Tawai is the word the nomadic hunter gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature, and is also the name of a film that I highly recommend.
Tawai is the first film directed by Bruce Parry, who featured in various series for the BBC. He was best known for Tribe, in which he spent time living with various indigenous communities, getting to know them and taking part in their rituals – often painfully (4-min video here of his eye-watering experiences with the Kombai – I recommend NOT watching it while eating your cornflakes).
I was curious to see the film. I’d met Bruce once, briefly, at Buckingham Palace (as you do) when the Queen had a big party for explorers and adventurers back in 2012 to celebrate the centennial of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. I found him talking to Benedict Allen about his (Bruce’s) decision to abstain from alcohol and sex for 6 months in pursuit of higher levels of consciousness. (I hope I have got those details right. Champagne was involved.)
The film also features Iain McGilchrist, who I know quite well, having shared a stage with him, attended one of his workshops, read his book, The Master and the Emissary (about the two hemispheres of the brain), and stayed at his home on the Isle of Skye, a very magical place that also appears in the film.
In Tawai, Bruce returns to some of the tribespeople of the Amazon and Borneo, interweaving footage of their lives with perspectives from western experts. Do check out the trailer.
A few moments that stood out for me were:
..Hunter-gatherers stalking their prey in the forest, utterly attuned to their surroundings, perceiving every sound, smell, and sight. Then cut to hectic street scene in India, with voiceover to the effect that in an urban environment there is so much sensory input that we simply can’t take it all in, so we have to narrow our focus to what is immediately relevant to us. The danger is that this narrowing of the focus becomes habitual, so we see only what we expect or want to see.
..A tribesman showing Bruce the huge swath that has been cut through the forest to make way for a pipeline. He tells Bruce that the animals have completely left that area, driven away by the noise and disruption.
..Tribespeople turning to agriculture as their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle is increasingly affected by incursions on the forest by logging. The sombre mood as they tend their crops felt very different from the simplicity and abundance of their foraging in the forest.
..As the tribespeople abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle and move into a longhouse, a shot of a man vainly trying to kill all the creepy-crawlies with bug spray. For me this illustrated how we were once used to living at one with nature, but once you put up walls and a roof, nature is something to be kept outside of human habitations, and any nature that strays indoors is to be killed.
..The happiness, playfulness, and intimacy of the interpersonal relationships within the tribe.
..An acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of everything. We were not designed to be separate from nature. We are part of it.
..And a moment of light relief – Bruce Parry sweeping dust from the steps in India with a brisk beating motion of the broom. An Indian swami comes and takes the broom from him and shows him how to gently sweep the dust away. Much more effective.
I don’t want to over-idealise the lives of the hunter-gatherers. I’m sure it has its discomforts and challenges, and clearly a human population of over 7 billion could not be sustained that way (which is a whole other topic of conversation).
But I left the Merlin Theatre in Frome, Somerset, wondering if we might have lost more than we’ve gained. We might have mobile phones, pharmaceuticals, exotic holidays, fast cars and luxurious homes. But we have also to some extent become isolated, from intimate human connection, from nature, from the very essence of ourselves.
Much damage has been done, but it’s not too late to find our way back to a better balance. I’m certainly not saying we should all go live like hunter-gatherers – but rather that there is something in their culture that is valuable, irreplaceable, and seriously under threat, and that we would be wise to pay attention to. That “something” is the deep knowledge that we’re all connected in this intricate web of life, so the damage we do to the web, we ultimately do to ourselves. And by healing our relationship with that web, we heal ourselves.
[My only criticism of the film would be the lack of female voices. I acknowledge the cultural obstacle to getting the tribeswomen to speak directly to the interviewer, but maybe if Bruce had taken a female colleague with him, we could have heard more from the female perspective. And/or more female experts.]
Last Sunday I spoke at Back to School Day at Dulwich College for Wings of Hope. A pleasure to meet Justin Webb of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and to catch up with Lord Butler. Also a privilege to share a room with the James Caird, the boat used by Ernest Shackleton and 5 of his men to row from Elephant to South Georgia in the South Atlantic after their Antarctic expedition went pear-shaped. The JC is exactly the same size as my rowboat (23 feet by 6) – but very glad I spent most of my time in warmer waters!
My partner’s 15-year-old daughter, Bella Lack, has just been chosen to take over Rob Edwards’ animal conservation Twitter account, Lionheart0075, based on her passion for wildlife. Please follow!
Greetings from sunny LA! I arrived on Monday for a speaking engagement next week. For now I’m meeting with friends both existing and new, including Meredith Blake of ProSocial, who orchestrated the social impact campaign around An Inconvenient Truth, and Diana Nyad, the legendary swimmer who swam 110 miles from Cuba to Florida, without a shark cage, at the age of 64. And Jim Salzman, Professor of Environmental Law at UCSB.
My dear friend Casey Sheppard is in the final stages of preparing to cycle the length of New Zealand, to inspire girls to adventure. Please check out her fundraising page and support! (and take a look the stop-motion video – thanks for the shout-out, Casey!)