Borneo, third largest island on the globe, is home to the oldest rainforest in the world, 130 million years-old—that’s a number hard to imagine, yet 90% of that forest has been logged for the Asian lumber market and converted to oil-palm plantations. Larger than the state of Texas, Borneo has 20 million inhabitants; Borneo, on the timeless equator, abounds in over 15 thousand flowering plants, ten thousand species that exist nowhere else, over 20 thousand new species of insects, 3,000 tree species (including the tallest tropical trees on earth), and over 400 species of birds have been identified in one national park alone. It is so rich in natural resources that the island was divided between Dutch and English rule, with the result that the island is now split between Malaysian and Indonesian rule.
Alex Shoumatoff, perhaps North America’s greatest living travel writer and anthropological commentator, has shined his spotlight on this “floating,” mountainous navel of the globe. While the ecological report card is not favorable in this exploitative, logging “heaven,” Alex’s radiant prose and overarching story achieves the highest possible marks. If you never thought the subject of ecology could be gripping, then you need to hold on to your seat as intrepid Alex and crew plunge with keen eye into tropical foliage. If you think climate change mere academic speculation, then the journalist on the ground here records verifiable evidence of what is being lost. Endorsed by blurbs from naturalist Bill McKibben and novelist Russell Banks, this eye-opening book is screaming for a talented documentary film-maker.
The last third of the book, about camping in the forest with a band of Penan hunter-gatherers, originated through an article that was adapted for Smithsonian magazine. The first half of the book presents an autobiographical self-portrait on why Alex retains an interest in nature and animism rooted in his Westchester boyhood. Shoumatoff re-creates in words the vanishing world of his childhood as he describes the vanishing world of nature around the globe. His journey and ours remains a spiritual as well as aesthetic and political journey. One might say that Shoumatoff attempts to write from the fourth dimension with the three dimensions that the continuum of words aspires to transcend.
A small group of talented explorers assemble to plunge into what’s left of a fecund wilderness. The same ecological process that turned the fertile landscape of Utah (during the dinosaur era) into arid desert appears to be beginning in Borneo, yet it’s not dinosaurs consuming the vegetation, but loggers, and industrial production of palm oil, which is now nearly in half of all commercial food products consumed in North America, Europe, China, and India.
The story of Borneo matters because it is a microcosm of what is happening across the globe: we can perceive more nakedly what is happening in Borneo than in the privileged, slow morphing that occurs daily in our suburbs and cities. In a sense, Borneo resembles the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin discovered an enormous window into the past—Shoumatoff sees Borneo as a prophetic window into the planet’s future.
I admit I was initially annoyed at not having the convenience of a map in the book, yet there is a footnote with a website address that contains so many marvelous features that one needs to watch the helpful tutorial more than once. Alex would like to get as many readers as possible to become ecological, legal activists. The plight of the Penan tribe (in Malaysian Sarawak) inhabiting the last remaining virgin mountain forest on the island is perilous, since hired guns intimidate or kidnap outsiders sympathetic to the Penan’s ancestral land claims. The principal outside supporter of the Penan, Bruno Manser, who disappeared in 2000, labored under a dead-or-alive bounty of $25,000, which is a considerable sum in that part of the world where a dollar-a-day for ten hours work is considered excellent. This narrative freights suspense and secrecy in a landscape that often appears to be “another” planet.
A year ahead of Al Gore at Harvard, Alex majored in classical Greek, Alex has sometimes encountered censorship from magazine editors, who have commissioned, then spiked his work—most recently on Ukraine and America's inability to understand the Russian world view.. He has been arrested for trespassing at California’s notorious Bohemian grove (the article appeared in Vanity Fair); his brilliantly amusing essay “Positively 44th Street,” on old mid-town Manhattan establishments, remains one of my favorite rambles in the “jungle.”
While Shoumatoff’s writing lacks the supercilious, self-ingratiating postures of Bill Bryson or Tim Moore (both of whom are a delight to read), Alex’s work dwells in the more serious company of Dervla Murphy, Jeffrey Tayler, and Colin Thurbron—world travelers who have something important to say about the human condition, except that Alex blends more ecological awareness with acute perspective on evolutionary history as it relates to the present. Most known for his anthropologically astute narratives set in the Amazon and Africa, Shoumatoff’s early work on Florida and his 1978 portrait of Westchester County was influenced by John McPhee’s editor at the New Yorker; subsequently, he easily absorbed the culturally nuanced, paranoid wit of Hunter S. Thompson, the ambient historicism of Simon Winchester, and current monographs in animal and plant species identification.
You can get a glimpse of Alex here at his website :dispatches from a vanishing world.