So I spent my first weeks at my new forest home recceing and planning how best I am going to go about collecting my data. It always takes a while to get accustomed to the ways of a new forest, but this one, being especially degraded and impossibly steep, seems to be resisting my usual tactics. The key is usually a trio of patience, tolerance and understanding. In dense tropical forest, you have to have the patience to accept that walking 1 km will not take the usual 15 mins, and may take all afternoon; after all, you can’t rush anything in 100% humidity. You have to have the tolerance to withstand insect attacks, a shower of needle sharp thorns and punishing inclines. And you have to have understanding of two sorts. The first sort is plain old knowledge of the forest; sorting the good plants and animals from the decidedly bad, in order to make the day as uneventful, injury-wise, as possible. But the second type is the most important of all: understanding that the jungle is neutral.
I’ve witnessed many an exasperated jungle trekker, including myself. The mad frustration creeps up on you as you get more and more exhausted and more and more hot. You know the hot I mean: when you’re convinced that your organs may very well be cooking inside you. It’s at this point that you become aware that you seem to be the target of all the insect attacks; that every tree you grab on to is encrusted in spikes; that the vines seem to be grabbing at your wrists and ankles; that the tree roots seem especially greasy or the mud especially slippery. It’s at this point you take it personally. The jungle is out to get me! And the more maddened by it you become, the more the forest sends out its army of wasps, hairy caterpillars, biting ants and thorny vines to get you!
To break this cycle, you have to repeat the jungle is neutral. It neither notices nor cares if you are there, it just is. Any frustrations you are imposing upon it are purely your own. If you make it this far without returning home (and telling everyone what a boring and unsightly mess the rainforest was), then you’re in for a real treat. Which is of course why you were ever there in the first place! For the Atlantic forests of Brazil, Darwin described it thus
Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration…To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again. (20th Feb, 1832)
Different forests yield their treasures in different ways and with different amounts of generosity. So it is that many rainforests are perfectly delightful places to walk around. Virgin rainforest in the Amazon, particularly, is as open as temperate woodland. The Gilbertiodendron dewevrei forests of the Congo Basin, if you happen to find one, are as open and breezy as a beech hangar in the Chilterns. Southeast Asian forests can also be wonderful places – the lowland forests of Danum Valley are beautiful and (relatively) easy to work in.
The problem is that much of the forest in this part of the world is heavily disturbed, most often by intensive logging. By a quirk of fate, Bornean forests, despite all their diversity, are dominated by a single family of trees, the dipterocarps (Dipterocarpaceae). This means that much of the standing timber has similar properties and is often marketable under a single name. The logging is consequently intense, and can be tantamount to local deforestation. The same cannot be said for the standing timber of the Amazon or Congo basins; each new species, more or less, has to be marketed anew. The logging is consequently of lower impact.
So I’m not with Darwin yet, but I’ll let you know! Maybe Darwin would have been similarly exasperated, had he ever tried to collect his orchids in a twice-logged Southeast Asian hill forest…