‘What humans are capable of is literally unbelievable’

‘Tawai’ is the word the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Borneo use to describe their connection with nature. It’s also a new film about human potential by explorer Bruce Parry. He talks about balancing scepticism and spirituality, why he gave up sex, and the Siberian mountain named after him

The Penan people of Borneo say ‘tawai’ to describe their felt connection to the landscape. It can mean longing or nostalgia; sometimes the sense of being held by the forest like a mother nurturing a baby. They see themselves as part of nature, not above it. I thought that was a good starting point for a film.

I’d travelled around the world for the BBC, and they wanted me to carry on making programmes like that. But I couldn’t. I’ve seen the impacts of climate change and I wanted to do something that might help. When making my TV programmes, we put entertainment first – me naked, covered in cow shit, jumping over things – and hoped education would follow. In this film, I unashamedly went straight for the message.

We’re addicted to things and we’re eating the planet because we just can’t be with ourselves

The Penan were nomadic hunter-gatherers and they’re now turning to agriculture and settling. The ancestors of nearly every human on this planet went through that transition. Hunting is a form of meditation: you have to be fully in your body with all your senses alert in order to feed your family. Farming doesn’t require the same thing. We started to drift from a deep sense of connection, empathy with each other, and with nature.

But there are signs that we are searching for it again. Yoga has taken off in a huge way, as have meditation, mindfulness, and tribal medicines such as ayahuasca. During this journey into separation, civilisation has developed these tools to rebalance our bodies and minds. When we’re disconnected from each other and from something beyond ourselves, we fill that void with stuff. We’re addicted to things and we’re eating the planet because we just can’t be with ourselves. I’ve experienced that massively.

Our world is beautiful.

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I was going to stay with the Kogi people, a remote tribe in Colombia, and asked how I should best prepare. They advised me to give up sex, drugs and alcohol. I tried it for a while, and only by taking things out did I realise how much they were controlling me. Sex is a natural phenomenon but cutting it out became one of the most beautiful journeys for me. I was feeling for the first time, my heart. It had never been like that before: it had always been a sexual need.

Explorer and filmmaker Bruce Parry
Image: Alex Stoneman/Greenpeace

I’ve had some amazing experiences visiting tribes. I ran with reindeer herders up a mountain in Siberia and they named it after me. It doesn’t matter if the maps show it: the local people call it Bruce now. It was the greatest honour. But I’d always maintained a sceptical ‘healthy’ distance from these communities’ beliefs. Then I had a few experiences which meant I had to eat humble pie. At Kumbh Mela [the annual Hindu festival in India and the world’s biggest religious festival] I felt like I’d literally melted into the everything. At times I’ve meditated, and when I’ve taken some tribal medicines too, I’ve felt the experience of being out of the limits of my physical body.

I realised that the dogma of material science – ‘if it can’t be measured then it has no place’ – is drawing a line where there doesn’t need to be one. Who’s to say that just because we don’t feel something, that people living in an incredibly deeply connected way don’t?

All tribal groups are facing threats to their rights: mining, logging, drilling, military force by nation states. The Amazon is like a Wild West. All over the world, tens of thousands of people are being moved from their lands.

We have to experience the fear and the pain otherwise we won’t find that beautiful other way of living that’s just over the horizon

I don’t necessarily hold tribal people on a pedestal. I’ve seen conflict over resources and practices like female circumcision and women being whipped, so I’m no stranger to negative aspects of indigenous peoples. Across 15 episodes of [Parry’s BBC series] Tribe, I mostly would have said the groups were no different to any of us: they have the same complications. But the Penan seem to run on a different operating system. There’s no hierarchy, no ownership, there’s real respect for each other and for their environment. It doesn’t make them perfect, but it does mean they’ve got some really good shit going on that we can learn from.

A Penan child, in a still taken from Parry’s latest film, Tawai
Image: Willow Murton

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up, but we can’t deny what we’ve done to the planet. We have to experience the fear and the pain otherwise we won’t find that beautiful other way of living that’s just over the horizon.

What humans are capable of is literally unbelievable. Not only in the obvious mechanical and technological way but how we can organise, relate to each other, and experience life deeply. It’s hard to imagine what sort of amazing world we could actually create if we wanted to. It’s all there for us.

Featured image: Alex Stoneman/Greenpeace

This article is featured in issue 91 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits