Eric Hansen: Stranger in the Forest

Eric Hansen
Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo
(1988, Vintage Books, 286 pages)

Stranger in the Forest is Eric Hansen’s stirring account of his trek back and forth across Borneo, the first such trip by a Westerner without technological assistance, spanning ten months and about 2,400 miles.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, measures roughly 800 by 600 miles. Rich in biodiversity, with large natural resources of oil, wood, and minerals ranging from gold to uranium – much of which is found in the heart of the eighty percent of the island made up of tropical rain forest – Borneo is home to four nations: the sultanate of Brunei, the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the largest, Indonesian Kalimantan. The island’s rainforest is the world’s oldest, at 130 million years old some 70 million older than that of the Amazon.

Having traveled through much of southeast Asia, Hansen was attracted to the relative inaccessibility of Sarawak and Kalimantan to Western influence: “tourists, missionaries, the Peace Corps, Marine Corps, and U.S. AID.” He formulated a plan to cross the island along the range of mountains that runs from northeast to southwest, “following old trade routes, collecting jungle products and medicinal plants of value, and exchanging these and Western goods for what I needed.” For the bartering through which he would obtain a lot of his supplies, he had to inform himself on the rates of exchange for items like rice, ammunition, and the much-valued aromatic gaharu wood (all measured by the standard unit of the mok, the size of an empty tin of condensed milk). Read more

Peonies and Butterflies

Ito Jakuchu, Peonies and Butterflies (c. 1757), from the series Colorful Realm of Living Beings. All thirty of the hanging scrolls in this series can be seen in Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800), on display from March 30, 2012 to April 29, 2012 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Sunday Salon 3-25-12

Topping off this fairly productive week was my completing an appreciation of The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, written simply with the goal of encouraging visitors to the city to take in this treasure. Several other book reviews and are in progress and on their way, I hope. Catching up with outstanding projects is an ongoing challenge.

Current reading includes Paul F. State’s A Brief History of Ireland, inspired by the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and the ongoing reading of Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece). The latter I’m reading a few pages at a time at night; at around the halfway point it has been very enjoyable, if somewhat aimless from a plotting perspective, in its portrayal of the art world in Paris late in the nineteenth century.

I’ve already picked out my Wordless Wednesday image for later this week. All I can say for now is – it involves robots!

This week I was finally sucked into the trap of looking at my blog’s traffic, and what I saw surprised me somewhat. In the last week, for instance, I had almost as many hits from Japan as from the United States. One day this week Lithuania topped my list of visitors. The numbers are miniscule by Internet standards, of course, but that isn’t a worry.

Unlikely as it is that I’ll ever be financially able to travel much, I admit that I have been trying, especially starting around three or four years ago, to gain some familiarity with the history, literature, film, music, and art of the various corners of the world as a substitute. Of course I haven’t even scratched the surface, but it’s a good project to take on for, say, the rest of one’s life.

Finally, a visual and musical treat. Steve Reich has for many years been a favorite composer of mine. One of his most lighthearted and tuneful compositions is Electric Counterpoint for electric and bass guitars. This joyous work, recorded in the late 1980s by Pat Metheny, provided an important sample for a big hit some of you might remember from 1990, The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds.” The Norwegian duo Röyksopp has also sampled Electric Counterpoint for one of its own pieces, and the combination here of Röyksopp’s Reich remix and the visuals, partly from around the dramatic setting of Norway’s lake Eikesdalsvatnet is, I think, pretty irresistible. Enjoy!

New Guinea Art

One of my regular stops on my trips to San Francisco (which don’t happen nearly often enough) is The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum. While I’m always enthralled by the Collection, I’m also always somewhat dismayed by how few other people are looking at it. Not that the de Young’s visiting exhibitions, or the other parts of its permanent collection like the huge American Art galleries, aren’t worth seeing. But every time I’m at the de Young, some sort of magnetism draws me back into the New Guinea rooms, as well as the adjacent collection of art from Africa. So I thought I’d spend a few paragraphs sharing my enthusiasm for this collection, hoping to encourage some of you to check it out.

Collected by Marcia and John Friede over four decades, The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art includes a range of objects, some 400 of them, designed for ritual and everyday use and dating from the seventh century to nearly the present day. Some of the loveliest objects come from the Sepik River peoples of the island’s north side. (Spirit figure photo from The Zymoglyphic Museum Curator’s Web Log.)

Wood is probably the most commonly used material. Tree bark, bamboo, and rattan are also well represented; decorations include paint, seeds, shells, bones, clay, and feathers. There is some pottery, most of it utilitarian, and a few stone objects. Materials chosen for use were often derived from and symbolically linked to the earth, sea, and sky. The mythologies and rites depicted in the works aren’t always known, giving them an even greater sense of mystery and fascination. Filled with totemic figures of gods, figures from myth, and animals, many of the works are meant to evoke deceased ancestors and spirits. Among the themes represented is the life cycle of insects – from larva to chrysalis to adult – which serves as a metaphor for human life, death, and immortality. Read more

American Mavericks III

Where else but at the San Francisco Symphony’s mammoth American Mavericks concert series could one hear music by the likes of Edgard Varèse, John Adams, Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Morton Feldman, played by one of the finest orchestras in the world, and all within a few days of one another? This series has called attention to major creative figures that, in a more culturally and artistically aware country, would be heralded as heroes and exemplars of the American spirit. I can’t imagine how much hard work went into these performances, but all kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra for an amazing experience. Their performances were uniformly excellent, at least the equal of any recordings of these pieces (and generally, there aren’t very many) available.

For my third post on the American Mavericks series, I would like to talk about the concert of Thursday, March 15, featuring the San Francisco Symphony, conductors Michael Tilson Thomas (in three of the four pieces) and Donato Cabrera, pianist Emanuel Ax, organist Paul Jacobs, electronica from Mason Bates, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

Two major world premieres occupied the first half of the program. Starting things off was Mass Transmission by Mason Bates, featuring chorus, organ, and electronic sounds created by Mr. Bates – all conducted by my friend Donato Cabrera, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Bates derived his texts from transcribed conversations, originally transmitted via wireless radio broadcast, between Dutch young people working as colonial pages in Indonesia and their families in the Netherlands – in particular a very touching conversation between a young girl in Java and her mother back home – as well as memories of how those broadcasts came about. As Bates says in the program notes, “These conversations are among the first important wireless radio transmissions across the world.” Obviously there are also broader implications here about the simultaneously connecting and alienating aspects of technology, back then as well as today. Read more

Sunday Salon 3-18-12

The vacation has ended, and while it was hardly relaxing, time spent in San Francisco is always a good idea. In the six days or so I was there, I figure I went to seven films (six of them part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), five concerts (four of those from the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series), three Symphony rehearsals, four museums, and four bookstores. And did a whole lot of walking.

Since I’ve returned from the trip, and for the first time in about three weeks, I’ve actually completed a book, Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest, in which he describes his trips across the length of the island of Borneo in the 1980s. A review is forthcoming. Also on the way are a couple of further items related to my San Francisco trip: a third article on the American Mavericks series, and a short look at one of my very favorite San Francisco attractions, the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum.

As for upcoming reading, I spent part of this morning assembling from my ever growing stacks of books around twenty that I might like to read in the immediate or near future. Painfully, this has been narrowed down to a baker’s dozen. Alphabetically by author:

Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz – Kafka
Shusaku Endo – Silence
Martin Gayford – The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein – 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
David Guterson – Our Lady of the Forest
Stuart Isacoff – Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization
Yasunari Kawabata – Beauty and Sadness
Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth
Alan Palmer – The Baltic: A New History of the Region and Its People
Boris Pasternak (transl. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) – Doctor Zhivago
Stacy Schiff – Cleopatra: A Life
Paul F. State – A Brief History of Ireland
Yi Chung-jun – Seopyeonje: The Southerners’ Songs

Any suggestions as to where I should start?

American Mavericks II

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My second American Mavericks concert of the week, with the wonderful San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

When I made a brief allusion to it in my Sunday Salon last week, I fear I may have been too jokey in writing about John Cage’s Song Books. Yes, the surreal humor and juxtapositions were fascinating and appealing in themselves. But the entire experience was also very substantial as a theatrical happening and as a musical performance. Cage’s score, as you may know, is a combination of actual music (in both conventional and very non-conventional notation), text, theater, and instructions as to how to put it all together. The moments of beauty, even if they happened almost by accident – such as one moment toward the end when Joan La Barbara intoned a lovely passage from Thoreau while Jessye Norman sang something quite hymn-like – entranced the ear. By the way, whoever had the idea of combining three amazing singers of quite diverse talents – Norman, La Barbara, and Meredith Monk – deserves a prize. Their voices and personal charisma brought to life what in other circumstances could seem just a novelty. There were perhaps a few audience members, such as the couple seated next to me, who were resistant to this admittedly unusual music. But most seemed to take it in the generous spirit with which it was offered, and enjoyed themselves, and even laughed at a number of appropriate moments.

As much of a tour de force as this performance was, by the way, I wish I’d also had an opportunity to give an ovation to the Davies Symphony Hall tech crew. The way the fifteen or twenty techs tore down the very elaborate stage set during intermission – tables, a multitude of microphones and lights, electronics, and three small house-like structures in which much of the action took place – and prepared the stage for the Orchestra in the second half of the concert was nothing short of amazing. It was very controlled chaos that they made look much simpler than I know it really was. Read more