In one of the more poetic moments of the Chronicles of Narnia, a guinea pig slips through the fabric of our world and finds itself in a transcendental woodland dotted endlessly with ponds. All is still. It later turns out that each pond is home to a separate universe. Our fluffy hero is a sort of unwitting higher-dimensional cosmonaut.
The vision of "the wood between the worlds" has stuck with me ever since I first read it as a child. But I now think that, in a genuine sense, we live in the wood. Surrounding us on all sides in our fractal world are swirling depths of life evolving, each complicated enough to be a world in itself. Millions of tiny fungi are hurling microcosmic lassos around passing nematode worms, driven by proteinaceous conversations between unseen genes; trillions of bacteria float in ethereal silence through private watery voids; miniature spiders are adventuring through the atmosphere suspended beneath diaphanous balloons of silk; ascomycetes in plumes of Saharan dust are wafting through Atlantic skies; and Demodex mites are crawling over the creases and follicles beneath your eyelashes like crampon-wielding explorers struggling over crevasses. Meanwhile, photons are careering into your retinas, splashing through oceans of rhodopsin eight minutes after erupting from nuclear explosions on the surface of the sun; behind your eyes, explosions of sodium ions are ushering action potentials down a filigree lacework of nerves; leaf-mining insects are scrawling their wavy signatures through two-dimensional flatlands; strepsipteran females, shrunken by relentless selection to lumps of ovary-bearing fat, jut from the stergites of paper-wasps; and we ourselves are navigating the world as nearly-chimaeric beings part-composed of bacterial cells vastly outnumbering our own. Our own universe is the "wood between the worlds" - and we can peer into each world-pond and find "caverns measureless to man".
We really should refuse to be sedated by the "anaesthetic of familiarity". However mad it sounds, life is dancing around us in a richness that defies belief. It makes you want to laugh.
In that supposed last word on the horrors of the humid tropics, Heart of Darkness, the forest wilderness of the Belgian Congo is not just a dank wasteland, oozing with unscrupulous ivory-traders and hungry cannibals. It is a remnant of Eden as it really was, a claustrophobic, uncivil emptiness - a phantom landscape inhabited by nauseous emblems of our own depravity, igniting mysterious lusts in western souls.
For Conrad, our most primaeval urges stir in the most primaeval landscapes. By implication, civilisation (as the antithesis to the forest) does not so much cultivate novel virtues as straitjacket our underlying tendency to barbarism. Tropical forests lie beyond a moral frontier, and thus deserve our contempt.
Heart of Darkness is a racist book (just see Chinua Achebe's 1975 polemic if you're unconvinced). Where does that racism come from? It comes, largely, from an obsession with contrasting the apparent turpitude - and dark inscrutability - of the Congo with the West, even if the thrust of the comparison is to underscore the delicate truth that the foundations of civilised society are not so far from the state of nature as we might wish to think. As Achebe put it, Conrad imagines his purgatorial rainforest resurrecting 'grotesque echoes of... forgotten darkness,... the avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings' (p.1785).
Today, tropical forests tend to attract embarrassing gung-ho hyberbole about 'killer snakes' and 'giant spiders', and no end of TV blokes in camouflage being airlifted into the middle of nowhere smeared in mud to declare how dangerous everything is. Again, these forests offer the ultimate antidote to the familiar - they are alien, amoral, exotic worlds.
I think that there's a third way, which celebrates their extraordinary 'other-ness' without resorting to either Conrad-esque phantasmagoria or tabloid hysterics. It sees tropical rainforests as ambiguous, beautiful, enigmatic, infinite but knowable, and, ultimately, vulnerable. I genuinely feel that when we start seeing rainforests as neither hellish nor heavenly, but rather as vibrant, dynamic totems to the evolutionary processes that also created us, we will stand a much better hope of halting their destruction and the ongoing decimation of their indigenous inhabitants, who are neither 'savage' nor 'untainted' but simply alternative and legitimate ways of living on Earth.
Blog belonging to Patrick, studying the weird and wonderful mysteries of neotropical wasps in French Guiana and Panama
Adventures of a
ADVENTURES of a TRAINEE ZOOLOGIST