The Jungle Does Not Care About You
Lionel’s head torch moves from left to right scanning the banks of the river. The sound of his paddle gently breaking the surface of the water is barely audible above the chorus of frogs and cicadas. It is so dark that I cannot see the trees, although I know they are only several feet away. The stars, however, are demanding my attention and their reflections twinkle with the silent river on which we patiently and tentatively drift, further and further away from our camp.
I could get lost in the serenity of the moment were it not for the purpose of our outing. We are in search of wildlife that come to the banks of the river at night and it is important that we remain alert.
We are 100km into our kayaking adventure down the Burro Burro River in the jungles of Guyana and we are miles and miles away from any human civilisation. On expedition with the Extraordinary Adventure Club, I am coaching a client who is looking for direction and purpose in his life. I can’t think of a better environment than the jungle to do this work.
Eyes flash back at us from the bank. ‘Sssh – Paca’, Lionel whispers. The paca is a large rodent found across the Amazonian basin. Quietly we bring the boat to within 15 metres to get a better look. Suddenly, an ocelot breaks cover from the forest edge and hurtles down the bank to attack the paca. We hear a snarl, a squeal and a splash and, miraculously, the paca escapes into the dark waters.
Similar to a jaguar, yet smaller, the ocelot had been stalking the paca before our arrival, but indifferent to our presence, it had continued with its attack nonetheless.
The Burro Burro has been our life-blood for several days, we have drunk from it, swum in it, fished in it and travelled with its currents. It is laden with stingrays, anacondas, electric eels, giant otters, caimans and piranhas, to name but a few, but none of which have paid us the slightest bit of attention. If we have unsettled them, they have responded with mild curiosity. I have been bitten by multiple mosquitos and ants and pull off ticks from my body every day, but it is not personal. At least I don’t think it is!
Ian, our British guide, had told us at the beginning of our adventure that ‘the jungle is not out to get you’. We should not be so arrogant to think that the jungle would be anything other than totally indifferent to us humans. Commonly misconceived as a hostile environment, the vast majority of the time it is our own actions, or lack thereof, that put us in harms way. Perhaps we fail to sterilise a cut on our skin, to keep ourselves hydrated, or neglect to rigorously wash ourselves after days spent sweating in damp clothing. Resist the jungle and you will slowly wear yourself down; accept your place within it and your experience will be one of harmony.
Our egos want nature to care about us, but it does not. If the human species were to disappear from the planet tomorrow, nature would not skip a beat. For some people this is difficult to understand. In the human world, particularly the western world, we are used to an environment that is far from neutral. It is all too easy to fall into what a friend of mine refers to as ‘the truth trap’. We have this idea that our truth is the only truth. We believe the world revolves around us. Intellectually we might understand that it does not, but we behave as if it does.
This may or may not be in an arrogant way, but it is a narrow and blind perspective nonetheless; a metaphorical beam of a head torch in the vast night of the jungle. We only see what we choose to look at. Because we are not seeing the big picture we play out our lives of ‘little old me’ or ‘all about me’. Entrenched in themes of victimhood, separation, projection and power struggles of right and wrong, we fall into a truth trap of our own making.
The jungle, on the other hand, doesn’t judge. It doesn’t judge us and it doesn’t judge itself. There is no right or wrong; there just is. A tree is a tree and an ant is an ant, nothing more, nothing less. Every being has an unquestionable sense of presence and authenticity, as well as an unwavering purpose to mature into the fullest expression of itself. In this way they contribute to the delicate balance of the whole system.
Relieved of one’s mobile phone and creature comforts and given more than just a few days, one cannot avoid connecting to this higher truth. We renounce our own tired narratives. Through a direct and raw experience of outer nature, we connect with our inner nature. The two come from the same place; they dance to the same rhythm. Given enough time, and with the right support, we understand what is important to us; we allow our authentic selves to come out of the shadows.
It is a wonderful irony that I should find such a sense of belonging in an environment that is so indifferent to my presence.
A dog fish jumps into the boat by mistake and is released back into the river. Kingfishers flap their wings inches from our heads as they roost precariously above the river to avoid tree snakes. When we get back to camp a highly venomous coral snake is escorted politely on its own way. We cannot take a step in this jungle without literally bumping into an extraordinary and magical density and diversity of life. It is an Eden.
Yes, it is competitive and brutal, the ocelot is out for itself, just as much as one tree competes with another for light. But as a system it works, because all in the jungle play their part for the jungle, even in death. As a result they are collaborating, whether consciously or not.
Humans, however, are not collaborating, because we do not understand we are connected. We believe we are above and separate from nature. We see it as a resource to be mined. The significance of a genuinely reciprocal relationship with the natural world is lost on us.
It is a privilege for me to be able to coach people in some of the worlds most inspiring wilderness areas. Of course, few of us have this opportunity, but the vast majority of us can still go to a park, a field or a wood and carve out some quiet time. In London I see pigeons nonchalantly sitting on statues, the roots of trees breaking through the pavements, the River Thames rising above its banks and flooding the streets. I ask my clients not to look for answers as if in an analytical way, but just to be curious about what they see and to really be with the river, the tree, the pigeon.
When I do, I witness time and time again, in myself and in those with whom I work, a connection to a deeper wisdom. One of the more powerful realisations is that nature doesn’t give a damn about us. Our own little problems and identities that previously consumed us fail to represent themselves faithfully when confronted with the scale of this truth. The volume of our internal ‘noise’ dials down, we switch off our metaphorical head torches, we look, we listen and we know we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.