MANY years ago, I was nearly attacked by a fox. It caught me off guard. I was peeing in the street at the time.
As I staggered through a London housing estate in the early hours, urinating in a straight line to prove that I wasn’t pissed, a sudden howling interrupted my flow.
On a deserted street, I spotted a feral fox trotting in my direction.
I zipped up quickly.
I was only 18 and didn’t fancy the ravenous beast confusing my shivering organ for a chicken frankfurter. In a drunken haze, I quickened my pace. So did the fox. He must have spotted the chicken frankfurter. He must have had good eyesight.
Panic took hold. There’s nothing like the heady mix of eight pints of cider and the thought of losing a teenage penis to turn a weary wanderer into Usain Bolt.
Eventually, the scrawny animal gave up the chase.
But that intoxicated date with a famished mammal encapsulated my relationship with the natural world. There wasn’t one. Emaciated foxes, stray dogs and pigeons crapping everywhere were the only visual clues that life existed beyond the thousands of people crammed into red-brick boxes.
The natural world was a Tolkienesque fantasy, a distant utopia filled with wondrous creatures sharing exotic terrains from another dimension. David Attenborough’s documentaries were essentially myths for council estate kids sidestepping dog shit on their way to school.
And then a monkey nicked my tube of Pringles and I fell in love.
I met my first long-tailed macaque at the Bukit Timah summit when I was about 22. It was love at first bite. The little bastard polished off the Pringles in seconds.
(I learned two valuable lessons that day. Never feed wild animals. And never run down Bukit Timah screaming: “There are killer monkeys up there. Sod the children. Save yourselves.”)
Of course, whenever I suggest that my infatuation with wildlife began in Singapore, I am usually rewarded with a hollow laugh. I get it. There’s an apparent contradiction, like claiming my sex obsession began at a monastery.
There’s not much around to sustain my addiction.
But in terms of the astonishing breadth of biodiversity, I might as well have swapped East London for the Amazon. Instead, I swapped foxes for long-tailed macaques, smooth-coated otters, black-spitting cobras, monitor lizards, wild boars, Brahminy kites, feather-legged spiders and red-breasted parakeets.
There are many others, but the species above have all been spotted within walking distance of my apartment. I still live in a housing estate, only now the company includes red-breasted parakeets rather than red-breasted women who thought sunblock was for wimps.
I succumbed to ‘biophilia’ in Singapore.
According to the ‘biophilia hypothesis’, humans are drawn to nature because we evolved in it. Our history is shared, entwined. A walk ‘outdoors’ is effectively a walk indoors. We’re going home. We’re visiting old neighbours.
(At least that’s what I said to myself when I encountered a cobra near Lorong Halus and almost soiled myself.)
The sobering reality for the chest thumping, sabre-rattling bores among us is that our relationship with nature is laughably one-sided. We need nature and not for the obvious, emasculating reason either (ie. in a planet versus people pistols-at-dawn duel over climate change, the planet wins. Every time.)
Just consider what the natural world gives us.
First, there’s the humbling lesson in sustainability. Our forests are Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas eve. They give and take the bare minimum. Nothing more.
Ecosystems are harmonious. Trees absorb as many nutrients as they need. They don’t eat a tin of baked beans and then store six more because there was a two- for-one special in the supermarket (guilty). Long-tailed macaques rely on the forest canopy during inclement weather, rather than stash a dozen free umbrellas from a dozen road shows (again, guilty.)
A walk around any of Singapore’s forest fragments reveals what a balanced environment looks like, one that isn’t destroying itself through overconsumption. And it’s green and inviting and beautiful.
Now consider what the natural world takes away.
Noise. Bosses. Deadlines. Exams. Annoying relatives. Social media. Echo chambers. Racism. Intolerance. Rage. Traffic jams. Electric scooters. Pointless queues for pointless products and Singaporean emcees who use fake American accents, the natural world removes them all.
They float away with the forest breeze, leaving behind only a sense of profound calm and a faint, lingering desire to strangle anyone with a fake accent (because some things never leave us).
Plus our insufferable social comparisons disappear. The average forest isn’t thirsting for likes, shares and cultural acceptance. Inhabitants, in all forms, are accepted in a chastening display of diversity.
No one cares how they look—or are perceived—in the natural world, which is just as well as there are some really ugly flora and fauna.
Take the tropical pitcher plants. Native to Singapore, they are long, dangly, bulbous things and often pinkish in colour. Clumped together, they resemble an old man’s testicles.
But do they care? No! Every species is free to hang out and look like any phallic symbol it wants.
To witness life in all sizes and scrotum shapes is a liberating experience, one that should be made mandatory as the natural world and its concrete counterpart continue to butt heads in Singapore.
The blitzkrieg efforts to manufacture a city in a garden have seen two tribes—the indigenous and the idiotic—overlap and clash. As one side loses its habitat, the other side has a tendency to lose its mind.
When wild animals are encountered on the fringes of housing estates, there have been calls to ‘send them back’ to the zoo, expressing Trumpian levels of ignorance.
The answer is to send everyone back to where they came from. Let’s all return to our remaining forests in 2020 and spend a bit of time on nature’s clock, just for a day or even a few hours.
We react to tactile experiences. If we see it, we might want to save it.
So, seek out Singapore’s green havens. Savour the sunbeams streaming through the trees and the abundance of colourful life at every turn.
And then, find the pitcher plants and take a selfie beneath those glorious dangling testicles.