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Tuesday, February 13, 2007, Sunset
The bee tree: somewhere in the forest near Pedu Lake, Kedah

“As long as there is a forest, there will be honey hunters”–Pak Teh

Nizam (in green) and Shukor (in blue) at the base of the bee tree, raise the first section of the new ladder

SUDDENLY, THERE WAS SILENCE among the humans standing under the huge bee tree. The forest, a very noisy place around sunset, continued with its cacophony. The seven honey hunters, PEMBURU MADU in Basaha, led by the two cousins, Nizam and Shukor, stood quietly together, looking at the ground, at the base of the giant tree, all holding on to the KAYU PENANJAK, a 20 foot long piece of wood cut from the sapling Penanjak tree and forming the first piece of the long ladder that was attached to the massive trunk, its finned trunk rising 220 feet above them like a rocket ship. The makeshift, but reliable ladder leads up to the first branch, 120 feet above, and then onto the branches themselves, leading to the huge colonies protected by a blanket of several layers of giant wild Asian honey bees. The existing ladder was built for the honey hunt last year. It consisted of a central axis, made of the penanjak trunks, with rungs of smaller branches spaced at about shoulder level when you stood on the previous rung; all lashed together and nailed to the tree trunk. It was replaced every year to make sure it was sound. The climber’s lives depended on it.

Here at the base of the tualang tree, one of the tallest trees in Southeast Asia, we were in deep shadow. High above, where the foliage stuck up above the other trees in the rain forest, the last rays of the setting sun were lighting up the bee colonies hanging from smooth horizontal branches. A buzzing like a far away airplane told us that drone flights were starting.

The band of honey hunters looked like they were praying. Later Makhdzir explained to me that, yes, they were. Each was holding on to the KAYU in symbolic solidarity with each other. Throughout this night and the coming nights of the honey harvest, the success of their mission, and sometimes their lives, depended on this sense of togetherness and cooperation. They prayed for safety, good fortune, and for the cooperation and generosity of the bees. I had watched “Flags of Our Fathers” on the flight over here. The raising of the KAYU PENANJAK reminded me of that famous photograph taken at Iwo Jima.

Over the next four hours, the two young men, barefoot and dressed in overalls, performed a feat of athleticism that I had never actually seen before during all my previous visits to the honey hunt. Together, they replaced, with new wood, piece by piece, the very ladder that they were standing on, in pitch darkness, working from the ground up to 120 feet.

I pressed myself more firmly into the ground I was sitting on just thinking about it. I had once climbed up to to the second rung in daylight, about 10 feet up, but came down immediately–I have a fear of heights. Makhdzir had told us earlier that he had climbed to the first branch. We were impressed and asked him about that again.

“No, I meant the first rung of the ladder! It’s made out of a branch. Maybe I used the wrong word” Makhdzir laughed. He had done his doctoral dissertation on the biology of Apis dorsata and working with Pak Teh’s honey hunting band. So not even Makhdzir had climbed up to the top of the ladder!

Flashlights flickered on and off, so as not to attract the bees. There was a regular call and response of shouts back and forth between the two climbers on the trunk and the ground crew with long periods of silence as they worked on a new rung of the ladder. Each exchange ending with, “BAIK!” That means “good” in Bahasa and it’s local Kedah usage for “OK!” or “Roger and out!”

Climber: “Hoist up the ANAK CANUNG (ladder rung)”
Person on ground: “BAIK!”
Climber: “There’s no honey!”
Ground: “BAIK!”
Climber: “I sure feel safer up here than driving that bus to Alor Star! Those drivers are crazy!”
Ground: “BAIK!”

Indeed, the whole spectacle reminded me of two astronauts up in the air and their ground crew below providing support and materials that went up and down on a rope. The urgency of the communications and the precision with which each member did his job certainly reflected the seriousness of a space launch. Nevertheless, there was also a lot of laughter and joking. Despite the danger involved in the work, there was a feeling of lighthearted companionship between the men. I think this helped take the edge off of the danger involved. The banter was that of people who knew each other very well; in fact most of them were related by family. They were more than co-workers. If one of them was hurt or killed, others would have to take care of his family. No one ever made any mistakes.

From the corner of my eye I sensed motion overhead. I turned to follow the slow gentle movement of a flying squirrel as it floated over the clearing around he bee tree and into a neighboring canopy. I could see that there were two of them still scampering about in the silhouette of the tree. I had never seen even one flying squirrel before. So they were not in the book. Makhdzir also saw it and said he suspects that they fly past the colonies with their mouths open, collecting the stingless drones, the males of the colony, as they swarm out of the nests in clouds at sunset, trying to mate with virgin queens. It was mating season and for Apis dorsata, sunset was their cue.

Some of my flash photos captured bats around the bee tree, perhaps eating bees, but maybe hunting the swarms of flying insects of all kinds that also made little white spots like dust on my photos as the flash caught them.

As the sunset faded into twilight and the sky turned from yellow to orange to pink at the horizon, it was dark where we were. I listened to the sounds of the forest. It was more like a symphony. As you focus your awareness on different frequencies, you hear new sounds in each octave. On top of everything is the sunset cicadas, sounding like a hundred cell phones going off, all with different electronic ring tones, or make that a block of car alarms. I think a pack of bicycles all going downhill with worn out brake shoes, metal on metal, describes this screeching sound best. It’s all part of their love song. Steve explained that what I at first thought were birds chirping from above and all around us were tree frogs. A hornbill chuckled. Earlier, I had seen one flying across the clearing. They have such an odd shape, a little too long with that large bill, as they flap their wings.

We, the observers sat on the higher ground beneath the bee tree were we would be out of the way of the honey hunters. We were still sweating from the humid hike up the mountainside to the tree. The air was now close to body temperature, thick and comfortable, close like a light blanket. Some of us dipped in and out of light sleep, waking up to see the climbers higher up the great trunk of the tree. Or the constellation of Orion and the Pleades that had moved a little farther behind the bee tree.

Even after dark, the moonless tropical night sky sought by the honey hunters for their work was still luminous. The trees around the clearing showed as black silhouettes against it, black on black. I don’t know if it is all the humidity scattering the little light there was, but it was not dark. I stared up into it, trying to identify color. In my painting in the book I used a deep purplish blue for the night sky. This was not really accurate, being inspired by Steve’s original time exposures on slide film. The deep beautiful blue was caused by something called reciprocity effect that affected long exposures on film. Anyways, the eye does not really see color in this dim light. Still, I could subtly shift it from indigo blue to purplish blue in my mind, depending on how I wanted to see it. People said that my painting expressed the feel and sense of color of the tropical night perfectly, as no photo could record it. I should have put more stars in it.

Steve pointed out to me a luminous click beetle flying high above the clearing. There were fireflies, also beetles of course, flying low, glowing an intense blue color. A gibbon in a nearby tree started to sing, adding it’s voice to the human calls in the darkness of the forest. One of the honey hunters called back to the gibbon and they carried out a conversation. Neither understanding the other. Or maybe there was no need to interpret. That’s what primates do. We shout and sing to let each other know we are there.

Sometime during the night, I walked to the edge of the huge pit filled with tangled underbrush down slope from the bee tree and tossed out a tiny box filled with the ashes of Cinda Lauffer, daughter of my friend Rhod Lauffer in Tucson. The same Rhod that Pak Teh mistook for his enemy in my illustration for The Bee Tree. This month was the first anniversary of her death at 36 of cancer. This narrative will also go into the album that Rhod is creating of text and photos as friends travel over the world scattering her ashes as they go.

After a while, Pak Teh walked up from the base camp a hundred or so yards down slope, sweating, to join us beneath the tree. At 80 years old, he had climbed the tree as recently as last year. But his two grandsons, were clearly in charge here now. There had been a long gap before these two boys, now 28 years old, each the son of a different daughter, could take over Pak Teh’s responsibility as leader of the honey hunting band. Pak Teh had had only daughters and the honey hunt was man’s work.

Pak Teh said something and called up to his grandsons now high up on the trunk, and laughed. M. translated.

“He says he is trying to resist climbing up there with them!”

It was after midnight when they called down that the ladder was finished and they were going to rest. They rested up in the tree.

Climber: “Send up the PALONG (leather honey bucket)”
Person on ground: “BAIK!”

Soon I saw the leather honey bucket with the attached bone knife going up into the tree, silhouetted against that night sky that was just not black. They were ready to harvest the first colony.

After a few more calls and responses between the tree top and the ground crew, I saw the first cascade of sparks as, somewhere above us, Nizam or Shukor rubbed his honey hunters torch on the branch above the first colony. The tiny glowing red embers made little spirals as they floated slowly, gently down towards the ground downslope from the great tree. I had a tripod set up and wanted to record a time exposure, but it proved too much trouble for me in the pitch dark. I put the camera away and just watched with my eyes, the only way to really observe the honey hunt.

As required by tradition, one of the ground crew, an uncle I think, chanted from the base of the tree. His call carried throughout the forest.



(“Hitam Manis, Dark Sweet One, Come down with the falling stars
Come down gracefully.”)

“SEDAP! SEDAP!” (Tastes good) I heard Nizam’s voice from above. He was tasting the honey.

Art from The Bee Tree, by Paul Mirocha

As planned, the highly defensive bees were confused by the falling embers, considering them to be the threat to their colony. In the dark, the honey hunters are invisible to them. So despite the poetry sung by the honey hunters, the bees are angry. They follow the embers to the ground and rest there until morning. There were bees buzzing past us in the dark, even in the safe area where we sat.

“OWWW! DAAAANNNN…” I started to curse and yell at the people around me to turn their flashlights off. But I stopped in mid-sentence.

I identified the pain. I had been stung in the thigh. That’s when I remembered HITAM MANIS, the beautiful woman who, ages ago, fell into forbidden love with the Sultan’s son and was killed by the Sultan’s soldiers. Cause of death: a beautfully decorated silver spear through the heart. She flew up into the treetops with her girl friends and lived on as the collective spirit of the wild bees. Because of this, tradition forbids using metal tools in collecting honey, and suggests using terms of endearment towards the bees, as you would towards your lover. They may be, after all, superior beings, not to mention the spirit of a beautiful woman who was wronged. Certainly bee had talents and powers beyond what we humans can comprehend and humans did well to treat them with respect. It was bad form to even use harsh language around the bees–they might not return next year.

The honey hunters do get stung. But their immune systems have given up reacting to the bee venom. I remember when I used to sit below this tree when Pak Teh was still doing the harvesting. I’d hear him laugh up there in the dark. I knew then that he had been stung. He called the stings tickles or kisses.

“My fine friends. My darlings! You have tickled me. Ha. Thank you!”

That bee kiss was to stay with me for the rest of my trip. A reminder of my relationship with Hitam Manis, sweet and dark, the feminine spirit of the bees.

When the bucket came down full of honey combs, honey, and bees, I went down to the base of trunk to watch. One of the older men took the first piece of honey comb and wrapped it in foil. This was a gesture of respect towards the unknown. The honey hunters traditionally throw the first bit of comb into the forest as a gift for the “Unseen Owner”. No one speaks about who this is exactly–it is not important to know or not knowable. Whenever he entered the forest, Pak Teh would touch his heart and say “Assalamu’alaikum” as he would upon entering a house as a guest. He was entering the domain of the “Unseen Owner” of the forest.

He then wrapped up another piece. I do not know what the purpose of this second piece of comb was. Like so much else I don’t know, I left it at that.

He carried the honey bucket up to where Pak Teh and the rest were sitting and we all tasted it.

“MAKAN, MAKAN!” said Pak Teh,. “Eat eat!.” He knew we understood that word. We had learned it from him. He always said that to us because he was always feeding us.

It was sweet and watery. We chewed the combs like chewing gum. Pak Teh said the honey tasted different this year. It tasted like Shorea flowers, one of the giant Dipterocarp trees on the forest around Pedu Lake highly prized for their hard timber for building and often used as a substitute for teak. Also highly prized by the bees for making honey. Amazing. I’ll bet Pak Teh can talk about honey the way a waiter at a French restaurant talks about wine.


In the honey hunter’s camp after the climb

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