Malaysia - October 1996

By Leon Joffe

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Here in the rainforest (that used to be called jungle before
Everything became correct) we walk along quiet paths, more
To be together these last years or days than to say aloud
Aha that is a so-and-so or a such-and-such. Not to be proud
Of learning, but to feel comfortable, we two and some
Of creation's best efforts, maybe its pinacle; and what's to come
Planned or random, but without us.
                                    Inside the screen of sound
And moist warmth we circle our future, bringing it to ground
Like hunters their prey. Some things we know: that which lies
In your genes; and if not their latin names, at least the cries
Of unseen birds blanketing the forest can be made clear:
Screams, screeches, honks and hoots no one place yet everywhere, near
Or beyond the river along which we are lodged some hours
Away.  And you love the plants for leaves and features, not flowers
Of spectacular beauty; for knowing how to find their way up vast
Trunks to reach the distant dappled sky. Or suspend roots past
Thick branches, dangling down like matted hair to find rich leafy earth.
You note the tiny delicate ones; those which spread leaves in green
Showers; trees rooting from fallen seeds; and somehow, between
Telling of these wonders and our silent treading of paths, you become
Less fragile, another falling leaf; even angry when I play dumb,
Desiring to capture your leaflike beauty in my memory, to replay
When it is allowed to me to live my grief, that coming awful day.

Thus you tell of ferns and ginger and banana and palms and climbers; and show
Me the frightful rattan, that climbing palm which needs height to grow
Its beautiful suspended fruits, like giant earrings. Yet which tears
Its thorns into your flesh if you stumble, as I did where years
Of passing shoes and boots had worn the path to muddy chaos. Later
You removed the thorns with a needle. And which, I thought, was the greater
Loss: my need of you, or nature's? And when finally we enter camp
I hold your hand, yet unfelt by you, cling. And my face weeps with sweat, more damp
Than my sweat-soaked shirt or pants or shoes, since I have eyes
And they have seen beyond the screen, and there is no surprise.


On our walk today we saw a snake in the stream we were about to cross
Pounce on a frog; hold tightly with its small jaws to a long leg, toss
The frog out then swallow more deeply on the leg. You warned me to be still,
Not to disturb the snake else it may lose its meal. For this kill
Is what must be; and we waited for half an hour as the snake slowly drew
The frog deeper into its mouth. Luckily there were no leeches; but I grew
Impatient at last, and tried to tiptoe across the stream, but the snake
Reared away in fright, and lost its meal. You were angry, but I take
No blame, being a city's child. Yet saddened: this you had taught me.
And later, above our heads, sliding along a branch was a slender green
Snake, as long as my own body, and we stopped to watch, and were unseen.


Back home our house is built on rock. And our garden is what nature grew
There: profusion of veld grasses, velvet bushwillows now in summer with new
Lime-green leaves; wild pear trees dazzling spring with blossoms like snow.
And stamvrug trees that bear small red fruit directly off the stem
That are sweeter than any Eden could have made, unless Eden made them.
Yet new neighbours next door brought in labourers with picks and a chain saw
And in one afternoon destroyed every indigenous plant, and more:
Trees and shrubs which had been planted to fill spaces, until only bare rocks
In order to rid their city garden of thorns, spiders and snakes, she said. Yet you
       had explained
To her that these were harmless grass snakes, not found in trees. Nothing would rid
Her garden of spiders. Could she (though named Robin) find every place they hid?
And what of thorns? Africa is a place of thorns. Who will protect her child
Against the stings and venom of man? Teach him here, where civilized meets wild.
The land is hers, she spat, to do with as she wished. (And now there are a few palms
Clustered among the rocks, suburban talismans like steeples; shabby fronded charms.)


Beyond the borders of this rainforest (a preserved park) most is gone, logged
For export and to plant trees for palmoil and rubber. Dogged
Surgeons of the soil, those who plan have removed the delicate skin
Of compost in which the forest grew, what has gone can never again begin.
It is man's way. And always a reason.
                                       Someday even this park
Will be gone. I will sell my ground to some other Robin to civilize and render stark.
Later man will vanish. Slowly the sun will die. With it the earth.
Until the last cry of life, the last moment of joy and agony, the final birth
And death. Then the universe will be silent.
                                             What then does my grief
Matter? All is destined to pass, nothing lasts, whatever lives its brief
Course, days or years numbered in billions, goes. Yet such cries
Of protest will wing from this world, from every plant that tries
To reach heaven, yet is limited by its own genes, should you ascend
Into madness, that all must stop, trapped by that cry into a sudden end.

11 November 1996

Converted to HTML by Renette Davis with permission from the author, Leon Joffe, whose wife Pitta has Huntington's Disease.

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Last updated: Dec. 4, 2010