Underneath the blazing sun, a small leaf bud rears its light green head from inside a discarded red shoe. A variety of plants are growing atop the raffia-thatched roof of the Baka gathering place, reaching up toward the blue skies. Branches grow from the pillars inside the small homes nestled against each other, their ceilings thick with the growth of leaves. Perhaps this brings back memories of the days before trees were cut down and taken away from the forests.
I have made several trips between Japan and southeastern Cameroon to survey the relationship between the forest’s vigorously growing tropical flora and the Baka pygmies living there. Maurice Maeterlinck, a well-known writer in Japan for The Blue Bird, wrote in the book The Intelligence of Flowers: “Plants exert every effort to fulfill their duty. They possess the grand ambition to countlessly spread the form of existence they embody to encroach and conquer the earth’s surface.”
The forests of Cameroon are overflowing with this “grand ambition” among plants. When I first began my survey, I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable capacity of the flora for survival, and was even lulled into the illusion that I myself might one day be swallowed up by the forest. I confronted many challenges walking in the forest alongside the Baka pygmies, having to clamber up fallen trees to keep going, with vines around my legs and face. Yet I gradually came to understand that what I saw as plants obstructing my way were, to the Baka people, important and indispensible to life.
The traditional Baka pygmy dwelling is made of long, narrow branches and big arrowroot leaves. Their chairs, bed, cooking utensils such as chopping board and mortar, as well as tools used for hunting and gathering, are almost all made entirely of plants. In addition to being the food that satisfies both stomach and mind, and medicine that cures various illnesses, the forest flora also play a role in Baka pygmy ceremonies and folk stories. Perhaps the Baka people don’t feel like they are being “swallowed up by the forest” because their lives are so intertwined with it and they depend so much on its blessings. The forest, so abundant with life force, is to them just a real and familiar lifeworld.
I once asked a Baka woman as I cleared the grass around the shelter of mud walls and raffia leaves they had built for me: “The grass is growing out from the forest and trying to enter my home. Why aren’t we clearing it?” Smiling, she answered, “We don’t do that. Even if we did, it would just grow back.”