22 February 2006

Life in the Jungle

Two photos by Runningwave from her vacation in Costa Rica, February 2006.

From: Webster.com

Main Entry: jun·gle

Pronunciation: 'j&[ng]-g&l

Function: noun

Usage: often attributive

Etymology: Hindi jangal forest, from Sanskrit jangala desert region

1 a : an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation b : a tract overgrown with thickets or masses of vegetation
2 : a hobo camp
3 a (1) : a confused or disordered mass of objects : JUMBLE (2) : something that baffles or frustrates by its tangled or complex character : MAZE b : a place of ruthless struggle for survival

Jungle is a word that has very specific connotations to people who grew up in the Western countries of North America and Europe. Jungle is often something "other" to the world we use to describe our orderly, clockwork society: civilization. I find it interesting that Webster's Dictionary list the etymology of the word from Hindu simply meaning "forest." For indeed when I encountered "the jungle" for the first time twelve days ago in Costa Rica, I found it to be simply that: a forest. A tropical rain forest to be precise, yes, but "the jungle" doesn't look all that different up close as some of the forests of my home country. Different and more diverse plants, certainly. Animals of every size and description that were new to me, absolutely. But I wonder if monkeys howling or barking in the trees seem as wild to a Costa Rican native as it did to me? (See the photos of Capuchin and Howler Monkeys I took on the trip above.) Afteall, I have actually seen tourists oo-and-aaah at and then photograph deer in National Parks in the U.S., where I don't view deer as "wildlife" any more since they are so common in Maryland suburbs like squirrels or raccoons.

So the jungle is a bit less mystifying for me now than it once was. In my childhood, I love reading stories about jungles in India and other parts of southeast Asia and in the Americas. I enjoyed Rudyard Kipling's tales and dreamed of becoming an intrepid explorer. One of my favorite stories in English class was Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," about a big game hunter who becomes the hunted. I reveled in film versions of H. Rider Haggard novels like She and King Solomon's Mines and cinematic and literary images of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World.

While on my vacation to the rain forests of Costa Rica, I took along a wonderful book entitled Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator by Gianni Guadalupi. The book divides the narratives of equatorial exploration and conquest by "temperate zone" Westerners by continent and relates the successful and disastrous adventures of explorers from the 15th century through to the Victorians and Edwardians. This reading helped me to frame my own travel with the fantasies I have always had about exploring the unknown. I found myself intrigued and amazed by what the explorers encountered and saddened by the terrible costs in human life and in deforestation that often occurred while these places were forcibly opened to the West.

Yet there is something cathartic about separating the childhood dreams and dark illusions of youth from the real, living and breathing tropics. For me, the treks we made into the jungle opened my mind to the tremendous fertility of the planet, if only we will preserve what's left of these wild spaces. Spending ten days fording rivers; powerboating down canals; elevating ourselves into the forest canopy on a sling; whitewater rafting; and hiking in different microclimates brought us to places where we could encounter all sorts of animals that I found exciting and unusual: from macaws, to lizards, to orb weaver spiders, to troops of coatis (rain forest raccoons), to an anteater, to sloths and to monkeys.

We were able to fly over mountains in small planes to get from the capital of San Jose to the isolated National Parks on the Pacific and Caribbeann coasts and to drive through the mountainous central areas of this tiny tropical nation. Small it may be in land mass but, oh, how much of the wilderness is left in this beautiful country since some Costa Ricans had the foresight to protect what natural resources remain beginning in the 1970s.

I am still not a great fan of the combination of heat and humidity impacting on climate (cool, dry weather for me, when I can get it!), but I am so glad I bore the weather to take this trip, opening up a whole new world for me. I don't think I will ever understand the word jungle in quite the same way.

08 February 2006

Into the Unknown: Risk and Creativity

This week’s post is dedicated to Explorers. Explorers are people who willingly go into the unknown to face whatever the Universe sends them.

As a historian by training, I have had many opportunities to ponder what it would be like to travel into the unknown. Some explorers travel into the unknown on a physical level. The great sailors of the eighteenth-century were such men and women. They had already mapped much of the globe, but did not have the technology to predict storms weeks in advance nor did they know how animals or indigenous peoples would react to their arrival on distant shores. In that world intrepid men like Captain Cook did not always make it home alive.

Other explorers travel into the unknown on a mental plane. I am thinking this time of scholars, scientists and artists, who use their imagination to take them to breakthroughs in their understanding of their field. Those who know me well, know that I spent years researching the experiments of modern artists and designers who found beauty in abstract art of the past and of other cultures and adapted it for their own purposes. I am recalling the image of the 1905 Autumn Salon in France when the Fauves first unleashed their wild colors and violent brushstrokes on an unprepared public. Now I walk down the street of any major city in the U.S.A. or Europe and could see a Fauvist poster hanging in a shop or cafĂ© and think it unremarkable. But the Fauves caused riots in their day because they broke the boundaries of convention and leaped into a style that transgressed what that culture believed to be “normal.” What a difference one hundred years makes!

Of course, there is another level of journeying into the unknown. It is one that I have been introduced to over the years, but not a type of journeying that I find easy or comfortable yet. I refer to spiritual exploration, where a traveler journeys inward to a place beyond the physical and mental planes to a place that is exists only in the present. I am learning Yoga practice again after a thirty-year lapse from my introduction to it as a young child. My life is very busy and I often feel so over-stimulated by thoughts, sights and sounds of the modern world that I find meditation very difficult. I find slowing down difficult. It may take me many years to become comfortable with journeying inward into transcendence and, perhaps, I will never achieve being fully in the present, but I continue to learn about what others have done in their spiritual practices to find that place.

All three types of encountering the unknown that I have mentioned: physical, mental and spiritual, involve one key factor—risk. And risk is the point at which you decide if your creativity will help you to survive. I think that a healthy person needs some element of risk in her or his life, in order to maintain their “creative muscles,” just as athletes need to use their muscles or fail to improve their skills.

My husband and I are leaving this week to travel by plane to the Central American country of Costa Rica. A professional outfitter with an international reputation and bilingual guides will be taking us to several of the national parks across the country. Costa Rica touches both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and features diverse wildlife and many different ecosystems and climate zones. I am trying very hard not to create expectations in my mind of what I will encounter. I want very much to just “be” for a brief time and make this a real retreat from modern life as I know it and learn from the Costa Rican people some new ways of living and existing. I find myself unable to fully suppress the excitement of observing wildlife, but realize that a lot of the very fascinating mammals I would love to see will probably be out avoiding humans by day and lurking in the shadows at nighttime. I also admit to being intimidated by the idea of hiking through the rain forest with 90° F heat and 90% humidity. My mind wanders when I think of the many stories about the jungle I read as a child (and as an adult!). So I am returning to my yoga training and studiously calling my breath and finding balance.

On my expedition into the unknown I hope to find out what shape my creative muscles are in. Would I have had the courage to travel with a physical adventurer like Captain Cook and explore distant lands? Will I observe something in the culture of the people of this land that I could inspire me to adapt my life at home? And will I attain the calm in the center of the fugue of modern life and be able to fully distance myself from all that I leave behind.

Perhaps I will have answers the next time I post to this blog.

I hope if you have read this entry, you will share in the comments something about your own explorations on any level of your life.