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A Passion for Place

Immersed in the field for months, E-IPER students often become
passionate about the places and people that contribute to their
research. To channel this passion creatively, Tom Hayden, E-IPER lecturer, offered students a writing workshop, Writing Place, in spring 2010. Below  Kim Carlson (PhD 5th) describes her field site and motivations driving her research in Indonesia.

Located in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the Pawan River drains to the Java Sea at Ketapang, the second largest port city in the West Kalimantan province, and is a major transport route for timber, rubber, and palm oil. In my dissertation I investigate the effects of oil palm plantation expansion on land use and livelihoods in this region of Borneo. While in the field, I often stay with people who live on the banks of the Pawan.
- Kim Carlson

Sungai Pawan

The river rests at night, whether the moon shines or the rain pours in the damp tropical dark. At midnight she likes to play tricks. She is not ashamed to flood, sending Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-brown water onto lawns and road. If she is feeling particularly naughty, villagers wake to find water knocking at front doors. On lazier evenings, she playfully dislodges unsuspecting human belongings: a fishing net, a canoe. Unlike many of her brethren, this river is untamed - just a handful of bridges scale her flanks, and no dams break her flow. Left to carve her own path, she constantly remodels, eroding and constructing steep vertical banks, tirelessly holding water - a trickle, a torrent - away from dry land.

photo: People on the Pawan River. People on the Pawan River. Courtesy of Kim Carlson.

People descend upon her as the first red shades of morning break the horizon, demanding her services. Women wash clothes, scrubbing till bubbles bloom on the old wooden planks. Expertly knotted sarongs - ochre, floral, striped - wrap tight around chests, secure enough for a dogpaddle when the washing is done. Children shiver,dripping water over sleepy heads before school. Men scrub motorbikes, cigarettes dangling from morning mouths. Docks line up along the bank like a row of beat-up old top hats, an outhouse - always off-kilter, often door-less - protruding from each floating platform.

The first speedboat breaks the morning haze, announcing the daily opening of the water highway. Waves break against the shore. Scrubbers and bathers alike grasp for handholds as docks rock violently in the turbulence. The boat pulls up and a few lucky travelers in their best clothes squeeze into seats, sardines in transit. Three women set out in a canoe, carefully created from a single tree trunk, red wood faded to brown. Our boaters sit in a line like peas in a pod. Two paddle hard upstream, the middle one bailing water methodically - splash-splash, splash. The canoe hugs the bank and is sheltered in the shade of spiny rattan before darting across the river to the village on the other side. The gibbons will whoop at dusk, but are napping now, as locusts add buzzing accompaniment to the splashing, canoeing percussionists.

In the dead heat of tropical mid-day, off-white rectangles of rubber begin to stink, single-handedly thickening equatorial air. These blocks of latex float in the river for months, green scum acquiring the terrestrial blood of trees into the life aquatic. The river is enamored with browns, greens, grays - her daytime hobby takes a color and turns it dark, blending it, obscuring it, enveloping it - sculpting an intentionally muted ensemble of watery art. Despite the heat, traders in a slow boat painted surprising yellow arrive to rescue the glorified sap to become rain boots and rubber bands.

Late afternoon brings cool and all beings breathe easier, relieved of the equatorial sun. Evening prayer breaks the locust drone, calling men and women toward mosques, away from the water that sustains their physical needs and towards sustenance of another sort. Thankful she is a daylight god, the river returns to her rest.

Kim Carlson, a visiting student in Anthropology who works with Lisa Curran, is completing her doctorate at the Yale School of Forestry.