Sunday, December 28, 2008


This is a terribly sad post with which to end the year ... I have been avoiding finishing it for days. But it has been a hell of year ... a year of enormous loss. So with that ...

I spent the day wandering today ... I wanted to spend some time thinking about the film that my oldest friend, Ian Mackenzie, showed us last night. The film is called The Last of the Nomads, and it is part of a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) series called The Adventurers. (Bizarrely, the full version of the film is only available in Canada; if you are in Canada, see it here.) The film won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The film is about Ian's 15-year work with the Penan people of Sarawak; Ian has some further material on the Penan and his work here.

The essence of the film is about loss ... in this case, the loss of language, heritage, and way of life of a people who practiced harmony in a land of plenty for countless generations. The loss is cruel, and heartless, the result of the immoral greed of the ruling caste of Malaysia that enables the rape of the primeval rain forest which is the ancestral home of the Penan. They tried to stop the bulldozers in the 80s with their bodies, but they were carted away. The film documents the moment when Ian discovers that the last of the nomadic Penan have settled and sowed crops.

There is no doubt that this was "inevitable" in the sense of the conflict between industrial power and greed against a people armed with sticks and time. Social structures morph and change, and they can come to an end. Countless nomadic societies have settled ... not only now but for thousands of years. But the inevitable aspect of this cannot mask that it did not have to be such a guillotining ... that a rational approach to forest resources could have allowed sustainable extraction and continued forest-living for the peoples who, by any standard of dispassionate justice, "own" that forest.

But this film is about loss ... about an execution ... about the terminal act in the assault of a government on one of its people who were in the way of greed.

So I took a large part of the day to think about loss both in the broad, historical context of what Ian showed us about the Penan and in a more personal sense. I went to Three Wells in Mill Valley, a place where a seasonal stream cascades through a forested gully. My old friend June grew up in Mill Valley and played there as a child in the 30s long before Mill Valley became the preserve of a rich liberal caste who seem to shun you as you walk the back roads ... perhaps a projection of my imagination since I have long observed how the rich look askance at those who invade their preserves without invitation. June showed Three Wells to our mutual friend Kurt, who was a mentor and best friend, and who perished of the plague in 1992. Kurt and I went to Three wells on several occasions to sit by its cascading waters and examine the Universe, as he would call our discussions.

Loss is everywhere in human existence ... it is the sine qua non of progress and change and both personal and social development. That is not praise for loss, nor does it equate one loss with another. We cannot hold back the hands of time, as it were, and the hands of time are driven by loss. My education in loss, as I have addressed from time to time in these scribblings, was AIDS ... "the Deaths", I have called it ever since ... and I had to come to grips with the unendurable. Not unique ... and I not so much comforted myself as assuaged my fears by thinking of other more horrible losses that at least someone survives.

Remember the 2004 tsunami. Ian was in San Francisco when it happened, and together we consumed the news insatiably. We had traveled together in Aceh, and knew some of the scenes. Watching the footage was addictive, not only because of the sheer horror or it, but also because of the vicarious participation in loss ... trying to fathom the unimaginable, trying to settle your mind on top of something that cannot be endured.

But, of course, it is endured. As one reads history, that is the remarkable thing about our species, that we endure against all odds. The results, let alone the causes, are not always pretty ... and there is endurance against that which cannot be controlled and endurance against that which ought never to have been.

There is also the less panoramic but more personal loss. Three local institutions emblematic of an earlier period in the history of the Castro (the San Francisco neighborhood where I live and where the defining early events of gay liberation occurred) ... Welcome Home, a hippyish greasy spoon that was a haven for gay clones in the 70s and 80s; All American Boy, a long-time clothier who supplied the clones with plaid shirts and jeans back in the day; and Gay Cleaners, the Chinese laundry run by the strangely cinematic and curiously named Gay family, apparently kicked out with a month's notice after 30 years by a greedy landlord who evidently does not read the Wall Street Journal. I am cranky about these losses because they signal the yuppification of our gentrified neighborhood, and I loathe all the cell-phone toting yuppies with their dumb-struck boyfriends in tow. I fear the loss of my neighborhood.

What sort of a loss is that by comparison with a people who lose their homeland or their way of life. Our society turns over at a furious pace ... an unsustainable pace, one might argue, but we still wait for the final proof on that. One has to be careful to balance one's sense of outrage at loss against the greater losses that we witness daily in the New York Times.

Loss. No future without it. Indeed, there is not past without it. One cannot address lass without thinking of one of my guiding aphorisms ... to whit, that there is no such thing as a zero sum game.

I won't spend a lot of time thinking of a loss from which greater gain was had ... do we have modern Europe without the guillotine, Napoleon, the Franco-Prussian War, the two great wars? Probably not, although that is not to say that all the horrors were the sine qua non. Could it not have gone another way? It turns out that there is not a lot of support in history for a flower child notion that history would have been much better if only everyone just got along.

But that is never a justification for the horrors of the moment. It is no argument that we cannot "at this moment, at this time" (paraphrasing Obama) apply reason and find ways for all sides to benefit. I think of Gaza in that sense.

And I think of those poor last nomads, Ian's friends, living in a forest hut yards from their more settled cousins, wistfully and sadly, if not bitterly, contemplating a loss whose contours even they cannot fully measure. There is no good reason for it; only greed ... a well-known historical reason. I quibble with Ian about how he records the oral texts of this people before they disappear. But I admire his courage in being willing to witness up close the agony of people unjustly stripped of their heritage, and to be willing to bear witness so that people in the future may remember these last nomads.

As I thought about this and watched the water in Three Wells, I remembered old Kurt, dead these 15 years. I remembered talking with him about issues just like this as we together watched the water swirl at Three Wells. Loss, and the future, and the unimaginable that comes true no matter what.

Photos by Arod of Three Wells, Mill Valley, California.

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