I have not written for a few days as I have been away. I was invited to observe a hunt and thought it too good an opportunity to miss. Being urged to travel light, I did not take my diary with me, but I shall endeavour now to give as much detail as I can from memory.
Before we left, the hunting party leader, Potok, insisted that I be dressed in the same manner as the rest of the hunters. This was in no part easy as I stand a good head taller than the tallest Arrakeshi man in the village. Nevertheless, leather trousers and tunic were found for me, as well as a hooded fur cape, for which I was very grateful at night. They even managed to adapt a pair of shoes for my large feet. This was no whim on the part of Potok. The hunters need to blend into the forest and my Carlikan clothing would not have done that. Nor would it have been as waterproof or hard-wearing as the leather clothing. The shoes, with their soft leather soles, allow the hunters to tread their way through the trees without a sound and give them greater grip for climbing trees, which they do with astonishing agility.
The ten in the party, including myself and two young boys of ten or eleven, left at dawn. The hunters carried bows, about five feet in length, slung over their shoulders. They carried an assortment of arrows in fur-lined quivers on their backs, mostly heavier weighted ones made for the red deer they hunted. The first day, though we saw plenty of wildlife, we did not hunt except to feed ourselves that night, but walked in silence, all communication done through hand signals. The Arrakeshi are informed each Spring and Autumn, through communication between their Treespeaker and Arrakesh, the spirit of the forest, what they may and may not hunt. They believe this advice without question, so though ducks seemed plentiful to me, I was told they were not to be eaten this season nor their eggs harvested.
In the evening of that first day, we camped in a glade by a stream and ate, the men having shot five rabbits during the late afternoon. These were skinned, cleaned and stuffed with herbs found by the stream, before being roasted on makeshift spits over the fires. Quick shelters were built using branches and leaves and the men took turns to keep watch during the night. They kindly allowed me to share first watch so that I could sleep through the rest of the night, though I have to admit that sleeping on the forest floor was not conducive to that, at least in my own case. By the time we rose at the first hint of sunlight, I was stiff and sore and wishing Jakan was amongst the party so that he could have eased my muscles with his healing skills.
The village meeting I mentioned in my last entry was a quiet affair. Everyone who was able, from children to the old, gathered in the meeting house soon after sunrise. The floor is wooden, raised a little off the ground and the people sat cross-legged listening to Kattan as he ran through the tasks that needed to be undertaken in the next ‘moon’, as the Arrakeshi call a month.
I am struck by the way the people in this village work together as one. Everyone works at something, and the fruits of that labour are shared amongst each other. Though they have their Chief and Elders to oversee the work, there is no real social hierarchy when it comes to housing and food – the Elders work as hard as everyone else and expect no more than their fair share.
These people have no concept of money or possession. Everything belongs to the village as a whole and what the village doesn’t have, is bartered for in the next village. Only yesterday, a cartload of pots was taken away to exchange for woven material. The potter of this village is apparently renowned for the strength of his pots and the Second Tribe owns a small flock of goats, the wool from which is spun and woven into quite fine cloth. A worthy exchange.
After the meeting, I took a stroll around the village and came across some of the older children (boys and girls) practising with their slings. They were knocking pine cones from a tree stump with remarkable ease. The slings are made from string (itself made from the fibres of a jute-like plant that grows nearby) and a piece of leather which forms a pocket for a rock projectile. A loop at one end of the string fits over the wrist and a knot at the other sits in the palm, held by the thumb. The sling is then swung around the head and the knot loosed from the thumb at just the right moment.
One of the boys, Migok, allowed me to use his own sling to test my accuracy. There was great hilarity when the rock I let fly, rather than hitting a pine cone or even the stump, flew to thud against the wall of Kattan’s cottage, fifty feet behind me. Obviously I will need a lot more practice before I can join in hunting rabbits or birds, but at least I amused the children.
A meeting of the Elders of the village was held today. This happens on the morn after every full moon and is held in the Meeting House, a large open shelter with wooden floor, just next to the storehouse. This building is large enough to seat the whole tribe, but meetings of the Elders are generally private. I would have loved to observe, but as a new visitor, did not feel it my place to ask. Maybe in the coming months, I will have built enough trust amongst these people to be invited to attend for the sake of my research.
Apart from Kattan, the Chief Elder, there are seven other Elders, both men and women. I have asked Kattan about how the Elders are selected. The Elders themselves, it seems, are chosen by the tribe – all those old enough to have taken their ‘sharesh’ (a journey outside the Veil protecting the forest). The Chief Elder, however, is chosen by Arrakesh, the Spirit of the forest. The people believe that the Treespeaker alone will hear the name Arrakesh chooses and announce it to his people. So the role of Chief Elder is inherently a religious one, founded on faith; an interesting way to choose a leader, but one which, at least in Kattan’s case, seems to work well. The Chief Elder is able to choose his own Deputy from amongst the Elders.
The Treespeaker also attended the meeting of the Elders, a normal occurrence apparently. According to Kattan, he is there as a guide to the Will of Arrakesh in all decisions. That the tribe places such trust in one so young does not seem to affect Jakan in any way. He displays no pretentiousness, just a serious consciousness of his role.
Little attention was given to the meeting by the other villagers. They went about their daily tasks without so much as glancing at the Meeting House. Tomorrow, one villager told me, any decisions affecting them will be discussed at a general meeting, along with any problems that any one may wish to bring up for discussion. I look forward to seeing how this meeting is run.
I slept well last night and was awoken this morning by the sound of children laughing and calling. When I went out, I found them playing a game they call ‘Chase the Boar’. One child plays the boar, and the rest of the children are the hunters. One child carries a ball made of knotted rags or strips of leather. The idea of the game is that the children chasing have to corner the boar by surrounding him. Then the child with the ball throws it at the boar. If they hit him, he (or she, for boys and girls often play together) becomes the boar and everyone starts to chase him. The one who was boar joins the fray. It’s a wild, riotous game with much puffing and laughter. I have yet to see a real boar hunt, but I suspect a lot of this play is based on real hunting skills.
Another game I have seen the children play is a form of skittles. Five short lengths of hollow branch are set up in a row, generally on top of a rock or a thick log. The children take turns to throw the ball at the skittles and they tally their scores with piles of stones or nuts. Older and younger children play together, with the younger children allowed to stand closer than the older ones. Again, it is great training for the hand-eye coordination that will later be needed in hunting.
Something at which Arrakeshi children are very adept and which Carlikan children could never match is tree-climbing. I have seen little ones as young as three-years-old sitting in the branches of trees I could not begin to climb. They find hand and toe holds where I can see none at all. Older children take care of the younger ones, discouraging them from climbing too high, but even so I marvel at their agility. Their suppleness and strength makes Carlikan children look lazy, but it has to be admitted that Carlikan children do not have these opportunities.
As I have just announced in my other blog, Trees Are Not Lollipops, I am planning to publish "Treespeaker" to Kindle in the very near future. So for those of you who are interested, here's a preview -
by Katie W Stewart
The worried face of the moon, high in the branches of the great oak, mirrored the apprehension in Jakan’s mind. He shuddered and pulled his deerskin cloak closer about his shoulders. It made no difference. The cold he felt had nothing to do with the night air.
Ahead of him, a column of men, women and children trod their way up the moonlit path in solemn silence. The only sound came from their soft shoes amongst the leaves and the scuffling of small animals hurrying away to hide in the darkness. A thin mist settled on the ground, swirling in the torchlight, and the scent of damp earth wafted on the breeze.
Gritting his teeth, Jakan tried to centre his mind on the ritual to come. At the front of the procession, frail Kattanbek, Chief Elder of the Fifth Tribe of Arrakesh, swayed in a sedan chair. Beyond him, further up the hill, three fires burned in the glade in front of Padhag Klen, promising the villagers warmth and light as they attended the SpringSpeak.
Jakan fixed his gaze on the sedan chair and sighed to himself. He had little doubt that this would be the last Speak for Kattanbek. The old man’s poor, tired soul would not last another season. Who would succeed him? It was a question that had plagued Jakan for many months now. Amongst all the Elders, there was no one he could discern who had the strength, determination or leadership that had characterised Kattan. The tribe had run smoothly under his care, without ill will or strife. Jakan could not imagine anyone else managing affairs so well. He hoped that tonight Arrakesh would name a successor, for he alone could know the true heart of his people.
As the procession entered the glade, the sedan was set upon flat ground between two of the big fires. Jakan pushed back the hood of his cloak to rest on his shoulders and stood beside the Chief Elder. The other villagers edged around the fires and faced Padhag Klen, The Tree, a huge, dark shadow in the firelight. The moon peeked between the still-bare branches, lending a silver glow to one side of the gnarled trunk.
With everyone settled, Kattan signalled that he wanted to stand. Jakan eased him forward and around to face the people. The old man managed a weak smile at Jakan then, with difficulty, raised his grey head to speak.
“People of the Fifth Tribe of Arrakesh,” he said, his face ashen, his voice shaky and thin, “we’ve survived another winter without hunger, for which we must all give thanks.”
There were mumblings of “Arrakesh be praised,” and Kattan waited for them to stop before continuing. “Indeed, Arrakesh be praised and thanks, also, to all of you for your hard work and dedication in preparing for the winter. Though we’ve just endured one of the coldest winters in living memory, as Arrakesh foretold, our storehouses are still partly stocked and the woodpile is not fully depleted. You can all be proud.”
There was a polite applause. At the front of the group, Kattan’s wife stood, her hands clasped in front of her, sadness glowing in her brown eyes. She knows, too, thought Jakan as he helped the Chief Elder to sit once more. Then, with a respectful nod, he turned on his heel and strode towards Padhag Klen.
He climbed over the thick roots at the base of The Tree and made his way into a hollow between two huge roots that rose to two feet above the ground. There, he swung around to face the people. Focusing his mind on his role as Treespeaker, he raised his arms above his head and spoke, his rich, deep voice echoing against the trees on the far side of the glade.
“We seek the Will of Arrakesh.”
As one, the people replied, “We seek the insight of Arrakesh.”
“We will do the Will of Arrakesh.”
“By moon’s silver water and sun’s golden fire, we will do as he wills. He is our strength and we his.”
Jakan gave a solemn nod. He lowered his arms and faced The Tree. Already his heart thudded in anticipation. Making an effort to show more calmness than he felt, he reached out his hands and placed them on the trunk. Then, putting his head back a little, he shut his eyes and waited. Not a sound came from the people around him, nor from the forest. Everyone and everything awaited the knowledge, the will of Arrakesh.
Forcing himself to take slow breaths, Jakan concentrated on the silence, waiting for the voice in his mind to tell him of the coming season. Arrakesh did not reside here in The Tree as many believed. As Treespeaker, Jakan could pick up a fresh fallen leaf and know the weather for the next day or turn a stone and know which animal had passed near it in the last hour. It was an intuitive knowledge from Arrakesh that he could not explain. Here at Padhag Klen though, the voice of Arrakesh came stronger. To the people, it was a focal point on which to centre belief. It held them together, reminding them of who they were.
Jakan had taken over this ritual as Treespeaker from his own father when he was sixteen years old. Over time he had learned to completely relax, to let the soft murmuring and gentle images wash over him, without trying to understand them. When it was all over, he found that he understood without thinking.
Tonight, though, he approached the ritual with unusual apprehension. He felt an uneasiness that he couldn’t explain. There was no clear premonition in his mind. Yet he felt afraid for the people of Arrakesh. He had tried to tell himself that it was his preoccupation with the problem of leadership that bothered him, but no matter how much he had subdued his thoughts, the niggling fear persisted.
He could hear the thumping of his own heart and fought to calm himself, to let the images start. He sank further and further into himself until at last he found the soft, quiet centre he sought.
The images came, fuzzy at first, as if he were seeing them through a mist. He fought against the mist and it began to clear. His throat constricted in fear. He saw the village of his people. Darkness had fallen, but the whole village was aglow with fire. Every building burned, flames like ravenous wolves rising amongst the trees. He could feel the raging heat on his skin; hear the crackling of flaming timber. Then he became aware of the sounds. Not the usual soft murmuring of Arrakesh, but screams and wails so loud he reeled mentally away.
He resisted the urge to try to understand and the image faded. In its place he saw Padhag Klen. It stood in the sunlight, black and spectre-like. Its branches were bare, though the rest of the forest wore its summer greenery. As he watched, two of the branches reached out to him like huge hands held out in supplication. He watched in horror as the trunk of the tree split and bright red liquid poured from its centre onto the earth below. The liquid flowed away into the forest. Everything it touched turned black and withered away to dust.
On impulse, Jakan closed his eyes tighter, clutching so hard at the tree that the rough bark grazed his hands. Behind him, he heard the uneasy shuffling and murmuring of the villagers. He could do nothing to reassure them. Arrakesh held him.
The image of Padhag Klen faded once more and Jakan found himself in a forest meadow. It was summer and deer filled the meadow. They appeared unaware of his presence, but stood chewing at the long, green grass. Jakan relaxed. This was more like the usual visions. Suddenly he cringed. A dark shadow, like a cloud passing over the sun, crept across the meadow. As the deer were overshadowed, they disappeared as if an invisible hand had wiped them from the scene. The lush grass turned brown and shrivelled away, leaving nothing but a patch of barren earth.
A noise like wind came from above him. Jakan looked up and cowered away from the ferocious talons of a gigantic black hawk. It turned one huge yellow eye on him and screeched as it veered away and flew off into the distance.
Please, Arrakesh, I can’t bear any more.
Arrakesh had more to show. The image faded and another took its place. Now Jakan sat in his own home. It was evening and he and his family had settled for dinner. Jalena smiled as she handed their son, Dovan, a bowl of roasted yams. Jakan couldn’t relax. He knew that something was going to happen. The shaking of his body had become uncontrollable and he rested his head on the trunk of Padhag Klen for support.
The image turned to chaos. The house disappeared into blackness and the huge talons of the hawk descended. With a mind-rending scream, it scooped up both Jalena and Dovan and reared away. At that moment, Jakan became aware of another scream, his own, as the bird disappeared, dropping his son with a sickening thud to the ground and taking his wife with it into the night.
Jakan reeled as his mind plummeted into a circling darkness, surrounded by the most horrendous noise he had ever heard. An imploring, mournful cry seemed to shatter every fibre of his body and carried him away into the emptiness.
He clutched his bloodied hands to his head and collapsed amongst the roots of Padhag Klen.
The Dedication Ceremony took place at dawn. I would say that most of the villagers (around 150 or so) were present, except the very old. To the Arrakeshi, children are a cherished and valued part of the tribe and they are cared for by all, though their parents are the primary nurturers.
The baby, only a few weeks old, was wrapped in a rabbit fur and carried in the arms of his mother and accompanied by his father, to ‘Padhag Klen’, the huge oak tree on the outskirts of the village. This tree is the centre of worship for the tribe, akin to an altar in other religions. It was there that I saw Jakan the day I went with the women to gather yams. The rest of the villagers, led by Jakan, followed them. All sat as Jakan the Treespeaker took the child and held him up before them. They each held out their arms as if reaching for the baby and Jakan announced the child’s name “Aglik”, meaning “branch of joy”, and called to Arrakesh to accept the child as part of himself, to give him health, strength and happiness and a sure knowledge of his own belonging.
The child was then given back to his mother and she took him amongst the villagers. Each stroked the boy’s head and said a blessing. Even the smallest children were encouraged to touch his head. Then Kattan, the Chief Elder, handed the father a small bow and a tiny bone broach for fixing a cloak, presents to the child from the village.
At the communal breakfast afterwards, there was a keen atmosphere of caring for the new parents and their child. I do not think I saw the child in his parents’ arms for the rest of the morning except when he was feeding, for he was passed around and admired by all.
I have noticed that very few families here have more than one or two children. How this is, I do not know. The children as a whole seem healthy and strong. I suppose there may be some deaths through illness or accident, but with Jakan’s healing skills and the care taken of the children, I still cannot imagine it keeping the population growth so low. As it stands, the population seems to be in perfect balance with the resources available, but how this balance is achieved, I do not feel comfortable in asking at this stage. Maybe at a later date, I will ask Jakan.