Peter M Howard ::

Jungle City

04Oct2013 [writing]

In which the City reveals Herself to me, with a beautiful and terrifying vision

I don’t know if it’s the heat, or the light, or just something different or magical about the island, but my experience here has started to blur. The air in front of my eyes shimmers, as though a veil between reality and something else.

As I’m sitting down now, I’m struggling to piece together exactly what happened. Safely back in my hotel it seems impossible. But I’m writing this down to capture it before it slips away.

I started early this morning, heading up to Orchard Rd to check out the shopping strip. I saw a few nice things, but nothing special, and block after block of the same brands in every mall got depressing. It seemed soulless, and even a stop for drinks-with-a-view wasn’t enough to lift my spirits.

Returning to the city centre at the end of Orchard Rd I was drawn to green. I detoured through the first park I came to. Istana Park is lovely, but only the size of a city block. So I cut south another couple of blocks and into Fort Canning Park.

Parts of the park have been tamed. There’s a fenced reservoir at the peak, and clearly defined walkways all around the hill. Some of it is built, at the site of the old British fort. But there are layers of resettlement hinted at, even a recent archaeological dig finding abandoned buildings from centuries ago. And much of it is still green and wild. It was these parts that drew me in. Though the jungle meant more humidity, it offered a relief from the capitalist ordeal I’d just been through.

I wandered off the marked walkway, slightly down the hill, following only a cool breeze and the beckoning green.

I don’t know what I was thinking at the time. My head was fuzzy, my eyes playing tricks in the light. I wouldn’t normally have wandered far off track, but it felt somehow right, like a path was being opened up for me. I ducked under the trees, through the scrub, and came upon a small clearing. Vines covered the ground, but the trees above parted to let the light in. As I entered the clearing, the sound of the world outside dropped finally away. My breathing slowed in relief.

And there, on the edge of the clearing, what I’d first taken for vines climbing up a tree, began to stir. There was a rustling of leaves, a whisper on the wind, and from the shadows I heard my name.

She leaned forward, the branches tugging behind her.

She was beautiful and terrifying. My heart paused, caught, as if in love or fear.

Her features were unplaceable, shifting even. Her nose was small, her eyes slit narrowly — she leaned into the sun and I saw her cheeks and nose were smattered with freckles. Her mouth was thin — she opened it to speak and revealed full lips, her teeth prominent, and sharp, the canines unusually pointed. Her skin was the colour of the earth, the sun, the trees, the sky. Her hair appeared cropped short, but as she pulled on the vines behind her I saw they were woven into — no, growing from her hair.

She wore nothing, but it was impossible to tell where she ended and the jungle began. She had enough form I could see she was a woman, but her breasts were like clustered leaves, her arms reaching back became the vines. From the waist down she was intertwined with the tree trunk she sat against. She looked uncomfortable — as though wanting to stand but restrained — pulling herself forward was slow and painful.

I walked to her, crouched to the ground near her feet, suddenly dizzy. When she opened her mouth to speak I heard only the sounds of the jungle, and the wind, but again I heard my name. I looked up at her face, tried to read her lips.

And suddenly, her voice was in my head. Well, not so much her voice as just her being. I felt exposed — it was a far too intimate form of communication. But as our conversation developed a rhythm it became comfortable.

I can’t even try to recount some of what she told me — it was beyond the limits of communication mediated by language. But I learnt a lot — and for that, she learnt a lot about me, even that I was barely aware of myself.

She was an avatar, of a sort — a manifestation of the spirit of the city, and the island. She’d existed, in one form or another, for as long as people had gathered on this island. Originally, they’d been nomadic, fishermen. Their settlements and their presence were both temporary. So she’d been likewise fleeting, a spirit barely taking form, disappearing like a jungle mist when they would leave.

Over the centuries, different peoples had come and settled the island. Some would build, stay for a time. This hill became sacred, and her form developed. But new settlements never lasted, giving way to rot and decay, to the equatorial climate and movements in the earth. Again and again, people would settle. And again and again, the jungle would win.

As she revealed to me her history, I saw it written on her body. Her shifting features, those of the peoples who’d made this their home. The jungle at her edges, threatening to take her completely. It seemed as if the jungle need only win a couple more cycles to own her completely, and this island would no longer be habitable.

There was promise yet, for this island city spirit. There would always be growth and decay, but things were stabilising. The government are evidently taking seriously the idea that they must be a green city — they have to find a way to co-exist, in balance with the jungle.

But the amount of energy it must take to maintain this city, to keep it cool and dry when the jungle wants to be warm and wet?!

She would have none of my protest. Where I thought maybe the island should be abandoned, she considered it an example of the kind of living we all should be striving for. The sun and the ocean give energy to both the jungle and the city — more than enough to sustain our habitat. And the relatively consistent equatorial climate in some ways makes more sense than the extremes of latitude.

Her fear, then, came not from the local city but from those she’d become networked to. Our increased connectivity was seemingly extending to her kind as well. Though restrained here, she could hear the voices and the cries of her kind around the world — voices, she told me, she’d always heard, but never before so clearly. She couldn’t yet communicate with the others, but knowing her sisters could hear her, and her them, was a profound shift.

But on the cusp of this newfound kinship, we threaten to let the jungle — the wilds — win everywhere. Without some balance in the energy we take and pump back into our environment, our lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Our cities were a great leap forward — they let us gather together, distribute responsibilities, expand our cultural rituals — and this is all reflected in the spirits of our cities. But the Earth has its own ways of correcting for change, and the corrections of the wild show no concern for our cities.

This and more She revealed to me — futures as beautiful and terrifying as Her Self. I look back now and can’t be certain I ever actually saw Her — the truth of that is too much to consider. But my head is now heavy with the knowledge of what we have to do to survive, and that’s not a truth I can deny.

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