Stranger in the Forest

In 1988 I read Eric Hansen’s book, Stranger in the Forest.

Having just reread it I was even more taken with it all these years later. Eric was then a young man who came out of UC Berkeley and lived for a time in New York, both places that I lived when he did. He’s a year older than I am and somehow I feel as if I’d entered a room he’s been in just as he was leaving by another door. I think he lives in San Francisco now but have so far no luck finding him. Of course he could be on the road, a road he has worn a solid groove in, for sure.

Eric has lived all over the world from deserts in the Middle East to islands in the Pacific, from jungles in Asia to the Australian Outback. He’s been a goldsmith, a pig farmer, a buffalo herder and a wild dog hunter. He’s been a hairdresser at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying but most of all he’s been a travel writer.

In the mid-80s Eric decided to tramp through the heartland of Borneo so he set off with a backpack and a laughably useless map. For nearly a year he trekked 2,500 miles of unexplored jungle.

He learned the languages and lived among the locals. He met sweet people of transcendent kindness and hostiles who eyed him as potential pot roast. Now Borneo is no small place. It is the third largest island in the world and is comprised of three countries Malaysia, Indonesia and the small Sultanate of Brunei. Forty years ago in the rural parts of Borneo your daughter’s dowry might consist of a blow gun, with poison darts, a knife and a torn Harley Davidson print T-shirt exclaiming Born to Raise Hell!

In Brunei the dowry might consist of a 300-foot super yacht, a Picasso from the Blue Period and a wristwatch depicting a couple having sex in precious stones. All this is because Brunei has oil. The rest of Borneo has sticks and stones.

Oh yeah, and there are ten of these five million dollar watches. Seems like he overpaid.

So Eric set off into the forest where he didn’t see the direct sun for hundreds of days at a time. Eric lived as the locals lived. He ate what they ate. He danced with them, doctored them and grieved with them. Because he was by himself and he was a white dude some folks thought he was an evil spirit and they thought they’d be better off with him dead but they were reluctant to kill him because to kill the dead is a complicated matter so he coasted past danger on several occasions.

Scary costumes

Of course the bugs, skin rot, constant fevers, infected cuts and the very real possibility of ending up on the menu gave the adventure a rather special edge only equaled by a 2021 Covid Carnival Cruise seven-dayer out of Miami.

In the forest Eric encountered people who had a very different sense of the world from the us in the West. They reckon distance and time as shaped by the landscape and what was available to eat. In times of plenty his occasional companions would kill large game and eat as much as possible to make up for days of famine. The fact that a gringo from California could survive, thrive even, with no outside support is remarkable. He approached the journey with a travel plan, but in short order he turned himself over to the forest and its rhythms and he ‘let the river answer.’

And this evolving flow has been forming and reforming for some time. In 2018 the oldest figurative rock art in the world was discovered in Borneo. 40,000 years ago a Stone Age artist painted a picture of a bull deep in a cave.

Th Lubang Bull

Then the same team found an even older cave painting dating from 44,000 years ago in Sulaawesi. You know that’s the  place surrounded by the Makassar Strait and the Banda Sea. What, where is this? I have no idea and I’m an expert.

“Oh sure, turn right at the 7-11.”

Rock paintings by the ancients are called, pictographs. The style of painting in Borneo is very similar to that found in Europe. It is hard to image that this is a coincidence though of course it could be. The Indonesian cave art depicts large mammals with huge bodies and unrealistically spindly legs. Also much like the cave art in other places these paintings were laid down successively over as many as 20,000 years like those in Europe.

In many instances the art is hidden deep in the darkness of a cave and was painted by firelight, where it was witnessed that way too. There are, of course, pictographs on rocks in the open all over the world. Exactly what motivated these ancient artists to paint on walls is unknown but the practice was quite widespread and much of the art has reoccurring themes. Hand prints and hunts dominate. In more recent times funeral and religious motifs are common in tombs. Interestingly, the cave art is not typically decorating a cemetery.  

I have been so uplifted by the world Eric reported on, a world which is now almost entirely gone. Chain saws and Coca Cola have pushed out the flint ax and honey-flavored river water. Some anthologists/philosophers say that much of the glory of what it is to be human was lost when man invented agriculture about 10,000 years ago. The people in the ‘primitive’ tribes that have been studied often seem to lead harsh lives but tell that to a street dweller in San Francisco who is living a post-apocalyptic, twilight existence. At least in the tribe everyone had a home and a purpose.

“Put down the damn phone and eat me already!”

Eric Hansen has written other books including his collection of short stories titled The Birdman and the Lap Dancer. It is a collection of essays on random topics including one story that stands out titled, Ghost Wind. It is my favorite short story of all time. It’s partly about sailing on San Francisco Bay (any story about the sea is my meat). I urge you to buy both books.

As you read the story below you will think, “what’s so great about this?” And then it takes off with a jolt as this square-rigger of a story’s sails billow out with a ‘ghost wind.’ On deck appear the most outrageous and lovable cast of characters that every danced and sang their way across the Seven Seas. And it’s a true story.

So I have continued to look for Eric Hansen. I contacted his publisher but I can’t locate the man. If any of you can find him I’d love a contact number or email address just to tell him how much his life has meant to me.

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1 Comment

  • Alden Stevenson says:

    WOW that is some tale captain,
    as always thanx
    again some place i probably will never go to
    How kind of you to share

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