I have a jungle. Not a tropical jungle – just a small, temperate forest jungle in Devon, South West England. It started out 25 years ago as a vegetable garden next to our cottage at Schumacher College when I first came here after almost three years of work as an ecologist in Costa Rica, and then three months living in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal, visiting a nearby sacred forest to survey birds and muntjac deer. Even as a child, I needed wild around me. Was it because I was born in Venezuela, rich in sunshine, bright flowers and tropical birds? At nineteen, before university, I escaped from London to Sengwa, a remote wilderness research area in what is now Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) working as a dog’s-body field assistant helping to study warthog and elephant. And whilst at Schumacher College over these last 25 years, Julia and I have journeyed into many wild places around the world.
Each of these places has sent its tendrils into me, suffusing me with its particular atmosphere, its mood and sentience, its psyche, if you will. In Sengwa, large mammals cruised through open savannah woodland, pure and innocent in their wildness. In the humid tropical forests of Costa Rica, a sense of the youthfulness of that exuberant land came to me, and yet a feeling of the antiquity of the indigenous people who roamed these forests with minds like jaguars.
Each place its own self – its own mind – its own psyche. Each place with its own innate ability to draw us into itself- to saturate us with its own style of sentience, found only in that place, nowhere else on Earth. This rock overhang its own particular message, this river bend a unique style of language.
When I first saw the vegetable garden, open to the world, visible to all, over-cultivated, I knew that I had no choice. I had to let the garden go its own way, to set it free to be itself, free from human interference (although I did interfere a little, as you’ll see later). So I left it alone, mostly. The first year, a sea of poppies. Great swathes of pinkish scarlet, for these were no wild English poppies, but a showy cultivated variety. Next year, foxgloves: riots of purple and green. From the start, nettle and bramble, denigrated everywhere, but here made welcome. And I did interfere, a little, by rescuing a small stump of an elder tree cut out from a nearby hedgerow, thrown away to die. I planted it in the centre of the garden, where it was hardly visible for years. Now, 25 years later, it is majestic, a many branched elder tree – the elder of my jungle. It has spread as it has wished to spread. It many limbs and branches are dancers cloaked in flowing ivy garments. The elder arches gracefully over one area of the jungle, casting a deep shade in which only ivy grows. The guardian God of my jungle, I buried our son Oscar’s placenta, immediately after his home birth, under elder’s northern side.
Then, I excavated a small patio by the kitchen window so we could sit in the sun. Palmate newts now live in the three tiny ponds I snuggled into the resulting pile of soil. Last of all, I introduced some dog’s mercury, that humble plant of ancient British forests, and scattered seeds of pink campion. I planted a small buddleia (now huge and scraggly) for butterfly nectar near the kitchen door.
Undisturbed thus for 25 years, what was vegetable garden is now my jungle, surrounded by lawns, other gardens, neighbours with noisy lawnmowers, a church with bells that sometimes loudly chime, busy roads generating road noise, a farm with goats and cattle – in short – a jungle in the midst of an English increasingly semi-urban setting.
Last summer, in the thickets of my jungle, I found a small area suitable for sitting in not far from the kitchen door. It was into this that I crawled just a week ago to be in the midst of tangled branches, translucent forests of nettle leaves and the trill of birdsong. It was here, just last week, in mid-May, that something happened.
It may never happen again, at least not in that particular way, but I vouchsafe that it did happen. Perhaps it was the light, the temperature, or the exact mood of the jungle in that very moment. I sat gazing east into the tousled mass of branches, stems and acid green sprouting spring leaves, all suffused with rich sunlight. No human-made garden can match the intricately interlacing patterns that weave such a place into a tangled, complex coherence as a living ecological community. It didn’t matter about the road noise, or the people walking past on the drive chatting. I was in the embrace of place. Place showed Self to me – I sent Self back. There was a meeting of Selves, and in the meeting, a certain style of ecstasy.
A few days before, a male bullfinch flew into our kitchen window. I heard a deep thud and knew it was a bird. He was on the ground, gasping for breath, stunned. I laid him in shoe box lined with hay. From the gaze in his eyes, I think he might have known me, even in his dying. I stayed with him and, soon, he was gone. I picked him up – as light as air. Even when freshly dead, the rosy tint on his breast had dulled, his jet back skull cap no longer glowed. I buried him in the jungle near the elder with due ceremony and respect, bullfinch now for sure my totem bird.
The following afternoon, as I sat in my thicket letting the jungle weave its spell around me, two bullfinches, a male and female, alighted in the wild apple branches some 15 meters from me. It was a message, a confirmation, a blessing. They were small, but I saw them well enough – two smudges of colour, one pink, one dark fawn. They relaxed, preening their feathers and sitting heavily on their branches a few metres apart. I sensed a resonance with trogons, those richly coloured, boat-billed, short necked avian denizens of the tropics with whom I made many acquaintances in Costa Rica. And so, the bullfinches were bringing particular Costa Rican forest places into the bosom of my jungle.
But then the bullfinches began to conjure an even stronger magic. How they do this, I don’t know, but I feel them somehow totemically responsible. While I am watching them, the psyches of various wild places I have known abruptly descend like birds into my jungle. The forest branches crisscrossing in front of my eyes suddenly, unmistakably, become those of the Combretum woodland near the Sengwa river in Zimbabwe, where I and my comrades had been forced to make a thorn thicket around ourselves at night for protection from the many elephants and rhinos come to drink at Chinsembwe — the sacred spring that gushes out Ntaba Mangwe, Mountain of Vultures. Yet now these same branches seem to issue from trunks in the tropical dry forest of Costa Rica, hot in the bright sun, where in the undergrowth I catch sight of a scurrying armadillo. Moments later, they have transformed into the tall, open Jarrah forest of Western Australia, and now into the lush temperate woodland around a small, quiet lake in southern Norway. Each place, bird-like, visiting from afar, leaves its mark, its psyche, in me and in my jungle.
Could it be that places which have made a home in my soul are actually, palpably, meeting each other now in the layered branch-tapestries of my jungle? Have the bullfinches really called them in? Or the elder? My own presence is clearly needed, since these places have known me personally. Could it be that these various locales, called hither like distant migrating birds, use me now as their means of knowing one another, giving me great gifts in their meeting?
I am convinced that the world is indeed thus constituted. Places are alive – they live in us if we let them. And for a few moments, mood, light, temperature, animals, plants, can come together to form a nexus – a nodal point where diverse places encounter each other thanks to the participation of a human consciousness that has known and loved them. And for that consciousness the experience is one of intense aliveness, of entering into the deep, ancient existence of Earth, of coming home at last into the centre of this world, full of bright meaning, purpose and repose.