The First Tree

We continue our Under the Canopy section about trees and what they mean to us, from the branches that spread above our heads to the roots beneath our feet. In our latest contribution, Jesse Miles tells the story of how cutting down a single palm tree destroyed the belief system of a community.
grew up on the island of Java, and has maintained a lifelong connection with the island nation of Indonesia. He is a full-time musician and writer, living in Portland, Oregon, where he works to create new stories for a world on the brink.

The spirits in the trees would kill you if you cut one down. So the villagers never did. For thousands of years. Until my grandfather arrived. I’ve heard the story many times. How they waited for him to die after he cut down a meddlesome palm tree in his yard. But he didn’t die. So they asked him to cut down their trees, with the chainsaw he had brought from America. He cut them down, and he didn’t die. For months the people were baffled. Was it only this white man who could cut down trees, or could anyone cut down a tree? Maybe the spirits didn’t live in the trees anymore. It wasn’t long before someone besides my grandfather cut down a tree. Everyone waited to see what would happen. People placed bets. But he didn’t die.

Now, when I go to the remote village of Lili, on the undeveloped back of the island of Halmahera in Eastern Indonesia, everyone cuts down trees. The villagers cut down trees if they need to, the lumber companies cut down trees, and every other day the ship from Tobelo brings in more supplies. Watching the progress in and around the village of Lili, it is hard for me to think of the story of my grandfather, cutting down the first tree.

My grandfather is a great man. If it were not for him, the Lili people would have been slaughtered in the seventies by an Indonesian governor who wanted to sell the land to lumber companies. His argument for the extermination of the Lili people was that ‘they aren’t people yet. They still have tails,’ which my grandfather exposed as blatantly untrue. They had customs and culture and a complex language that took my grandfather ten years to master and write down, ten years to teach the people how to read and write, and another ten years to translate the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament into their language. During that time the village changed. Old customs were replaced with new, Christian traditions. A church was built, and an airstrip to bring in supplies. The people were introduced to T-shirts and jeans. To most of the tribe it appeared that the spirits were gone.

However, many of the villagers struggled with the transition to this different way of life. Fear of the spirits had governed all things. If a man was gored by a boar in the woods, you must let him die, for if you tried to help him the spirit of the boar would kill you. If twins were born, the parents knew that they must kill one of the babies for the other to survive. The people suffered greatly because of their fear of the spirit world, but these practices kept the balance.

Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael describes our world as consisting of two distinctly different ways of life. There are Takers and there are Leavers. Takers emerged in Mesopotamia during the agricultural revolution, and began ‘taking’ more than they needed to fuel the growth of their cities and empires. Over the course of thousands of years, this same ‘taking’ mentality is the mentality of all of Western civilisation. The goal of Takers is to take as much as possible from the Earth or from another people to fuel their own growth.

Maybe the spirits didn’t live in the trees anymore. It wasn’t long before someone besides my grandfather cut down a tree. Everyone waited to see what would happen. People placed bets. But he didn’t die.

Leavers, on the other hand, leave things as they are. They co-exist with nature. Taker words for them include ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’. From the Bushmen of Africa to Native American tribes, to the people in Lili, when the Takers found these Leaver cultures, they were all co-existing with the natural world, in part due to the beliefs and traditions that kept the balance. Disproving these beliefs, as my grandfather did by cutting down the tree, showed them that they too could be masters of the Earth and take as much as they wanted.

Now, some villagers struggle with this. In my own visits to the village and the surrounding areas I have noticed it generationally. While an older man will still only fish what he needs for himself and his family, a younger man will stay longer and fish enough to sell. The same trend applies to the coconuts that are the main source of income for the people on the island. On our last trip I watched my father, an American opportunist, explain to one of the tribal men around the same age that if he picked more coconuts each day he could afford to build a better hut. The man agreed in theory but I could tell that he wasn’t going to do it, because the Leaver mentality that he was raised with still governed his thinking and decision making. However, the younger men, my generation, the tribal capitalists, want what the ship brings in from Tobelo every other day. They want more cigarettes, better clothes and their own boat. They’ll pick coconuts all day if they have to, because the Taker mentality was already present in the culture around them during their upbringing. They were raised in it, and now they are Takers through and through.

It is our own interference in Leaver cultures, often for humanitarian purposes, that has converted those cultures into Takers. My grandfather is the most loving and selfless person I have ever known, and although the forces of change would have reached Lili regardless of his actions, by cutting down the first tree, he began a chain of events that he could not possibly have foreseen. Now the jungle is being ravaged by timber and palm oil companies, destroying the island’s ecological balance and the ability of the tribe to exist as anything other than a coconut and palm oil resource for the global economy. Not only is the land being damaged, but also the people. After being gone only one year, I returned to find a bridge across the Lili river, and a road under development to the speedboat hub at Sofifi. These developments signify generations of Takers to come, born from the remnants of a self-sustaining society that lived for thousands of years in balance with their ecosystem.

I grew up in East Java, Indonesia, the son and grandson of Christian missionaries. My parents divorced and moved our fractured family back to America when I was seven. We lived in a small town on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon until I graduated high school, immediately returning to Java to teach English. While I was there I saw the poverty. It saddened me, but I didn’t understand it. Only after studying history for four years and learning the legacy of colonialism did I begin to grasp how my life in America affected the lives of the people I met in Indonesia. Finally, after reading Ishmael, I looked with new eyes at the tribes of Indonesia and I saw Leaver cultures struggling to adapt to a Taker world. It was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t seen it before. I began to question the motives of my return trips and re-evaluate my own role as a middle-man between the ‘First’ and ‘Third’ Worlds, between America and Indonesia.

Habiana and Jesse, Halmahera.

On my last medical trip to Halmahera I took the time to listen to Habiana, the tribal chief, talk about the days before my grandparents had come. He told me of the constant warfare between the tribes and the spirit fear that governed their daily life. He told me of the jungle the way it had been, so dense you could barely walk through it, and so dark in parts it was like being in a cave. He showed me his war sword and shield, as well as his spear for hunting wild boar. I bathed in the river the next morning, walked along its banks, and thought of the jungle as it was, and the jungle as it is. I thought about the river and how it continued to flow as life changed around it. I thought about the stories that we tell ourselves to explain our natural world, and I thought about the first tree, falling to the roaring buzz of a chainsaw as the villagers looked on in shock, their worldview forever changed.

You can read more from our Under the Canopy section here.


Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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  1. Resonates with what I am reading now: ‘Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains’, a book on ecology, people and livelihood in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India. The book is result of their work in this place, by Keystone Foundation. (

  2. The amount of respect for the trees is very interesting, especially how it was based on fear
    It must have been indoctrinated through stories of some sort. I also find it a bit scary that over two generation a shared cultural belief just diminishes or is approached differently with that the spirits used to be part of it. Very cool story !!


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