Jungle – and the English countryside

When we in England think of jungle, we think of tropical rainforest – like the Amazon, or Burma, or the Congo, or . . . well, Darkest Africa in general. Impenetrable, humid, dripping – towering buttressed trees – hanging, tangling, strangling lianas – army ants, poison frogs, birds of paradise, pigmy hippopotami.

All true – but not the whole story.

‘Jungle’ is originally an Indian word. In Sanskrit – the Latin of the Indian Sub-continent – jangala means arid, sparsely treed and uncultivated land. According to Sir Henry Yule’s indispensible and exhaustive ‘Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive‘, (1886):

‘The native word means in strictness only waste, uncultivated ground; then, such ground covered with shrubs, trees or long grass; and thence again the Anglo-Indian application is to forest, or other wild growth, rather than to the fact that it is not cultivated’.

In other words, it doesn’t have to mean tropical rainforest. It just has to mean that it’s land and vegetation left to its own devices.

We could do with a bit more jungle in England.

According to Professor Oliver Rackham:  ‘The great enemy of the English countryside is tidiness’.  I have been quoting this to whoever will listen since I first read Professor Rackham’s ‘The History of the Countryside’ (1986). I list all the personally known local examples of what were once wild corners now tidied up – the old sandpits now a cultivated field; the scrub in the corner now incorporated into the paddock; the rough pasture now part of a golf course. I mention the nightingale and the theory that its decline may be due to the tidying up of the rough tangles of undergrowth it so likes to skulk in. I may even confess that I have been guilty of the crime myself – there were lizards and garden warblers in our half acre of neglected field the first summer we moved in. Then we fenced it round and brought a pony in and put up a hay barn and a shed. We never saw either lizards or garden warblers again.

Unfortunately, as far as I can now make out, Professor Rackham never actually wrote the “quote” above.  I seem to have invented it.  Or rather – in my defence – it seems to be my distillation of what he does say, repeatedly and throughout his writings.  He speaks, for example, of ‘the blight of tidiness which every year sweeps away something of beauty or meaning.’ (28).  He notes the ‘often unconscious vandalisms that hate what is tangled and unpredictable’ (28).  He laments that even ‘Churchyards, alas, are not exempt from the idolatry of tidiness’ (344).

He is particularly scathing about the treatment of trees :

‘In the 1960s many influences conspired against non-woodland trees . . . . worse for young trees was the fashion for tidiness. Hedging and trimming formerly done carefully once in five to ten years were now done hastily every year. A man with a tractor, ‘brushing’ a ditch bank, could now cut off a thousand saplings in an hour without noticing that they were there.’ (225)

And :

‘The land is full of young trees which would grow into big trees if tidy-minded people did not cut them down’ (29)

Most poignant of all :

‘Old overgrown hedges, full of blossom in spring and set with hollow ivy-tods and other reminders of antiquity, are part of the romance of the English landscape. We remember them from our childhood and see them in the pictures of Constable and Arthur Rackham and the verses of John Clare; we see them still in places that have escaped the vandal hand of tidiness.’ (186)

I discovered Professor Rackham when I was lent a copy of his book by a friend. I was transfixed. He wrote of ancient hedgerows, of ditch and bank boundaries , of wood pastures and of dells. I saw familiar woods anew : the divisions within them, relics of older times and landscape; the trees arisen now from neglected coppice; the industry that once thrived on their growth. Suddenly the countryside became a yet richer place in which to move and have my being . . .

Well, to go for a walk in anyway.  I recommend you read it.


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