I remember a sprawling garden in Indonesia where the trees outdid the old gods — and even the taxi drivers of Jakarta — in their outsized lack of inhibition. Lord Ganesha, part elephant and part man, met me at the entrance. He seemed the perfect choice of gatekeeper: the revered Hindu deity, master of wisdom and learning, whose pot-belly contains the cosmos. After paying the admission fee (the equivalent of about twenty-five Canadian cents), I walked past the statue into a humid world aswim with birds and blossoms. My eye fixed on a great gouty upheaval on the riverbank. I took it to be a stretch of particularly gnarled woodland. It wasn’t. It was a single tree: a strangler fig.
According to my guidebook, a strangler fig begins life as a seed that drops from a bird or bat and lodges in the high branches of a tree. As the plant grows, its woody tendrils envelop its host. “Eventually,” the guide concluded, “the host tree dies and rots away.” All that remains is a hollow space left by the strangled victim.
This turned out to be a running theme.
If your taste in plants runs to the freakish and the gothic, Bogor Botanical Gardens, in West Java, is for you. The single day I spent exploring the place, just slightly larger than Montreal’s Jardin botanique, nourished my lifelong affection for bizarre and eccentric life forms: the great-maned and the hairless, the warty and the smooth-skinned — all the strange growths one might meet on an LSD adventure. Not that I’ve ever gone on such an adventure, and I don’t need to: I’ve been to Southeast Asia’s oldest garden. This was twenty years ago, but the hallucinations persist.
I saw screw pines that rose from stilts and towering dipterocarp trees with immense buttress roots as thick as a dinosaur’s hind limbs. There were ghost trees (which dropped their fruits at night); flowering vines known as the flame of Irian, with blossoms the colour of lava; teak trees that breathed out halcyon evenings from Kipling; and bird’s nest ferns that cascaded overhead like green flecks of St. Elmo’s fire. In short, vegetation unlike anything I had encountered before. And not just vegetation. I spied a tall tree filled with what appeared to be oversized purses. I went closer. No, not purses, but something dark and leathery. Then one of the leathery things moved, lazily stretching its pliant sides. They were flying foxes, the biggest bats in the world, whose wingspan can reach up to a metre and a half and who navigate by sight rather than echolocation.
It got me thinking about the gods of equatorial evolution and how they pulled and stretched, played with and embellished these life forms until a particular category started to shade off into a new order of being. The northern tree shrew of Asia was a blend of squirrel and primate. Sumatra’s corpse flower appeared to have stepped straight out of the black comedy Little Shop of Horrors — and it smelled like a zombie. The Malaysian forest scorpion was a lacquered nightmare. Why did the jungle spin out such extreme forms, and so plenteously? The reasons, explained my guidebook, boiled down to water, warmth, and niches.
Tropical forests are not disrupted by winters like their temperate counterparts, and so living things have had a relatively stable climate in which to diversify over thousands of years. And diversify they have. The jungle offers a huge variety of habitats, from the various understories to the canopy, which can be as high as fifty metres, to the emergents that poke through the forest roof. Each ecological layer has been stratified to taste.
It was within this one extreme kingdom that I discovered yet another. It was toward the end of the day, and I was walking back to the garden entrance when I saw a sign for the Zoological Museum. I paid another nominal fee to roam through corridors of stuffed animals in glass cases: mouse deer and barking deer, vipers and kraits, a Malay bear, a flying lemur, a bearcat (an “aberrant member of the civet family,” according to the label), and a huge Javan rhinoceros.
There was a sadness to the exhibit, a dusty forgottenness, that has stayed with me all these years. I dread to think of how much jungle has been lost since my visit — how many hectares of rainforest, how many otherworldly species. I haven’t been back to the tropics, but I avidly follow the fortunes of untamed places around the globe, alert for hopeful news.
At the G7 summit in 2021, leaders committed to steering the world toward a “nature-positive” future: that is, to go beyond containing biodiversity loss and to actually reverse it. The usual palaver, one might say. Yet the nature-positive movement has been gathering steam, with support from such august bodies as the World Economic Forum and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
We need the jungle for its biodiversity, its medicinal plants, its countervailing presence against carbon emissions. But we also need it for fever dreams. Whenever I feel like escaping the mid-latitude of the everyday, I remember that prodigal garden in Java and the strange stuffed animals with their lost, glassy stares. Even a taste of the jungle will linger for a long time afterwards, a lighted landscape in the head, like the broken torso of Apollo in Rilke’s poem. And at some point, you think, you must change your life.