When Peter Gardner first encountered some Paliyans, they were shy and friendly—but put off by his direct questioning. In order to relax the situation, he started quietly observing and taking notes. It worked. The Paliyans warmed up to him when they observed that he was trying to learn as their own children did—by quiet observation—and they soon accepted his presence by sharing their world with him. Gardner shares with us, in the same quiet way, a compelling autobiography of his professional career: the life and travels of an anthropologist as he learns about a peaceful people and other high adventures.
He certainly had his share of adventures in South India from 1962 to 1964. He was charged by enraged bulls along rural Indian roads several times, had near misses with a wide variety of dangerous animals, suffered from several serious illnesses, and had a nearly disastrous encounter with a potentially hazardous official. He obviously grew a great deal from his experiences.
Gardner tells a number of stories about his adventures that help bring his new memoir Journeys to the Edge to life. He is not one to inflate himself—his stories often show his failings as well as his strengths. For instance, at one point he traveled with a group of people into a forest area to visit some remote Paliyans, but the place where they had to spend the night was inhabited by numerous large animals.
He ignored the camping site chosen by the experienced leaders—it didn’t appeal to him—and he nearly got into trouble at a more picturesque site nearby. Fortunately, a gun-bearer had kept track of him, and protected him from blundering into the path of large bull elephant. Gardner’s habit of telling stories that show his mistakes increases his credibility, and his gentle way of handling encounters with others should impress his readers.
Though the book is a page-turner throughout, the first third covering his field-work with the Paliyans may provide the most interest for readers interested in peaceful societies. The author explains how speaking softly and maintaining a quiet presence is important to the Paliyan people, and he emphasizes that their society focuses on respecting one another. People “avoid any self-satisfied verbal assault,” he says (p.33).
He also shows how a sense of mutual respect extends to gender relations in their society. Neither spouse has any authority over the other. Both have equal rights to property, equal freedom in sexual matters, and do not feel critical or jealous if the other has an affair. A Paliyan man might say about his wife’s ongoing affair, “It’s not my business,” (p.34) and his deeds would match his words.
Gardner’s enthusiastic letters about the Paliyans to his contacts back in the United States prompted one skeptical response. A correspondent challenged him to make sure he was not filtering out signs of Paliyan hostilities, jealousies, and resentments because of his own affection for them. The challenger suggested he should find out more about their dream patterns. Gardner followed up on the suggestion and found that they did, indeed, have dreams of revenge or hostile actions against others. He learned, “they did harbor resentment!” (p.35)
The importance of the lesson was that Gardner realized that the Paliyans had tensions and conflicts like everyone else. But the author continued to learn how they were able to deal with stressful situations by moving away from others when necessary—by avoiding problems so they would not fester. He closes his section on the Paliyans by discussing the importance of his own friendships with some of the Paliyans, whom he came to treasure as individuals rather than just as research subjects.
Gardner writes about the Paliyans in a simple, direct, straightforward manner, much as one might imagine a Paliyan person would write—without pretension or affectation. It is as if the author is consciously showing his respect for his readers.
After his initial research trip to the Palni Hills of South India where the Paliyans live, Gardner wrote his dissertation, taught at the University of Texas, and taught at the University of Missouri. He describes in detail his numerous other international trips—to India, Japan, and to the Northwest Territories of Canada where he did a lengthy study of the Dene Society. In December 2000 he went back to South India with his youngest son to visit the Paliyans for four weeks.
Any reader is going to take issue with passages here and there in a book like this. Perhaps referring to the capital of Tamil Nadu State as Madras rather than the new name, Chennai, is understandable since it was still known by the older name when he first went to India in 1962. But using the outdated name for the Hindu holy city, Banaras, which was officially renamed Varanasi in 1956, is grating. But this is a minor quibble.
Overall, Journeys to the Edge is a sensitive, skillful narration of professional information about the author and an easy-to-read overview of his various research interests—the Paliyans, the Dene, the culture of India, and the culture of Japan. He brings in some personal and family information, but he correctly keeps the focus on his exciting professional life. This is an informative, interesting book to read and enjoy.
Gardner, Peter M. 2006. Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press