I am in tears, trying to get a glimpse of the glowing movie screen, shrinking over the heads of the crowd as my father carries me on his back to the sun-filled light of day.
Ah! The outside was always there. Everywhere.

5 thoughts on “Why? Naturally!

    1. Landscaping the Sacred Post author

      My childhood was blessed by wonder and delight, but it was also blessed by tragedy. If you have read about my miraculous sister, you may understand what I mean. Blessings come in many forms. I feel fortunate to have recognized at least a few that have graced my life so far.

      Reply

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