Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Secret Life of Trees

Although Tsing’s text is about the local/global frictions through which fictions(?) of universals are made, circulated, and unmade, I was perhaps more interested in the localized ethnographies she provided of life in rural Kalimantan and the Meratus Mountains. I am aware that these provide the background for her greater arguments about globalization, but often, they were intriguing in and of themselves. In specific, I was really taken in by her discussion of the social field in which the forests of the region exist – how the trees, weeds, and insects each tell their own stories about the interrelationship between the Meratus Dayaks and the environment in which they live.

Tsing discusses governmental attempts to designate the type of forest in many areas of the Meratus Mountains. She notes that often these designations brush up against local understandings of the forest, creating vast homogeneity where, in reality, the trees and other plants are widely heterogeneous. The trees tell their own stories about who has seen them, how they have been used, and which people and animals have interacted with them. People mark their names on trees to claim them, then passing down these parcels of the natural world to relatives so long as the claim continues to be acted upon. That is, one must “care” for their natural claims, perhaps cutting off parts of the tree so as to allow the bees to build their hives. The forest has visceral markers of its place in the social sphere of the Meratus Mountains, the names that have been inscribed upon the trees or the patches of fruits that have grown where once a community stood.

To consider the forest as an active player in the social domain of the Kalimantan region does, to tie this account back to Tsing’s main arguments, expose some of the frictions at play in our understanding of how humans interact with nature. At all levels, we see differing understandings of the way that trees and other natural actors may relate to the human actors in the region. To understand global friction, then, we must attend to the myriad of actors in any given situation and examine the competing levels of agency, power, and discursive authority that are at play.

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