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The spider-web fisherman

  • 04 November 2009
I feel such solidarity with all things, it does not matter where the individual begins and ends. So wrote Einstein when contemplating death. His words encapsulate the state of being needed if we are to confront the great challenges of our age: climate change, the global financial crisis, and mass movements of refugees seeking new lives.

These challenges are interrelated and entwined. If we do not nurture a sense of wonder at life's mysteries, if we do not develop a concern that goes beyond our individual life spans, there is little chance we will succeed. Without a long-term vision we will remain becalmed in the moment, governed by the imperative to live for the day, for my self, my immediate family, and to hell with the rest.

Can we afford to save the planet? Better to ask, do we have the understanding required to save the planet? As Einstein's words imply, this understanding has something to do with our sense of the natural world. We can call this means of knowing the world, ecological awareness, a term that reflects a way of life I observed on Kitava, in the Trobriand Islands.

The Trobriands, now known as the Kiriwina Islands, are an archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea. On the first of three journeys to the island of Kitava in the late 1970s, I made my way by boat from Milne Bay to the town of Losuia, on the main island of Kiriwina. I met the boatmen of Kitava in the township and trekked with them to the east coast, where the boats were waiting — two magnificent outrigger canoes beached on the sand, beneath a thatched shelter, their hulls intricately carved, their furled sails of pandanus leaf.

I was impatient to get moving, to sail the ten miles further east to Kitava, my intended destination. 'We cannot sail today,' one of the men replied. 'Wind is boss.' Two days went by with the same reply. 'Wind is boss.' By that time I had begun to succumb to the leisurely pace, the languid passing of time.

At dawn on the third day I was suddenly awoken from my stupor. The men were shouting, we are leaving. The wind is up. There is no time to lose. Their demeanour had changed dramatically. Their bodies were tense; their entire being was focused on their immediate task.

They dragged the canoes to the water, pushed