Summer has transitioned to fall. Everyone has noticed that the days don’t seem to be as long as they were a mere month ago. This is all the more reason to get out into nature. Perhaps you have felt that subconscious pull tugging you out the door? The sun is not as insanely hot and the light is intense and clean. There is just the barest yellowing along the margins of the river’s cottonwood leaves. More colors will follow. Right now there is an urgent purposefulness to the world as life prepares to overwinter. The flowering grasses are alive with flying insects gathering pollen and nectar. Spider predators are behind every leaf. After absorbing some of this energy…I headed up to my spot under the willow trees and wondered about making something interesting from my river cache. I was so happy and absorbed to be back at my outdoor studio that for a moment I lost track of the fact that something was now moving on the left side of my peripheral vision. Thinking it might be an animal, I carefully brought my camera up to take some quick pictures and this was what I captured.
In quick succession, I had two images in my camera before I realized what I was photographing! Appearing out of a myth was a member of the Pang tribe! The Pang live in the most remote places in the world’s woods and consider themselves the first people. It’s not advisable to try to find them because they don’t want to be found and it may in fact be dangerous to do so. They only appear when they want to be seen. The land they call home is full of poisonous serpents, insects, and diseases plus the rainy season is relentless. There are no overland roads and very few trails. Getting around means braving an unpredictable river. Oh, and then there is the reputation the Pang have for being headhunters. The little guy in front of me was reminding me of that by showing me the trophy he carries on a belt everywhere he goes. I think my camera’s flash startled him! By holding the captured head aloft, this tribesman was telling me he was experienced in this field! His nose ring meant that he feared no pain.
The stainless steel fork he brandishes likely means he has had contact with our culture before. The Pang, otherwise do not work metals. What is known is that they are a hunting and gathering culture and nature supplies everything they need. The posturing and elaborate facial gestures on display before me continued until he seemed satisfied that I was harmless and perhaps even a bit slow on the uptake? The Pang have developed a language where one can gauge how a person feels by looking and reading their facial expressions. Most of the time, an open mouth with prominent tongue exposed is a sign for disgust or disapproval although there are exceptions for most rules. Using the time-honored hand signal for follow me my new friend beckoned and I walked behind him anticipating adventure and mystery.
Along our walk the tribesman would point out where my culture had dumped garbage into the Pang’s territory. From the look on his face, I could again register disapproval. I tried to learn his name and give him mine, but we had trouble communicating by words. Aside from the occasional bit of plastic and paper, the forest walk was also full of beautiful birds and butterflies and late season wildflowers. Eventually, we entered a small clearing and there set up for our relaxation and respite was an intimate canopy tended by another member of the first people.
A sheet of recycled plastic foam packaging and a couple of wooden posts made up this shelter. I saw that the Pang were trying to reuse some of the trash they found. Sitting down, food and water is shared and I’m amazed at my new friends ability to live off the land. A kicked over decaying log full of large, succulent beetle larvae provides the main course. I, however, developed a taste for bracket fungi and my new hostess showed me what to look for. I can’t help noticing that she is wearing a small skull object around her neck. Later I learned that the Pang don’t remove heads from just anybody or without cause. Head collection is the highest form of respect accorded to friend and foe alike. I, however, was never in any danger simply because I hadn’t earned any respectability yet in the estimation of the Pang. Or so another friend told me later.
After a short rest, my hosts were in a mood for a walk and I tagged along. I could tell that there were things they wanted me to see. Of course, they showed me just about every piece of litter we came across on the trail. It seemed important to them that I not miss this.
Fortunately, I was shown a lot more that was good than not. I could see why the Pang were so attached to their land. It provides them everything including much of what makes up their identity. We visited an immense hollow log that the river dropped off during some old flood and I took this portrait of the odd couple.
We walked back out into the bright sunlight and hiked near the river. After having been in a mostly leafy environment, it felt nice to have fresh air against my face. You could tell by the expressions on the Pang people’s faces how much they enjoyed being free and in a natural state.
Before long we came to a place where driftwood had collected on the beach. It was nearer to the forest and another trail. After a protracted goodbye, my friends went their separate ways. I could tell that our adventure together was coming to an end.
I got the sense that something else needed to happen to make the day complete. I turned with the man with a fork back down to the riverbank. As we walked he slowly started chanting and stopped every once in a while by some landmark for added emphasis. He did this when we came to a bright, marshy area. My friend’s arms rose into the air along with his song.
After the marsh, my companion climbed a long log that had washed up on the shore during a flood many years before. He climbed as far up the root mass as he could and lifted his voice and fork to the heavens. I wish I knew what he was saying…but whatever comprised his song I could tell it was reverential.
Since this culture doesn’t show itself without some purpose in mind. I hoped that I hadn’t missed it. Looking back upon the day, I enjoyed the camaraderie of my new friends, we relaxed together and shared a meal. Later we went for a walk where I was showed both what the Pang liked and disliked in the landscape. Now the day was ending in a prayerful song. Seemingly to underscore another point, my headhunting friend drew a line in the mud. In essence, he communicated that my side of the line was mine and if I couldn’t respect his side of the line…we would be unwelcome. He quickly grimaced with his tongue sticking out on that last point. Staying on my side of the line, I wished him well in my tongue and with a short wave watched him melt into the forest where he belonged.