Writers we love: Tim Cahill

As adventurous stylistically as physically, this writer-explorer takes us places we've never dared to go.

Published August 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last night, I shudder to report, I dreamed about Tim Cahill.

Let me backtrack: Last week I wrote in this column about Jan Morris, anticipating her appearance in a travel writers' conference I was chairing later in the week. In that same column I also mentioned Pico Iyer and Tim Cahill, the two other travel writers who were guests of honor at the event.

I intended to move on to a different topic this week, but after spending four summer-camp-intense days in the presence of these craft masters, in workshops and panels and dinners and readings and late-night beer and travel tale revels, my mind refuses to let go of them. Their words and their writings stay with me; their warmth and intelligence and generosity stay with me, too.

We parted on Sunday and I went to work on Monday, half in the office and half still enmeshed in that conference, and then on Monday night I settled down with Cahill's most recent collection of stories, "Pass the Butterworms."

Leafing through them reminded me of my first encounters with Cahill -- during the early 1980s, when he was a sometime contributor to the San Francisco Examiner's Sunday magazine, where I was a senior editor. At that time, I was awed by Cahill's daring. He dove with sharks, walked among gorillas, explored caves and cliffs and end-of-the-world places most sane humans would just rather not even contemplate. And he did it all with aplomb. What I didn't realize, and what I heard only a couple of days ago, was that he was "studying the mechanism of fear," and trying to grapple with the factors at the bottom of that fear: mortality, death.

As a reader, I was awed by Cahill's ability to physically push the envelope; as an editor, I was awed by his ability to push a similar envelope stylistically, playing with perspective and chronology, delivering life-changing lessons in deceptively simple and seductive accounts. And I realized that he brought the same daring, intelligence and accomplishment to his writing that he did to his travels.

All this came back to me as I leafed through his tales. Finally I settled on one to savor slowly as the moon shone smokily through the clouds. This was the last piece in "Pass the Butterworms," entitled "Among the Karowai: A Stone Age Idyll," and -- like the best of Cahill's work -- it took me places I never expected to visit and taught me things I never expected to learn.

The story begins in typically disarming Cahill fashion: "It was, I suppose, a single piece of ineptly executed and cynically fashioned art that sent me fleeing five hundred miles upriver, back into time, and deep into the malarial heart of the swamp. The people I wanted to meet -- it was only later that I would come to know them as Karowai -- lived a Stone Age life and knew almost nothing of the outside world. They were, some said, headhunters, cannibals, savages. If so, they still owned their own lives."

This opening has elements of what Cahill called at the conference the "reverse parallelogram lead" -- so called because "no one knows what the hell it means." The idea is that if the lead is written intriguingly enough, your curiosity will lead you farther into the jungle of the story itself.
But we do get some intimation of what is to come -- a trip up a river and back into time, with a healthy dose of malarial danger thrown in.

And this lead certainly draws me on. I want to know more about the inept and cynical piece of art that sent him up the river, and I want to know more about the Karowai. And I am delightfully tweaked in quintessential Cahill perspective-bending fashion by the last two sentences: Normally you would expect "They were, some said, headhunters, cannibals, savages" to be followed by some sentence alluding to the author's fear and bravado in venturing boldly among such terrifying people. Instead, Cahill turns the spotlight on the people themselves, gets inside their heads to find the admirable and heartening truth such a rumor suggests: that they have not yet lost themselves to the forces of the modern world.

And so we're off. Next we meet an entrepreneurial immigrant from Java named Rudy, who wears a Lacoste shirt and Playboy neck chain, and who takes us to his shabby shop, where soulless works of "native Asmat art" are sold.

This encounter leads Cahill to a quick discourse on the ancient and noble lineage of Asmat art -- whose pieces are prized in such prominent places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This, in turn, leads to further information about the Asmat people, and the spooking tale of anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, who explored the same territory Cahill is about to visit. Rockefeller's enigmatic end -- his body was never found after his boat capsized and he began to swim to shore -- continues to inspire stories that he was eaten by tribe members as revenge for a murder committed by whites some years before.

Now we are some 20 paragraphs into the story -- and the adventure begins: "The boat was a forty-foot-long dugout, no more than three feet wide, and powered by a 40-horsepower kerosene Yamaha engine." The journey upriver is starting, but our adventure has already begun: We have a sense of Rudy's town as the kind of sad outpost where one can witness the unraveling of an ancient civilization, an outpost that in fact is hastening that unraveling; we have learned about the complex culture of the Asmat and about a semi-legendary explorer who never returned.

At the travel writers' conference, Cahill said, "Every good travel story embodies a quest." Our quest -- to see what is to be found upriver, among possible cannibals -- is on.

As in many quests, our first act is to find a guide. In this case, we find William. William is a Papuan from a nearby island who has been upriver before; he knows what he's talking about.

"Gone," he told us. "All modern now." By which he meant that the people had come down out of the trees and that they now lived in clapboard houses with tin roofs. The children all went to school, the adults went to church, and everyone wore missionary-clothing-drive T-shirts and shorts. It wasn't that my book was incorrect: All this had happened in the five years since it was published. "Change is very fast now," William said.

So Cahill introduces us to one of the streaming themes of his piece -- and then immediately takes that theme from the particular to the universal.

That change -- the homogenization of humanity -- seems to be the direction of history. There is a certain sad inevitability about it all. For the upriver people in the Asmat, it happens like this: Missionaries come, followed by the government in the form of soldiers and policemen and bureaucrats. And then the multinational developers arrive, hard on the heels of the government, and they promise a better life to anyone who wants to log the forest and farm the waste. Perhaps the development would involve mining or petrochemical exploration, but the result has always been the same. Everywhere. The living culture is entombed within museums.

The history of the world, in a few sentences. Cahill presses on:

Still, William explained, if we wanted to go farther upriver, deeper into the swamp, he knew of some people who still lived in the trees, people who used stone tools and were largely ignorant of the outside world. If this was, in fact, the case -- the irony wasn't lost on me -- I would be an agent of the changes that offended my romantic notions of human diversity. I would personally entomb some of the living cultures in prose, and Chris [the photographer accompanying Cahill] would document it on film. Perhaps, several generations down the line, young people in the Asmat would study his photographs in an attempt to understand what had happened to them.

So there you have it, in three paragraphs: the history of the world and the paradox at the heart of adventure travel -- and at the heart of Tim Cahill's chosen quest.

What Cahill is creating here is rings within rings, like the trunk of a tree.
There is the ring of the town, the ring of soulless art and genuine art, the ring of Michael Rockefeller, the ring of human societal evolution. One ring leads to another, which leads to another -- each one containing its own little story and message, and each one deepening the meaning and significance of the ones that preceded it. In this way, he is crafting an exceedingly rich and complicated tale, of overlapping layers.

We journey with Cahill upriver and arrive at a village where the houses are set on stilts.
The visitors are received in an atmosphere of distrust -- remember the missionaries, the government -- and when the travelers ask the chief if he has any human skulls, there is a silence pregnant with suspicion. For a fee, he says, he will look for them, but he returns empty-handed. He's misplaced them, he says; he just doesn't know where they are.

The incident prompts Cahill to recall an earlier visit to another stilt village where a skull had been shown them, and where the owner had demonstrated how men use the skulls as pillows, for they are the most potent deterrents to evil spirits.

Rings within rings.

The journey, the narrative, continues. And as on any journey, the longer we look, the more we see.

When they first begin their voyage, Cahill writes: "The forest overhung the river and it seemed to me, in my ignorance, all of a piece: unvariegated greenery."

Now, some days into the journey, he writes:

William spent several hours teaching me to finally see the swamp. The tall trees? The ones over there that grow from a single white-barked trunk and have elephant-ear-size leaves? Those are called sukun, and the Karowai eat the fruit, which is a little like coconut.

Stands of bamboo often grew on the banks of the river, in a green starburst pattern that arched out over the water. Banana trees also grew in a starburst pattern of wide flat leaves. They reached heights of seven or eight feet, and yielded small three- and four-inch-long bananas.

Rattan, a long tough vine used to lash homes together, to string bows, or to tie off anything that needed tying -- the local equivalent of duct tape -- was identifiable as a slender leafless branch, generally towering up out of a mass of greenery like an antenna.

Sago, the staple food, was a kind of palm tree that grew twenty to thirty feet high, in a series of multiple stems that erupted out of a central base in another starburst pattern. The leaves were shaped like the arching banana leaves but were arranged in fronds ...

So -- sukun, rattan, bamboo, banana, sago -- the forest was no longer a mass of unvariegated green. Naming things allowed me to see them, to differentiate one area of the swamp from another. I found myself confirming my newfound knowledge at every bend of the river. "Banana, banana," I informed everyone. "Sukun, sago, sago, rattan, sago, bamboo ..."

So, in clear, admirably precise and simple prose, Cahill teaches us his lessons about the forest. But he isn't content to leave it at that. He takes the process one step further:

William, like any good teacher, seemed proud enough of my accomplishment for the first half hour or so, then the process began to wear on him. I was like some five-year-old on a drive in the country, pointing out every cow in the pasture to his weary parents.

With one deft observation, Cahill wonderfully brings this exotic lesson back into a human context all of us can understand -- and embodies those exemplary qualities of humor and humility that allow him to enter into the heart of the swamp.

Finally we reach a village far, far upriver. From there we leave the river and walk deep into the forest until we reach a clearing where people still do live in tree houses, 50 feet up in the branches. We clamber up a bamboo ladder and then up a notched pole and suddenly there we are, face to face with two infants, two nursing mothers, three boys and two men.

We sit and give them tobacco, steel axes, fishing line, metal hooks, salt, matches and rice -- the cost of a night's stay. Then Cahill shows one of the qualities that truly distinguish him as an adventurer and as a writer: his ability to invest himself in other people's perspectives.

One of the women, Pya, reached up into a string bag hanging from the roof of the house, fished around a bit, and came up with a white ball of sago pith, which she dropped onto the embers of her fire. After a short time, I was offered a piece the size of a tennis ball. The food had the consistency of doughy bread and was very nearly tasteless. The term half-baked kept clattering through my mind, but I smiled and complimented Pya on her culinary skills. I used one of the few words of Karowai that I knew.

"Manoptroban." Very good.

It was the first word I had uttered in the tree house, and as soon as it tumbled out of my mouth, I wanted to call it back, because it was, of course, a lie. The older of the two men, Samu, stared at me. His expression was that of a man whose intelligence had been insulted. Sago? Good? People eat this soggy crap every day. All the time. They do not sit down for regular meals, but eat only when they have to, because there is no pleasure in the taste of sago. They eat it because there is nothing else. Good? It's not good, you imbecile. It's sago.

I felt chastened and reluctant to say anything else, maybe for the rest of my life.

The men sit or squat, mostly staring into space, content with silence and squatting. Night falls, and they throw up a tarp to separate the inhabitants from the visitors, then all prepare to sleep. In the quiet of the night, Chris the photographer turns to Cahill and says, "I don't want them to change." After a pause, he continues, "Do you think that's paternalistic? Some new politically correct form of imperialism?"

"I don't know," Cahill answers. And then he writes:

But I thought about it. I thought about it all night long. When you suspect that your hosts have eaten human flesh in the very recent past, sleep does not come easily. It seemed to me that I was out of the loop here, not a part of the cycle of war and revenge, which was all just as well. I had expected to meet self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, and the Karowai were all of that, but they wanted more. They wanted steel axes, for instance, and did not equate drudgery with any kind of nobility.

I tried to imagine myself in an analogous situation. What would I want?

What if some alien life force materialized on earth with superior medical technology, for instance? They have the cure for AIDS, for cancer, but they feel it is best we go on as we have. They admire the spiritual values we derive from our suffering; they are inspired by our courage, our primitive dignity. In such a case, I think I'd do everything in my power to obtain that technology -- and to hell with my primitive dignity.

I thought about Asmat art and what is left in the world that is worth dying for. I thought about Agus, who wept over his first bowl of rice and whose first contact with the world set him up in the business of cutting down the forest that had fed him all his life.

I thought about the butterfly I had caught when I was a child. My grandmother told me never to do it again. She said that butterflies have a kind of powder on their wings and that when you touch them, the powder comes off in your hand and the butterfly can't fly anymore. She said that when you touch a butterfly, you kill it.

Butterfly; Karowai.

How this prose soars, leaping from present to future to past, from reality to speculation to memory -- looping and tying and weaving it all together into a whole of maudlin-squashing, soul-plucking poignancy.

And then Cahill ends the piece with this final three-paragraph scene:

Sometime just before dawn, I heard a stirring from the Karowai side of the house. Samu moved out from behind the plastic tarp and blew on the embers of the fire. Gehi joined him.The two naked men squatted on their haunches, silent, warming themselves against the coolest part of the forest day. Presently, the stars faded and the eastern sky brightened with the ghostly light of false dawn.

A mist rose up off the forest floor, a riotous floral scent rising with it, so I had a sense that it was the fragrance itself that tinged this mist with the faint colors of forest flowers. The mist seemed the stuff of time itself, and time smelled of orchids.

As the first hints of yellow and pink touched the sky, I saw Samu and Gehi in silhouette: two men, squatting by their fire, waiting for the dawn.

I read this and my eyes linger on the page. A lump the size of a sago ball sits in my throat; tears mist my sight.

At the travel writers' conference, Cahill had talked about how he ends his stories. A very fine way to end a story, he had said, is to go back to the beginning, to echo some element from the start of the story, to give the piece a kind of fulfilling closure.

But then in some pieces, he had continued with a twinkle in his voice, you can go beyond that kind of closure. You lead the reader to think that's what you're going to do -- and then you leap beyond it, into something else, something further and new.

At the time, I hadn't really understood what he was saying. I thought the perfect ending was that kind of closure, where you wrap everything up in a poignant ball and deliver the reader, enhanced and fuller, back into the world.

But here I am now, with Samu and Gehi, staring at something we've all seen a thousand times and yet have never seen before -- looking into the future.

And I can't even explain all the feelings and thoughts and dreams and desires that rise inside me, don't even want to inspect them now, just want to sit here and let them all jostle within, teaching me -- making me feel -- things I have only half-sensed about the evolutionary curve of the planet.

Tim Cahill is beside me, we're all up in a tree -- and I know this is no dream. We're just squatting here, in silence, waiting for the dawn.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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