Bali Through the Eyes of a Human Ecologist

Posted by Laura Cohn on

Laura Cohn ’88. The Peregrine, Newsletter of the College of the Atlantic Association, (date unknown)

In the archipelago-country of Indonesia sits the province of Bali, a small volcanic island eight degrees south of the equator. To reach Bali, I fly halfway around the earth, 12 hours back in time, across the dateline into tomorrow. For the third consecutive year I am preparing to leave our Eden to spend the winter and spring on this other, comparably magical and stunning island. My choice arouses people’s curiosity and I am constant bombarded with “why Bali?” There is no easy answer. The reasons are multi-layered; some readily understandable, others less tangible, more abstract. On the surface, it is a beautiful and fascinating place. Below the surface, it is even more so.

Indonesia, the fifth most populous country in the world, consists of 13, 677 islands stretching 3,200 miles along the equator. Bali claims only a tiny minority of Indonesia’s citizens, with 2.5 million on an island about four times the size of Mount Desert Island. It challenges most Westerners’ imaginations to envision a land so lush and picturesque yet inhabited so densely. Bali’s terraced landscape imprints breathtaking images in the minds of all who have seen them, and also provides one of the most abundant rice harvests anywhere in the world. The beaches and warm emerald blue waters lure international tourists for inexpensive, decadent retreats, while 10,000 foot volcanoes soar up through the clouds to the heavens.

Interacting with these diverse landscapes are the Balinese. An unusually outgoing and friendly people, they share the small island with the gods and spirits, tourists and expatriates alike. Through their mystical Hindu culture shines a reverence for life expressed with grand rituals and subtle gestures. Festivals, ceremonies, art, dances, temple processions, and other activities take place almost continuously. Religion permeates Balinese society; it is everywhere. Like rice and tea, it is their sustenance.

There is much to learn from a culture seemingly so idyllic yet filled with complexities and contradictions. I fly into a land where yesterday and tomorrow are at once the same. In many places, surprisingly little has changed since European visitors first came in the 1930’s. Today, in transition, Bali is confronted with modernization. New money and technology challenge the pace at which time can absorb change. My generation is the first to grow up in the presence of contemporary material values brought by a thriving tourist economy. From the historical perspective, it is quite obvious that Balinese culture is not static. It is dynamic, adopting outside elements to vary extents, as long as those elements do not directly attack the existing basic concepts. As one Balinese told me, “My relationship with my gods is older than capitalism and greed.” The inherent wisdom in the people’s understanding of dynamic change is the foundation for both traditional and modern Balinese society.

I experience Bali through the eyes of a human ecologist. Although the Balinese terminology and conceptual framework may differ from my own, I am convinced that a human ecological philosophy is the foundation of this dynamic place. The Balinese culture is a unique and rich blend of ancient rituals combined with new ideas and influences. Their religion is Balinese-Hindu coupled with components of Animism and Buddhism. Upon my first visit I was impressed with a world so integrated that it disclosed little or no fragmentation between the people’s work, ritual religion, play, dance, life. Everything seems interwoven, compatible. In the west, one may aspire to a balanced, integrated lifestyle, yet our conditioning is strongly rooted in the perception of life having polar opposites, mutually exclusive choices: good/bad, work/play, masculine/feminine. For Hindu-Balinese, the separations are not so divisive or exclusive. Instead, there is a third position balanced between the two: the “center.” This notion of three forces, overlapping and interdependent – the three together constituting a whole – lies close to the center of Hindu theology. Everyone and everything strives for balance. It is this human ecological principal of holistic thinking that attracts me to Bali. To witness this concept in living practice compels me to return again and again.

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