We thread our way through Munda's aquamarine reef complex with Freddy steering and me high in the rigging looking out for shallow coral heads. I drop the anchor off Agnes' Guest House at the end of the old, World War II airstrip. There were 16,000 Japanese here at Munda during the war. The Americans, including J.F. Kennedy, were over on Rendova from where they lobbed thousands of tons of explosives onto the fortifications here. Today, the site of the big Japanese base is a little dirt strip for Solair, a small Methodist Mission center and a hospital.
Freddy and I go ashore and walk the old Japanese road which parallels the lagoon. Most of the war ravaged land is a thick growth of Lantana; a legume which grows furiously into thickets of small trees. Some ecology expert must have planted it after the war. A green band-aid to cover up the explosive torn Earth. The stuff really takes over, preventing regrowth of the natural flora. But, on the other hand, it does grow quickly, preventing soil loss, and is good firewood.
Along the road we discover a series of small villages in separate clearings in the Lantana. Each little village is like a display in a big Museum, showing how people live in this part of the world. Each one we come to is unique, separated by the bush and by the style and distribution of the houses, the dress of the people, even what's going on.
We decide the mini-village displays are for friends and relatives of people who are in the hospital. People who come from different parts of the Western Solomons. "What a grotty display," Freddy frowns. She's right, the mini-village is ugly. The huts sloppily built, the area filled with weeds, the people look like their homes - lethargic and filthy. We walk to the next clearing. This one is quite pretty and neat as a pin. The style of thatched hut is different. More rounded. The vegetation is arranged in neat little gardens. A big breasted woman is vigorously sweeping out her dirt floored hut, her large boobs swinging freely. A piglet squeals and bounds away from a little naked boy who is intent on getting the piglet out of the garden. There are flowers growing between the thatched huts.
On to the next display. Here two women talk in front of a tin shed. Their bright muumuus drape from neck to the ground. They look hot, but clean. A little boy, wearing tattered shorts, pulls at his mothers hand. The ground around them is mud. A big cock in full flare races after a chicken in the background.
"I've got museum fatigue," I complain to Freddy. "Lets shift it into high gear." We stride back down the old road to the trade store and stop to see if there is any sugar. The interior is mostly empty plank decor with a few cans on one of the shelves. A pudgy little guy of mixed blood and indeterminate age appears from the back room. He's wearing a pith helmet, a khaki safari shirt and matching shorts.
"Do you have any sugar?" I ask.
"No, I'm low on stock just now, as you can no doubt see. There is a Chinese store not far from here and they probably have some. They also have excellent bread, but you'd best arrive before noon or likely as not they'll be sold out."
I do a double-take at his perfect English with its clipped accent. There is a sparkle in his eyes and the play of a smile around his lips. No simple country man this. I look at him and he looks at me and we are instantly friends. Freddy and I stroll out towards the lagoon with him.
He is Kitchner Wheatley. His father was an English trader who came to the Solomons before the turn of the century. Kitchner's mom is a Solomon Islander who is now around 100 years old. His sister, Agnes, owns the Guest House here in Munda. Kitchner has a small island just off the village and, as he happens to be going home for lunch, he invites us to follow him there. He sets off in a dugout canoe with a Yamaha outboard with Freddy and me in our Avon in hot pursuit.
We land next to a boatshed on the beach where Kitchner shows us the new canoe he is building. It is 36 feet long, 4 and a half feet wide and expertly carved from a single gigantic log. The stern is flat to take a large outboard motor. Its perfect lines, smooth and symmetrical, testify to Kitchner's skill. He is sculpting it by hand, using primitive hand tools. Kitchner obviously enjoys my admiration. He leads us through a lovely flower garden to a genuine World War II Quonset hut nestled in the greenery. "Purchased from the U.S. Military for $5." he grins.
"At the end of World War II?" I ask, amazed at the lack of rust.
"Well naturally," he chuckles and I wonder how old this man is. I can't guess by looking at him. But if he was old enough to buy this hut in 1942 he must be well into his sixties now.
Kitchner keeps slipping one surprise after another into our afternoon. He's retired from Government service. What did he do? He was a medical doctor, trained in Fiji and New Zealand. This matches my estimate that he must be sixty something, until he adds he retired 20 years ago. If he retired at 65, as is normal for the civil service, he would now be 85 years old. This is absolutely impossible. He really looks like he's in his late 50's. An engaging, intelligent man with such a quick wit, 85? If his mother is 100 years old, she would have been 15 when he was born. Possible, I suppose.
Mrs. Wheatley shows us her delightful gardens, explaining the use of all the plants she has collected. "And this one is for wrapping fish while baking them," she has a pleasant New Zealand accented voice. "And this one is the magic plant for fishing."
"Whoa..." I interrupt, "tell me more about that one, it sounds like just what I need."
"Well, if you touch it like so it makes the fish bite when you go fishing."
Over lunch, I question Kitchner about the magic plant but he is evasive. His daughter says, "Oh, come on daddy, tell him a magic fish story."
Laughing, he agrees to tell me a story providing I agree not to misunderstand it. I sip the ice cold coconut he has given me (Where did he get an ice cold coconut on an island with no electricity?) and agree not to misunderstand.
"Our son-in-law, an Australian," he begins, "was staying with us. He had been going out fishing with us for several days and not doing very well. My daughter came to me one morning as we were preparing to go out and said, `Daddy, you're going to have to fix him up with the magic plant.'
"OK," I said going along with the thing for a laugh, I'll try. I made a garland of leaves from the bush and with grave sincerity I laid it around his neck. Of course, I mumbled a few words for effect and off we went in the canoe to do some fishing."
"A few yards from the beach a school of huge mullet the biggest mullet you'd ever see around here began leaping out of the water. `It's working already' I called back to my daughter standing on the beach. Exactly then, perhaps startled by my loud voice, a frightened mullet leaped out of the water and hit the small sail I had up and fell to the floor of the canoe. We had a true believer as I nodded my head and looked solemnly at him."
We all guffaw for a couple of minutes and continue to eat in silence. I begin to think about the wind. The wind which, for us, is always on the bow. I sort of have it in mind - just for the fun of it - to look for a witch doctor and see if I can get him to do something about our peculiar (and rotten) luck with the wind. So, as Kitchner says, "Butter, please," I blurt out "What about the wind, being a fisherman you must be familiar with the stories about the old sayer who could control the wind and rain."
He stops eating, gives me a level look and then answers, "You happen to have been born into a strange era or the truth of those stories would be evident to you. Here in the Solomons, before the war, the weather followed certain patterns religiously. At the new moon it would rain. In certain months the wind would invariably blow from a particular direction. Changes would always be foretold by specific natural signs."
He hesitates, as if pondering something, chewing his lunch with a distant look in his eye, "There is a small crab that lives in the mangroves. We call it the Southeast Trade Caller because if you look out over the flats at low tide, and the crabs are waving their claws in a particular fashion like this you can be positive the southeasterly trades will begin in a day or two.
"But of course the crabs know nothing about the wind. In those days, just before the Southeast winds would blow, we normally had a very low tide. The crabs were merely enjoying the low tide for a bit of courtship. But the low tide attracted one's attention to the exposed flats and the crabs....well, you know.
"The old men who supposedly could control the weather really were observant meteorologists who remembered the conditions prior to weather changes. Because of the reliable cyclic nature of the weather here, they always knew exactly what to expect. They could, therefore, dramatically stand before the village and pronounce 'Tomorrow, I will make the wind blow or stop or I will produce rain or whatever'."
This all sounds very reasonable and I nod my head in agreement and understanding. He gives me one of his twinkle-in-the-eye half-chuckle looks and continues, "That reminds me of a quite remarkable piece of luck I once had with the wind.
"Last March, I took my sailing canoe to Rendova to pick up a log for my new canoe. All the way there we sailed with the wind blowing on our stern. We went into the forest and spent several days felling the tree, trimming the branches and fighting the log down to the sea. I had arranged with a friend to come over with an outboard canoe so we would tow the log back. It would, we knew, be directly into the wind and thus impossible to sail back towing a bloody great log. Well, as it turned out, the man didn't come. I tried to get someone from Rendova to tow me back but couldn't find anyone."
"Shortly, we had run out of food and I had no money and didn't want to abandon the log. My helper asked me, 'Well, now what do we do?' 'Don't worry,' I said, 'Tonight I make prayer. Fix everything. Tomorrow we sail long home.' The next morning the wind shifted right around and was blowing in the opposite direction. Right out of the West Sou'west. Very unusual in March, you understand. I said, 'OK, lets go.' and we hoisted the sail. It took us four hours to make it here towing the log. Exactly one hour after we arrived, the wind stopped and blew from its normal direction again. We had just finished rolling the log up into the shed when it changed back. I turned to my helper and said, 'OK. You can paddle back to Rendova now."'
We all giggle at his story and the way he mimed every action with his face and body. His wife says, "His helper told everyone what had happened and it helped reinforce the people's idea that he was a sorcerer."
Kitchner throws her a "Be quiet look," but I perk up at this and inquire where he got such a reputation to begin with.
"Ahhhh, that's another story." He gets up from the table and we repair to the front of the Quonset hut where he has some lawn chairs. He settles into one and as Freddy and I sit down he closes his eyes leans back and begins, "One time, quite awhile ago, I was returning one night from a trip to Gizo. I decided to stop by the shop for a few things before coming to the island. I walked directly from the ferry landing to the store and right inside. Of all things there was a man there in the process of robbing the store! I was quite frightened but so surprised, I just kept walking into the store. I walked right up to the man, took him by the arm (he was as startled as I was) and calmly said, 'Come along with me, please' and quickmarched him directly to the police station.
"Shortly before that incident an old man well over 100 years old who we were taking care of had died. He was a very wise old man and knew many things. He was considered to be a sayer.
"When I walked so purposefully from the ferry right into the store and popped out again an instant later with the thief, the people assumed I a spirit had told me the thief was there. A small congregation of the village people came to my store the next day and asked me 'Did the old man bless you?' Well, of course it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I put on a serious expression and simply nodded my head."
"But Kitchner," I turn to look at him, "What did make you go to your store at exactly that time and why did the trades reverse direction for just the time you needed to return home and why did the mullet jump into your boat at exactly that time? Do these things happen to you often?"
He laughs for a long time at my question. Finally, he agrees a large mullet had never before jumped into his canoe, especially not when he was playing a game with his son-in-law about magic and that his store had not been robbed often before and never afterwards. "The wind does seem especially favorable for me," he smiles "most of the time."
"Not for me," I grumble. "We have a shocking record of having adverse winds. We need a 'sayer' to fix our problem with the winds. It's always on the nose." I look hopefully at Kitchner but he just sits there, looking back at me.
I shrug and ask, "Tell me more about the magic fishing plant."
"Oh, more of that." He gets up and leads us into the garden and selects a plant with long oblate leaves striped with red. "First you take some of these leaves, like this, and tie them around your neck." He braids them together as we walk off towards his boatshed. "Then you fold another leaf in half and wipe it, just so, along the fishing line from the hook upwards. Muttering a few mystic words, of course." He reaches into a nook in the boatshed and brings out some elegant, hand carved pearl shell fish lures. Freddy's eyes go wide. She loves traditional fish lures. Kitchner shows us how to wipe the hook and line.
"Do you think the leaf might have a smell attractive to the fish?" I sniff the broken leaf, it has a sweet, astringent aroma. "Or perhaps it might disguise or clean off the smell of the fisherman's hand?"
"Well, I don't know," he is thoughtful. "Perhaps, though I have always suspected the effect is more on the fisherman than on the fish." He holds up the wreath of leaves and lures and pronounces with a theatrical voice, "With my magic necklace and magic lure I am unable to be lethargic. I paddle to the best place. I paddle hard without getting tired. I fish energetically and with determination." He lowers his arms, "Perhaps, without the magic, and a few spirits looking on, I feel less certain of myself and begin to think about my garden or tea or how boring the canoe trip is and I fish with poor attention and less actively."
"You're probably right. But people do have metabolites in their skin which have shown to be repellent to fish. Some people have more than others. Perhaps there is an element of true effect as well as the psychological one."
"Well, yes. Yes. Of course, I would list the psychological effect as a true effect, but you may be right. When several men are fishing for tuna say three or four men are paddling and another holds the fishing pole. If the fisherman doesn't catch a fish after a few minutes, we frequently change men. Often, the new man will immediately catch a fish."
"But, most of the plants used by the men on headhunting expeditions were clearly to focus their minds. Potana gave powers to the hunter from his spirit ancestors. A plant called Vina Puta would make you invisible. Doma would hypnotize the enemy. Mamahelo gave tremendous stamina and strength (it looks much like the magic fishing plant with red streaks through its leaf, here, this one), Puji allowed you to gorge yourself during a feast, and Vina manavasa had the wonderful property of inducing hospitality in all you met. The power of suggestion. Plus, perhaps, some elements of herbal magic." As Kitchner talks, he points to some of the plants he is describing. I find it more than of passing interest that this alleged sayer has all of these magic plants growing in his garden. On the other hand, he is a medical doctor....so an interest in herbs would not be out of the ordinary.
I continue with fish - a safe topic, "Walter Starck thinks reef fish which stay in one area get to recognize certain lures and fishing techniques and somehow can communicate this recognition to other fish. When the fisherman changes tactics and lures he often catches one right away."
Kitchner nods agreement, clearly happy to be off the subject of magic. "A well equipped fisherman for Bonito or tuna must have five or six different types of lures," Kitchner shows us a selection of his lures in the old coffee can. "When I approach a school of fish I observe the birds; what kinds are there, what they are doing. If I see man of war birds present and active I use this silver lure for surely there are large sardines.
"If there are only gulls, I might use this white lure, this transparent lure, or this white and red lure. It depends on the feeding behavior of the fish. If the fish are actively tearing up the water, I use the red or red and white lure. If they are not leaping but merely striking swiftly, I use the white bait. If, however the fish only nibble the surface....ahhh, this is the most difficult, for they are feeding on almost transparent bait.
"I have a number of lures for any occasion and can almost always select the correct one for the particular moment by reading Sea's language." Kitchner pauses to put away his lures, wrapping them in a leaf of the magic fishing plant before putting them back in the can. My mind clings to the way he said "Sea's language." He verbally capitalized Sea and used the possessive form. Odd, because his English is otherwise so perfect. Yet not odd, in a way, if you personalize the sea. He continues, "Each lure must also be fished differently. But the choice of lures, and this type of fishing, is peculiar to the migratory fishes like tuna and bonito. Walter is quite correct with the reef fish. They do learn to recognize certain boats and fishing techniques. Once they learn, they are very difficult to catch. As a bit of exaggeration, the local people here insist the fish in some areas know each fisherman's canoe, the way he paddles, his particular lures, and perhaps his name."
We laugh and stroll down to the water. The lagoon is brilliant in the afternoon sunlight, "You know, when I go fishing for tuna I talk to the fish. When I see a school of fish I paddle toward them and say, 'Hello fish, it is Kitchner Wheatley again. You remember, from Munda. My grandfather and my great grandfather came out to see you. You remember me. I always paddle this canoe. You will recognize my lure if you come back to me.'
"I have seen many schools of tuna stop moving away from me, turn, and come in my direction when I talk to them. Soon, I'm in the thick of it and I coax them to bite and they always do. But I believe the talking is mostly for my own benefit. It keeps my mind focused on the job and improves my fishing technique."
We talk until it is dusk. About fishing and ancient customs and magic. I learn a thousand things about the Solomon Islands. I am sure we will go back to visit again tomorrow. But I want to write down his words, as nearly as I can remember them, because he gave me a really wonderful perspective on what he called "Sea's Language".
It's true, Sea does have a language, although few people understand it. Each wave, each cloud, the colors of the sky, the way the birds fly and the crabs walk, the way the shore trees hold their leaves, the smell of the air and the reflected look of the moon and stars, the texture of the currents.
Ancient navigators could go between these islands and perceive exactly where the other islands were from hundreds of miles away. Just by knowing Sea's language. I can understand how those who are completely captured by the social scene of the village and the hardships of island life would be unable to understand how men like Kitchner know what the wind and the sea will be doing for days in advance.
Magic plays a large role in this awareness. I don't know why. Perhaps, as Kitchner says, you must quiet the busy social mind to listen to Sea's language. Ritual magic quiets the mind and allows ones attention to focus on the nonhuman language of Sea. Yes. I think that may be so. A magic talisman would stop the constant inner blabber and allow the person to be inwardly attentive. I think our understanding of Sea's language, or of the planet in general, comes from our unconscious mind a deeper, more primitive mind underlying our talkative social selves.
Why, that's .... No. Not exactly. But somehow this is close to how the Moirae work. I'm sure of it. Something about the way the natural language works. But Moirae are more than natural events. If a man reads Sea's language he can say what will happen because he sees....I want to say dedications of events.
He sees a chain of events which, causal or not, he knows means a series is being spoken. Like the first notes of a familiar jingle, once the first signals are made the other events will surely follow. The crab itself has nothing to do with the wind velocity or direction but it is part of a series of environmental events which predicts an outcome of weather trends.
The Moirae effect carries the prediction one step further. Or onto another level of dedication of events, for it deals with predictions (dedications) of events involving the most complicated behavior patterns on the Planet, Mankind.
I'm not saying this right. I don't understand it yet. It's a hazy image and I see its outline but can't name it. Kitchner's synchronicities not to mention my own and Carl Jung's and many others convinces me the Moirae exist. But it is not determinism or fatalism. After all, a man able to read Sea's language is less likely to be accorded the fate of a nature illiterate when exposed to Sea's fickle nature. Reading the signs, the knowing man has the opportunity to react, and survive. The signs are there, read or not. If unread, the chain of events seem like magic. Magic is a chain of events one cannot see or understand.
I sit for awhile and contemplate this idea. Magic is a chain of events one cannot see or understand. I like it.
The Moirae are not supernatural, they seem, to me, to be magic only because I can't figure out how they work. They are beyond my direct perception but I know they are there because I can observe their behavior. I also know they have something to do with the directionality of evolution. It's an explanation of how creatures evolved. A behavior mandating a vector of development in response to environmental (I was going to say pressures but I really want to say) opportunities.
I've lost the thread. (Bad pun).
The swelling in my foot (from a big yellow mud wasp) has gone down. I want to go ashore to see the display of wood carvings for the man from Keita who is flying down this morning to buy them for his export business. I have not been ashore for three days.
A nifty little Cessna circles the lagoon, zooming Moira. Must be the buyer. Business can't be too bad if he can afford a plane like that to buzz around in. Freddy helps me into the Avon and we go ashore to see the carvings. We find them laid out in a big circular area on the lawn next to Agnes' Guest House. It is a good turn-out, all the best carvers from the Western Solomons are here. These guys do some really fine work. I look over a circus of wood fish, sharks, masks, and especially Nusa Nusa Heads.
Nusa Nusa heads, often carved in ebony and inlaid with Nautilus mother of pearl, are stylized replicas of decorations once used on the prows of head-hunting canoes. Normally, a head-hunting canoe carried three Nusa-nusa heads. One was resting its chin on a flying bird. The headhunters mounted this one on the bow as their canoe went off on a mission. Another was resting its chin on its folded hands. When mounted, it meant the canoe was returning without any heads. The last was resting its chin on a smaller head. They put this one up front when the hunting party was successful, and the fuzzy afros of their neighbors were tickling their toes in the canoe. The symbols enabled the village women to know how to greet their men as they returned without having to risk ego-embarrassing questions.
On the lawn in front of Agnes' Guest House, is the most splendid display of carving I have ever seen. I hobble around, favoring my sore foot, saying hi to some of the men I recognize.
"There's Beni Jonga from Buruku," Freddy points. He's got a terrific collection of his work. I stand and chat with him until The Man from Kieta comes striding confidently up the path, flanked by two local guys. He's all business.
His first move is to breeze around the whole area glancing at each mans work and rushing on to another's, like a lion tamer strutting around his beasts with his whip held high. He has, in his hand, a big brown paper bag and keeps reaching into it and hauling out great stacks of Solomon Island money; all one dollar bills. He waves these in the air. Even I am impressed. It looks like an enormous amount of money but is probably only a few thousand dollars. The islanders all stand up and practically paw the air.
When he stops at Benny's display his otherwise deadpan face squinges up into a look of utter contempt and he hurries away. Benny has some of the best carvings in the display. He is visibly upset. "Don't worry Benny," I say, "He's just trying to make you lower your price. Don't come down on your prices. Your work is very good."
"Him no like work, going to pay nothing. Better something than nothing." He is really worried.
I can't convince him the man lied because the man said nothing. His face said plenty. This was really a sharp move on the buyer's part. Solomon Islanders are very expressive with their body language and, like most of us, impressions gotten from body language are usually absorbed unconsciously and therefore believed.
I limp after The Man and watch his technique. On each round he only buys one kind of carving, starting with the less expensive small fish, sea horses, and crocodiles. He points to the ones he wants and peels off some one dollar bills, making a big show of counting them silently two or three times right under the seller's nose. He ruffles and shakes and fans out the cash, snaps each bill as he counts it. When he's done he hands it to the artist and, if the man takes it, he walks off instantly to another display. His assistants quickly gather up the carvings in large burlap sacs while the artist counts the dollars one at a time, slowly, out loud. The two helpers whisk the carvings off towards the guest house. They are long gone before the carver gets finished counting.
I saw many carvers finish slowly, painfully, counting the money only to look up, confused and unhappy. The carvings had, somehow, not yielded what they expected.
When the buyer comes to Benny, he has already bought out most of the other displays. He stands in front of Benny with his head turning around, looking at the remaining carvings, the dregs, in other displays. Finally he seems to notice there are still some carvings here, in front of him. He says, "Well, are you going to give me those things or sell them to me?"
Benny looks shocked and worried. "Let's see," the man surveys the carvings. "One....Two....Three....ummm 9 carvings. OK, here you go. Righteeo?" and he sticks a wad of 26 scrunched up one dollar bills in Benny's hand and is gone, his assistant snatching up the lovely carvings each worth from 10 to 40 dollars in Kieta and more in the U.S. In seconds, the men are running off after the buyer in the direction of the airport. Benny says nothing. But his face says a lot.
Looking around at the men gathering up what's left of their work, I am reminded again of the rain forests. The representatives of lumber companies are even more adroit at razzle-dazzle than the Man from Kieta. Instead of a paper bag full of dollars, they arrive with suitcases full of dollars. A few bottles of cheap whiskey are thrown in for effect. The ramifications are even more befuddling for the local people, since they don't have to actually do anything to get the suitcase full of cash. Just sign a little release form.
I can see, in the future, thousands of faces of Solomon Islanders with the same expression Benny's wears as I leave him on the lawn at Agnes' Guest House.
The Holy Mama would soon show us a different Solomon Spirit...