From a tall, neat city with straight-backed buildings looking down on wide streets, we travelled on hot roads, cocooned in air conditioning and slightly tinted windows, until we reached narrower tracks and rows of green. Bleary and almost mute with tiredness, we thanked our hosts for jugs of water and clean, soft rice and piles of vegetables clothed in spices, and slept to the whirring of a fan until cockerels broke through the noisy, humming tropical night. We ate breakfast, quiet with anticipation, then climbed on to the back of motorbikes and headed for the forest. Tensing ourselves for balance as we swept into and out of patches of shade and glided nimbly around roots and rutted mud, we gave in to excitement as the forest closed in above us. The restoration site materialised; a slender cabin on stilts, and rows of new life pushing through the soil around it.
The days there had a rhythm both industrious and peaceful. Early mornings were for planting and tending and combing the primary forest nearby for tiny shoots starting life in the rich safety of elephant dung. We listened and learned and marvelled at what had been done in this new forest resurrected from bare earth in the aftermath of the deforestation that came before. We dug our hands into cool, damp soil and packed it tightly into tubes of plastic sacking, ready to receive the next generation of trees. When it was done, we sat in the still air and listened to the life surrounding us.
The heat at midday cast a spell over everyone, and we slept through the fiercest, burning hours. In the afternoon, the thunder cracked to our left and gibbons whooped and sang to our right, in the forest near yet far. Later, we stirred from our stillness in the relief of a cool breeze that made the trees whisper and tremble, just slightly. The elephants came then, browsing in the distance with heads swinging – characteristically, unhurriedly – as they seemed to glide through the green around them. They called to each other, and it rooted us to the spot. When they melted back into the forest, we returned to our contemplation. A gecko, the pale yellow of butter, with jewel-black eyes, crept along a gap in the wooden slats above, and ants joined forces to move crumbs along the ground. The thunder still threatened over the distant sound of evening prayer, but the ground stayed dry, soil becoming dust as it clung to our feet. As the fading light drew muted grey over the cabin and the trees, the smell of dusk hung sweetly, darting away if we tried too hard to breathe it in. At night, large spiders with a curious, lumbering gait skittered audibly away from our torch beams as we moved ourselves to bed, and the cabin seemed to sigh with us as we breathed slowly into sleep.
On the last day, we planted trees ourselves, reverent and careful as we guided pale, fragile roots into the ground. We covered them and watered them, and watched insects, more insects than we’d ever seen, go busily about their day in the adult trees around us. Life in all sizes was everywhere we turned; loud and quiet and beautiful and alarming, and just as it should be.
The restoration site featured in this piece is a project of Orangutan Information Centre, an incredible organisation whose staff and volunteers do great things to preserve Sumatra’s biodiversity and human health. Please follow their work, and support them if you can.
All photos courtesy of Andrew Walmsley Photography.