It’s not often that one reads a passionate activist manifesto that includes references to Anthony Perkins in Psycho, nor is it often that one finds a well written travelogue that compares the Cambodian version of “Delhi-belly” to Siguorney Weaver’s Alien… but Ken Finn has managed to combine all of this in a remarkable way that really works. Written with a sly, biting sense of humor, and loaded with amusing cultural references, this lovely book is a contradiction in many ways.
My Journey With a Remarkable Treestands up with the best “Rough Guide” style travelogues, and indeed should be a “must read” for any one headed for Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos — or any armchair traveler who wishes to understand better the indigenous tribes, the disturbing poverty, the role of the government and the level of corruption that is prevalent. Had Ken Finn stopped there, he would have provided a welcome service.
However, what sets this book apart and truly elevates it, is Ken Finn’s spiritual quest, and the passionate activism that developed in response. The author set out to find the great, old “spirit trees” of Cambodia — the trees of legend, some hundreds of years old and each said to have a soul, and some able to “hide” or disappear. These trees are able to sustain whole villages with their resin, which is used for heating and light, waterproofing boats, or for trading for other hard goods.
What he found instead was devastation — acres and acres of these trees were being illegally cut down or burned — a widespread looting of resources that involved collusion between the government, big business, the police and even the Forest Rangers whose job it was to protect the trees. Villages that had prospered and sustained themselves for centuries by using the resin and not cutting down the trees were suddenly facing starvation and displacement.
It was the cutting of a single magnificent tree that personalized it for the author and led him to begin My Journey With A Remarkable Tree. Working with the aid and advice of local guides and NGO’s that had been monitoring this illegal deforestation, Mr. Finn followed, as nearly as possible, the route that this single tree would take — a journey that led him over the border as the tree was smuggled into Vietnam, through the lumber mills which turned his tree and it’s “brothers and sisters” into garden furniture, and then down to the ports where the containers were marked for shipping to the UK and the US. Later, when the author returned to England, he searched out the likely container ships in Felixstowe, and then visited the local garden center to see “his tree” on display as a furniture set.
This is the story of one tree — when we realize that there are thousands of trees being cut down, thousands of acres of forest being stripped and thousands of cubic feet of garden furniture and wood products being shipped to the affluent countries — it is almost too much to comprehend. It is to the author’s credit that he found such a heartfelt and moving way to personalize a phenomenon that is truly scary in its enormity.
So what’s the lesson in all of this? What can we do about it? The author clearly gave this a good amount of thought. (Mr. Finn’s insight, almost as an aside, that the fear-mongering war-talk of terrorism threats by Tony Blair and George W. Bush is all a distraction to keep people from noticing how the powerful are sucking up the resources of the weak, is worth the price of the book all by itself.) On a more practical level, the author calls for us to get informed, to ask questions before we buy — know the provenance of the goods involved. He gives us information on the correct labels and certifications to look for. In some cases, he asks us to do nothing — meaning, stop shopping! If we stop supporting the almighty market, if we stop consuming to console ourselves, then there would be no profit in killing these trees.
Part manifesto, part travelogue, this moving and disturbing story is written with humor, clarity and compassion. Ken Finn has done a lovely job of illuminating a bleak and seemingly hopeless issue — and managed to put the hope back into it, that we can truly do something to make this a better world.
To contact Eye Books or Ken Finn, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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