March 2021

What does kayu bakau smell like? 

The wood from rhizophora trees with their aerial roots                 plunging
                    like a thousand
                into brackish mangrove waters,
while mudcrabs burrow beneath them.

    Inside the guts of those crabs
and beyond their exoskeletons in the wider
        tidal mangroves
            microbacterial communities     flourish
            filtering and buffering
            invasive pathogens.

A friend tells me that bakau sap smells like wood preservative. Another says it smells of childhood freedom, thigh deep in mud, a salty breeze.

And what about daun nipah, the leaves of mangrove palms that grow abundantly
    in slow-moving tidal waters?

       What do nipah leaves smell like?

A floral sweet smell, that turns sourish when exposed. A boat down an estuary, fireflies. The chemical compounds in its floral scent contains fatty acid derivatives, terpenoids, carotenoid derivatives and benzenoids.1

I ask the same questions on whatsapp to Pak Uning Laut, the third brother of the sea. After all, it’s because of his rumah ikan, the houses he makes for fish, that I wanted to know.

Ha…ha…datang sini, he replies.  Not bad, like bamboo. After it’s been in water for 2 or 3 weeks then you can smell it. Ikan suka.





   A video of black driftwood floating on the sea surface,

    yang hitam tu kayu hanyut


June 2021

Most of these videos were filmed by Pak Uning Laut, the third brother of the sea, across several months before and after the landas monsoon season, both of us trying to triangulate between my questions, his process and the sea to understand what rumah ikan is. Making structures out of kayu bakau fringed with nipah palms and strung with rope, of sinking the structure 38 metres below the waves so it settles on the sea floor, a rope snaking up to the water surface and marked with a buoy. Experiments each season to see what worlds they create, what kinds of fish come to play and how many, how big, what else.

We wrangle all this via whatsapp, navigating rumah ikan across 7000 miles. I sit still with maps and books, Pak Uning busy with his boats and the fish, the sea between.

If I don’t know the answer to your question I’ll just stay silent, says Pak Uning.

Somewhere in the middle of our discussions and the many silences, other worlds emerge, a rotating assemblage of messages, photos, videos, anecdotes, diversions, opacities. A pixellated sea, pixellated fish, stories that pull in many directions.