Marin Arts & Culture May 2017 - Page 29

T Bali by Heather Preston cas chl ow s . . ee r?” go n. A oun s e agi cov mil a an ope had bu s w cha It all started at a New Year’s party in Sausalito, California many years ago. A small group of traveling Balinese gamelan musicians had been engaged to play their exotic gongs, drums, and bells for the guests. It was perfectly enchanting; I wanted to talk with them so when they took a break I asked, through their interpreter, the question, “What do you find most different here from your country?” They talked among themselves for some time then the interpreter, obviously embarrassed, answered with a question of their own: “We wonder, where are your tree spirits?” I was speechless. Tree spirits? They actually believed there were such beings? And they had them? But we didn’t? If only I had I known then what I do now, there would certainly have been a few choice follow-up questions. Alas, I was ignorant. And so it was that the question: “Where are your tree spirits?” started my journey of discovery and, in course of time, my pilgrimage to the magical island of Bali. My mission was to find somebody who could tell me firsthand about tree spirits, not the fairy tale ones but the real ones that the musicians knew. It soon became apparent once I was in Bali, however, that the Balinese are protective of such knowledge and don’t easily share it with scoffing Westerners. Why had the musicians even asked such a question those years ago in California? Must have come at an unguarded moment. I had only ten short days in Bali. Three days left and no leads. What to do? At that point, I remember standing at the crossroads in Ubud, hand on hip, imploring the Powers of the Universe or Whoever might be in charge The Winding Path of connections that week to take over the search. Then I simply trusted that something would turn up. I really did, much to the relief of Alan, my longsuffering husband, glad to be on to other pursuits. We hired a cab to explore the island, a common practice since nobody in his right mind drives in Bali. Agung-the-fearless was our driver, a gregarious, beret- wearing fellow who knew everybody and accepted life as the yogi he turned out to be. In a loaded moment when I judged that a rapport had been forged, I nailed him: “Tell me, Agung, where can I find a balian?” (A balian is a sensitive, or shaman; at least that much I had discovered; there must not be very many of them.) He paused, turned around and looked at me closely, then with casual innocence said, “A balian? My wife is a balian.” These Balinese seem to have a way of leaving me speechless, I thought, offering a hurried silent prayer of thanksgiving to the Powers of the Universe for pulling off this breathtaking show of faithfulness . . . and having a divine laugh on the way: My “connection” had been taking us sightseeing. Recovering, I stammered, “Can I meet her?” “Yes, of course.” That very evening my husband the good sport and I walked through the balmy tropical night to see my balian. And at the appointed hour we entered the five- hundred-year-old compound of Agung’s ancestors. It was of the gray stone and peach brick one sees everywhere in Bali: stately, well proportioned, and with a distinct air of magic to be found just around the corner. Waiting on the low covered porch stood Rai, Agung’s lovely wife, dignified, reserved, smiling: the balian. At the end of this porch, their tiny grinning grandma and her grandson lay on mats watching a loud, clanging Balinese soap opera on TV, like the dance theater we had been enjoying every chance we had. This is also the porch where Agung teaches Yoga classes. “I study, but she just knows,” Agung says of his inscrutable wife. As we sat on the porch floor drinking the Cokes they offered us and exchanging pleasantries, Rai, still composed, drifted quietly into a trance. “I will tell you what your house looks like in the U.S.,” said Rai, before I could protest that it was tree spirits I was after, not a description of something I already knew. Agung scrambled for a scrap of paper and a pen while she tranced out. Presently she began to draw a plan of our rather unusual house: the position of the outbuildings, the gardens, fences, street, and one special tree, the old leaning oak beside my studio, (the other thirty-five trees on our land she ignored). She couldn’t understand why our buildings were at odd angles to each other since in Bali all building complexes are carefully positioned. “That’s right,” we marveled. Then I thought, oh, of course, she’s proving her skill at ‘far sight’ so that when she comes to something we don’t know we’ll be more ready to accept that it also is true. She smiled when we said, “Yes, yes, you’ve got it all exactly right.” She continued, “The old tree leans far out to one side but it is well, and will not soon die.” She had answered my unspoken worry about that tree’s health. She then correctly picked up on some negative energy flowing towards our land from the west, of which we were well aware. “Don’t worry,” she assured us, “The spirits in the big tree have made a wall of fire to protect you.” “A wall of fire? We have a tree spirit? And it protects us?” MARIN ARTS & CULTURE 29