In the Plenty of Time

In his autobiographical book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday, describes summer on the plain in Oklahoma where he spent his childhood: “Great green-and-yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time.”

I loved that phrase, going nowhere in the plenty of time. It reminded me of my time in New Guinea with my mother. No running water or electricity, but plenty of bugs, plants, sweat, babies crying, dogs barking, men with shaved heads and men with long hair, women wearing only grass skirts or thin calico shifts. When I talk about this experience, people always ask, what did you do there

LH in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1971

LH in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1971

We would sit, walk to another hamlet in the village, walk out to the road to wait for a truck which might or might not come, make flower leis, braid dry grasses, roast beetles and eat them, maybe play cat’s cradle. Some villagers went to their gardens to dig up taro root or yams – their gardens looked just like the rest of the forest. There might be coconuts to gather and a delicious pudding to make. Smoking, of course, (but I didn’t), rolling sticky black tobacco in pieces of old newspaper; and chewing betelnut (slightly hallucinogenic) — mixing it with a little mustard and powdered lime that would turn bright red when you spit the combination out after chewing (I did a little.)

Elder women swept the bare ground clear of leaf litter every morning and burned their collections in small fires. Younger women walked to a cave a mile away to bring back the day’s drinking water.

The women sometimes would sit on the ground with legs out straight, a board with carved patterns on their lap, scraping sharp shells over fresh banana leaves, pressing them into this board to make doba, their currency. Men might be working on a wood carving to sell in the main town to a tourist or at the Methodist mission. All of this was going nowhere in the plenty of time.

 There were highlights of course. The night a man died and we entered the hut to see his body laid out over his daughters’ legs. The mourners wailed, and then when the crying lapsed, they told stories and laughed. They decorated him with bands of red and white paint. And on my last night (my mother was staying on), one of the big chiefs announced he would kill a chicken! The villagers were ecstatic – they knew that this meant he would kill a pig, and we would feast and dance. They never did explain just how they knew.

Life seemed more about just living, not about producing. It was the fabric of relationships that always needed tending. Relationships between lovers, husbands and wives, children, clans, mother’s brothers, brother’s sisters, uncles, and when there was a death — the real work began. Mourning took many forms and was done by many people. Some blackened their bodies for a year, someone carried the deceased’s purse, which held his lime stick and lime pot, others shaved their heads. All of these mourners would eventually need to be paid back in elaborate ceremonies acknowledging their gifts of mourning, paid back with large baskets of doba, those banana leaf bundles, (that I carried on my head in the photo from last week’s blog.)

N. Scott Momaday returned to Rainy Mountain after the death of his grandmother and recalls his experience of the life that went on all around her:

There were frequent prayer meetings, and great nocturnal feasts. When I was a child, I played with my cousins outside, where the lamplight fell upon the ground and the singing of the old people rose up around us and carried away into the darkness. There were lots of good things to eat, a lot of laughter and surprise. And afterwards, when the quiet returned, I lay down with my grandmother and could hear the frogs away by the river and feel the motion of air.

Wind Sculpture , Michio Ihara     photo:Robert Hesse at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio

Wind Sculpture, Michio Ihara     photo:Robert Hesse at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio

I think about our Western fixation with time, with spending it wisely, with being productive, and compare it to the importance of being together, nurturing relationships, doing everything in the plenty of time.

we watched the crows

hard pears

in no hurry to ripen


Witch Doctors

To return to my dying Asian pear tree that I wrote about a month ago: I finally did call the nursery. The horticulturalist assured me that the tree was certainly a Hosui variety – because Hosui get fire blight very easily – and he was certain it was fire blight.

“Pull it right out!” he commanded. “Fire blight will spread to the other trees.” He added that you have to be super vigilant with Hosui, which essentially means spraying Streptomycin in the spring when fire blight is a possibility. He said many people plant Kosui instead of the Hosui, but even that variety isn’t all that resistant. Not like Olympic, for example. “Orchardists are always pulling the Hosui and replanting with more resistant varieties.

I didn’t ask, “Why then, are you selling them?”

It turns out that my tree isn’t a Hosui or a Kosui – it’s a Niitaka.  And even though every leaf blackened and fell, I decided to try and save the tree using a poultice of carbonatite, clay, and aloe, and some rubbing and mumblings. After a week, I was excited to see that a few of the buds were plumping and showing some green tissue. Now a witch doctor is an interesting phenomenon.

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

Dr. Annette Weiner, Kwaibwaga Village, Trobriand Islands, 1989 

I had an experience firsthand when I lived with my anthropologist mother on a small coral atoll in New Guinea. Ours was an inland village, but one day some of my mother’s informants (the anthropological jargon for those who provide answers to the anthropologist’s questions) said, let’s go visit a coastal village. We walked a few miles over sharp coral to the far side of the island. As we neared the coastal village, I was struck by the trees we walked by. Their roots were above ground, tall intertwining webs formed tent-like structures that I could imagine hiding inside of. 

When we entered the village, we felt oddly unwelcomed. The men were out fishing and the women were wary. That’s when I got something in one of my eyes. A piece of dirt or an insect. My eye stung, but no one could see anything in it. After hanging out for only a short while, we turned around to make the trip home. The suspicious looks from the villagers didn’t feel good, and we didn’t want to cause trouble.

We traveled back through the forest of amazing trees, back along the rough coral trails, and finally entered our village towards nightfall. By the time we were back, I was feverish and dizzy. Word buzzed around the village. Questions were asked.  Had anyone said magic to protect me against flying witches. Flying witches inhabit the buttressed roots of those mysterious trees. Of course, the witches are jealous of young girls. They were certain that I had been attacked by a flying witch.

My mother was nervous. Even though she had aspirin and antibiotics to give me, and we were both taking quinine for malaria, she wondered what it could be. She was also fascinated to know what the villagers would do. They told her they had called a witch doctor from another village who specializes in flying witches. A skinny old man came in carrying his satchel of herbs. He checked me over, bending my limbs, looking into my eyes. He rubbed herbs into my skin and mumbled prayers. He was paid. And when my mother looked at him expectantly, he said, “The witch is only playing with your daughter; it won’t kill her.”

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

LH in Kwaibwaga Village in 1971 (fully recovered)

Norman Cousins, one of the early proponents of the mind-body connection, relates how when he visited the Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon, Africa, he commented to Dr. Schweitzer, “The local people are lucky to have access to the Schweitzer clinic and not have to depend on witch-doctor supernaturalism.” One look at Dr. Schweitzer and Cousins recognized his ignorance. The next day, Dr. Schweitzer took him to observe native African medicine. The witch doctor gave herbs in a brown paper bag to some patients and incantations in a brown paper bag to others, while still others he directed towards the Western doctor.

 Dr. Schweitzer explained the three groups. The first had what he called functional issues; these would go away easily and the herbs would help. The next group had what he called psychogenic problems, and they were treated with African psychotherapy. The third had physical problems, like a tumor or broken bone, and these he sent to the Western doctor. When Cousins pushed for an explanation, Schweitzer said,

The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us knowing the truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides inside within each patient a chance to go to work.   

—From The Mysterious Placebo, Norman Cousins

I believe plants aren’t so different from us. There is a doctor inside the trees that I hope I can motivate. I don't know if it has fire blight or a fungal disease. But rather than pull it, I will wait and see if its own wisdom along with my herbs will help.