23 March 2017

Dispatches from the jungle


I made this drawing sitting in the conservatory at Kew yesterday. The soundtrack was sometimes long stretches of quiet, just the scraping of hand spades and a fountain trickling, and then sudden bursts of schoolchildren on educational tours. The adults pointing out the marvel of banana plants, the kids delighting in the wishing well and maybe the jungley magic of it all.

I felt so at home sketching in that steamy warmth, the familiar-to-me scent of a thousand tangled plants taking in light and nutrients from the air. My bones, too, drink in the comfortable temperature and my whole body feels at ease and at home.

Not that my native Cape Town is by any means tropical, but it is sometimes hot.

I spent a couple of very happy years teaching in Petchaburi, Thailand, a provincial town in the rice paddies south of Bangkok, in the mid nineties. I learned to love the smells and sounds of the moist tropics, that gentle humid air and the laid back ease which seems to be a part of rural Thai life.  Later, when I was living in Japan and still teaching English, I kept coming back to Thailand for a break from the formality of Japanese small town living.


I remember lying in my hammock on the second or third day of a cycling trip along the Thai side of the Mekong in early 2000, trying to make this drawing while also keeping up a rickety conversation with one of the young women who was helping to run the guesthouse.

She was delighted that I could speak some Thai, and although I don't remember much what we spoke about, I remember feeling so sorry that I couldn't answer her great curiosity about life outside Thailand as well as I would have liked to, in my passable by but no means fluent Thai. She got called to help with dinner, and I was relieved to be able to get back to my travel sketch.

So many years later, I'm still crazy mad keen to find some way of expressing that tangled tropical leafy beauty. I'm still not satisfied that my drawings do it justice, but the greater victory is that I have started to understand that the results of my drawings have got nothing to do with anything.

Drinking in the leaf shapes, textures and colours while responding to the plants and scenery as best I can on paper, is a love song, enough in itself.

May I learn to be content with that, and to let go of the results.