Seeing the Jungle for the Trees

In the 2017 film, Jungle, (starring a bearded Daniel Radcliffe desperate to shirk off the Harry Potter typecast), a group of young men hoping to avoid the life curse that is work; marriage; and kids, enter the Amazon only to find themselves facing a series of tests to their survival – poisonous and very angry snakes; no food and water; getting dangerously lost; almost drowning in mud. The taglines of the film (written in large capitals, no less) are ‘man doesn’t belong here’ and ‘nature has only one law – survival.’

Jungle is the newest kid on the block in a steady stream of film, TV and books set in the depths of the rainforest. From the top of my head I can think of quite a few. The long running TV series Lost, in which a plane crashes on a tropical island and the survivors must contend with the perils of mother nature and the supernatural; Survivor, the international reality TV franchise where contestants compete for a generous cash prize whilst braving the elements, mostly set in the jungle; the 1987 classic Predator, where a team led by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger head into the Mexican tropics to rescue a group of captured hostages, only to contend with a jungle-dwelling alien monster; I’m a celebrity get me out of here, the Channel Seven reality show in which a bunch of ‘celebrities’ (I use inverted commas because viewers have genuinely never heard of some of the contestants) are inserted into the jungle and compete in a number of jungle-esque tasks – eating bugs; touching poisonous creatures blindfolded; sleeping rough – only to be treated to the relief and delights of refined civilisation, in the form of a hotel room and banquet, when they leave; and no leaving out classics like Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which at least strike a balance between depicting the jungle as equal parts deadly and delightful.

The jungle landscape seems a popular setting for film and TV. It’s no surprise; the jungle, as we like to represent it, is a place of danger. It is instant entertainment when we place one or more of our own species in it to try and survive. In our quest for adventure and spectacle, we often personify the jungle as a landscape which wishes to kill the human who enters it, as if it is capable of wrath, of purposeful vengeance. In many films the jungle starts off as an alluring and mystical place of beauty. It invites the onlooker in further. The light dapples on all shades of green; the water is refreshing to swim in; the exotic sounds of birds conversing high up in the tree tops provide a welcome soundtrack. And then, BAM! Its mask falls; it reveals itself as the ultimate baddie, a scary and strong environment which has stored strategically placed booby traps all over itself, designed specifically with one evil task in mind. Only the brave (and handsome) of the group will survive, emerging from the shady depths into the uninterrupted sunlight thinner and wearier, but with a host of new survival skills they surely won’t forget in a hurry.

Henri Rousseau, 'The Equatorial Jungle' (1909)

The deep irony is that jungles/rainforests (the two terms are interchangeable, Wikipedia tells me, others may rightly disagree on the semantics) across the world are under threat from human destruction. It is not the wilds of the isolated tropics that pose the most harm to the human that dares enter it. In every meaningful way, it is the opposite.

As John Vidal writes in The Guardian, ‘If you want to see the world’s climate changing, fly over a tropical country. Thirty years ago, a wide belt of rainforest circled the earth, covering much of Latin America, south-East Asia and Africa. Today, it is being rapidly replaced by great swathes of palm oil trees and rubber plantations, land cleared for cattle growing, soya farming, expanding cities, dams and logging… People have been deforesting the tropics for thousands of years for timber and farming, but now, nothing less than a physical transformation of the Earth is taking place. Every year about 18 million hectares of forest – an area the size of England and Wales – is felled. In just 40 years, possibly one billion hectares, the equivalent of Europe, has gone… At current rates, they will vanish altogether in 100 years.’

Despite the frightening fact that there will soon be no jungles left to speak of, we still persist with our cultural depictions of its ferocity, its threat to our survival. Is it possible that our rather contrived portrayals of the world’s dense tropics make it that little bit easier to feel less moral responsibility when we destroy these tender ecosystems to make products? When presented with immediate and vicious danger – a large hissing snake in front of us – we feel justified in destroying it as brutally as we can. No one begrudges our actions when they are in self defence. Is this how we are collectively conceptualising the very rampant logging of rainforests? That they are elusive, dangerous places, that they are untameable, that they are unsafe for us, and therefore their disappearance is not altogether something to mourn or avoid.

Henri Rousseau, 'Combat de tigre et de buffle' (1908-09)

Admittedly, nobody could argue that the jungle is a cosy and habitable location for the vast majority of us (I say vast majority because there are native tribes still carving out communal existences in some areas), however its wildness, its existence in and of itself as a locale catering for its native species, seems to bother us. We certainly don’t respect it enough to preserve much of it, despite its prehistoric value and all-imperative carbon absorbing credentials. Its destruction and popular representation raises an important philosophical question. Is the earth and its flora and fauna in existence purely for humanity? The biblical answer is yes; the secular and scientific perhaps a little less sure.

David Attenborough, the observer and recorder of the world’s hidden pockets of nature, who of course needs no introduction, conceptualises the wilds of the world not through the lens of human utility, but rather, as remaining pockets of harmoniousness, as perfect examples of life, death and beauty at play, worthy of so much more respect than humankind generally offers. Arguably, he sees spaces like jungles through the prism of intellectualism; as places of origin which can offer humanity a remarkable scientific education. However, I suspect he may also be entranced by qualities in nature which we cannot easily define, a sense of peace even the ‘dangerous’ jungle can invoke, a glimpse, perhaps, of the divine. One of Attenborough’s most beloved and resonant quotes is a helpful summation of his philosophy: ‘It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.’

Used often as a textual metaphor, the jungle has come to mean a place of unruliness; lawlessness and violence, yet I wonder if we can afford to keep promoting this singular notion.

Keeping Sir Attenborough’s words in mind, perhaps it’s time for a reconceptualisation of what is remaining of the world’s under-threat jungles. Instead of focusing on and reaffirming over and again the danger they present to us in popular media, it may be pertinent to also examine their quiet gifts to us – that, simply by existing and without our hand, they are what some scientists deem ‘the lungs of the earth’­- producing the oxygen we breathe, the most fundamental necessity for our survival. Simply by existing, these complex ecosystems house much of the world’s awe inspiring biodiversity. Simply by existing, the jungle reminds us that nature is not solely ours to tame; that we share this planet; that there is beauty in gentle observation and reverence of what is equally treacherous and fragile.

Henri Rousseau, 'Le Rêve' (1910), Museum of Modern Art (New York)