How is it that a bunch of trees and living things can lift spirits and free souls? What magnificent ingredient or elixir does the forest bring to enchant, inspire and release? Does anybody know?
I'd say it's a lack of lines – in the sway of the giant bamboo stalks, in the leafy patterns of mulch we tread. Birth is the delicate curl of a new fern frond. Survival is the arch of a leech reaching out. Death is the decay of the forest floor – various stages – a mosaic free of squares, boxes and categories. Even the in-betweens – life's joy in the sounds of bird and insect are hardly arranged as sheet music. They follow no tested, approved of chord progression. In the forest life is unrestrained. In randomness it finds the perfect circle.
I'd say it's a lack of lines but it can't be. It isn't true. The staunch, towering trunks of the ironbarks and gorjon trees in Moulvibazar's Lawachara – they've thickened but otherwise not moved a millimetre in decades... they beat off the breeze, stretch up to hold the rain clouds. They put paid to that.
The forest has always been one of our best remedies. As the heart pumps to circulate blood to the toes it's the forest that sends life-giving oxygen to the soul's extremities. It's as valuable as water, as soothing as the sea. The forest is in us. The forest is us.
There's a troop of Phayre's leaf monkeys, the chosmapora banar, in the distance – one of Lawachara's four monkey species. The trees are deciduous, there's a spindly network of branches outlined across an afternoon's grey sky. The troop's moving, one by one in bulky silhouette, taking turns out to the last branches. Then, jump! It's suspenseful. It's cinema. Into the clutches of a far tree's green they land. Crash! They're on the other side. How do they dare rely on those outermost, thin twigs? How do they know those barely-branches will not snap?
Hours have passed. The monkeys are close. Their spectacled faces – slaty grey with white around the eyes – are looking down. They're headed for distant flowers at the canopy's top and this time as they jump it's easier to observe the systems. The balance of the tail, the planning, the grab of arms and fingers...
The baby monkeys are trailing, frolicking as much as seriously knowing where they go... they trust their mothers will wait for them to safely negotiate the gaps. They'll climb aboard her stomach, cling on as she jumps. It's too far for them. Then, when secure, as she looks behind from concern for the next monkey crossing or to see what's been achieved, the baby hops off to scamper along a new branch free of parental oversight.
The squirrels are fussing too, flicking their tails – short, sharp flicks – and calling with a chuk-chuk-chuk. They're looking black from a distance – it's confusing. They're too small and the wrong shape for black giant squirrels – and this might be the wrong forest for those. They're supposed to be orange-bellied Himalayan squirrels. They should be greyish – although their Bangla name, kalo kathbiral, refers to black... But where are their brilliantly bright bellies?
In the night when tranquillity makes impossible any tension – when the forested darkness curls around, threatens to make everyone a novelist, poet or painter, there's a yellow frog – motionless, a statue, on the brickwork by the bungalow. It's got those alien fingers with bulbous circular pads. It should be climbing a tree? There's a mosquito biting its nose – drinking frog's blood. How does a frog with padded fingers scratch? Why doesn't the frog eat it? It would have to be the gecho bang, the Asian brown tree frog – nocturnal and crepuscular – common to all Bangladesh. They lay eggs on cream-coloured foam nests just above a water body.
By morning it's time for humans. Buses stop, groups move about making too much noise. Md Ahad Miah has arrived. He's 22, a little late, apologetic... a local guide – we'd arranged to set out at dawn. But he's a forest resident too. He has fever. I like his attitude. Mahogany, chapalish, dumor – he knows the trees. “The forest is deciduous,” he says, “But after rain, say twenty days, the leaves return; the forest becomes dark.” He's taken us deep, along leaf-covered deer trails. He dreams of opening a guest house, of knowing more about his wild patch of the Earth. He's inspired – like me, like the city folk. Even more so – for him, his forest is some heavenly drug. He has a forest addiction.
There's a rhesus macaque, incredibly bulky, at the highest heights of a tree. He's sitting like a gentleman and it looks ridiculous – not at all agile or sleek like yesterday's monkeys. I'm extremely concerned he'll fall. Should he really be doing that? He may as well be a dolphin in that tree. It looks that natural.
And the leeches – ten, twenty on my shoes! They've made round blood circles on my ankles. There's a price for wandering the animal domain. I would have spent the next two hours trying to remove them but Ahad is expert – he's in sandals and not a single leech has caught him – with a stick he's de-leeched my shoes in short minutes. He does this several times. “Do the leeches only bite foreigners?” I ask him. “Your blood is sweeter,” he says. But I don't take sugar in my coffee?
But wait. Listen? “You'll never see it,” says Ahad, “They're extremely shy. Listen!” It was the dog-like bark of the barking deer. And high above – we're looking for hoolock gibbons – it's a squirrel of the type that doesn't seem inclined to fit its taxonomy. And then, by chance, it jumps across a patch of sky. For a very tiny second there's a flash – yes, a bright orange belly – you can't see it twice. Ahad is likewise excited. “You know,” he says, “that's the first time I saw that colour.”
We're returning – no gibbons – but they're not hard to find. Gibbons, you see, are incredibly loud and indiscrete. “Kuragao, kuragao” I type into my phone, trying to capture what they're shouting with high pitched, sing-song voices beside the road. It's just one of many sounds they make. They're calling to warn other families not to encroach on their forest patch – in one direction others call back, in the other still more. Ahad explains the colours – males and children are dark while females are blondes. “There are about seventy gibbons in
Lawachara,” says Ahad – he's interested in everything, “from 16 families. And it's crowded. The park isn't suited to hosting many more.”
Hoolock gibbons are endangered. From more than 100,000 individuals across their range from Assam to parts of Myanmar several decades ago there are no more than 5,000 now – in all Bangladesh there are 200. The hoolock gibbon is South Asia's only ape. Lawachara is the best place to find them.
We move closer – through the trees we see – some are resting on branches, some jumping about, swinging effortlessly tree to tree. It's true – they have no tails but when they dive into the air, catching a tree with those trusted long arms they own the forest, as though even phayre's leaf monkeys barely know how to climb. They're evening and morning watchmen. They're boisterous and agile. They're having fun.
The forest excites. The soul is brimming with inspiration. Everyone's a novelist, an artist, a poet... at least temporarily. Lawachara breathes life and space into this crowded land. We all need a little of that. “I am a part of nature,” says Ahad, “And nature is a part of me.” He's right of course.
Photos: Andrew Eagle