Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blackbird and The Spirit of the Mountain

When I was a teenager and a keen mountaineer, I heard many stories that sounded superstitious during my climbs. As both environmentalist and naturalist, I tend to respect the stories as one of those “believe it or not” stories.

When visiting Ujung Kulon National Park – where the last one horn rhino was spotted many years ago – we were strongly advised to respect the following rules. Never mention the word “mosquito” but replace it with “small child”. A tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) should be called “si Mbah” (translated: grand mother). Men should not urinate standing; instead they should squat like women.

There was never any clear warning of what would happen if someone disobey these unofficial rules, but we tend respect it. A senior environmentalist taught me that nature has its own mind, energy and power, and that people living in the area have learned how to live in harmony with their surrounding. So that as visitors, the least we can do is to respect and follow their rules. He said, “It does not hurt to call a mosquito “small child” and I don’t mind squatting like a girl if it means respecting the spirits of the place.”.

Later in life as I studied philosophy and came across James Lovelock’s Gaia, I can put a little bit more logic – even though still not scientific – into the superstitious. If the Earth has its own life, soul and spirit, then respecting it the way local people do is the least we can do to our provider of lives.

Among many strange stories and traditions that I came across in the tropical nature of Indonesia, there is one story about a blackbird who will show lost climbers the way. I heard this story on Mount Gede and Mount Pangrango, in West Java. During my teenage years until about ten years ago, I have climbed these twin mountains over a dozen times, and heard this story many times.

One climb – I cannot remember which one and I cannot remember who with – I was very near the summit and exhausted, when I suddenly felt lost. It was not my first climb to Mount Pangrango (3,019 m), but at that point, I just could not see the next step to climb. There seemed to be more than one foot paths, the usual clear path was nowhere to be seen. There was another friend with me. We both looked around, knowing that we almost reach the top but could not find the path.

Then a blackbird landed in front of us – it was about five meter ahead of us. It stared at us, showing no fear at all. We looked at each other, with unspoken thoughts about the legendary blackbird. Then the bird started to hop – not fly! – in front of us. Without hesitation, we followed it. The bird stopped and waited for us when the climb got treacherous. We followed our spirit of the mountain for a good half an hour until at last we saw the summit. As we walked up to the summit, the blackbird gave us one good stare and it flew away.

I was never superstitious, but the blackbird – or the spirit of the mountain – showed me the way and guided me step by step to the top, to safety.

This morning, as I went outside my flat – in Manchester, UK, 10,000 miles away from Mount Pangrango – a blackbird hopped onto a bush right in front of me. He (it was a male blackbird) stared at me for what felt like a very long time from a few metres away and hopped closer. I felt all hair on my body stood and I almost knelt down. I was back to Mount Pangrango over 20 years ago. So I said this loud enough, “Thank you. Thank you, Good Spirit!” The bird flew away and I promised the Spirit that I will write this little true story.

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