The jungle is a torture chamber. Anyone who goes on rigorous nature walks will tell you. Within it you can be stung, pricked, cut, torn, stabbed, injected, bitten. It is humid and asphyxiating. Everything is fighting everything else and you soon join battle yourself as you slash along. Creepers smother smaller plants, the tall trees refuse to share light, the floor is covered by rotting leaves and mutilated insects. The jungle thrives because of these struggles for life.
Yet in spite of its brutality, I am full of affection for the jungle.
“I love it, I love it very much but I love it against my better judgement” says Herzog in Burden of Dreams. I also love the jungle.
For me, being in the jungle, has nothing to do with “being a man” but more about seeking out the human being under the layers of modernity. Being in the jungle, one is confronted with the reality of existence. It is a reality that is about diurnal calculations, signs of the river, hints at a passing, smells on the wind and knowing one’s own limits. The jungle makes you aware of how heavy you have become, how ungraceful and unbalanced, how tar-filled your lungs are. It will smash your teeth on a rock if you are too quick, it will smash your elbow in if you overreach. It is a critical mother who does not care for us, and somehow we are driven forward by her sneering. We love her like a hostage loves his captor.
We become more appreciative of company within the jungle. It reminds us of how terrible, isolation can be and how sweet the companionship of other people is. It is misery – ineluctable and embedded – that brings us together. Within the woods, our deadliest phobias – of fangs, spikes and claws – rush at us and we are forced towards a camaraderie.
Clutched together, against this maddening orgy of thorns, vines and webs, is it any wonder that our first ancestors were troglodytes? They must have sought out the dark because the jungle could not grow there. They sought out the cold, black void of the caves to shelter them from the chaos of the jungle.
The jungle is the greatest experimental lab in the world. It is the direct and violent opponent of the garden. To quote Herzog again, in the jungle, “Creation is unfinished”. This is true, Creation – Biblical and grand – could only take place in the garden. Paradise – derived from the Persian word pardesu – that is a ‘walled enclosure’, that is, a garden, cannot dream up the monstrosities of the mad jungle. But it is a monstrosity borne out of necessity. The garden, paradise, in comparison, is a control set – an enclosure designed to hold its in-mates – with the hope of erasing any traces of savagery. But the jungle stays on inside.
In his poem, The Common Life, W H Auden reminds us that the life we have today is only possible by the presence of “… the very latest engines, for keeping Nature at bay”. The only way Men may control the jungle is to slash at it, to burn it into the ground. You cannot control the jungle while it’s transpiring. You must kill it if you want some respite.
Even then, its agents – the mosquitoes, flies and snakes – sneak over the parched earth into human habitation on an hourly basis. Every day the jungle is at war with us trying to reclaim the spaces we have won from it. The old buildings of Calcutta know this all too well. Like a parasitic cordycep, ficus plants perch atop these buildings whilst their tendrils rip into the brick-and-mortar flesh. The struggle continues.This is how the jungle makes us humble.
Man cannot triumph over the jungle because we are not separate and distinct from one another. The jungle is part of us and we – though we fear to admit this – are a part of it.