The song of the
whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the
hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white
swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs
carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the
window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.
The tea estates lie quiet now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last 12 years here in southern India.
There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for 10 days. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo.
The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.
The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo's poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first 15 years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist.
The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.
Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he now flies over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft's wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.
The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditioned tropical air, out.
The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by.
As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.
The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.
She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. They are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.
Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?
Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?
It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.
Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?
The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.
He turns 40 this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant
dipterocarp tree that is 10 times as old as he is and 25 times as tall. The air
is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off
his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands
straight and tall.
The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.
Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over 400 square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.
Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.
One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he
reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise
on Danum. More than 600 species of beetles from just five individual ferns.
Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform.
Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a
sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like
He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, yet pliable, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath.
And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the 600 beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?
He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots 300 frames a second at 18 megapixels.
At 300 frames a second and 18 of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.
Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at 300 frames a second at 18 megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its 400-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.
The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.
Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave
in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this
place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the
food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together,
in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The
sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other
journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call
of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost
rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of
his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he
can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:
“Breathes there the
man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’”
No, that doesn't fit him at all.
Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?
He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager's territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid—at, sliced—at, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.
Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue.
The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.
Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It will flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?
Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world:
“Nature is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.”
He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?
He’s no poet. He's an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.
It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning.
Tomorrow, he must return home.