RING OF FIRE By Lawrence Blair with Lorne Blair

NOTES OF H3A ENGLISH READING GROUP MEETING, WEDNESDAY, 6 June 2012:
RING OF FIRE By Lawrence Blair with Lorne Blair

An Indonesian Odyssey

“This book is fondly dedicated to those special people who are least likely to see it, the tribal peoples of the islands, who took us in hand, treated us as equals, and opened their lives to us.” The authors.

 

…a unique voyage spanning ten years of adventure through the islands of the East. Ring of Fire tells the remarkable story of Lorne and Lawrence Blair and their journey of exploration in the volcanic Indonesian archipelago- perhaps the last truly undiscovered area on earth. Lavishly illustrated with over one hundred colour photographs, Ring of Fire ranges from the mountains and jungles of Sumatra and Borneo to the sculptured rice-terraces of Java and Bali; and from the arid island of Komodo where ‘dragons’ still roam freely, through the coral gardens of the Moluccas to the cannibal swamps of New Guinea. Through spectacular adventures which include a four-month voyage amongst the Spice Islands aboard a black-sailed Bugi Pirate schooner and an 800-mile expedition down the torrential rives of Borneo in search of the lost nomadic Dyak tribe – masters of the poisoned blowdart – the Blairs learn the ancient wisdom of tribal peoples and present an unforgettable portrait of the unknown forests and isolated islands of the Eastern Seas.

Financed by Ringo Starr, the Blair Brothers arrived in Indonesia from England in 1972. The Indonesian archipelago was still dominated by ancient indigenous beliefs and the Blair Brothers spent over two decades documenting the ecology of the islands and the spiritual beliefs of its peoples. One major result was the Emmy-nominated BBC/PBS television series Ring of Fire, a masterwork of modern adventure and ethnographic film and wiinner of the 1989 National Educational Film and Video Festival Silver Apple awards.  The five films are:

  1. Spice Island Saga: The Blair brothers follow the footsteps of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace on a Bugis sail boat in search of the Bird of Paradise to the Aru Islands near New Guinea.
  2. Dance of the Warriors: The brothers sail to the islands of Komodo where they encounter the Komodo Dragon, Sumba where they witness human sacrifice, New Guinese where they meet the Asmat, and finally Bali where they build a home in a village.
  3. East of Krakatoa: The Blairs descend into a newly erupted volcano, meet a legendary artist and witness the funeral rites of the king of the Toraja people of the Celebes.
  4. Dream Wanderers of Borneo: The brothers go in search of the nomadic Punan Dayaks.
  5. Beyond the Ring of Fire: Lawrence Blair returns to a lost paradise at the outer edge of the known world eight years later on a retrospective voyage to many of the islands first visited and others never previously filmed.

Lawrence and Lorne Blair emigrated from England to Mexico with their parents in their early years.  Lawrence Blair is an anthropologist, author, explorer and filmmaker. He is now a resident of Bali, Indonesia for the past 35 years.  Lorne died there iin 1995.  Chief among since the first of their historic voyages is that ndonesia’s forests have been reduced by nearly a third, the political system has been democratised, the nation’s population has doubled from 120 million to 240 million, and many place names in the book have changed.

Highlights of the book for one of our readers:

 

  1. 1.   A Land of Waking Dreams

This is the story of a unique ten-year voyage of exploration amongst the steamy islands of the volcanic Indonesian archipelago.  It begins in the winter of 1972…   I was struggling to complete my doctoral thesis when my brother Lorne called me from London with the news that Ringo Starr had agreed to put up 2,000 GBP and the post-production costs of our first adventure film.

 

Within three weeks I had handed in my dissertation Lorne had assembled the rudimentary equipment and with more bravado than common sense we found ourselves on the island of Celebes in the South China Sea.  From there we set sail with sixteen fierce Bugis tribesmen on a 2,500 mile voyage through the Spice Islands in search of the Greater Bird of Paradise.

 

For nine months of storms and doldrums we drifted amongst forgotten kingdoms of silk and gold, fire-walkers, grave-robbers, pearl-divers and pirates.  Eventually we reached the Aru Islands, close to the shores of west new Guinea, where we managed to record the first ever colour footage of the golden-tailed bird in its natural habitat.

 

On finally seeing these creatures, mating in the high forest canopy like cataracts of spun glass, we found them to be transparent with a deeper meaning, something which lay beyond them, in the undiscovered wisdom of the islanders themselves.  The birds proved to be merely the lure which was to draw us into the years of adventure through a land of waking dreams.

 

  1. 2.   Into the Ring of Fire

Whereas Indian, Malay, Arab and Chinese merchants had by and large traded peacefully for the exotic treasures of the islands since before the time of Christ, the marauding European buccaneers sought to own and control the real estate itself, and began four centuries of infighting.  Regional spice monopolies were bitterly fought for, claimed and lost again by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English adventurers, who spilled as much of the locals’ blood as each other’s in the process.

 

Rein is given to the intuitive, or ‘right brain’, faculties – which perceive wholes, rather than their parts.  Whereas the ‘continental ‘ mind is logical , monotheistic and autocratic, the ‘oceanic’ mind tends to be holistic, polytheistic and democratic.  The ‘earth’ mind is more practical, the ‘water’ mind more mystical…

 

Here in Indonesia, at the most fragile geographical division between the earth’s outer, congealed crust nd its inner, molten magma, we also found amngst the peoples themselves the thinnest division between our more recently evolved left-brain …

 

Here in Indonesia, at the most fragile geographical division between the earth’s outer, congealed crust and its inner, molten magma, we also found amongst the peoples themselves the thinnest division between our more recently evolved left-brain, rational faculties, and the millennia-old storehouse of right brain intuitive wisdom.  The supernatural is constantly present, and what the West considers in the realm of the paranormal the Indonesians have raised to a fine art; the islands seethe with sorcerers, healers, sages and mystics.

 

Only now, when the tribal peoples have almost gone, has the West awakened to the fact that, rather than their lands and  possessions, it is their subtle abilities and specialized environmental wisdom, forged since the beginning of time, which are of paramount importance to us all.

 

Both the very young and the very old are seen as being particularly close to the Upper World.  A Balinese child does not touch the grounds for the first three months of life.  He is cradled and cosseted above the earth and introduced to gravity very gently.  When his is 105 days old a ‘foot-touching-the-ground’ ceremony is held, when the child is ritually ‘planted’ in matter, and first sets foot on the earth.  Until then he has merely been an angel, hovering at the frontiers of the heavenly world.  He is even weighted down with bracelets ad anklets, to discourage him from floating up again too soon.

 

5. To Haunts of Birds of Paradise

Since Banda’ s original discovery by the Portuguese in 1512, it has changed hands constantly between European powers vying for the nutmeg monopoly.  Christopher Columbus had been looking for a a shorter route to Banda when he had stumbled on America!  Even Oliver Cromwell scrawled his signature on a Treaty of Banda in 1654, and after the Napoleonic Wars the island was exchanged for New Amsterdam, in the New World, which is now better known as Manhattan Island.  But, since the Dutch withdrew from Indonesia, Banda has abdicated from history, and time moves past her as she lies forgotten, like a sleeping princess, gradually reverting to her primordial state.

 

8.  Dance of the Warriors

We had come to Sumba for a glimpse of our earliest beginnings, of megalith and the origins of war, where a warrior still looked his opponent in the eyes, but we had found something more.  It seemed there was no animosity here but, rather, a recognition that we are all participants in the interplay of light and darkness, order and chaos, reflected in the lifegiving seasons of the planet itself, if we but know how to interpret them like the Ratus.

 

Overall comment – a fascinating tale, vividly portrayed and worth the read if only for the stunning photographs. CD

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