All Will Come Again Into Its Strength

Journeys into Singapore's Clementi Forest

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Photos by Louisa May Fung

What should it feel like to walk through a forest that is going to die?

A gleaming moon this morning, pale in the curve of its socket. Far stars like dewdrops of light above it. Down the trail into the woods, thick drifts of mist still cloak the river and the clearing beyond, turning the sharp shapes of trees soft and grey. The world of traffic snarl and smoke from which we came is quickly forgotten as the five of us move further along the thin path, deeper and deeper into a shroud-land of fog and dawn dew.

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Lilies dappling the surface of the water as the river tapers to a stream, and a rising sun beginning to burn the mist off, flaring over the grass-blades and leaf-edges.

Everything fragile in the tenderness of the hour; in the knowledge that all of this might one day disappear.

Gaunt in its dimensions but richly dense for its size, the Clementi Forest is a patch of woodland that lies to the west of Singapore. Path, road and railway surround it on all four sides — King Albert Park to the north, Holland Road to the south; Clementi Road by its western fringe, and the Green Corridor to its east, paved over the tracks and sleepers of the old Keretapi Tanah Melayu line.

The Clementi Woodlands to some; Holland Woods to others still, this forest goes by many names. It is a treasure trove of more-than-human life. Surveys of the woods have recorded an ecological diversity defying the smallness of its landmass, estimated to be just 80ha. Its birdlife alone composes a mesmerising taxonomy. 78 bird species, resident and migratory, have been recorded in the forest, and this amounts to 21% of the total bird species recorded across the entire country. Oriental Pied Hornbill, Violet Cuckoo, Buffy Fish Owl, Asian Drongo-cuckoo, Spotted Wood Owl, Changeable Hawk-eagle, names on the tongue outpacing the images that the mind can conjure; so many names that list seems to evolve into spell — as if you could intone them to sight from the dark undergrowth and clouded canopy, and speak them into sharp-winged being.

This richness and its magic are partly why I’ve come to the forest today, together with Jonathan, Louisa, Sara and Samuel. We’d all seen a video of Clementi Forest that had gone viral on social media the last few weeks: a slow-panning view of a sea above a river, an ocean of mist making a ghost of the jungle as it snaked along the canalised waterway. We wanted to see it for ourselves.

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I’d grown up near the forest my entire life, but it had always sat uncomplicatedly at the edge of my vision and awareness. It was largely ornamental to me, viewed in flickering glimpses from the road as my bus trundled past. Walking into the woods this morning, however, I’m discovering it to be a paradise both habitable and usable. Parakeets flock above us, chittering darts of green in a far sea reflected as sky. Below, the footfall of previous walkers has worn the soil and undergrowth into a trail, offering an invitation into the woodland’s depths.

We brush by threads of cattails and tapioca flowers; scrambling over their roots coiled across the mud, slipping down the mud turned into marsh by heavy rains. At a thin stream trickling into the river, we cross to the other bank with varying levels of grace. Louisa goes first, jumping wide and landing on firm ground. I take a breath and try to match her step, but my boot sinks just shy of the mark into sodden earth. Behind me comes a cry and a splash, and I turn to see Jon knee-deep in the stinking marsh. Sara, having witnessed Jon’s botched leap, resigns herself to the terrain and simply sloshes through the muck. As we laugh and wince at her mud-caked shoes, Sam emerges from further up the trail, clean and dry. ‘There was another path,’ he shrugs.

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Sam is the only one of us who has been into this forest before. More than a decade ago, wracked by personal trauma, he began seeking out what was left of Singapore’s wild spaces in a search for landscapes that could offer escape and healing. He came to call these landscapes the In-between Places, assembling the photographs he’d made of them into a visionary album of the same title. These lands were felt as in-between, he wrote, because the sanctuary they offered cannot be experienced solely by corporeal senses. They have to be perceived in other ways. Here, yet not here, to the uninitiated.

Other, darker expressions of the phrase began to resolve as the album came together. By the time of its completion, almost all of those landscapes had changed irrevocably — lost entirely to redevelopment, or altered beyond recognition. A freshwater stream in the Clementi Forest that he’d photographed, wider and less sedimented than the mud-course of today, was bulldozed into a concrete drain. These were also in-between places, in that they sat uneasily between present beauty and future desolation, perennially threatened.

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Sam’s photograph of the stream in Clementi Forest, made just months before its obliteration in 2009. Samuel Chia, 'In-between Places', 2018

The Clementi Forest is an in-between place, and this informs the other purpose for our visit today. Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan, the forest has been marked out for eventual residential development into housing estates and MRT stations. If the plan is followed — as so many plans have been — then all of this will be gone one day, the mist and the flowers and the birds, fouled into up-ended earth and churned mud. A forest that is going to die, as so many other places have. We’re here this morning to experience the day’s warmth on our backs and its green glint in the eyes, but we are also here as archivists and harbingers — preparing for a steadily-looming future, recording the forest for a time when it might exist only in the past.

More birds begin to stir as the dawn lengthens. Swifts dart through the open space above a clearing, cutting the air with their sickle-blade wings. Pink-breasted pigeons churr from Albizia branches rising into a blueness of sky. As I listen to them coo and call, I am reminded, suddenly, of how Malay pantuns have traditionally figured birds like the pigeon as symbols of longing and nostalgia. Dari mana punai melayang, dari paya turun ka-padi; Dari-mana kaseh sayang, dari mata turun ka-hati, reads one love poem. Whence doth the pigeon turn his glancing flight? Down to the ricefields from the heaven’s height. Whence cometh love and whence may longing start? From the eyes glancing it will reach the heart. Metaphor merges sight-line and flight-line; the dove’s plunge from far sky to paddy field mirrors the spark of longing that draws lovers together.

Where other strands of longing do not resolve as easily as the pantun’s, the iconography of the region turns again to birds as totems of such yearnings. For a people whose cosmologies and lives were rooted deeply to the land, the flightiness of birds came to represent transience and departure. Travelling merchants and seamen, whose trades took them far across the waves, often fashioned their boat structures after the bodies of birds, identifying with the animals’ constant movement away from home and its accompanying nostalgia.

The threat facing the Clementi Forest, however, cruelly reverses these motifs. The symbol comes to suffer what it symbolizes — when this forest is gone, it will be the birds themselves which lose habitat and home. What will exist here is a homesickness that persists whilst still within a home, an early grief anticipating the devastation of a landscape one has never left. The name for such a grief is solastalgia, and it arises when environmental change impacts those who are directly connected to their home environment. Where the longing of nostalgia can be resolved by returning home, solastalgia is the helpless witnessing of your home destroyed before your very eyes.

So great in the scale of its displacements, the kinds of moving-away in the Anthropocene are more inexorable than we have ever known. A homeland can change unrecognizably around you, without you ever having left it. I stand there listening to the birds, and I shudder to imagine a day when the long list of their names evolves terminally — from taxa and spell, into memorial.

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The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch for the unprecedented age in which we live. In stratigraphy, epochs can be identified and defined by the mark they leave in the earth’s geological record: glacial deposits from the Pleistocene’s great ice ages, for example, or the fossils of species that flourished in the climate stability of the Holocene.

The idea that we are living in a new age, with extensive and often catastrophic environmental changes of its own, has grown in prominence over the last decade. The impact of mankind’s activity has become a major geological force, defining this epoch by the work of our hands: Anthropocene, the age of human beings. Because it is a measure of what our activity will leave behind, the Anthropocene is also largely a history of extensive scarring — toxic chemicals from oil well blowouts scorched into the soil, microplastics settling in great dunes on the deepest ocean floors; the vast tracts of natural forest cleared out for the farming of monocultures. It is an age whose changes take the shape of damage and loss.

Traces of the Anthropocene relentlessly dog our journey through the woodlands and out onto the Green Corridor. The forest cuts abruptly at an iron fence, through whose gaps we emerge into a gravel-strewn clearing. Around us lie strips of plastic construction tape, and yawning cross-sections of disused piping. We walk past plastic bottles, discarded surgical masks, and more corrugated fencing, cutting off portions of the woods from entry. They tell of what this forest’s eventual death might look like, and, like little omens, portend a wider extinction event yet to come.

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As we head south along the Corridor, Sara speaks of her grandmother’s death. She had written about their relationship shortly before her passing, a recollection winding gently between homeland and heart, remembering their lives by the east coast before land reclamation shifted the shoreline entirely. Grandma told me about how she used to take walks with Grandpa to the beach, and how the salty smell of the sea would waft mischievously through the house in the evening, Sara wrote. Now, between her house and the sea lie tar roads, bustling hawker centres, markets, malls.

After her grandmother’s death, she tells us, the loss was felt as an unmooring. This was the only word she could find that would say something for the speechless grief of the months. Through this word, the loss of her grandmother and their neighbourhood settled together into the same ground of longing — a ship losing its anchor, a sea unfixed from its coastland, and the land itself lost to modern development, harrowing the shape of memory.

Sara is not the only one to have felt the deaths of person and place as such keenly similar wounds. Listening to his dying father intone childhood streets that no longer exist, Boey Kim Cheng wrote of how it was as if he was piecing together the alleys, / the streets and neighbourhood / of his body, reassembling / the ruined city / of his vanished self. By writing dying flesh as ruined place, Boey speaks of how tightly-woven a land can be to relationship and personhood. It echoes as a warning of how greatly the disruptions of the Anthropocene could unmoor us all. The landscapes we live within provide comfort, solace and familiarity, and their features form the contour of the ways in which we have loved and lost one another.

This is a hurt that turns reciprocal. Where losing a person can be bound up with losing a place, the death of a place can also feel like the death of a person. The poet Leong Liew Geok memorialises this in her record of a beloved albizia’s felling, as she figures the violence done to it with the shock of abduction, then murder. Vanished without smoke, the tree outside her window is shot from one spota triple execution. In her poem, she grieves for it as if it were human, and grieves the fact that we so often do not. If trees could yell in decibels / drown the drone of saws / in final screeching falls / we might be less careless / to cut and carry so efficiently. Fallen albizia branches mark the path down the Green Corridor, amputated from their trunks, and Leong’s poem shades the way with a foreboding potency.

Not all of the Anthropocene’s terrains, however, provoke only devastation and despair. As we follow the bitumen track down towards Holland Road, the landscape on either side falls away under a fierce flush of sunlight. The pathway we stand on ridgelines between each end, and the view to which it opens up is maybe one of the most beautiful things I have seen in this country.

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To our left, a river courses down its channel, a deep gouge of concrete built to guard the grounds from the storm surge of other canals flowing from the city. It takes its water from Sumatran squalls bursting those banks, such that the source of this river is not soil, but sky. Once, the channel was a long line of unbroken water, cutting through Old Holland Road and the southern edge of the Clementi Forest, emptying itself out into mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Pandan Reservoir. Known as the Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal, it was widened three years ago, and the other side of the channel was infilled with topsoil and transformed into a grassy gully. Past spilling creepers and granite weirs, the water flows now from open air into a cavernous hollow going under the earth, over which the Clementi Forest roots itself again in clay and stormwater.

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This is one of my favourite places to run to, and I think the same can be said of the many people that I often pass by here — families, walking groups, photographers and cyclists. I’ve seen runners stop mid-stride along the track, needing more than a few moments to take in the lushness of everything around them. Egrets and whimbrels overwinter in the mini-deltas growing around the river, and in the gully, people descending to explore it tramp desire paths into the soil.

So much of this, however, remains a complicated space. It was to feed this channel that Sam’s stream and other forest habitats were concretised and torn apart, razed to make way for roads, rivers and houses. Yet at the same time, I am cognizant of how these are the same paths and dwellings which have brought others and myself into closer contact with the storm of life still seething at the forest’s heart. By the banks and at the edge of the woods, natural and human worlds are colliding into each other, and all of this becomes a kind of common ground — people of all colours and creeds, returning to the land, falling slowly in love with it.

For some long moments, the five of us stand in the bright morning’s gilding and look out. In spite of the wider forest’s imminent loss, and in defiance of the year’s compounded griefs, a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Pilgrimage blazes itself in my mind:

All will come again into its strength:

the fields undivided, and the waters undammed,

the trees towering and the walls built low.

And in the valleys, people as strong

and varied as the land.

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The Anthropocene is partly a forward-looking, imaginary exercise, because it wonders what future civilisations will make of this age — what sorts of ruins they will they uncover, and what lasting environmental damages they will have to live with. The questions raised by the Anthropocene, however, also reach down to our present moment with a pressing immediacy. The wider Anthropocene, says the writer Robert Macfarlane, asks the question: are we being good ancestors? As we ascend the gully and slip again into the undergrowth of the Clementi Forest, however, I find it also demanding of us: are we being good parents? How much of this forest will remain for our children to explore as we have; to keep and be kept by? The Anthropocene wonders what we leave to the distant citizens of a future, altered earth, but it also asks what we leave to the next decade’s generation in our particular, specific localities.

Viewed through such a lens, the need to conserve the Clementi Forest escalates in urgency. We currently stand to rob our children of perhaps the single richest biodiversity enclave outside of protected nature reserves, which forms a crucial ecological corridor between Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and other pockets of green areas: Maju Forest to the West, and Greenleaf Forest to the East. Now, more than ever, we have to work with policymakers and engage them in critical conversations about the future of the forest. The relentless quest for growth and population management must be informed with an awareness of how important this place is. It underpins the survival of wildlife and flora in all their rhythms of foraging, pollinating, and growing strong again in a land they share, however uneasily, with us.

As we consider all that we stand to lose, the grief and solastalgia of the Anthropocene must become the first survival skills of our own in this age — spurring us on to activity, rather than resigned passivity.

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I am, however, also painfully aware of how the odds remain stacked against such efforts. Recent history displays how often conservation takes a back seat in the list of considerations for this island’s ongoing development. In 2017, thirty hectares of forest and two of the last freshwater streams left in Singapore were razed by the URA to make way for private housing projects, leaving behind just two tiny plots of woodland. And in 2019, not even protected areas were spared — the Ministry of Transport decided that, for cost savings, the planned Cross Island Line would tunnel directly beneath the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, with potentially huge disruptions to surrounding forest habitat.

The language with which decision-makers speak of these developments — these destructions — often pits the interests of the human against the more-than-human, implying that one interest necessarily outweighs the other. Skirting around the reserve would have caused major residual impact for residents due to visual elements, such as activities at above-ground worksites, whereas direct tunnelling with ‘mitigation measures’ could reduce the impact magnitude on the forest to small, bringing down the overall impact significance to moderate. The arbitrary nature of this assessment is curious, with temporary urban mess considered ‘major’ and the lasting ruination of forested habitat deemed ‘small’. But what is more harmful is the reinforced idea that human and natural interests are separate.

The reality is that these interests often intermix, and are in many ways reliant on one another. Just as our threatened landscapes need our protection to persist and survive, so too does our own living depend on their presence and persistence. Because they help purify the smog-choked air, forested areas near neighbourhoods are often termed green lungs in ecological parlance, an organ for our most basic function of survival.

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We depend on these places psychologically and spiritually too, sometimes for the simplest act of keeping us sane. In The Wilderness Letter, the novelist Wallace Stegner wrote that we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. I thought about this often as I ran the Green Corridor during the circuit breaker, when the outdoors was the last place of sanity available to us. People thronged the ridgeline back then; all, like me, stilled into quiet wonder beneath great saga trees and sunsets un-hazed by exhaust — a local vision of Stegner’s words, realized in their full. These are benefits, reliances and potentials of places like the Clementi Forest which do not fit easily into the hard data demanded of our present conservation calculus. They often refuse easy notice or quantifiable record, but their effects shape and change our lives in ways that are undeniable.

Our technology and policy, argues Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, is a planetary hammer, breaking…part of our only home. But what directs the planetary hammers that we hold in our hands today are our desires, values and priorities. What the Clementi Forest needs now then, are people whose acts of imagination can collectively shift the hammer’s direction. This is a call for photographers, artists, ecologists, hikers, naturalists; more archivists of what we hold precious, and other harbingers pushing back a tune of loss. Policy-makers are ultimately held accountable to the desires and priorities of a population, and we must believe that our multi-disciplinary expressions of love and care for this forest can reflect a shift in priority towards being good stewards of these threatened landscapes.

The hope for this becomes the second critical art of living on a damaged planet: if grief pushes us to action, then hope must sustain it, and lend us a fervency to match our urgency.

Living in the Anthropocene, then, means holding the tension of a great many things together. The same modernisation, building our homes close to the natural areas we grow to love, is what threatens to raze so much more of it. Each day we mourn a long list of lost lands, even as we find new ways of loving what’s left. Grief and hope; despair and resolve — it is a dance we are still learning, a balance we wrestle to keep.

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Interestingly, the Clementi Forest’s own past gives us an already-existing glimpse at how this balance might be kept, and how these tensions might be held together.

As much as the forest has become an ark housing an incredible range of plant and animal species, the variety of this biodiversity also bears the phantom traces of human activity. The woodland was once a rubber plantation, one of many others that coated Singapore in vast tracts of monoculture farms, and for which its primary forests were razed. The plantation fell into disuse during the Second World War, and as the KTM Railway expanded, tracks came to intersect the land en route to industrial facilities in Jurong. Small, scattered kampung settlements began to grow around the tracks, and their peoples brought with them their gods and their seeds. In the earth, they built stone shrines, and cultivated plots of durian, jambu and langsat around them. To walk into the forest today is not to encounter a pristine, untouched wilderness, but to pass through the ghostways and memory-paths of a land layered with human use.

Much of the flora recorded in modern-day land surveys is a composition of the old rubber trees and the kampungs’ food plants, persisting where their farmers had long abandoned the settlements for denser neighbourhoods elsewhere. But such surveys also bear witness to a history of resurrection. Alongside these species, other native and threatened plants have begun to thrive, rewilding the once-barren rows of rubber trees. A 2012 survey noted the discovery of five critically endangered, two nationally endangered, and twelve nationally vulnerable species, sinking roots into the soil alongside two species previously presumed to be nationally extinct — the pulasan, and the terrestrial orchid.

What this all means is that, in the time and space afforded by the years, the forest has found its way into a slow kind of renewal and uplift. Life rises again in this land; albizias soaring skywards above water lilies blanketing the streams, orchids curling up durian and rambutan trunks. It is a record of anthropogenic use and natural regrowth, twining together into a fierce resurgence.

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All will come again into its strength; as the Clementi Forest has. It seems to me that the poem which came to my mind atop the ridgeway was not just a vision of a distant and unrealised future, but also a record of a history that has already taken place. From what was once a barrenness, the woodland has resolved again into a kind of strength — far from a virgin, primary forest, but a strength nonetheless, composed from the work of our hands and the richness of the soil. Given the right conditions to grow again, the proud flowering canopies of the forest seem to lend a new, brighter shape to the evolving expressions of Sam’s in-between places. This is a land whose beauty has gathered from the space in between the urban and the wild, dressed by our human hands and kept in the shelter we have thus far afforded it.

The Clementi Forest, understood in the fullness of its history, offers a powerful vision for how we might re-imagine our relationship to Singapore’s landscapes, and how we might balance the double-edges of the Anthropocene. Being good stewards of its threatened lands might mean little more than what we have already done, however inadvertently, for this particular plot of land: carefully cultivating, repopulating, and crucially, allowing it time and space to come again into its own.

Its unique ecologies and features teach us valuable lessons. A forest does not have to be pristine and untouched to harbour life, and our human hands are capable of nurturing as much as neutering. These woodlands speak back, in birdsong and the trickle of streams, against the dangerous idea that nature is at its best without our presence. They also scream, in the felling of trees and the gutter of bulldozers, that there is urgent work to be done. The forest’s resurrection, and the tutelary potential accompanying it, has meaning only if it is allowed to last.

If the URA’s Master Plan follows through, then all that the forest has shown and taught us will have been for nothing — becoming, again, just another name in a litany of lost lands.

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U p the gully, back down the gully, through groves of bamboo and past the red shells of beetles showing as fire in the late morning. We emerge onto Holland Road covered in mud and sweat, and above us, clear sky foams off into the slightest greys of dark clouds forming. We catch a bus to Bukit Timah Hawker Centre, talk and laugh over bowls of congee, and head home along a road that glitters in the sun.

The next few days blur back into the humdrum of everyday life, but the memory of our morning in the forest roots itself firmly in my mind. In between sleep and daydreams, I keep thinking of the path running through the woods, twisting by streams laden with mist, overhung with curtains of leaves and flowers. In the evenings, I run the Green Corridor again and again, drawn back to the forest and its ghostways.

On one of these evenings, I pause along the ridgeway. Around me, acts of loving and living are shaping the land by the Clementi Forest. Migrant brothers take rest beneath the shade of rain gardens, enjoying time and space on their day off. Two lovers on the ridge wrap their arms around each other, watching the sun start to dip; walking past them, domestic workers take photos of the ravine to send home to loved ones. And down in the gully, beneath towering trees, a mother and her children make their way across the once-wounded earth.

Something seems to come over all of them then, some mix of wonder and stillness, as the sunset sliver burns the flats of the thunderheads mauve. The day ebbs and hands remain clutched tight. Rilke’s words settle in my mind, all at once, as a history, an observation, and a hope: the fields undivided, the waters undammed, the trees towering and the walls built low.

And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.

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A poem by Jonathan Chan, written some days after our walk in the woods

To sign a petition calling for the protection of the Clementi Forest, please visit this link. A community-led proposal for various conservation efforts, such as the building of an elevated boardwalk along the forest’s main waterway, can also be found here.

A copy of Samuel’s album, In-between Places, is available for viewing at the National Library. His other photographs can also be found at @samueljohnchia on Instagram. More of Louisa’s work can be viewed at @louisamayfung on Instagram, and Jonathan’s poetry and essays can be read here.

Although the Clementi Forest is, and should be, a common ground open to all, please be mindful of its fragile ecosystems when visiting. As of December 2020, parts of the trail have been steadily eroding under increasing amounts of human traffic and monsoon rains. Give the land time to recover if needed, and follow the general principles of trailwalking: kill nothing but time, take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints.

Works referenced

‘All will come again into its strength’, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1905

‘Are we being good ancestors? Mostly, no’, The Guardian, 2020

The Clementi Forest, Nature Society (Singapore), 2016

‘Dari mana punai melayang’, Traditional Love Pantun, C.W. Harrison’s translation, 1907

Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, ed. by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, 2020

In-between Places, Samuel Chia, 2018

Mitigation Measures can cut wildlife impact of cross island line running under nature reserve: LTA, The Straits Times, 2019

‘Placenames’, Boey Kim Cheng, 2006

Reclamation: Nature, City and Memory in Singapore, Sara Merican, 2020

Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change’, Glenn Albrecht, 2007

‘Trees are only Temporary’, Leong Liew Geok, 1991

The Vascular Plant Flora of Abandoned Plantations in Singapore I: Clementi Forest’, Louise Neo, Alex T. K. Yee, K. Y. Chong and Hugh T. W. Tan, 2012

The Wilderness Letter, Wallace Stegner, 1960

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