Reporter tells of colliding cultures, old and new
“The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands and Indigenous Peoples Meet” (Viking) by Eugene Linden
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
As an international reporter, Eugene Linden got his first — and disturbing — assignment during the Vietnam War: to look into “fragging,” a form of revenge by American draftees against officers for real or imagined mistreatment. A fragmentation grenade tossed into officers’ quarters would shatter into such small pieces that identifying the perpetrator was almost impossible.
Later, he specialized in remote destinations while covering the environment for Time magazine. Primitive cultures with their own paths for the pursuit of happiness have collided with ideas of later centuries in ways that promoted neither of them. Such “ragged edges” often appear in his books.
“The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands and Indigenous Peoples Meet” describes the Penan, hunter-gatherers living in heights of the huge South Pacific island of Borneo. Elders told Linden they kept blowpipes for hunting; guns cost too much. They knew a butterfly — the yap lempuhan — whose seasonal appearance heralded the best time to hunt wild boar and gather favorite fruits.
Using blowpipes, it was argued, helps keep alive the knowledge of where to find plants that furnish the best wood for them, the poisons that are its best ammunition, and antidotes in case of accidents. That may have impressed senior Penan.
“Later,” Linden writes, “I was introduced to a Penan secondary school student away from the highlands for his studies. When I asked him about the butterfly, he looked at me as if I had three heads.”
Linden also describes climatologists in Antarctica who are concerned with the cold weather, the inadequacies of Antarctic bathrooms and the fate of the continent’s ice masses.
“... (A) large cohort of scientists,” he writes, “is monitoring Antarctica’s vast ice sheets, where any change would have global implications. ... If the WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) disintegrated and slipped into the sea, it would raise the sea level by 16 feet. (For the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the number would be 170 feet.)”
That’s almost a third of the way up the Washington Monument.
When he first visited Antarctica, says Linden, there was little real anxiety about a thaw like that actually occurring “on a time scale meaningful to anyone living today. Now, 13 years later, there is genuine concern that this might happen.”