Friday, October 19, 2007

The Jungle

Front patio, Yang Min Shan. Photo: Helmut's dad

Once upon a time,... Yang Min Shan ("Grass Mountain"), the green ice cream mountain overlooking the valley in which rests the city of Taipei, wasn't yet awash in the housing developments of the East Asian Tiger. The mountain was carpeted mostly with wide swathes of jungle dotted by a few neighborhoods bunched near a main road that meandered up and across the mountain. Near the top of the mountain were small rice paddies and banana groves, now and then a one-acre peanut field, mostly for use by the Taiwanese farmers' homes at their edges. For me and my friends, however, the jungle was vast in time and space and extended far beyond a long day's wading through the lush and dense subtropical and tropical vegetation.

My family had a lovely home on the mountain with a panoramic view of the valley (top photo). We lived in a small neighborhood of pretty, simple houses occupied mostly by expatriates. Down the road from our house was the Venezuelan Embassy, whose backyard swimming pool was a target for our bottlerockets, especially when empty since the pop gained a satisfying reverberation. Beyond the embassy, further down the mountain, was what our parents sardonically called "the Great Wall." It was a barren side of the mountain prone to erosion which washed the road in mud during the rainy season. Construction workers over the three years we lived there attempted to cover it with concrete tiles in order to stem the erosion. Each heavy rain recreated the Sisyphean task by peeling off all of the tiles and depositing them in the road in a mess of concrete chunks and mud. Each violent typhoon season demanded that the "Great Wall" be built again.

Just beyond my family's backyard wall was a small peanut field, then "The Rocks," and then deepest, darkest jungle. We called it, simply, "The Jungle." It wasn't merely a one-word descriptive moniker - as in, it is a jungle - it was The Jungle, a place to be treated with respect and awe. Many times it represented outright fear. This was our playground for three years - an archipelago of The Rocks, The Bamboo Forest, The Thousand Steps, The Jar, The Cliffs, and The Caves, all of which were landmarks in the otherwise thick forest.

Entering The Jungle (I'm the one without the helmet). Photo: Helmut's dad

We were explorers who had set out in the wild jungle naming places as we went, uncovering lost civilizations and their artifacts, creating mental maps of the terrain and what might lie beyond its mysterious unexplored fringes, carefully examining colorful specimens of flora and fauna, now and then injuring ourselves and returning to civilized Britannia to heal. I once went blind for three days after having caught a bright green tree frog, handling it among my friends at school and at some point rubbing my eyes full of its poisonous alkaloid secretions. On other occasions, we avoided some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, including the dangerous bamboo viper and the one we called "habu." A likely apocryphal story that some Taiwanese tell says that, at the end of World War II when the Japanese left Taiwan, the Japanese opened all the cages of venomous snakes they had used for chemical weapons research and left the northern part of the island full of the dangerous serpents. We sometimes carried weapons in case of such dangers - a nice bamboo branch with a sharpened tip, and almost always a firecracker or two, ubiquitous in a place like Taiwan. We learned survival techniques - how to make a poop successfully in the jungle (it involves elephant ear plants). We drank rainwater trapped in leaves. It was all very ordinary; we were learning our actual world.

Photo from here

Sometimes we wish to go home, but we face the famous Thomas Wolfe dilemma of never being able to go home again. Heraclitean, really. We may not be able to step in the same river twice because the river itself is a constantly changing flux. But we also can't step in the same river again because we're no longer the same person, even if the same river were temporally frozen. Yet, for many of us, even if the river - our homes - remained more or less the same, we might still wish to be something approximating that person again who resonates so forcefully throughout who we are now. I'm a believer in both the lightness and the difficulty of the Nietzschean self-creator, not by blustery theoretical indulgence, but by cumulative experience. This commits me to facing a never-ending flux shot through by sites of relative permanence. Sometimes it's bearable, even effortlessly joyful. At other times it's wholly in deeply melancholic tension with those salient experiences that have defined who I am. I can't be the boy trekking in The Jungle or carousing on the klongs in Thailand or playing pick-up baseball games with Japanese construction workers in Tokyo. But this is all so much there in the permanent elements of my self. So much there and still so impossible a home. The impossibility is not simply that the past is the past. It's that there is nothing stable in these actual places of my memory except for fallible remembrance itself, slowly dimming around its edges, and how I choose to self-narrate what it leaves me.

The Rocks were giant boulders the size of large cars haphazardly piled on top of each other. I have no geological explanation for their formation. Too large and wild to be moved by human beings, they were also too perfectly jumbled together into tunnels and hollows and the bows of ships - perfection to our little Columbian explorers - to have been merely serendipitous. The Rocks were our home base for excursions into The Jungle. "Meet me at The Rocks," we would say. Across the Peanut Field. We will plan something, the ensuing voyage as well as the dramatic narrative to frame it. But we were rather stunted in terms of creating such pre-arranged narratives. They were typically dull, childish war fantasies or pirate-ish adventures. This was all much less important than The Jungle itself because our experience in it created new narratives by chance. The Jungle was that rich. Its confined, dense spaces were completely open and resourceful. All we had to do was enter it with imaginations prepared and blazing.

Photo: benghazii

Beyond The Rocks we truly entered The Jungle. We had some paths to follow. Rough and often muddy things created simply by the regular footsteps of the invisible peanut farmer. They were good for a while until they led to a little farmhouse, a thatch-roofed shack really, maybe with a wisp of smoke from a stove. We would push off into the undergrowth, seeking our own footholds in a forest that grew thicker and more tangled not only under our feet but also over our heads. Vines and large leaves sometimes intertwined so thickly as to create little huts for us. And I remember the smells vividly. Damp, almost excremental life and decay. Life has a more subtle, regular odor than death. But this is us - our olfactory systems and categorizing interpretations of perceptions - and nature couldn't care less. The Jungle smelled like death. Rich, necessary, and wonderful death. The thing that gave it life. It is absolutely vivid to me now. At nature's most alive, it smells most like death. We project the odor of life to the ridiculously extravagant bits of nature, like roses and magnolias. It's almost irresponsible how we allow our sense of smell to avoid the real and the inevitable.

I have a faulty mental map of distances. If The Jungle I knew still existed today, I might find the distances to be about like walking a few blocks to the grocery store to buy milk. This assessment might, on the other hand, also be the adult ridiculing the child. I have no way of resolving this dispute. My Jungle is mostly housing developments now anyway.

Beyond The Rocks, beyond the farmer's path, into the realm of thick and unstable redolence under foot, we trekked for what seems like miles. Eventually we arrived at The Bamboo Forest.

Bamboo forest. Photo from here

They truly do whisper up above in the breeze - bamboo is as beautiful for its sound as its appearance. I imagine that bamboo's use as a musical instrument in much of Asian music had its origin less in its shape and more for the suggestiveness of its natural music. The Bamboo Forest seems dark in my memory. Bamboo is a lovely tree, the most common forms having vibrant green trunks and even more vibrant leaves. But we were thick into The Jungle by this point and the sky and colors had been muted by the whispering canopy. The bamboo trees were tall and bare at their creaking trunks. The Bamboo Forest also grew on a slope. This made it possible to choose a sturdy but young tree to run towards, grab onto and allow the tree to slowly bend over to deposit you further down the slope. We adored this. It required a good choice of tree. Older bamboo were too thick and unyielding. Younger, supple trees were right for our size. You had to jump as high as possible onto the tree to get the full bending effect, and try to hold on. Our favorite spot had a natural terrace. Done correctly, you could gently place yourself on the next terrace down the slope, but we hardly ever did it correctly. We nonetheless imagined a mountain full of bamboo forest through which we would travel like Chinese Tarzans lowering ourselves down the entire mountain in gentle arcs, one whispering bamboo tree at a time.

Past The Bamboo Forest were The Thousand Steps. We were terribly excited when we first discovered them. They were thick slabs carved from stone, almost completely covered in vegetation, long unused. We didn't know where they began from up above, but we often followed them down to the little smoky village at the foot of the mountain. We endeavored to find their source and purpose on many occasions, only to tire before we ever reached their lofty origin.

I once found a place that we never revisited. We called it The Caves. They weren't caves so much as natural shelters in the side of a rocky part of the mountain. I came upon them one day when we were far into The Jungle and it had begun to pour rain. Sitting at the mouth of the shelter watching the rain and poking at the wet ground, I unearthed some shards of Chinese blue and white pottery. Bits and pieces. They were ancient, I thought, and maybe they truly were. But they were also frightening. Someone had been here before us, even far beyond the abandoned Thousand Steps. There were no nearby houses - this was not a waste dump. It was pottery suggesting that someone had not only passed through - some ancient troglodyte - but that the caves had been inhabited by someone with a sense of domestic permanence. How ancient were they? The shards were things I might have normally gathered for my ongoing collection of curios (which I have to this day in little wooden boxes), but I left these artifacts alone. This place in The Jungle was somehow sinister. Perhaps the imagined curse was due simply to the fact that our conquest of this place in The Jungle hadn't been the first.

Not long before my family moved away from Taiwan for good, a friend and I were exploring the area we called The Cliffs. The Cliffs were a favorite place, and it didn't take long to get to them from my house. We passed a lot of time at The Cliffs, sitting and talking and watching the activity in the valley below like entomologists. This particular day, however, was unusual. There was something we had never noticed before, and we had been at The Cliffs just a couple of days earlier. A large earthen jar was perched at a prominent point on the cliffside, the point most exposed to the mountainside air. It took a bit of a scramble along the rocks to get to the jar. It was a reddish color with a crude reddish-brown glaze, and quite large (much rougher than in the photo above, the closest approximation I can find to my memory of it). My friend and I approached The Jar slowly, uneasily. Sometimes you sense foreboding out of an unfolding situation that would otherwise suggest nothing other than benignity. I peered into the jar to find a dessicated human skeleton delicately folded into a permanent, lonely shrug.

It was a rather small human skeleton, upon later reflection, and possibly one of a woman. I also later learned that burial jars were traditionally used by some of the peoples in Asia. They're found in Japan, dating from the Yayoi Period, and particularly in Kyushu. They were used in Chinese burials, Philippine and Southeast Asian customs. Our Taiwanese amah told me that the bones are sometimes exhumed after a time to be placed in such jars so that the spirit of the dead person can be released into the air. Apparently, although increasingly rare, one could still find such practices in Taiwan.

At the time, however, my friend and I weren't pondering ancient cultural practices. We ran terrified and excited all the way back to the house, crashing through the plants. The vines and groundcover entangled our limbs, trying to hold us back in The Jungle. Once home, we told our scotch-sipping fathers about The Jar and its skeleton. It took some convincing. We had gained a reputation for jungle-inspired fantasies. They may have all been true in large measure, but they were unbelievable for adults. We convinced our fathers - who never entered The Jungle - to come with us to The Cliffs. It was getting late, almost dusk, but we all made the little trek. My friend and I couldn't believe it, but the jar was gone. We briefly wondered if we had come upon some previously undiscovered duplicate of The Cliffs and double-checked our landmarks. We insisted to our fathers that we had seen it, that it really had been there just hours before. Again, there were no human beings other than us in The Jungle,... and perhaps the invisible peanut farmer. Had he seen us observing The Jar from some hidden spot and worried we would disturb the spirit he was trying to free into the mountain's breezes?....

I returned to Taiwan on my own about fifteen years later as an adult exploring Asia again. I endured the kindness of an overly friendly host family, old friends of my father's, who insisted that I see the new sites of modern Taipei. The city was no longer the one I knew. The downtown in my previous life was interspersed with rice paddies and interlaced with potholed, unpaved roads. Tien Mu, now a thriving and even trendy area, was a dusty place set amidst the rice paddies. My clearest memory of Tien Mu, apart from my nearby school, was of a young boy I saw beating a puppy. I told him to stop, but felt vague moral discomfort with my judgment of the boy since I was a foreigner.... Now, I couldn't recognize anything of the city. An insanely rapid urban modernization has completely transformed most Chinese and Taiwanese cities since the 1980s. A degree of cosmopolitanism has followed. When I was young I had bright blond hair. People would touch it in the streets in Asia; they would come to me and gently brush fingertips across my head. Most had never seen this color of hair. I got used to the passing fingertips. Now, however, I was an anonymous foreigner. My hosts took me here and there. Fervent Kuomintang, they took me to the relatively new Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, an utterly absurd, bloated monument of generalissimo worship.

All I really wanted to do - my entire reason for returning to Taiwan - was to go to Yang Min Shan, to see our old house and to visit The Jungle. I planned even to hike through The Jungle. I excused myself after a day or two of non-stop advertisements and political arguments for the new, modern Republic of China and took a taxi up Yang Min Shan. It was much different than I recollected and I couldn't quite remember where to go. I stopped the taxi at what seemed a familiar spot and let him go. I would find the rest of my way on foot.

The house had been left to rot in the shadow of ostentatious new mansions where the peanut field and The Rocks used to be. I couldn't see The Rocks anywhere. It must have taken Nubian slave labor to move them. The Jungle had been carved up and domesticated by backyards and gardens. I wondered about The Thousand Steps, about the people who had left The Jar, about the old banana groves and tiny rice paddies. The old farmers had died or were forced out or perhaps had sold their places to developers for a tidy sum.

The house itself was abandoned. I hopped over the wall surrounding it, avoiding the broken glass defenses, to take a look. It was in shambles, the ceiling inside had partially collapsed and water had soaked the floors allowing some vegetation to make its home. Weeds grew tall from cracks in the driveway and patio. The backyard garden had gone feral.

The Jungle beyond our backyard was now gone. What did remain of it was its creeping, wet growth throughout the rooms of the house, a place now redolent of the life-giving death of The Jungle. It had internalized itself. The places I had inhabited, where I slept and ate and learned and played, had become one.

Photo: benghazii


Kitu said...

Beautiful ...

david said...

That was cool T i'll read it to Jeevan.

troutsky said...

If what they say about ones life flashing in front of ones eyes at the end is true, death could be one of the coolest experiences of life. And if it comes with smells..