The Forests I Have Lost

by Theophilus Kwek

And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn…

— Geoffrey Hill

I.

The first was one I’d never even ventured into. It lurked on a low hill behind our house, and, by the time we moved in, had been parted down the middle like the Red Sea – or the neat path through my father’s hair – to shorten the journey to our MRT station. For years, I went to bed terrified of the creatures that might dwell within (Singapore’s last wild tiger was, alas, killed in 1930), before finally daring to cross it on my own, aged ten, to catch the bus to school. 

It must have occurred to me even then that our darkness-defying footpath, recently paved and still brightly lit, was a sign of things to come. But the developers dragged their feet and our forest stayed, unruly and unruled, to shield us from the world. On occasion, a ten-foot python would steal into someone’s drainpipe, but a quick call to wildlife rescue was all it took to return the creature to its haunts. For the most part, I grew up with friendlier neighbours: kingfishers on our back gate, the odd civet-cat, bats feasting among the fruit-trees next door.

We moved into public housing when I was twelve, and after seven years I moved again, to another country. So the end, when it came, was muted by time and distance; relayed, like the death of a relative, through cousins who still lived in the estate. 

What happened – I imagine – was this. One weekend, men with name-tags and shovels would have come to breach the fence around our forest’s fringe, clearing the perimeter for heavier equipment. Then the toughest work: trees sawn at the base, split and piled; denser understory dug from the earth. More men arriving afterwards with more machinery to stamp recalcitrant roots in place, level the overgrown hilltop to a surveyor’s plane. 

By the time I returned home, four years later, a housing project had taken pride of place at the top of the road. Someone had thought to name it ‘The Glades’, even if barely a sliver of the old canopy remained. All steel and glass, it barely seemed to fill the space: dwarfed, almost, by the ground beneath it. Even our home felt smaller. Stopping by one weekend, we realised the new tenants had re-done our yard, where a dishevelled palm had once held court. The new, neat porch felt like a scene from a film shot on location, with the plots of impossible lives layered over ours. 

With an image of that now-shaven hill in mind, I began to realise that I lacked a vocabulary for its disappearance. I had read plenty of books that dealt with more personal losses, but none that quite prepared me for this – losing a forest that I loved and feared at a distance. 

I come from a part of the world, after all, that has acquired new literatures as quickly as it has lost old landscapes. Poets and novelists from our region observe how built environments have been transformed by urbanisation and globalisation, turning established social worlds on their heads. Fewer have written about the contests that continue to take place on the city’s edge, pitting tightly ordered streets against the rooted knowledge of field or forest. 

This is especially so in Singapore, where I live. On the one hand, the loss of natural habitats has formed a rallying-point for civil society: over the last decade, the government’s plans to run a highway through different segments of the Central Catchment Reserve have earned sustained opposition from a wide and colourful lobby. But ruffled feathers do not translate easily into the landscapes of our imaginations. Instead, jungles of the concrete variety have come to lend their ersatz backdrop, of a flourishing literary scene with thoroughly urban sensibilities. 

During my time abroad, I attempted to make sense of my lost forests by turning to a rich tradition of landscape literature in the English language – a genre which, in 2014, was being revived under the label of ‘New Nature Writing’. 

Many authors claimed their places in this lineage with close observations of local landscapes; from Gilbert White’s landmark Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, a paean to the no-man’s-lands of the 1970s. More recently, writers like Kathleen Jamie, Helen McDonald, and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett were reinventing the genre, taking the natural landscape as a foil for the personal and global anxieties of a new millennium. 

All these writers could name native species as if they were friends, map every hollow of a habitus, or habitat, locations which they knew from inside out. But though their deciduous worlds welcomed me in, I still grasped for words to describe the uprooting of what had, for me, always been at arm’s length. 

Like everyone else I knew growing up, my own forests grew almost exclusively in the past and conditional tense, as what had already been cleared to make way for the city, or what would one day be paved and signposted for a weekend’s walk. It seemed a privilege to have such intimate awareness of one’s landscapes, even to know where to look for a knowledge of what was gone. 

It was too late for me to tear down that fence at the edge of my wood – but here I was, miles from my own disappearing forests, trying to come to terms with a more peripheral loss. 

II. 

Flying home each summer became synonymous with such absences. Fighting off the jet-lag on my commute from the airport, I’d keep count of the new malls and condominiums that had sprung from once-empty fields. The forests of my childhood hovered like a ghostly presence above the shape-shifting landscape, refusing to give up their place in my subconscious. 

One year, it was the deep wood behind our church, yanked away like a scab to show the red earth beneath. The next summer, it was a forest that arched over the side-gate of my secondary school, the last outcrop of an overgrown cemetery dug on its slopes. Years after the graves were exhumed, the last pockets of remaining forest were to be replaced by astroturf. All that remained were the old columbarium’s jade-green tiles: the boys would have their artificial grass. 

Back in 2007, when I first went to school there, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to fell a century-old tree that stood by a traffic flyover behind the campus. The decision – ostensibly, to protect motorists who might veer too close to its trunk – was thought to be prime-time material, and every news outlet reported on the tree’s fate. What seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves was that two years earlier, the same Authority had chosen to preserve the tree by building the three-lane flyover around it, but now decided that this was too dangerous after all. 

Never ones to forgo a ‘teachable moment’, our teachers organised classroom debates around the Authority’s decision, taking the chance to fix sentence structures as we made fervent arguments about ‘The Disasters of Development’ or ‘The Powers of Compromise’. It may be that too long has passed since then, but I struggle to recall if any of us actually took notice when the old angsana was felled. Like other roadside trees that had become inconvenient, it must have been hewn down under the cover of night; branch by branch, and out of sight. 

This episode is memorable for many reasons, not least for what it revealed of a school that dared to prepare us for the big questions of running the country, but not always for the small truths of living in it. For more than 150 years, it had produced men who thought themselves planters and planners; under their leadership, a gregarious young country had come of age. By the time I enrolled, the school had come to see itself as no less than a seeding-ground for the city’s elite. 

One Chinese proverb puts it this way: it takes ten years to cultivate a tree, a hundred to cultivate a man (or a people). The character for ‘cultivate’ has shades of meaning; here, it reads as the verb ‘to nurture’, but also as the noun for ‘tree’. Just as a garden must be pruned before it comes into bloom, I can almost hear my teachers say, one’s character can only flourish if it is trained and taught. Needless to say, the old colonial institution found itself faithful to the task.  

In 2015, some years after I graduated, the school was designated as a nomination centre for the parliamentary elections, and I made my way back to hear the candidates make their maiden speeches. One of the ruling party’s new faces that year was an alumnus, who happened to be running in the same constituency where the campus was. Stepping up to the podium, he gestured to the high-rise apartments on all sides, reminded of how his party had turned ‘swamps into showflats’, a success mirrored in the life-stories of his prospective constituents. 

Except, of course, it hadn’t – or at least, not here. A century and a half ago, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants had chosen the hilly, wooded area as a communal cemetery, and built two villages in the vicinity. One village came to be run by a federation of sixteen Cantonese clans, which oversaw a population of more than two thousand by the early 1900s. When the Japanese arrived in 1942, the high ground of the cemetery made it a natural staging-ground for many skirmishes, echoed in the bitter gang fights that erupted in the area after the British returned.   

From at least a century before the postwar government began its first housing project in Bishan, then, the area had been of no small significance to local communities, who negotiated their forested slopes into a precious resource for the living and dead. Perhaps I was naïve to expect more from a moment of glib electioneering, but something about how he waved history aside troubled me deeply. Our forests, it seemed, were forgotten long before they were even felled.  

III.

It is safe to say that no state has had a straightforward relationship with its forests. The word itself has tangled roots, signifying in Old English both woodland and hunting ground. Not long after the Norman Conquest, it became a legal term for the new aristocracy’s game preserves, and the ‘New Forest’ in South England was one of the oldest, so called. Later, the crown would find more uses for its forests: timber for the ships of empire, or vast tracts of land to reward loyal nobles with.    

To those in power, forests have always been equally tempting and forbidding. Abundant in riches, yet careful guardians of secrets, forests are fertile for conquest, but lend a safe haven to the rebel and exile. Little wonder that so many tales of resistance are set in sylvan surroundings, from the Green Knight’s duel with Gawain, to Robin of Sherwood’s egalitarian heroics. These stories have since arrived on stage and screen, most memorably in Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.   

Here, the same dynamics are evident. From the clearing of rainforest for plantation agriculture to the making of Western reputations on indigenous ‘discoveries’, Malaya’s forests were exploited by generations of colonial administrators, aided by the business classes that flourished on their watch. Early traders dealt in rare produce, while later merchants shipped rubber and tin to fuel a distant ‘industrial revolution’. The jungle itself was held at bay: one well-worn tale from my alma mater involves a former Headmaster shooting a tiger under the bar of the Raffles Hotel. 

After the Japanese left, the Malayan National Liberation Army took to the woods for a decade-long guerilla campaign against the British, and the tiger came to stand for Communism itself – or at least, the righteous and unpredictable fury of the anti-imperialist movement. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was said to have won power by ‘riding the tiger’, but the image of a ‘Garden City’ that he later promoted was far more amenable to investors from the West. Without irony, the country successfully applied for its colonial-era Botanic Gardens to be accorded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, exactly half a century after political independence. 

Much of this history remains visible in our urban geography. Old Peranakan houses financed by the plantations of an earlier era still stand along Orchard Road, which now serves as our main shopping belt. The Thai Embassy occupies the site of one such mansion, first acquired by King Chulalongkorn in 1880. A stone’s throw away, the President’s official residence – built entirely by convict labour – sits on the sprawling nutmeg slopes of Mount Sophia.  

Though sizeable tracts have already been lost to developmental projects, even the forests that survive are enlisted to the national purpose. During National Service, we’d drive out to ‘training plots’ across the island to watch 18-year-old recruits practice against an imaginary enemy. Occasionally, we’d find the ruins of demolished or abandoned villages, their crumbling walls now used as props for infantry maneuvers. No doubt, some of their former residents are still alive. Yet the Singapore they knew could well have been an altogether different place. 

These days, one hardly encounters ‘true’ forests in urban Singapore. Larger tracts line our landlocked reservoirs, and others fringe upon our mangrove waterways. Those closer to the city centre are whittled down or hemmed into ‘park connectors’, while rooftop palms cast a semblance of long-lost shade. We take perverse pride in our roadside trees and verges, tended to evergreen perfection by low-wage workers who spend difficult hours on these modern ‘plantations’. The Garden City remains verdant, while their labour provides the window-dressing.  

In late 2016, Singapore made an appearance on Planet Earth. It was the city’s debut on the series, despite playing host to an astonishing range of flora and fauna (including five hundred species discovered in the past five years). As David Attenborough’s narration went on, cameras homed in on the gleaming ‘Gardens By The Bay’, a 101-hectare development at the mouth of the Singapore River, which, the producers hoped, would point a way forward for urban greening. 

Unmentioned was the fact that this billion-dollar project sat entirely on reclaimed land, part of a coastline altered forever through the bulk purchase of sand from across the region – not to mention the destruction of marine ecosystems. And all the more unnoticed: how the Gardens’ two iconic greenhouses, built on earth stolen from the sea, seemed to represent the way in which a country had tamed its forests at long last, building for them an oasis of air-conditioned calm.    

IV.

The lines at the beginning of this essay are taken from Geoffrey Hill’s poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (1968), where they refer to the warm, cathedral stillness of the English church, open by custom – as they would have been in Hill’s day – to the homeless and destitute. There’s a wry nod to the 19th-Century architect Augustus Pugin (best known for having designed ‘Big Ben’), whose eponymous tract urged a return to an architectural style he saw as the ‘correct expression of the faith…and climate of our country’. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, those lines seem better suited for an older and more universal calm: the sense of earthy resolve that settles over us once we step into a forest’s hush. Despite our penchant for depicting forests as untamed and dangerous, they retain a capacity to carve reflective pauses out of our hyper-active days, even in the mere moments we spend beneath their canopies. Gone is the hard asphalt from beneath our feet. We feel the spring and crunch of leaves, a pleasing cool in the air, and the trees take us under their wing. 

It is for this reason, perhaps, that forests seem inseparable from belief. In January 2019, National Geographic ran a story on Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’, some of which date to the fourth century. Surrounded by harsh desert, these pockets of green envelop hand-painted buildings of wood and stone, lovingly maintained by the congregations of the Orthodox Tewahido Church. To them, the forest has always been ‘as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself’. 

A similar association persists in Singapore, albeit on a more prosaic scale. It’s hard to walk through any of our older estates without encountering a ‘tree shrine’: one of many meeting-places of Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic tradition, as ancient in their syncretism as this port-city itself. 

The question of where, and how, we worship is inextricably tied to what we rely on for a sense of welcome and security. Though our oldest ‘tree shrines’ are lost to time, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how those coming ashore in an earlier era would have found, in the forests’ calm repose, a refuge from the threatening seas. Or how the trees’ agnostic shade would have afforded a natural gathering-place for those with few shared languages or traditions.   

The part of Singapore where my first, lost forest is located is known as Tanah Merah – literally, ‘red earth’. Among the manuscripts available to us today, the name first appears on a 1604 map of the island by the Bugis-Portuguese travel writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. It was, as historians have surmised, a reference to the blood-red cliffs on the island’s eastern flank, which served as a navigational landmark for the orang laut, who have frequented our waterways for centuries. 

Those heights, once so reliable a guide, no longer exist, having been levelled in the 70s to extend our southeastern shoreline. Part of the area which became the housing estate where I grew up, while what was once known as Tanah Merah Besar (the ‘greater cliff’, as opposed to Tanah Merah ‘Kechil’, the ‘lesser’), was shorn down to make way for Changi Airport’s third terminal.  

I like to imagine that my own tree-topped hill was once part of another history, a past that reaches much further back, and remains open to much wider possibilities than the timeline we have grown accustomed to. In that history, its indomitable forest still stands, the crown jewel of a long red ridgeline beaming welcome and journey’s end to those out at sea. 

Being orphaned of that forest, what gives me a sense of refuge now are individual trees that, defying the city’s logic, have come to root deep in the mind’s terrain. In my final year at Oxford, I lived on the ground floor of Grove Building, an old house that looked over the city wall onto Merton Field, where James Sadler made England’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783. A tall redwood rose like a sundial over the lawn outside, throwing its deep shadow across my study table. 

Five years on, I am writing this in my office, nestled beneath the austere blocks of the Singapore General Hospital. Across from me, separated by a pocket of green, are the old dormitories of the King Edward VII College of Medicine, reassuring in their bauhaus simplicity, while a rain tree of unknown vintage reaches over the low buildings. On hot September afternoons, it casts a clean circle on the grass, as if inviting us to step away from our desks and breathe its cool. 

Trees such as these offer a universal, age-old belonging that seems radical in the modern metropolis. Unlike malls and cafes, islands of bourgeois respectability which have come to pass for ‘public space’; trees insist on their own place in the landscape, creating misshapen zones of rest, reverence, and play that are as safe as they are open. All are utterly welcome beneath their shade: their generosity, so unnatural to our present ethos, astounds us.

Lest we miss the forests for the trees, our true loss may well be this: a sense of the wider ecology in which we have lived and must live, a knowledge of the messy, mutual dependencies that belie the straight lines of our streets and stories. I started this essay to seek a language for the forests I had lost, but the histories retold here only begin to shed light on what new ways we might find to speak to each other. 

Words we might learn, that take our collective past and present into account. And make a path, perhaps, through the trees.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry and was shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and The London Magazine. He has edited several books of Singaporean writing and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry. His next collection, Moving House, will be released by Carcanet Press (UK) in June 2020.