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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Trek thoughts

Somewhere deep in the jungle within the Mondulkiri Province, we are sipping Nescafe from freshly cut stalks of bamboo and preparing for the second day of our trek; our bittersweet final day in Cambodia. Our guide, Nao, a member of the indigenous Bunong community, shares snippets of his story through Thavry’s translation of his broken Khmer. He is a farmer; his main crops are cashews and bananas. We learn about his wife, the death of his firstborn twins, and his four living children. His children learn Khmer and English in school, and speak Bunong at home. They are all reincarnated forms of various deceased family members. His religion is not Buddhism, not Hinduism, he tells us. The Bunong people hold the belief that spirits dwell in the forest, and they are what maintain an earthly balance. Only the oldest villager can directly communicate with them. When the forest is destroyed, the spirits are unhappy, and the Bunong suffer.

The Bunong lifestyle, I realize, is a perfect example of a biocentric view of life (a topic discussed in a prior lesson). Biocentrism is the idea that all living things are the center of the universe, that humans should live in harmony with their surroundings and not exploit ecosystem services (the many and varied benefits humans freely gain from the natural environment and its properly functioning systems). Anthropocentrism, on the other hand, is the idea that humans are valued as the center of the universe, and that in some ways we have much control over it.

Trekking though the jungle, enveloped under a canopy of endless shades of green and surrounded by an orchestra of birds, cicadas, monkeys, frogs, and countless other unnamable species, it’s impossible to forget that we are sharing this planet with millions of other forms of life. I am also reminded of one of Kelsey’s lessons from nearly a week earlier. Sprawled out on the sunny top deck of a little boat on the Tonle Sap, the great lake upstream of the Mekong, she introduced the Gaia Hypothesis. We discussed how anthropocentrism and biocentrism differ and relate to the Hypothesis, and how we fit into it all. (What better way to learn about ecology and the balance of the earth than in the middle of a hydrologic phenomenon? Just a reminder that using the world as our classroom is incredibly effective and magical, because these are the most memorable lessons – now back to my Yak.)

The Gaia Hypothesis, simply put, is the idea that living and non-living parts of the earth interact to provide essentials for life; that the earth itself is an independent organism. A fitting example, in the context of our trek through a tropical rainforest in Northern Cambodia, is the partnership between trees, soil, and air. Trees act as sponges to temporarily store moisture within their leaves, branches, and roots. Through the process of evapotranspiration, they exhale this moisture back into the ecosystem, thus spurring precipitation. The soil and the air, although non-living, are equally vital in this example. Wind flow is necessary for precipitation, and soil, with the help of the trees’ roots, stores moisture in the ground. When human’s aren’t abusing ecosystem services, nature works its magic and sustains itself through the Gaia Hypothesis.

One more quick divergence (and then seriously, back to my Yak): the concept of Spiritual Ecology. This is the idea that earthly imbalance due to certain ways of life/ impacts from humans is because humans are not in harmony with their surroundings. Seems like a bit of a stretch, right? I thought so, too. But consider this: in Nao’s tribe the spirits have control over the environment rather than humans. It’s a biocentric view taken to a spiritual level; their spirituality keeps them in tune with nature. It’s not so difficult to see where their beliefs originate. Scientifically speaking, nature is sustainable. We see it through the Gaia Hypothesis, we see it as we trek. We see the waterfalls create currents and channels to propel water to dry areas. (The current knocks some of us over and our shoes are soaked, but this non-living element is essential to the plants and animals that don’t get rain for months.) We climb over fallen trees and duck under their massive exposed roots, but the patch of sunlight now dripping through the dense canopy onto the forest floor where they previously stood is essential for new life to form. The ebb and flow of nature is undeniable; this is how it is, this is how it always has been.

However, as globalization spreads and people move away from their cultural roots, this value can be lost. The idea of “nature” is skewed. We have begun to view “nature” as simply national parks and reserves, and thus we have a significantly larger separation from our surroundings. It’s so easy, especially in a big city, to lose sight of what nature really is. When we see huge landfills, littered streets, and unsustainable practices, we shrug and move on. But what about the Bunong? Their life is so deeply intertwined with nature that of course they suffer so deeply from deforestation. Let me explain further…

Typically, deforestation occurs to clear land for agricultural usage, grazing, and human development. Hundreds of trees are cut down at once, leaving many of them to rot or be burned. The CO2 they have been storing is all released into the atmosphere and future removal of CO2 from the air is reduced, which affects multiple components of nature: 1) The composition of the air, subsequently increasing its ability to store heat and changing the amount of precipitation. 2) How rain is captured; without tree roots to hold the soil in place, it erodes at an unnatural pace. Therefore, the water runs off the land, causing drought in some areas and flooding in others. Ultimately, deforestation (an increasingly severe issue in Cambodia) is throwing off the sustainable balance of nature. Hate to break it to you, but nature knows what it’s doing, and anthropocentrism isn’t going to get us anywhere unless we can combine this belief with biocentrism, using our capabilities that have polluted oceans, killed off entire species, and torn down forests to reverse the harm, help Gaia out a little bit, and live in harmony with our surroundings. Wouldn’t that be perfect?

It’s an important topic, (and with our lively group, the conversation could go on for hours) but undoubtedly has a negative effect on us nature enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors. “It all just seems so hopeless,” someone always comments. How can we, just twelve students journeying up the Mekong for three months, make any difference in this rapidly deforesting world? It’s a difficult question, but the first step is clearer to me now more than ever: keep an open mind. Learn from other cultures and spread their knowledge. Their opinion doesn’t have to be your opinion, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from them. When Nao first shared his spiritual views on nature, I was quite skeptical. In this modern world, thriving off of science and technology, how can people so strongly believe that their forests are inhabited by spirits?

Now, as we stop for lunch (which was lovingly prepared by our Bunong guides before we rose this morning, cooked inside bamboo stalks over the fire – a traditional Bunong method) by a glistening waterfall, I watch as Nao wades into the water and, with a sly smile, darts up a conveniently placed fallen tree and disappears. I sit on a log and close my eyes, and I am entranced by jungle noises that demand to be heard. I remember that we are just a part of this big earth, and that Gaia knows what she’s doing.