When Nature Speaks, You Listen.


The tranquility of nature. Photo credit (c) 2008: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/lucasem

I’d like to ask you to observe a moment of silence and offer your prayers to the victims of the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide last Saturday. An editorial by New Straits Times called Courting Catastrophe seems to explain it all.

When I think of any particular year, I always think in terms of music. I didn’t notice it at first, but as this blog ages I  realize that my references to any particular year would always be followed by the songs of that year.

The 90’s was particularly bittersweet. I was young and the alternative and grunge movement was at its infancy, and perhaps, at its best. But I was also living the life of a dirt-poor university student which means I could not afford any of the albums. My wishlist consisted of compilation CDs (the Absolute Alternative series), faded button-fly Levi’s jeans and playing Super Mario Allstars on the SNES.

1993 was the year Pablo Honey which birthed the monster hit Creep was released and Nirvana exploded with In Utero. The Cranberries ruled the airwaves with Dream and Linger. Lenny Kravitz asked Are You Gonna Go My Way and U2 released the psychedelic Zooropa.

So many great songs in my personal rock history were part of 1993.  Shine by Collective Soul, The Drowners by Suede,  Bottom by Tool, Life Becoming a Landslide by Manic Street Preachers (whom I would have moshed to if the Bangkok 100 Rock Fes was not cancelled), Today by Smashing Pumpkins, All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crow, River of Dreams by Billy Joel, Mr Jones by Counting Crows, Daughter by Pearl Jam, Good by Better Than Ezra, Honest by Verve Pipe… just to name a few that comes to  mind. And old rock dudes Scorpion released Under the Same Sun while Meatloaf had a surprise hit with the lengthy and over-dramatic I’d Do Anything For Love.

More importantly, 1993 also brings to mind the sad events of Highland Towers collapse on December 11, 1993.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem that far off in the past.

I was at Lenny’s place and remember watching the live feed from her living room, all of us transfixed in silence and horror. You know why I remember? Because the next day we all went to Sg Congkak for a picnic. Funny how the  two events juxtaposed itself into one seamless memory peppered with rock references of that decade.

I grew up in Changkat Tin, Perak; it is so  tiny you won’t find it on google earth even if you tried. Regrowth of felled forests and hilly slopes are not something that I am unfamiliar with. I’ve seen animals roam free like wild boars and owls and all sorts of snakes and, occassionally, tigers. Older village folks claimed they have even seen elephants but I think they were kidding or they were smoking something good.

I have been lost many times in these backyard forests but always managed to find my way back at the nick of the hour right before dusk fell, usually with various cuts and bruises and a face blackened with grime and sweat followed by a good hiding from the parents. Sometimes my father even locked me out of the house, so I would creep into the car parked at the porch and stay in there until I could not tolerate the darkness or the sounds of the creatures of the night anymore and tapped so discreetly on the kitchen door so that my  mother would let me in.

Sometimes after the rain had fallen, Ina and I would gather our friends to look for mushrooms. If it rained especially heavy, we would catch fighting fish (we called them “Ikan Pilai”) from the small stream that would form downstream from the hill. Sometimes we played police and thief (that was what we used to call it, “Police and Thief”, no kidding) and strayed out of the usual path into parts of the forest that we were unfamiliar with and we would go round and round until we bumped into any of the Orang Asli (indigenous people) and they would point us in the right direction home.

Sometimes we wandered into the cemetery and climbed the many steps to the burial ground just to see who could get the numbers right (we never did). And once Ina fell at the bottom of the steps and skinned her knee with a cut so deep I received another good hiding from the parents because I didn’t keep an eye on her. We were not supposed to play near the cemetery steps. But you know how kids are.

We called our grandparents Nenek Sungai (River Grandma) and Nenek Darat (Land Grandma) to distinguish one from the other. When we went to Nenek Sungai’s house, no one batted an eyelid if we bathe in the river with crocs lazily swimming by. One rainy morning, I went down to the river during high tide and much to my surprise saw baby crocs swimming at the water’s edge. During durian season we would sleep over at Nenek Darat’s house so that we could hunt for the durians as soon as it dropped. She used shout at us to be careful because tigers have been known to spring out of nowhere since they too have a penchant for the fruit.

I don’t know how many times I had to peel big fat leeches off my neck or back or thighs or other unmentionable parts of my (then) tiny body. We used to watch in amusement as they suffered the dance of death when we poured salt onto their slimy beings. I have scars everywhere, on my knees, on my face, on my body, on my shins, on my head (yes). I  remember one time Nenek Sungai complained and said no one would marry me coz my knees were perpetually scarred or bleeding.

When I was 16, I was part of the army cadet and we were training for an ambush in Muka Head (or was it Teluk Bahang?), Penang. We had to stay up for solitary  sentry, sprawled there on the wet ground while it rained all night in the middle of the jungle somewhere. I was shivering and could not speak because I was too cold. But when the rest of the girls discussed about  how scary it was, I could not relate. Why would it be scary?

For a long time I didn’t realize how unusual the experience of growing up in a place and situation where nature is part of your daily life is to a lot of people. I didn’t know any better and had nothing to compare it to. So I thought everyone grew up that way.

I don’t know if I want my children to have the same experience. I don’t think that far. I can’t even think beyond what to wear tomorrow. It was a happy and problem-free existence, beyond the occassional scolding and caning  by the parents (and on some of those occassions, I am sure I totally deserved it). I grew up unafraid and curious. I grew up knowing without any doubt that there is always a way. My friends would have heard me say that a million times. You don’t get lost in a forest on a regular basis and not learn a thing or two about finding your way out. There wasn’t any other choice.

And I understand the pull of wanting to abandon the city life and stay somewhere where trees grow wild. Whatever was the reason for these people to choose Bukit Antarabangsa, I am sure being close to nature was a factor that they considered.

The nature that I  remember is a playful, enchanting mistress.  How sad that it is the same nature that dealt this terrible blow. The blaming game is already heading towards half-time. But in case we forget, 48 perished in the Highland Towers tragedy 15 years ago. 13 landslides have been reported in the area since then. And last Saturday, it claimed 4.

Change is no longer an option. When nature speaks, listen.


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