(This blog is also available as an audio essay at georgesly.podbean.com)
Although it has been over forty years now, I still remember my first tentative step into the nighttime world of Malaysia’s tropical rainforest as though it happened last week. And why not? Since boyhood I had dreamed of walking in this warm, rich world. As I stood at the edge of the lawn of the University of Malaya Field Center, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I could barely believe my good fortune. My dream was finally to be fulfilled. I was about to experience the favored haunt of some childhood heroes – Jungle Jim, Tarzan, Ramar of the Jungle, and how could I forget the stories of Frank Buck? I still have the Classics Illustrated version of his Bring ‘Em Back Alive. But, on the other hand, Buck’s accounts of the “jungle” reminded me of its many hazards. This was the retreat of the king cobra, the world’s largest venomous snake. Didn’t I recall pictures of giant reticulated pythons bigger than a man’s torso lying in wait along over-hanging tree branches? Also playing on my mind was another favorite childhood book, Jim Corbett’s Man-eaters of Kumaon. The gruesome fate of the victims of these predators sent shivers down my spine. And yes, there were still tigers and leopards in these forests.
With these thoughts in mind, I stepped from the carefully manicured world of humans and into the darkness of the surrounding rainforest. A myriad of sounds greeted me as I stepped along the damp trail leading to the Sungei Gombak. Already I could hear the small but turbulent stream’s muffled roar as it plunged towards its union with the waters of the Sungei Klang and eventually the Straits of Malacca away to the west. A mixed chorus of insects, toads, and frogs chimed, bleated, buzzed, and barked around me. The forest itself launched its own barrage on my senses. Clumps of Giant Bamboo reared nearly fifty feet above me along the trail. Lianas climbed into the canopy, their leafy crowns far out of sight overhead. The dank smell of decaying vegetation wafted on the air and the forests’ oppressive one hundred percent humidity pressed in upon me like a living organism. I was reminded of being in a lush greenhouse on a warm summer’s day. Even in the dim illumination of my headlamp, I could discern the sensory overload I have since experienced in tropical rainforests around the world. The sheer magnitude of the plant biodiversity was overwhelming. The sounds were a complex muddle of cacophonies. The smells were rich, fecund, and alien. How could anyone ever become familiar with so much life? I recall all of these sensations combining to give me an eerie feeling of being surrounded and closed upon by forces disturbing, dark, and unknown; perhaps unknowable.
As my headlamp played upon the trail ahead of me, and probably no more than forty meters into the forest, I saw my first rainforest snake. Stepping closer its beautiful lime-green body and red tail became apparent. One glance at its lance-like head, tapering to a fine point at the nose and distinctly posed upon a slim neck, also told me that this was a specimen to be treated with respect. For here as beginner’s luck would have it was a Sumatran pit-viper, an Asian relative of our copperhead and rattlesnakes. Like most wild creatures when confronted by a human, the snake decided that it would be safer elsewhere and began to glide from the path. However quick use of my snake-stick resulted in the bagging of the first of what was to become many Malaysian snake specimens. With nerves slightly jangled – handling a venomous reptile will do that you know – I continued toward the footbridge which crossed the Gombak just ahead.
My evening of adventure wasn’t over. Lying directly in the middle of the bridge was a centipede. This wasn’t the little fellow which runs for cover when we overturn a rotting log here in the U.S. This specimen was nine inches long and quite willing to hold his ground. I knew a fellow who had been bitten by a Scolopendra such as this one. He described the pain as a week’s worth of feeling as though his hand had been slammed in a car door. Taking a pair of long forceps from my pack, I grasped the centipede mid-body. The brute twisted around and struck the forceps with its fang-like, modified forelimbs in an attempt to inject its venom. With a lurch much stronger than I had anticipated from a mere arthropod, it easily wrenched itself free of the forceps and, in a flash, disappeared over the edge of the bridge. Although disappointed in loosing such a nice specimen, I was still mightily impressed by its strength and agility.
I leaned against the bridge railing for a breather and some reflection. I had been in the forest for the space of half an hour and had covered less than fifty meters. My first encounters with animal life had been with two of the most venomous inhabitants of the tropical rainforest. Could the popular accounts of fang and claw at every turn be true? As a professional biologist, I should have known better. Luck was simply with me this evening. As I was to learn, it is quite possible to tread a rainforest trail for hours and see nothing alarming at all. During the remainder of the evening no king cobras reared in the trail ahead of me. No pythons dropped from overhanging branches and I was never, at least to my knowledge, stalked by any large predators.
In the months to come, I was to find as other naturalists have before, that the reality of the tropical rainforest’s immense biodiversity is really more exciting than fiction. Many have speculated as to exactly why tropical rainforests do have such a wealth of species. One idea I find appealing is called the Available Time Hypothesis. Its basic thesis is this. Unlike the Neotropical forests, the reproductive biology of Malaysia’s rainforests has been uninterrupted by the periodic advances and retreats of glaciers. The result of all this unbroken time (over a hundred million years by most estimates), and subsequently many generations of reproductive output, has been the evolution of a bewilderingly diverse flora and fauna. These exhibit nearly every conceivable form of body, behavior, habitat preference, and dietary predilection.
The living treasures I have encountered in the rainforest remind me of a story in Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard describes how, as a child, she used to hide a penny along a sidewalk. She would then draw large arrows, in chalk, which pointed the way to the prize penny. Walkers were motivated onward by her chalked signs proclaiming “SURPRISE AHEAD”. She described how she would become tremendously thrilled when she thought of how some fortunate stranger might discover this great reward. The penny was, she imagined, a free gift from the universe.
And so it is as one walks the trails of a tropical rainforest or for that matter a flowering prairie, the lush Sonoran desert, a soaring woodland, an urban park. At every turn, one may find a precious hidden penny. Be alert, this penny may assume the guise of bejeweled insect, magnificent flower, splendidly colored bird, or majestic sequoia. But they are there for you, every living thing, a free gift from the universe.