When they are walking in the forest, the Batek are confident, even proud, of their abilities, but as they move along, they are also fearful at times of dangers. Lye Tuck-Po addresses this apparent paradox in a recent article appearing in an edited volume on the ethnography of walking. In the course of her discussion, Lye provides interesting information about the nature of the Malaysian rainforest, the gathering and hunting tactics of the Batek, and their beliefs about their landscape.
Malaysian forests, even the lowland patches of woods that the Batek live in, can be dense and forbidding—especially to a visiting anthropologist like Dr. Lye. Batek pathways differ from the roadways created by loggers, the paths used by Malays that connect their communities, or the hiking trails used by tourists. The Batek paths are just ways to get through the forests. They are narrow and not maintained at all. Indistinctly marked, they are ways for people to slip along and not much more.
The anthropologist, the author tells us from her personal experience, learns how to walk so as to avoid getting tangled in vines, impaled on thorns, or slipping in the mud. She adjusts herself to moving with people who are used to traveling through a forest together. She accepts their laughter when she slips, stumbles, trips and acts like an ungainly, non-Batek person—someone who is less graceful moving through the forested countryside than they are. She learns to slide down a steep, slippery slope on her rear, in contrast to even the Batek child who easily skips down the hill.
She also accepts the way the Batek put her near the head of any line of travel, so they can better keep an eye on her. That is the way they train their children, who also have to learn proper Batek ways through doing and being watched by their elders. She realizes that they consign the slow and the weak to the front, so that the whole group will not travel faster than the least capable among them, such as small children and a visitor.
Lye admits that during her visits among the Batek, she has had occasional qualms about creeping through the forest. But, she writes, she usually puts aside her fears of poisonous snakes and things that bite and crawl when she is with her Batek friends. Interestingly, though, they too have their fears. They are afraid of tigers and strangers, which they sometimes use as bogeys to scare children into good behavior.
She relates an interesting story about an encounter with a feared person. One evening someone entered a camp that she was in and said that Telabas, a well-known madman, had just been seen immediately across the river. The group quietly began to panic, and quickly decided to leave. They formed a consensus on where to go. In less than an hour, the entire band, over 60 people, had gathered their belongings, broken camp, and left for the new location. It was many hours of walking away. No one argued, no one disagreed with the consensus that they had to leave—immediately. As they walked quietly along the Batek pathways through the long night, everyone was clearly quite tense.
Some of the people knew Telabas, and others had actually seen his mad acts. All feared him. All agreed that leaving immediately, fleeing from any potential confrontation with him, would be the best thing to do. Also, they all knew the precise route to take to get to the agreed-upon location, where they could safely spend the remainder of the night. There was nothing random about their movement that evening—they knew exactly where they were going. In this instance, they were afraid of a potentially dangerous confrontation rather than of the forest itself.
The author explains that a pathway, a route, is a central symbol of Batek culture. One follows a path, in their language, even when leaving an established trail, just by pursuing an activity. People may decide to go somewhere, but they make various changes in plans as they are leaving. Then they change their minds along the way and get to the desired place, or not, as the circumstances develop.
Dr. Lye gives examples of this chaotic-seeming approach to organizing their daily paths. Individuals move about in camp, discussing and fussing over whether or not they will accompany others who are going somewhere. Plans are made spontaneously, and changed constantly. They improvise as things develop. That spirit of improvisation continues in the discussions people have along the trail after they do finally get going. Some people dart off to pursue interests or to chase game, while others drag along, barely keeping up.
The author examines Batek linguistic evidence about the concepts of going and coming. Walking, in their language, implies both going somewhere and returning. The concept suggests equivalence to them. They link their concepts of coming and going with a verb that means both arriving and leaving. Even their word for moving camp, normally a one-way movement, includes the concept of remembering and longing to return to the same spot. The point, Lye argues, is that the Batek value the ability to return to a campsite. It is a place to come back to. To them, moving forward in time is equivalent to connecting back to the past—to old paths, with old camps. Their future and their history are linked together.
Lye concludes that walking for the Batek is a balance between confidence and fear, between going forward and retreating backward. She feels that walking, for them at least, symbolizes having a way, a path forward; it provides a sense of life itself. Losing your way is like facing death. Becoming lost is the horror of not finding your way home. In addition, avoiding tigers and madmen along forest pathways creates places in the landscape that people have to avoid, locations that they can continue to talk about in their endless stories.
Lye Tuck-Po. 2008. “Before a Step too Far: Walking with Batek Hunter-Gatherers in the Forests of Pahang, Malaysia.” In Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, p.21-34. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate