In front of a forest, I am in awe
Photo by Kenrick Baksh
These are my memories of the forest: being petrified before sleep after my Melakan cousins told me the forest behind their home was haunted; being afraid to look at the forest behind a nearby mosque because it was reputedly home to a pontianak; sleeping in a tent in a forest and feeling a snake move beneath the tent’s sheet; seeing a video of a possessed woman walking slowly towards the forest; hearing my mother tell stories about how some people have gone into the forest and never returned, having been taken into the world of orang bunian. Till today, I am terrified of the forest, thanks to my Southeast Asian staple of horror stories and the Hollywood movie The Blair Witch Project. I cannot shake off the conviction that the forest is a space of unknown terrors, with spirits, ghosts and ghouls taking refuge within its verdure. The forest is another world, one that is not mine.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it would be best if everyone shared this fear. Maybe then they wouldn’t destroy the already diminishing amount of forests we have for our version of “progress” that takes natural devastation as inevitable. For many people, their instinct and passion for environmental protection is borne from love and care, not fear. But mine isn’t the kind of fear that seeks to destroy what I do not understand, or deem it dangerous. The best antidote for fear is understanding, and so today, my fear is mixed with the admiration I feel for the forest and its complex bio-systems. I wonder what the fungi are communicating at the moment across the forest floor. What birds are resting, perched on sturdy branches. Whether the macaques are enjoying a fruit, their little bodies catching the breeze.
There is much I still do not know about the forest. It is still an inscrutable, magnificent, intimidatingly complex place to me. But I know that primary forests, or old-growth forests, are the most fearsome of all, following their own deep time, centuries deep in existence without facing the violent hand of humans. I know that today, less than 0.2% of our primary forests are left, something that we should all mourn for if we only knew it and what this meant. I know that our extractive logic of development is a continuation of the logic of colonialism, beginning since Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore and ushered in a period where swathes of forests were cut down to make way for cash crop cultivation. I know that it is home to flora and fauna that is distinctly ours, with some only found in this small piece of land and nowhere else. Often, I think Singapore’s idea of exceptionalism has got it twisted. In our quest to be exceptional on the world stage, we destroy without remorse what is exceptionally ours.
I am still terrified of the forest, though this fear’s interaction with the wonder, appreciation and reverence I have for it now turns into an emotion that is holy: awe. In front of a forest, I am in awe.