A couple of months ago, I was out for or a walk in the countryside with my family. It was a leaden, dreary day, much the same as many we had been having for what seemed like weeks on end. We were all a bit fed up and long anticipating the technicolour hues cast by the broad stroke of spring’s sunshine.
A raw wind cut across our cheeks as we walked. I watched the red kites circling, their long low whistles filling the empty skies. I watched them swoop down to feed on some lone unidentifiable hunk of carrion, its inards spewing out into the middle of an open field. We walked past another field, stinking and ripe with streaming rivers of cow dung. Well, it has to go somewhere, I thought. A pungent pastoral vignette. Nestled in amongst some hedgerow and dour grey-barked beech trees, a blackbird’s head, ripped from its body. My children climbed and explored the carcass of a old oak tree, its skeleton smooth and worn. Once no doubt grand and proud and stately, it lay, finished, horizontal, roots long since ripped from the earth.
Dirt and decay and excretion. Life and death. Nature survives, and there is drudgery and violence in that.
Like us, nature is weary. It is not always beautiful or romantic.
Sometimes it is positively unwelcoming.
As much as I love walking in and photographing woods and forests, jungles, I also find them menacing. Maybe its because of all those fairytales: innocent children lost, eaten, sexual transgressions, transformations. Murder. After all, anything can happen in the woods, set apart as they are from the boundaries of of society and morality. Able to provide cover for the things we don’t want other people to see. As we walked we came across remnants of the thrill of illicit activities: empty lager cans, a vodka bottle, used condoms. A pair of knickers hung on a tree.
The woods have their own set of rules.
I never walk alone in the woods. Whilst I am happy to play the flâneur in cities, loose myself, find something new, I would not do this in nature. As someone who runs regularly, I am careful to stick to known paths. Maybe I shouldn’t be so afraid, but there are too many stories out there, even in the leafy suburbs of Berkshire; stories which are fact, not fiction, and I am too aware that my gender can be vulnerable in certain situations and that the trees, though beautiful and strong, would not move to save me if they heard my cries. They are immovable, impassive to our human struggles.
After all, nature is cruel. It is hostile.
But it is also vulnerable.
That same weekend we went for our family walk, an unassuming-looking vehicle parked up at the end of our road. Tree Surgeons, I saw painted on the side. It was Saturday morning, everyone busying about with their weekend plans. Three men in yellow vests with chainsaws hopped out and set about attacking a plot of land next to the railway bridge. This plot of land is privately owned, fenced off by railings. People pass it when they walk over the bridge used as a cut-through into town. It was undisturbed for many many years and as a result had become a seething, dark and gnarling mass, dense with vegetation. Impenetrable. As such, it was wild in the purest sense. It hummed with life, untouched, undisturbed. Unknown. Not only trees and garden birds, birds of prey, but also the furtive, inroverted kind like slow worms and stag beetles and probably hundreds more species besides.
In less than 48 hours it was gone. Razed to the ground.
I watched the relentless chipper turn the trees to sawdust. I listened to the drone of destruction from my bedroom window. Messages from concerned residents flew about my inbox: What on earth is going on?
The destruction was bloody. Brutal. Absolute. There was a desperate, manic air about it which felt ominous and disturbing.
On Sunday evening I went outside and surveyed the wreckage. I sniffed the air, and I smelled greed in it.
‘Maybe it will be something wonderful?’ one peppy resident wrote hopefully. I could almost hear the cries of perturbation as I scrolled through the email chain: talk of phone calls to the council, protected trees, breaches of preservation orders, aroboratorial officers, nesting Kites, the RSPB, land surveyors.
We all knew it would not be something wonderful. After all, what is now gone was the something wonderful.
Now, when people walk over the bridge, they see a graveyard, although two months on it has started to grow green again; life is slowly returning, though we all know it will not be for long. Razored tree branches jut haphazardly from the ground like ancient stone pillars. Jagged grave markers. A covering of twigs and branches strewn across the ground like skeleton bones.
On the Monday morning after the massacre, I watched the birds, frantic, confused, searching for their homes.
The land – prime real estate – will be sold, built on eventually. It will be luxury flats or a couple of top spec houses. But my heart weighs a little heavier in its cage for the loss of something I never much considered before. And what lies in its place is a reminder of that something wonderful. It is like looking upon a gaping wound.
Last year, whilst on holiday visiting the jungle terrain of Tamin Negara in Malaysia, we took took a hike through the ancient forest we were staying in. The flanks of the older trees were giant-like, impressive in their broad girth, bark-skin folded over, gnarled and wrinkled with age, purlicue spanning the ground and snaking into a writhing nest of roots, meandering wide and deep into the earth.
I did actually get lost – briefly – in the hot, thick undergrowth of the sauna-jungle. As I soon realised I didn’t know where on earth I was, my heart started to beat faster, drumming loud in my ears and against my chest. The humidity seemed to intensify my fear and my clothes stuck against my skin, slick with sweat. I knew there were leaches and deadly spiders and scorpions that glowed in the dark. As I turned down twisting paths I encountered camouflage trunks and tangled vines and jagged fronds which scratched my face and seemed to close like broken fingers around me, and the winding snake-roots tripped me up as mosquitoes and other biting insects danced around me. My hands were clammy and my head was fogged up; condensed with a close, drenching heat I wasn’t acclimatised to. There were strange, vociferous noises, birds or other unfamiliar creatures I couldn’t identify. Nothing like the gentle twittering of English garden birds or the screech of a fox in the back garden which I once mistook for a changeling’s cry. I remembered the story I had read about in a museum, a man living in the plantations in the Highlands when the British first colonised Malaysia. He had often wandered in the forest, but one day he got lost and never returned. His body was never recovered. A mystery. I wondered, was this the forest responding, staking its claim. I wondered how many acres of forest had been destroyed to create this lush landscape, gentle swathes of green-tipped hills. As I wandered, lost, I imagined naked tribesmen roaming about with poison-tipped spears. Everywhere I turned the forest seemed to invite me in, then block my way. It seemed to say: Come, but you are not welcome here. You are not one of us.
Except, I was not really in any danger, though the fear was real, primal, it was misplaced. I soon found other people who pointed the way back to the meeting place and suddenly the jungle did not seem quite so scary anymore. Because now the forest has signs and green guides and paths and a treetop jungle walkway. You can walk through the canopies. Though the indigenous tribes (Orang Uli) are still there, they are a tourist attraction and they demonstrate their fire-making techniques to citrus clouds of sweaty tourists, using teddy bears as targets for their blowpipes. They still dip the darts in poison, but only for the animals. You can wander around their villages and take pictures of their washing lines and their wooden huts built on stilts and thatched with jungle grasses. You can even sleep in their village for a more authentic experience. And even though the men and older boys do still hunt, it is more out of pride and tradition; they buy their food – mostly tins and packet food – from trucks, mobile shops, which visit their villages regularly. The jungle no longer sustains them.
You see the men, red-eyed, laughing and joking. At ease with the tourists. The woman are ghosts; they hide from us and we only catch glimpses of the brightly-coloured combs which adorn the backs of their impressive afros, winking at us in the sunlight. They do not wish to be photographed. The children eyes us with bold suspicion, puffed out chests, dusty feet. They peer from their doorways, hanging on drapes of dirty sheets. They know their childhood is camera fodder, that they are sustained by the prying gaze of our lenses. They accept food; bags of crisps, sweets, chocolate bars, like animals in zoos: unsmiling, indifferent, resigned. But only the boys. The girls, more elusive than their mothers, are glimpses; shapes moving in the shadows. They do not leave their huts.
photographs from the jungle, Tamin Negara, Malaysia.
© Emily Hughes, 2019