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.
Adventures of a
Dr Patrick Kennedy, Radford Lab, University of Bristol | Zoology