Tall stories, from Sulaw comes the sounds of sanity at 60 feet: The Commentators

Click to follow
The Independent Online
This week the man on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, who has been living up a cashew-nut tree for seven years, yet again refused to come down. Ever since an argument with his wife over the gado-gado provoked him to climb to the top of the tree, he has lived 60 feet above the ground, and (in an interesting piece of role reversal) has resisted the entreaties of his son to return to earth.

His story has become famous throughout the islands and archipelagos of the region, baffling the Balians, confounding the Kalimantese and dazzling the Jakartans.

Once such extreme behaviour would have seemed highly virtuous to those of us of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In the early years of the Church - revolted by the venality of a much-expanded priesthood and congregation - hordes of ascetics made off for desert places, where - amongst the scorching boulders - they punished themselves with bodily austerities. Some wore heavy iron chain belts (which must have burned their middle parts), others ate what the animals ate - like grass and lizards. The shortest-lived did both.

Then, in 423, a chap called Simeon "despairing of escaping the world horizontally, tried to escape it vertically". He took over a disused pillar at Telanissus in northern Syria and sat on top of it. The pillar (a stunted thing to begin with) started low, but over the years, as Simeon's fame and desire for solitude increased together, the height was increased incrementally to some 60 feet; which, coincidentally, is exactly the same height as the tree-dweller of Sulawesi's best branches. On a platform, surrounded by a balustrade about 12 feet square, St Simeon Stylites spent the next 36 years.

It didn't work, of course. Though he had wished to avoid the press of people who flocked for advice and prayers even when he was a mere boulder- dwelling grass-eater, he now became the focus for emperors, other saints, pilgrims, sightseers and - worst of all - Roman tourists. Councils could not be held in Ephesus, disputes in Antioch or barnies in Byzantium without Simeon being consulted.

All over Syria other stylites, taking note of his extraordinary social success, erected pillars of their own.

I mention this because it strikes me that - instead of trying to persuade this poor man to leave his arboreal refuge - many of us could do worse than to follow his example. If you really crave attention, climbing a tree in the local park, and deciding to live in it is a pretty sure-fire way of attracting it. And even if renouncing things is what you're into, once the local news cameras have gone, and you're left alone with a dinner of bark and bird's nests, there's plenty of scope for discomfort.

But I also think that living up trees probably satisfies some more basic urge in human beings. I remember the sensation of sitting in the high, swaying branches of a silver birch or cherry as being a distinctly pleasurable one.

When Hayley Mills and the Swiss Family Robinson made their Swiss Family Home in a giant baobab, and festooned it with walkways and swings, I thought that this was a great way of living.

I was sure that Franz and Fritz (or whatever the boys' names were) would agree with me that urinating from the top of a tall tree - a golden arc caught in the afternoon light - was magic.

And, of course, lodged deep somewhere in our genetic memory is a recollection of happy hours spent swinging by our tails through the forests of pre- history. Odd corners of our instincts still bear traces of those thousands of years; confronted by a ravening lion or a crocodile most of us will look around for a tree in which to seek refuge. It's only natural.

The man from Sulawesi may not have been in such immediate physical danger, but his need was obviously great and thus his decision to escape by shinning up the cashew-nut tree was entirely rational.

Now that he's up, he's discovered what fun it is urinating from 60 feet, and doesn't want to come down. The guy is certainly not mad.