I conduct surveys of swidden farmers, so I spend more time in the fields than the forests. I stuff my backpack with tools for my research - a tape measure, compass, rope and whatnot – and eagerly head off to the fields, assistant by my side. With a notebook in hand and the blazing hot sun beating down, I interview farmers about their crops and measure the dimensions of their fields.
I sometimes feel like heading into the forest on a whim. It somehow seems inviting when my research hits a dead end, certain plans to visit a farm fall through, or if the sun is exceptionally blinding. On a day like this, I invited two young people from the village, Sakul and Maria to go into the woods with me.
“I have no work today (i.e. counting trees or measuring tree diameters at chest height). I just want to walk in the forest with you today. But do tell me if there’s something interesting I should know about, okay?”
Charged with navigating our walk, Sakul and Maria are suddenly enthusiastic, and head right into the woods. Usually shy and quiet, they are talkative today. They chat merrily away, making gestures with their hands and bodies. At times, they stop to explain the names of plants and relate stories about them. These are so interesting that I eventually reach for my field notes.
About an hour after we enter the forest, Sakul and Maria suddenly come to a stop. Much of the young leaves growing there are shaped like the feathers of an arrow. “What is it?” I ask. Grinning, Sakul pulls a leaf off with both his hands and replies, “This is called ‘ngaka’ (*1). It tells us about amour (‘love’ in French). ” He holds two sides of the leaf and slowly tears it down the middle (Photo 1), but it breaks into two pieces before reaching the stalk. “Whoops, too bad. Let me try another.”
Laughing as he watches on, Maria explains, “This leaf will tell us if love will succeed. If you can cleanly tear it through to the stalk, things will go well for you. If it breaks off halfway, they will not work out.”
Now that he mentions this, I notice many torn up leaves lying on the ground, remnants of this fortune telling act. “Does everyone give it a try?” I ask. “Yes,” Maria responds, laughing mischievously. “You try now.” With a nervous look on my face, I tear the leaf as the two look on. It makes a ripping sound as it breaks cleanly in two (Photo 2).
“Wow! You will succeed in love!” Maria and I are extremely pleased. Nearby, Sakul tries a third leaf but it doesn’t work out, either. We make our way home, trying to cheer the disappointed boy up.
On our way home, Sakul suddenly comes to a stop. After he cut off the leaf of a Marantaceae (an arrowroot), he approached a single tree - a tree called “kaso” (*2) in the Baka language. Sakul puts the leaves down by the tree’s roots to employ both hands to shave bark off the tree with his hatchet (Photo 3).
Stunned, Maria explains, “This is the medicine of amour. Sakul will secretly mix the bark into the food of the girl he likes. She will then come to like him.” It seems that Sakul has his eye on a particular girl. I wonder if this love potion will work?
- 1 Eremospatha sp. (a palm)
- 2 Still unidentified.