We threshed our way up a ridge, through waist-high ferns that grasped our legs and dispersed sticky spores all over our pants. My guide, Tailah, took slow measured steps ahead, using his machete to cut away hanging vines and branches bearing medieval spikes that might impale my hands or tear my clothes. Suddenly, he paused, stood stock-still in the middle of the whirring, chirping, dizzying jungle, and listened, gazing into its depths as if waiting for it to tell him the way. He rolled his eyes, shook his long salt-and-pepper hair, and face-palmed in quiet amazement. “Saya tua,” he said and chuckled to himself. At this, I grew alarmed. Night was falling, and here was my guide, who had grown up in these forests, saying he was old and had forgotten the way. I imagined us lost in the dark, among venomous snakes twined around overhanging branches or coiled beneath the earth. I’d just met a volunteer at a local conservation project who had survived a bite on the head. And Tailah himself had stumbled into a snake-hole earlier, nearly twisting his ankle.
“Ah,” he said finally, nodding as if he’d received his answer. He scored a tree with his machete to mark our location and motioned with a long, hornlike fingernail. Then he started out confidently along some invisible path in the undergrowth, which I wasn’t sure was a path at all. As we scrambled steadily upward, I poked at the leaf litter with a bamboo stick whittled to a point at one end. I’d learned a few survival skills from jungle treks in Sumatra and was testing for snakes. On occasion, Tailah warned, “Hati-hati,” pointing to more spiky branches. I was soaked in sweat, and my calves throbbed, but the more I walked, the more I hit my stride and resolved to carry on.
I had come to Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, to find out more about the rainforest and traditional indigenous ways of life under threat from extensive logging and burning to make way for industrial palm oil plantations. Last year, 2015, was particularly devastating, with about 6.4 million acres of rainforest burning out of control across Borneo and Sumatra. You may have already eaten some palm oil today or washed with it, since it’s used in an estimated 50 percent of products found on supermarket shelves, including snacks, cosmetics, soaps, and toiletries. I was surprised to learn about this when I came to Indonesia in 2007 as a volunteer for an orangutan conservation project. I’ve lived here ever since, married for six years to my Indonesian husband and writing articles about the rainforest between teaching English classes. Every semester, I focus a lesson or two on rainforest protection, and I am always amazed when my students say they have no idea that endangered orangutans and other rainforest creatures live so close to us—just a few hours away by car, less than an hour by plane. An indigenous person myself from Canada (I’m Métis, a mixture of Cree and French), I’ve become more concerned every year about the continued pressure on the forest and the people who live there. Last December, with a week off school and my husband holding the fort, I came to southern Borneo and met Tailah, a Dayak guide and expert on the forest his people call home. I didn’t just want to see the rainforest before it disappears; I wanted to see what could be done to protect it before it’s too late.
Loksado, the nearest town, was now four hours behind us as we wandered down the other side of the ridge, through a clearing studded with charred tree stumps. But this clearing was not the work of palm oil companies; the black soil was planted with vibrant green tufts of mountain rice rippling in the breeze. The farmer had used the traditional Dayak method of growing rice: once the crop was gathered, the jungle would be allowed to reclaim the space while the farmer moved on to plant farther along the ridge. Historically, the Dayak (a general term for the more than two hundred tribes throughout Borneo) have had a fearsome reputation as headhunters, but the practice was abandoned for the most part in the late nineteenth century, and now the majority are expert farmers. And the rice is for personal use only, Tailah said. The people of this region, the Meratus Dayak, never sell rice as they do the forest products they gather. This system of growing only what they need results in patchworks of small rice fields interspersed within the rainforest and following the paths of Borneo’s vast network of rivers.
It was already 6 PM and starting to get dark as we hopped on stones to cross the river—night falls fast in the tropics, especially in the mountains. I wondered if we would make it in time to Haruyan, the village where we would spend the night. Perhaps we had stopped and lingered a little too long on our journey due to my enthusiasm for snapping photos and taking notes. We had paused to enjoy a fresh papaya that Tailah whacked down from a tree, sharing the rinds with a yellow-eyed rooster. Then we marveled at a cluster of vibrant green fruits, a relative of the star fruit, which looked like tiny cucumbers growing directly from the trunk of a tree—a process called cauliflory. The pockets of my jacket were bursting with these and other jungle treasures: fallen forest mangoes; waxy candlenuts still in their shells; peanuts so fresh from the earth they were actually juicy and tender inside; pieces of bark from a Cinnamomum sintoc tree, which Tailah said could be brewed as a tea to guard against malaria; the scaly, edible pinecone-like fruits of the rattan tree, better known for its use in patio furniture; and a scrap of fragrant bark that Tailah sliced off a slender, silvery tree and gave me to smell. The moment I held it to my nose, memories of sticky buns and gingersnaps danced in my head: cinnamon! From the Cinnamomum burmannii tree (a more fragrant relative of the medicinal sintoc), cinnamon is the most profitable crop for the Dayak at about 20,000 rupiah, or two dollars, a kilo.
By the time we reached the top of the next ridge, night was upon us, menacing and dark. I wasn’t worried about tigers, as none lived here in Borneo. Nor was I concerned about the shy and reclusive clouded leopards, which had more reason to be afraid of us. In the last village we’d visited, three of the unfortunate cats had ended up in the communal cooking pot while the hunter proudly showed me his air rifle. I was more worried about venomous snakes, like the Bornean keeled pit viper, a potentially lethal beauty that twines around branches and waits for its prey to pass by. I’d seen a bright green Sumatran pit viper snoozing in the rafters of a beach bungalow in Aceh once, as well as a king cobra that crossed our path on a rubber tree plantation in North Sumatra and a young, meter-long reticulated python with gold jewels for eyes sunning himself outside our house in Bandung, West Java. (Maybe it’s just hearsay, but I’ve been told an adult python can swallow a person whole with its flexible jaws and that if sleeping outside, I should sprawl like a sea star so it could only get as far as one limb.)
Encounters such as these were still vivid in my mind, filling me with a growing sense of unease as I hurried along behind Tailah. I was relieved when I spotted a clearing that looked as if it could lead to the village, but just then Tailah stopped, switched off his flashlight, and peered into the darkness beside the path.
“Look,” he said. “Over there.”
“Where?” I said, staring nervously into the dark, willing my eyes to see. Yet there was only darkness.
“There,” he said. “Under that tree.”
I stared and stared. Then something strange appeared: a tiny pinpoint of light, a shy greenish glow on the forest floor. Once my eyes adjusted, many more lights began to emerge, like stars coming out at night. Mushrooms! A carpet of tiny glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, lighting our way along the path. I gasped like a child on Christmas morning, spotting presents under the tree.
“Kulat undak,” Tailah said, which translates in English as “mushroom steps.” They did indeed look like tiny steps for elves, or like will-o’-the-wisps, those ghostly spirits of old folk tales believed to lure travelers to certain doom, which might actually be pale phosphorescence that arises from swamps and peat bogs at night. I could hardly contain my excitement—suddenly, all visions of snakes disappeared. Lured by the magic of the glowing mushrooms, I followed Tailah into the velvety darkness to find more mushrooms weirdly and silently radiant, like those plastic stars and planets you stick on your bedroom ceiling.
I crouched down to get a better look at one. The cap was the size of a pencil eraser; the stem, a half-pencil long, but thinner. I stared with wonder at the tiny caps and gills glowing like lampshades filled with yellow-green fire, lighting up the night. There were so many that, in their faint glow, I could make out the outlines of Tailah’s wizened elf face, framed by his long seventies rock-star hair. He picked a glowing shroom and placed it between my fingers.
“A flashlight,” he said and smiled.
I MUST HAVE BEEN about six years old when I first encountered the magic of bioluminescence one summer night with my dad, on Hornby Island, just off the west coast of Canada. We were walking on the sandstone when the sudden electric shimmer of the sea took me by surprise. It seemed the sparkling light mirrored the stars—the effect heightened even more because it was August and the Perseids were raining above our heads in a celestial fireworks display. My adoptive dad, like a modern-day version of a Victorian explorer with his British accent, tweed cap, and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, explained that the luminous light was caused by dinoflagellates, organisms so tiny that under normal daylight conditions, you need a microscope to see them. I’ll never forget how I tingled with joy at such an unexpected discovery. Now, here, right before my very eyes, was bioluminescence not of the sea but of the forest. These mushrooms had instantaneously morphed me, like Alice in Wonderland, into my smaller childhood self. I beheld these glowing night lights with the same sense of wonder as when I was on the beach stirring up water sparkles with my feet.
Where does such bioluminescence come from, and why? French physiologist Raphaël Dubois asked the same questions in the nineteenth century and, in his experiments, managed to isolate two compounds that combine to create bioluminescent light. He gave them the slightly devilish names of luciferin and luciferase, after lucifer, Latin for “light bearer.” It turns out that the chemical makeup of bioluminescence in mushrooms is much the same as that of dinoflagellates and other ocean organisms; they just wield it a little differently. Shrimp, for example, have been observed shooting luciferin and luciferase out of their mouths, like tiny fire-breathing dragons, as a form of self-defense, just as an octopus squirts an ink cloud. Mycologists, experts in fungi, hypothesize that mushrooms might also glow as a form of self-defense, but that cool greenish glow is more likely their method of attracting insects to spread their spores, much like a neon sign over an all-night café advertises an inviting rest stop. Truth is, nobody is really sure why some mushrooms shine. Their bioluminescence is not as well understood as it is for ocean creatures like dinoflagellates, shrimp, or lantern-jawed monsters of the deep.
Whatever the reason, they’re thoroughly enchanting, bringing to mind those happy little psychedelic shrooms on the black velvet posters from rec rooms in the seventies. Perhaps they have the same hallucinogenic qualities as the magic mushrooms my friends and I, as teenagers, picked from our lawns and brewed into a potent tea. Fondly remembering these psilocybin-fueled scenes from my youth, when we went tripping and laughing through the mountain forests near our homes in Vancouver, British Columbia, I had to ask Tailah, “Are they poisonous?”
“If you eat them, they will make you mabuk,” he replied with certainty. Mabuk, meaning “drunk.” With his silver rings and macramé bracelets, Tailah looked as if he might have taken a few shrooms himself back in the day (until recently, magic mushrooms were legal in Indonesia and are still widely available), but I wasn’t going to pry. And I wasn’t about to eat any, of course.
What we do know is that these luminescent chemicals have proven to be a boon for some exciting new scientific discoveries. The power of bioluminescence is being harnessed to fight cancer, detect Alzheimer’s, search for life on Mars, detect water pollution, and kill bacteria. In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to scientists Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien for discovering and increasing our understanding of a glowing green protein in a species of jellyfish. Inspired by the bioluminescence in plants, Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde hopes to transform bioluminescent plants into light fixtures as a form of clean energy. He’s working on splicing the DNA of luminescent bacteria with the chloroplasts of plants so that trees could one day replace streetlights and reduce the light pollution that blocks our vision of stars in the night sky. Just imagine: streetlights that give off a magical glow using only the energy of natural bioluminescence! Maybe our world will start to look a little like the one in Avatar. It’s not so crazy as it sounds. A bioluminescent plant was first created in a lab as far back as 1986, though nobody has achieved quite the desired brightness just yet—so that you could read a book by plantlight, for example. But it’s only a matter of time. Harnessing the power of bioluminescence is just one way scientists and innovators are creating a more sustainable future, free from reliance on coal or oil.
Even if we leave nature alone to do her thing, there’s still so much to discover. In 2009, Dennis E. Desjardin, a mycologist from San Francisco State University, found a new bioluminescent species of mushroom at the base of a tree in southern Brazil, which he named Mycena luxaeterna (“eternal light”) and which brought the number of known bioluminescent mushrooms to seventy-one. About three quarters of these bioluminescent mushrooms, including the ones I saw, are of the Mycena genus. The greatest diversity occurs in the tropics, though they can grow elsewhere. The jack-o’-lantern shroom, known for its reddish glow called “fox fire,” is famous on the Appalachian Trail. Borneo is home to one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse rainforests, and new species are still being discovered within its 165,000 square-mile radius all the time. On the Malaysian side, a leggy-looking luminescent mushroom, dubbed Mycena silvaelucens, was found on the bark of a standing tree at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in 2010.
Borneo’s rainforest is a treasure trove of botanicals that, if managed wisely, could be sustainably harvested as medicine and food for generations to come. Yet, faster than they are being discovered, they are also being destroyed. Indonesia, which constitutes the vastly larger side of Borneo, currently has the highest deforestation rate in the world, mostly because of industrial palm oil plantations. Besides its use in supermarket products, palm oil has been touted as both a health food and a clean alternative to gas—yet it poses the greatest threat to this rainforest and the indigenous people who live here, because of the destructive practices involved in its cultivation. Flying across the southern end of Borneo, I saw the extent of the damage stretching for miles over vast tracts of land. To the north was pristine rainforest, and below, all of it was burned to a rusty brown, with palm oil plantations and smokestacks encroaching from the south. Just a couple of months before my visit, when forest fires deliberately lit to clear land for palm oil burned out of control across Sumatra and Borneo, Indonesia briefly surpassed the United States as one of the world’s top carbon dioxide polluters. According to the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Global Fire Emissions Database, in September and October 2015, daily carbon emissions from the fires frequently exceeded that of the United States, which ranks as the world’s second top carbon dioxide emitter, after China. The Indonesian government has identified individual palm oil companies by name as the perpetrators and, to its credit, recently ordered one company to pay $76 million in damages. But the issue is much more complicated than prosecuting a handful of Indonesian palm oil companies; they’re simply at the bottom of the supply chain in a vast network of multinational food corporations that avoid culpability through their six degrees of separation. Meanwhile, this rainforest is still burning, and the world continues to consume palm oil, unabated.
HOLDING THE RADIANT MUSHROOM flashlight in my hand, I thought about how vital it is that the rainforests of Borneo are protected, to help stabilize our climate and safeguard the island’s immense biodiversity. This mushroom was a treasure I wanted to keep.
But then I clumsily squeezed the stem a little too hard, and some of its bioluminescent jelly squished onto my fingers, making them glow. Tailah laughed at this and pointed again toward the trees.
“Ah! Look,” he said. “Merry Christmas.” Right before my eyes, a firefly passed like the spark from a fire, its tiny taillight blinking on and off. Soon, hundreds of fireflies surrounded us, blinking in synchronized pulses in answer to their mates twinkling in the trees. They were just like Christmas lights, which was perfect because it was the middle of December.
Bioluminescence may be most common in the ocean and most trippy in the mushroom, but it’s the most famous in the firefly. Like mushrooms and creatures of the deep, fireflies contain the bioluminescent luciferin and luciferase in their abdomen. In Borneo, these enchanting insects, which are really beetles, are known as kelip-kelip. They are so plentiful here that, according to The Ecology of Kalimantan, they’ve been used as navigational aids on night river journeys. Many fireflies have their own distinct flashing pattern to attract a mate—size and brightness of the flash is as important as sequence, the book says—with the male fireflies displaying their little disco balls of light to the wingless females in the trees.
So these forests really are lit by the lamps of love. And they are worthy of our love and protection. Even before meeting the Dayak of Haruyan, I’d seen the beauty they had cultivated along the way. It really is possible to live like this, simply and taking only what we need, so that we may allow all the wonders of nature, like bioluminescent mushrooms and fireflies, to coexist with us. True riches are the riches of nature, all around us, right now. We only have to open our eyes and see. We already have everything we need.
In a clearing, where a communal Dayak longhouse stood on wooden stilts, people from the village poured out to greet us, waving their flashlights and sending white beams out into the night.
“Okoi,” Tailah called.
“Yo,” the villagers answered.
Surrounded by the sparkling trees, I was suddenly reluctant to leave the forest, but the matriarch of my host family, a tiny lady in her eighties named Dong Obil, opened her arms and smiled at me. “Selamat datang,” she said, welcoming me in Indonesian as I passed through the doors of her home. Dong Obil was adorned from head to toe in gold and silver jewelry. It flashed on her wrists and ankles, coiled in ropes around her neck, and shone from an ornamental stick that pinned her long white hair in a bun. My mushroom dimmed in the light, so I placed it carefully on top of my backpack and settled on the floor with Dong Obil and Tailah to chew betel nuts and spit blood-red juice into her coconut shell spittoon. We grinned at each other with red teeth, like wild nature spirits fresh from a kill, as the outdoor gas-powered generator growled and fumed out back by the pig pen.
I soon discovered that while Borneo’s forest fires had not reached this neck of the woods, other aspects of my culture had already arrived. After our supper of freshwater fish and homegrown mountain rice (pillowy, with a slightly nutty flavor), the group of villagers who had piled into the house became mesmerized by the latest soap opera from Jakarta flickering on the generator-powered television. I sat quietly, a little deflated as all conversation dried up and forty or so pairs of eyes turned toward the electric glow of the TV screen—man’s own form of bioluminescence, I glumly realized. As laughter erupted over the antics of an actress wearing blue contact lenses and false eyelashes, Dong Obil’s granddaughter, Lawati, dressed in leopard-print leggings and a sparkly top, plopped down beside me, beaming like a cherub. I smiled back then groaned inwardly as she proudly produced a smartphone and played me a video.
“Justin Bieber!” she said, with all the enthusiasm of fourteen-year-old girls everywhere.
“Uh, yeah,” I answered, trying not to look too disappointed. Here I was, thinking I was off the grid for real, but, of course, there had to be a telephone tower hidden somewhere in these trees, competing with the bioluminescent magic of the mushrooms and fireflies. What did I expect? To have a deep conversation about economic pressures forcing development farther into the forest? About fears that one day this very place could become a suburban development full of cookie-cutter houses and that to pay for them, people would have to commute to the nearest city or earn subsistence wages on the palm oil plantations? About how, as the TV kept the village in its thrall, palm oil plantations continued to creep toward us with steady geometric precision, spreading over the land like cheap AstroTurf?
To be fair, it must get pretty boring at night without a little entertainment and some modern comforts. Of course, Western inventions are just as desirable here as the rainforests are to those of us who live in cities, yearning for the wild places we’ve lost. Coming here didn’t help me find any clear solutions for protecting the rainforest—in fact, it turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had imagined. But that didn’t mean I was going to give up. Besides, Lawati looked so pleased with her magical piece of technological wizardry that I had to sing along with her half-heartedly. “Baby, baby baby, oooh. . . .” The forest mangoes I’d brought for dessert rolled on the floor, pushed aside by the broom of Lawati’s mother, Dong Ama. She was sweeping away all the debris of our meal—candy wrappers along with bits of mountain rice—toward a crack between the wooden floorboards. On the bare ground below, chickens and pigs scuffled and snorted through the wrappers to get at the rice. I’d brought those candies. I was responsible for that garbage lying below. Tailah had advised me to bring just candy and cigarettes as gifts, as they were the only things people wanted; they could get mangoes anytime. Not to be defeated, I picked up my last pack of kreteks, clove cigarettes, and went out to join Tailah and the group of men gathered on the front porch for a smoke. The sweet smell of burning cloves rose in the night sky as I gazed deep into the forest, searching for any signs of fireflies and mushrooms.