Chapter One: Journey to Fire Mountain
There is something distinctive about the sight and sound of a human body falling from the rain forest canopy. The breathless scream, the wildly gyrating arms and legs pumping thin air, the rush of leaves, snapping branches, and the sickening thud, followed by uneasy silence. Listening to that silence, I reflected on how plant collecting can be an unpleasant sort of activity.
Bits of debris continued to fall from the trees and I could make out a faint plume of dust, caught in a shaft of sunlight, that indicated where the body had landed. A nearby sapling swayed back and forth a few times, then stood still. In the distance, obscured by the steaming labyrinth of trees and climbing woody vines, a cicada began its shrieking high-pitched call. The rain forest suddenly felt much closer and far less friendly than it had just a few moments earlier. Sweat dripped from my chin, and I held my breath to halt my growing sense of panic. Then I heard the first moan of pain, and all sense of time and fear was swept away.
Earlier that day, I had entered the Borneo rain forest in search of wild orchids. The morning mist was still rising and the dawn bird chorus had just faded as Tiong, a government plant collector, and two of his helpers paused at the base of a limestone cliff to burn joss sticks and stacks of Chinese devotional money. These offerings were intended to appease the spirit world before we started our climb. Everything began well enough, but by midday the mountain spirits responded to our presence. Tiong was near the top of a tree when he reached up and gripped a Wragler's pit viper sleeping on a branch. Within moments, my guide and protector was hurtling through space with two fang marks in the back of his hand. We didn't find the orchids we were looking for, and we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get Tiong off the mountain. Tiong lived, but after that experience, I felt confident that I wouldn't be participating in any more orchid-hunting trips.
My journey with Tiong was part of a plan that I had come up with to build an upriver plant nursery for a group of indigenous people known as the Penan. Members of this tribe had helped me to walk across the island of Borneo in 1982 during a six-month-long, 1,500-mile cross-country journey. At the time, many of the Penan were still nomadic hunters and gatherers and I traveled with them in order to experience a vanishing way of life. The journey nearly cost me my life, but in the end I returned home and wrote my first book, Stranger in the Forest.
During that harrowing journey, the Penan taught me how to survive, but more important, they showed me a different way of being, and my life has never been quite the same since then. For years I have felt a profound debt of gratitude to these people. Today, most Penan lead settled lives in remote villages. They are not farmers, and without language or business skills they have no steady source of income apart from working as migrant laborers for logging or mining companies. They are highly skilled at collecting jungle products from the primary rain forest, and this got me to thinking. Years went by, but I eventually came up with the idea that a small commercial nursery filled with exotic jungle plants salvaged from the nearby logging concessions might be the perfect financial solution for them.
The only problem was that I knew absolutely nothing about how to start or maintain a nursery, and I didn't know which plants might be of horticultural interest, or which species were valuable. I also had no idea that international regulations prohibited such a venture. I continued to think about the village nursery idea, and this is why I eventually ended up on top of the mountain with Tiong. I wanted him to educate me in the fine art of collecting wild orchids and other desirable plants. As it turned out, Tiong went to the hospital, where he was put on a respirator, and I returned home to rethink my village nursery scheme.
Six months later I received a letter from Richard Baskin, an orchid grower in Minneapolis. I had no idea who the man was, but a friend had told him I knew all about upriver travel in Borneo. Richard wanted to know if I would take him and a friend, Donald Levitt, an orchid grower from North Dakota, to the Borneo rain forest to look for an orchid known as Paphiopedilum
(pronounced "paf-ee-oh-pedilum") sanderianum
. It seemed a long way to go for the sake of looking at a plant that might not be in flower, but I phoned him a few days later to discuss the idea. In the back of my mind, I thought these two men might teach me something about orchids and help me with the village nursery idea.
"It's the holy grail of orchids," Richard explained. "Maybe only a dozen botanists on earth have seen it bloom in the wild. It has the whole orchid world in turmoil. Conservationists, scientists, and commercial growers are at each other's throats over the plant."
Orchid world in turmoil? I had no idea what the orchid world was, let alone how such a thing could be in turmoil or why I should get involved with another orchid hunt. At the time, I couldn't distinguish a Phalaenopsis
from an Odontoglossum
, but from dozens of visits to Borneo over the previous eighteen years I knew the isolated mountain area that Richard and Donald wanted to visit. I had the time, they had the money, and three months later we stood ankle-deep in mud at the edge of a jungle river in Sarawak, the East Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. We were one hundred miles upriver, one hundred years back in time, and judging from the childlike looks of wonderment on my companions' faces, we had arrived in orchid heaven. Then the little men with the spears arrived.
I introduced the two orchidophiles to my diminutive Penan friends -- Bati and Katong. Like all Penan they are masters of the deep forest, and I had traveled hundreds of miles through the jungle with Bati and Katong over the previous ten years. I had sent word of our plans to them by way of an upriver trading post. The message was for them to meet us at the junction of the Limbang and Medalam rivers on the full moon of the fourth month of 1993.
Bati and Katong have never seen a compass or a map, but what they don't know about hunting dogs, the use of a spear, or long-distance jungle travel isn't worth knowing. They can build a waterproof shelter from leaves in twenty minutes, catch fish with their feet, and light a fire without matches in a tropical downpour. The forest is their home. It is the setting for their creation myths, the resting place of their ancestors, and, until recently, an unlimited storehouse of food, medicine, and building material. To the average Western visitor, the Borneo rain forest is a chaotic, steaming green hell of leeches, biting insects, giant cockroaches, bad smells, and certain death. Bati and Katong speak no English, so it was my job to translate and to try to explain the purpose of our trip to these two jungle men.
"They have come twelve thousand miles to look at a flower?" Bati asked me in Malay.
"It is true," I replied.
"Can you eat this flower?" Katong asked.
"Is it used for medicine?"
"What do they want to do with this flower?"
"Take photographs and measure the leaves."
"And how much have these men paid to come look at the flower?"
"About $3,500 each," I said.
Having established these basic facts, Bati and Katong retreated into a special Penan silence that suggests indifference or nonchalance, but in fact is an expression of profound disbelief.
Once we had the dugout canoe loaded, a quick look at the orchid hunters' baggage pretty well said all there was to say about our respective cultures. Donald had brought a sling psychrometer for measuring relative humidity, an altimeter, litmus paper, a handheld Satellite Global Positioning System for establishing the precise latitude and longitude of any orchid on earth -- within ten feet. Or was it ten inches? I can't remember. Then there were the video camera and still cameras and all their accessories, a compass, tape recorders, batteries and battery rechargers, binoculars, electrolyte balancers, Powerbars, sunblock, water purification tablets, a hand pump for filtering water, dental floss, hair shampoo and conditioners, deodorants, breath fresheners, hiking boots, recently purchased adventure-travel clothing, and insect repellent. They had freeze-dried food, inflatable sleeping mattresses and pillows, mosquito nets, rolls of toilet paper, rip-stop nylon tents, Cordura cloth cot stretchers, a stove-top espresso maker, canteens, tripods, notebooks, umbrellas, plastic tea cups, and digital wristwatches. Donald put on a pair of wraparound sunglasses with mirrored lenses and then won the prize for weirdness with a shrink-wrapped collapsible toilet made from die-cut sections of camouflaged cardboard.
The Penan had brought a cooking pot, two spear-tipped blowguns, a quiver of poisoned darts, and jungle knives. They also carried two empty backpacks, which was just as well, because they would need all the space they could find in those backpacks to haul the orchid hunters' equipment through the jungle.
We shoved off from shore and continued our journey into the remote interior of the island. The Medalam River was in flood. We slowly motored against the brown current, which was littered with tangles of uprooted vegetation and floating logs. Scattered along this winding green corridor of giant trees, the branches were laden with pitcher plants and flowering orchids."Dimorphorchis lowii,"
Donald called out, as he slapped at a mosquito on his forehead.
Then Richard spotted Dayakia hendersoniana
, and Grammatophyllum speciosum,
the largest orchid on earth. They continued their roll call of Borneo orchids and eventually fell into a heated discussion that startled our Penan guides."Arachnanthe!"
Donald blurted out, his face flushed with excitement.
, you dinosaur," Richard shouted back. This comment unleashed an exchange of taxonomic firepower that ended in an uncomfortable silence. It was the sort of botanical nit-picking that I would listen to for the duration of the trip.
"Are they going to fight?" Katong asked.
"No, they are just discussing the name of a flower," I told him.
Farther upriver, Donald lowered his binoculars to give his eyes a rest, and told us a story about how a disgruntled customer (an entomologist who made a living synthesizing the scent of the female fruit fly in heat) had accused him of selling diseased plants. To further emphasize his point the man had beaten Donald unconscious in his greenhouse. Then Richard explained how two California orchid growers had settled an argument about intergeneric hybridizing with a two-foot length of water pipe and a burst of gunfire. One man had died. When I translated these stories for Bati and Katong, they remarked that orchid growing sounded like a dangerous business.
Late that afternoon, we pulled the longboat onto a sandy bank and hauled our bags ashore. Bati set up a temporary shelter from leaves and cut saplings while Katong went off into the jungle in search of food. He returned a short time later with a neatly wrapped bundle of fiddlehead ferns tied up in a leaf and a load of wild jackfruit called buah nakan
. He also produced a three-foot-long tree root known as Tonkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia)
-- the fabled Walking Stick of Ali. According to Katong, a tea made from the sliced root enables a man to make love five times in a single night. "More useful than orchid," Katong explained.
We divided up the root for later use, and after a dinner of fresh fish, sautéed fiddlehead ferns, steamed rice, and jackfruit, we opened our first bottle of tuak (rice wine). Sitting back to enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of fireflies moving through the jungle night, we agreed that the journey had gotten off to an auspicious start.
That night at the campfire, Richard described Paphiopedilum sanderianum
, the tropical lady's slipper orchid that we were looking for, and how the common name for the flower comes from the distinctive pouch that looks like a small slipper. The genus Paphiopedilum
includes more than eighty species, ranging from India across China to the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Many of the best orchid habitat sites are in Sarawak and the one we were headed for was a place the Penan call Gunong Api (Fire Mountain). In 1993, Fire Mountain was accessible only by dugout canoe and on foot, a round-trip journey of ten days.Paphiopedilum sanderianum
is one of the most spectacular and sought-after orchids in the world. It is an unusual plant in that its flowers have two wavy, drooping petals that can reach more than three feet in length. In addition to its extraordinary floral display, the sanderianum has a colorful history. First discovered in the Sarawak rain forest by the German plant collector J. Förstermann in 1885, it was thought to have become extinct in the wild.
Richard pointed out that the orchid experts of the world had thought the plant was extinct in the wild because they didn't know where it grew and, because of the huge expense involved in mounting a botanical expedition, no one had spent any time searching for it. The orchid was "rediscovered" by accident in 1978 when the botanist Ivan Nielsen found it flowering near Fire Mountain. Ever since then the sanderianum has been championed by certain botanists and botanic institutions as one of the rarest of the rare; one of the most endangered plant species on earth.
As we traveled upriver in search of the sanderianum I was oblivious to the international fuss that surrounded the orchid; but Richard and Donald gradually filled me in on the petty and vicious world of plant politics. Largely as a result of publicity generated by the rediscovery of the sanderianum, a few orchid collectors started looking for where the plant grew. Until our trip in 1993 this was a secret carefully guarded by local villagers, several plant collectors, and a few botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Naturally, at the time of its rediscovery in 1978, other scientific institutions, botanists, plant historians, and commercial growers wanted to get their hands on the sanderianum for research and artificial propagation. This sort of international excitement eventually aroused the attention of policymakers at CITES (pronounced "sigh-tees," the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which has its headquarters in Geneva.
In December 1987, Henry Azadehdel, an orchid collector, was arrested at Heathrow Airport and charged with smuggling orchids. British and U.S. newspapers and magazines gave lurid descriptions of how orchid piracy and illegal trade were leading to the extinction of wild orchid species. The concept of orchid smuggling was entirely new to me, and I followed their version of events with a great deal of interest and skepticism.
Within less than a year the sanderianum was being promoted at CITES meetings as if it was as urgently in need of protection as the giant panda or the African elephant. One of the main problems with this analogy, according to Richard, was the simple fact that the trade laws don't distinguish between plants and animals. Endangered megafauna (elephants, rhinoceros, whales) might produce only one offspring per year, whereas a single sanderianum seed pod can produce about 8,000 to 10,000 seedlings per year in a commercial nursery, and a mature plant carries five to twenty pods. If whales, elephants, and rhinoceros had this sort of reproductive capability, there wouldn't be room on earth to put them or their steaming byproducts.
In 1989, the sanderianum and all remaining Paphiopedilum
species were placed on what is known as CITES Appendix I, an official list of the most endangered species. There is a total ban on the international commercial trade of Appendix I wild plants and plant parts. This includes the pollen, flowers, seed pods, and leaves of those plants. The rule about parts, as it applies to plants, seemed odd because it was primarily designed to protect animals by stopping the trade in animal parts such as walrus tusks, python skins, elephant ivory, whale teeth, dried tiger penises, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell. From the viewpoint of plant conservation, I was curious to know what possible connection there could be between dried tiger penises and orchid seed pods.
"That remains a carefully guarded secret that orchid growers and botanists have been pondering for years," Richard said.
Stifling, languid days passed as we moved slowly upriver. At night we sat cross-legged at the campfire and continued to talk about the strange world of orchid conservation. One of the things that I found odd about the endangered orchid story was the fact that the sanderianum had been put on Appendix I without any hard data to support the claim that the plant populations were critically low, and that the species was endangered. I suggested to Richard that this didn't sound like a very scientific or logical way to go about protecting a species, but my comment merely revealed how little I knew about the politics of plant conservation.
"People are paid money to make laws to protect flowers?" Bati asked, looking up from his task of making poisoned darts. His knife handle was made from the femur of a long-tailed macaque.
In the case of Paphiopedilum sanderianum,
no one had conducted a systematic population survey of the plant to establish whether, in fact, it was threatened with extinction, and if so, what was the nature of that threat. This complete absence of basic knowledge about how the plant grows in the wild and what conditions it needs to thrive was the reason that Donald and Richard wanted to find the sanderianum habitat. I also learned that essential scientific research is complicated or impeded by the CITES treaty or national laws that do not adequately distinguish between live and dead plants. For example, it is illegal, without import and export permits, to transport even pickled or dried Appendix I orchid herbarium specimens across most international borders. Richard described how a highly regarded German orchid taxonomist had recently been denied permission to import hundred-year-old dried orchid specimens for research purposes because they were listed on the CITES Appendix I list. The man tried to reason with the customs officer, explaining that the rules should apply only to live plants, but in the end he lost his patience and punched the customs officer in the face.
"Illegal to move dead plants from one place to another?" Katong asked. "Why?" Our Penan guides were dumbfounded by such regulations and I can't say that I blamed them. I was perplexed myself, and the more I heard, the more intrigued I became with the inner workings of the orchid world. Donald even mentioned that armed customs officers with attack dogs were raiding orchid nurseries in Europe, but I dismissed this tale as nothing more than the mindless ranting of an obsessed orchid fanatic.
The days passed; as we traveled farther into the forest in search of our legendary plant, the journey began to feel more and more like a quest for the ultimate botanical treasure on earth. The two orchid growers seemed willing to undergo any amount of exertion, excruciating pain, or discomfort on the off chance that we would find the plant in flower. Bati and Katong, on the other hand, were largely indifferent to the orchid hunt, which they saw as a silly way to spend one's time. They moved through the jungle collecting food and finding the way with an ease of spirit that was unnerving, especially to Donald, who spent much of his time looking for dry, bug-free, level places to set up his camouflaged cardboard toilet. When we weren't paddling up quiet backwaters or portaging the dugout over muddy slopes strung with rattan vines that ripped clothing and flesh like barbed wire, we sat around camp drinking tea, applying Band-Aids, talking about orchids, and trying to explain everyday life in the United States to our Penan guides. One afternoon, Richard produced a photo of his wife's six Afghan show dogs.
"So big," Bati exclaimed. "Are they good hunters?"
"Well, actually, they don't hunt," Richard said. "If they went outside they would get dirty and we would have to give them a bath. We keep them in the house. They have their own beds and we feed them dog food."
"What is dog food?" asked Bati.
Then Donald showed the Penan a photo of his orchid greenhouse covered with snow.
"What is snow?" Katong asked.
I explained snow as frozen rain that piles up on the ground for several months each year. I think they understood this, but the concept of buying food for dogs that don't hunt, or why someone would choose to live in a place where it snowed, was beyond them.
I told the two Penan about my idea for a village nursery.
Bati considered this possibility and then asked how much a fully mature sanderianum plant would sell for in the United States. When Richard told him the figure ($2,000-$3,000), Bati announced that the sum represented more money than he would earn in his entire life. With this in mind, he asked why the Penan couldn't collect a few orchids each year to sell to foreign buyers. With the loggers, dam builders, farmers, hotel developers, and road builders closing in on the area, it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately for the Penan and the orchids, as Richard pointed out, it is perfectly legal to flood an orchid habitat with a hydroelectric dam, log it, level the hillsides for a road, build a golf course on the site, or burn the jungle to the ground for agricultural purposes, but CITES influence and rules make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to salvage the plants and sell them. I found this very hard to believe.
"If the rules say that no one can collect these plants, what will happen to them when the road builders, farmers, and loggers come?" Katong asked.
"The plants will die and the rules will live on," Richard said.
We arrived at the foot of Fire Mountain on the morning of our fifth day in the rain forest. Over the previous ten years, both Richard and Donald had dreamed of discovering a sanderianum plant flowering in the wild, and so there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air as we started up the steep slope. Bati and Katong cut a way through a wall of vegetation with their jungle knives, but the going was not easy as we climbed into a mist-filled mountain forest strewn with a jumble of knife-edged limestone formations.
After about an hour of pulling ourselves uphill by grasping slippery roots and limestone as sharp as glass, we reached a level piece of ground. Donald checked his altimeter and swung his sling psychrometer to get a humidity reading. Richard looked at his compass and then indicated the direction we should walk. Within fifteen minutes we arrived at a place where everything was right: the humidity, the light, the air flow, and the type of limestone cliffs where the sanderianum grows. We moved north along the foot of a west-facing cliff, and then strained our eyes as we looked up into the mass of vegetation above us. Off to one side, a cool breeze moved across the cliff face and sent a pair of unmistakable undulating petals into motion.
There was a moment of electrified silence before Donald sputtered out a phrase that sounded something like: "OH MY GOD I DON'T FUCKING BELIEVE IT WHERE'S MY CAMERA!"
"Mondo . . . ," said Richard.
We climbed to about 950 feet, where we were surrounded by hundreds of sanderianum plants. It was difficult to move around for fear of trampling on the orchids, so we stood still for a moment savoring the incredible sight of these pristine wild plants. Only a handful of people on earth had ever seen what lay before us.
"AGGGGGH WHERE THE HELL IS MY GOD-DAMN HIGH-SPEED FILM?" Donald screamed into his camera bag before dumping its contents onto the ground.
Once the two men had calmed down, they swung into action while Bati, Katong, and I sat back to drink in the scene of orchid ecstasy. Motor drives whirred, leaves were measured (3 inches across), mature plants, seedlings, and seed pods were counted, rainwater was tested (pH 6.3), light was measured in units of foot-candles (2,500 to 4,000 in patterned shade), and samples of rock (pH 7.5) and peat (pH 7.3) were tested. Four hours later we were on our way down the mountain with notebooks full of data. Over the course of a week, we returned to the site several times, and then moved on to discover thousands of sanderianum plants in dozens of different sites. I was surprised when Richard told me that this sort of independent research, without special permits from the host country, is also prohibited.
When Bati and Katong asked Richard what would happen if someone tried to take sanderianum plants back to the United States to sell on their behalf, he told them that the fine could be as high as $500,000 plus ten years in jail. Then they wanted to know how much people got paid to help make up such laws and punishments. Richard said that he knew of a plant conservationist who made more than $100,000 per year to help lay the groundwork for those penalties.
"Ah," they concluded, "no wonder the fines are so high. How else could the man's salary be paid?"
That wasn't quite right, but close enough.
The embers of the fire glowed a deep red as Bati and Katong let a respectful silence fall over the campsite. Things had become clearer for them, and perhaps they felt it was unnecessary to probe deeper into a culture where people shot each other for flowers, raised dogs that didn't hunt, and were cursed by a frozen rain that fell from the sky like pebbles.
Out in the jungle night, I saw the familiar sweeping beam of a flashlight. Donald was on the prowl once again, responding to another call of nature. The beam of light eventually came to rest. It illuminated the overhead canopy for a few minutes and then, without warning, everything went dark. I heard a distant rustle of leaves, a stifled cry, and what sounded like a body falling off a collapsible cardboard toilet. Bati and Katong looked at each other and then shook their heads. It was time to go home.
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