Stories from the Rainforest: Nature intended it that way 2
As a part of ArtEZ studium generale research on Land: on climate, ownership and coexistence, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s contribution offers a rich reflection on how materials speak to them in and through their artistic practice. By tracing material flows and goods within the global economy, they show the rifts and new relations between human and their environment. This is the third essay in the series Stories from Rainforest.
From the Maroons we learned that private property is not common to every community. It is not their habit to install fences and locks. They manage their land, fruit trees and houses collectively.1 Even though these things are used by individuals, it is customary for them that they remain the property of the lo (clan). Land is not to be sold, given away, or used as collateral for a loan. For this reason, outsiders often regard collective ownership as an obstacle to “development.” But for the Maroons, it is the community that protects these things from the temptations to which individuals are exposed. One individual owner can be misled, but not the entire group.2
Where Grotius saw a “crime” when someone claimed ownership without first following the appropriate legitimizing procedures (of seizing, occupying, and exploiting ambitiously), the Maroons are concerned about a different offense: their appropriation of things of which other beings are co-owners. Aware of the violence associated with appropriation, they inform the other forest inhabitants of the expected impact of their plans. With a prayer or ritual they ask permission to fell a tree, to create an agricultural plot, to found a village, or to hunt. They “pay” the forest with sacrifices for what it provides them with in food. For all such matters, they make contact with the Gaduakamia and with the Apunku gadu, a pantheon often simply referred to as “the forest.”3 The Gaangadu and the ancestors are then invoked as well. Usually this is done by voice, although a drum can also be used, and sometimes a libation is made. Larger interferences require more complex rituals. For example, to negotiate with the forest about the construction of a new village, a small entrance gate has to be built, the so-called azanpau.4 A young Saamaka Maroon showed us how to construct such a gate using young trees he had skinned bare and fresh palm branches whose leaves had not yet unfurled. Then he mixed water with a white clay called pembe in a calabash bowl and poured the milky liquid as a libation onto the ground under the azanpau. To conclude the ritual, he consulted the gods and ancestors in a prayer.5
“Gaangadu, we are here to pray.
Gaduakamia, we would like to live here.
We pray to the Apunku gadu, to Gaduakamia, and to our ancestors.
We will clear large trees, small trees, and lianas.
We will burn down this piece of forest.
All creatures that live here will need to move.
Our prayer can never be enough”.
After the prayer, one had to leave the area, returning only later to find out the answer. That the procedure was not merely a formality we learned from an obiama who told us that the forest can also refuse.6 If the azan had fallen to the ground, it would be a sign: “Then the god of the place is saying: No.”7
The forest spirits also had their own possession practices. The obiama told how members of the community were sometimes visited by a disturbed apunku gadu.
Obiama Alfons Doekoe [in Saamakatongo]:
If you cut down a tree in which a forest spirit dwells, or kill an animal that has a forest spirit, you disturb that spirit where it resides. That god then starts looking for a new home. He will no longer take up residence in a tree or an animal. He will move in with someone close to you.8
Using ritually prepared herbs, the community was able to make contact with the apunku. The forest spirit then communicated through its new host body how the disturbance had taken place. The god also passed on decrees and reported his or her gender. “Because the spirit can also be feminine,” the obiama emphasized.
Obiama Alfons Doekoe [in Saamakatongo]:
When you get a god, your whole life changes. Because a spirit has come to join your own spirit. From now on you will share your body with that spirit. You are going to move forward together. Maybe you got the spirit of a weasel. Weasels love sugar cane. So you’re going to eat that often. If you received the spirit of a caiman, you can suddenly catch fish under the rocks, because the caiman knows how to do this.9
The host or hostess would also get access to the god’s experiences while he was still in an animal, a stone or a tree. In this way, the community acquired new knowledge of the forest, gained from the perspectives of the other beings.
- MacKay, Fergus, Saramaca en de strijd om het bos. Amsterdam: Stichting Lm Publishers, 2010.
- Quammen, David, “We made the Coronavirus Epidemic”, New York Times, January 28, 2020.
For land ownership among the Maroons, see also Fergus MacKay, Saramaca en de strijd om het bos (Amsterdam, 2010), p. 12.
We learned this from Hugo Jabini during a conversation about a.o. Maroon customary law in Nieuw Aurora on November 2, 2015.
Gaduakamia is the god of the place. Apunku gadu are forest spirits. Gaangadu is usually translated as “mighty deity.”
To ward off evil, the Maroons also construct azan gates at the entrance to their villages and at paths leading to their sacred sites.
Quincy (Kukcy) Sinei consulted the elders about which ritual acts should be used for asking permission and then performed the ritual in the forest of Pikin Slee. We recite here the beginning of the prayer. For the complete prayer, see Chapter “Willing Woods” in Dee Sitonu A Weti. Sinei himself translated the prayer for us from Saamakatongo to Dutch.
Obiama means medicine man. Alfons Doekoe is obiama in Pikin Slee.
Translated transcript of an audio recorded conversation conducted in Saamakatongo in Museum Pikin Slee, November 17, 2015. Speakers: Alfons Doekoe, Joney Doekoe, Edje Alingo Doekoe. Dorus Vrede moderated the conversation.
The species leap of a forest spirit chased from its home, as the obiama describes it, appears to have striking parallels with the findings of virologist David Quammen. He found that due to the disruption of ecosystems, viruses are expelled from their habitat and then start looking for new hosts. He writes: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” David Quammen, “We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic”, New York Times, January 28, 2020.
Dorus Vrede recites this quote from obiama Alfons Doekoe in Dee Sitonu A Weti, in the film chapter “Willing Woods.”