“Jungle”, the word, became somewhat suspect sometime back in the late Eighties when the words “tropical rainforest” seemed destined to replace that old, dark, colonial, savage infested, Tarzanian tract of lovable, nurturing, sustainable ecosystem that is indeed at risk of being clear cut. Jungles should be hacked through; tropical rainforests should be saved. Of course, the vast majority of those who get weepy-eyed about tropical rainforests would soon perish if left stranded in one. And they would rediscover the definition that older word, jungle, pronto.
Jungle is too useful a word to really ever get replaced. It comes from the old Hindi word for forest jangal and from a similar Sanskrit word before that. Jungle is a tactile word that awakens almost atavistic fears of dank, overgrown, insect and snake filled, dampness. It suggests a feverish confusion and profusion of plant, swamp and life. And there most certainly are places like this left on earth, approximately 10% of the planet. They have hardly all been cannibalized for their lumber yet. There are certainly vast tracts of jungle in South America, Africa, the Malay Archipelago, Southeast Asia and other zones still as ferociously wild as they ever have been. This is not to minimize the danger to these zones from reckless despoliation. Nor do I wish to romanticize either.
Yes jungle as a word always carries a hint of real danger to it. Even its foreign origin paints it as other. This is especially true to those of European or Northern origin, whose forests are quite different. There are no jungles in Europe. When the European explorer landed in the Caribbean or the central western coast of Africa they were confronted landscapes so utterly alien that they became repositories for many of the darker fears of the explorers and later the traders and colonists. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is the literary masterpiece here. Jonestown in Guyana is the reality of the situation. I can imagine that the opposite would be true as well. Had Amazonian tribes discovered the poles these bleak forbidding realms certainly would have likewise played upon their snowless psyches with mythic intensity. And so later the concept of the jungle morphed into a metaphor for our trackless urban confusions back in the concrete territories of Manhattan or Chicago in the early 20th Century. But I want to go back to those primitive rainforests in darkest Africa and beyond, back to the jungle as it plays on our dreams and fears.
First, a confession: I have never been to a jungle. The closest I have ever been is to live on the island of Oahu in Hawaii as a boy for a few years. There are a few junglelike areas there. (Lost was filmed there.) But that Hawaiian island doesn’t have much left that would be construed as jungle. The big island does and was used for several films as a stand in for jungles in other locales. Nor am I itching to go to one. My interest in the jungle is almost purely as a symbol of the imagination. Not that I wouldn’t mind going to any number of jungles, perhaps New Guinea garnering most of my interest. But on a list of personal travel priorities no jungle is near at the top of my list. In other words, I am not obsessed by jungles, (nor tropical places at all for that matter). I don’t have many books on the subject. But I do have a few key pieces of literature, many more films and quite a few ethnographic musical recordings of various tribes from the jungles of the world. In other words I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject. Yet over the years I’ve noticed a curiosity growing towards the subject. Maybe someday jungles may indeed interest me enough to start visiting them. But for now it is the mythic resonance that captivates me.
I am just as fascinated by what we imagine based on our notions of the jungle as I am by what is actually there. The tribe that worships at the ancient gate of the original 1933 King Kong, completely false as a real depiction of tribal life anywhere on earth, nevertheless stands for something quite strange in the interiority of our dream worlds. In one of the few improvements on the original, Peter Jackson’s 2005 vision of this degraded tribe is so striking the film that follows can scarcely bear the weight of the suggestions left behind. His King Kong is interesting, if over the top, and seems to be more about the look in Naomi Watt’s eyes towards her huge cuddly, erratic pet. But the jungle tribe he presents at the beginning is so stark that I wished he’d gone back and told exactly what in tarnation was going on. Or consider Francis Ford Coppola’s tribe of primitive souls at the end of Apocalypse Now: a mixture of Asians, renegade soldiers, aboriginal tribes all having experienced a return of the primitive, of “pagan idolatry”.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties some of the bleakest films ever made were lensed by strange Italian filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato with titles like Slave of the Cannibal God. In these exploitation films cynical Europeans or “Americans” (always dubbed Italian actors) inevitably find a cannibal tribe who guard secrets of some sort. Then our white emissaries make some genuinely boneheaded moves prompting the natives to track them and “Make them die slowly”. The only way to fight these savages is to ape them. (Pun certainly intended.) And usually no matter where the films are shot (the Philippines, Malaysia, South America) the natives always look exactly the same. Inexorably some living animal is carved open and consumed raw. (I guess you can say these films are not exactly animal friendly.) And there are strange sexual rites. These films would be pretty much worthless if they did not tap in to some darkness in human nature that the filmmakers themselves seem to have fallen prey to in jungle. And by exposing that primordial sin they reveal something within us that is uncovered in the impenetrable realms of the jungle.
That came home to me recently after reading Ingrid Betancourt’s remarkable book, Even Silence Has an End, her account of spending more than six years in the Columbian jungle as hostage of the FARC guerrillas. This is a book I highly recommend as testament to the cruelty of humanity in its proximity to the jungle. She is held along with several others as political bargaining chips. The book practically sweats as you read it. You itch as the bugs crawl through. You fester as the foliage scrapes and bruises your dirty skin. Wounds become infected. Diseases weaken your mind and bowels. The guards, leftist peasants with little hope but the demeaning work of drug runners and slave masters, change before your eyes in the jungle heat from sympathetic to brutal with sad regularity as newer recruits replace them. And the hostages are no saints. Even Ingrid seems tainted by the sweltering stew of petty and venal humanity. The guerrillas keep everyone else ensnared in their own limited views of their situation as a means of dividing and poisoning the minds of the hostages against each other. Escape attempts lead straight into the jungle, into the anaconda filled Amazon tributaries, into a land of killer ants, into inevitable failures. The escapees are then punished. Ingrid Betancourt seemed to spend several years chained with a leather strap around her neck. And every time the Columbian helicopters or soldiers seem to get closer to the makeshift concentration camps the guerrillas pack up would move further and further into the endless green hell. And the rain of the rainforest is no friend.
But if cruelty, both of nature and humanity, were the only message of the book I would not tell you to hunt it down and read it. But the jungle did something for Ingrid Betancourt similar to what the gulags did for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It started the process of redemption and the purification of the heart. Ingrid begins to read the Bible and to find the meaning of faith even as her life, at one point, is draining away. She writes:
“I had made my peace with God. I felt there was a sort of lull in my suffering, because I’d accepted what had happened to me. … Because I had already accepted that I could die. My entire life I had believed I was eternal. My eternity had stopped here, in this rotten hole, and the presence of imminent death filled me with a peace of mind that I savored. I no longer needed anything; there was nothing I desired. My soul was stripped bare. I was no longer afraid…
“Having lost all my freedom and, with it, everything that mattered to me—my children, my mom, my life and my dreams—with my neck chained to a tree—not able to move around, to talk, to eat and to drink, to carry out my most basic bodily needs—subjected to constant humiliation, I still had the most important freedom of all. No one could take it away from me. That was the freedom to choose what kind of person I wanted to be.”
And that gives me hope.
In the darkness of the jungle, and it’s fearful revelations of the human heart, with which Ingrid Betancourt’s story abounds, one can choose: not craven survival, but the courage to be who God meant us to be.
(There is much more to be said about the jungle and its meanings.)