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In the Jungle

20/01/17 15:27:47


I thought I was still in a Thailand state of mind – relaxed, chilled; in synch with the sound of the waves; warmed by the mellow sun, gentled by the softness of the island beach; bedazzled by the friendliness of this nation of smiles; awed by the luminous colours of the fish… Then I returned to the office; challenges, demands and a couple of kvetches later, and I know I’m firmly back!

Despite the ease there was actually one discomfort zone on my holiday: the jungle walk. The website blurb about this outing reads: “Surprisingly few people battle making the effort to head into the island’s interior on a trek: But if you feel you need the exercise there are guided treks available to suit everyone from families with young children…” The majority of visitors wisely prefer to sit at the beach and the site unkindly observes; “If your children are ‘big-boned’ or ‘chubby’ then it’s best to leave them by the pool or in front of the TV for a day than force-march them up a hill in heat and humidity”

My problem was I didn’t read this until after our hike. By the time I realized the promised gentle, family jungle walk was actually a 10km 6 hour hike through a, tick-haven, leech-heaven, snake-infested and malaria-friendly area in which you are cooked to imperfection, it was too late… I should have been warned by my kid’s enthusiasm (who I will add are super-fit twenty somethings) and by the energetic group who arrived sporting their ‘I ran in the Boston Marathon’ Tee-shirts. The absence of any children should have been ominous. I should also have been forewarned by the guide’s bored insouciance and assurance this was no hike just a long walk. Maybe for him… he’s been doing this for over ten years and either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak much English… I should have heeded the warnings in my head that the cutesy names of the advertised guides – Tan, Jungleman Raht, and Toon didn’t mean this was going to be a Disneyland adventure! It was a stinking hot hike up treacherous paths with lovely green poisonous snakes, twisted roots designed to trip you, a lack of drinking water and thorns waiting to engage with you. It was so hot that the tarantulas refused to be coaxed out of their holes (despite the guide cajoling them with a fine leaf). The paths were so easy to navigate that you had to heave yourself up on helpful ropes; of course the dead scorpion on the path egged you on. And when we sat down for lunch, the guide lit a fire so that the smoke would chase off the clouds of mozzies (but he reassured us there weren’t so many that day…)

We didn’t get to see the famous toucans. The monkeys kept away from us, the elephants were busy with the lazy tourists and the snakes (bar the one beautifully toxic example) slithered away. By the time I slid down to the waterfall, I’d had it with Koh Chang, I’d had it with nature and sworn off trekking for the rest of my life (bli neder of course). Admittedly I got some stunning photos out of the walk. I gained some shocking clarity of the limitations of my body. And I gave my kids some unforgettable vignettes of their father’s frailties…

Looking back, the jungle did however give me a pause to reflect on the ‘pied beauty’ of God’s creation: the wondrous way in which beams of sunlight quiver on leaf and branch, the rich and thick life that bursts out of every branch, stream and clod. A reminder that we might have bent nature to our needs, but it retains its own independent force impervious to our efforts.  As William Wordsworth put it nature is: “A motion and a spirit that impels all… And rolls through all things”.

The powerful psalm we say at Kabbalat Shabbat every week kept popping into my head:

“The Lord’s voice in the power, the Lord’s voice in beauty, the Lord’s voice breaks cedars and strips the forests bare” (Psalm 29). Rabbi Soloveichik has commented on how God demands of us that we too strip the forest bare, that a man “take his life in his hand and enter the jungle of his soul, where the animal that is in man hides out”. God, asserts Soloveichik, does not ask us to cut down the trees or uproot the jungle “The world” he adds “needs jungles as it needs unirrigated fields and beds of flowers: Jungles contain much that is vital and essential; in the depths of the wild a healthy aggressiveness prevails”.

We do, however, need to allow the voice of the Lord to penetrate the deepest and darkest forest. We should not destroy the trees nor burn down the jungles, but turn them to the voice of God. We should not destroy the vigorous wilderness within ourselves but allow the voice of God, of conscience and of goodness to draw on and direct the energy of our own wild places. In other words jungles and forests are important both for our ecosystem (the delicate balance our planet) and our ego system, the fine balance of our souls and selves.

In an age where we are burning down and clearing some of the finest forests of the Amazon and global warming is on the increase (2016 was the hottest year on record) we need to become more passionate advocates of preservation and conservation. We destroy more than God’s jungles, we undermine the messages and reminders they give us of our human potential and frailty.

I’m happy to be back in the genteel brick and concrete jungles of suburbia but when I grow tired of the demands and tedium of daily life, I’ll be happy to visit the forest and draw on its intense and singular energy.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780