Editor| Ng Xin
Contributing Writer | Tong Xueyin
Photographer | Audrey Lim
I’ve lived my whole life in the city-state of Singapore. As a child, I thought of nature as something I could only read about in storybooks – the wild moors, plains and rivers of other countries seemed so foreign to Singapore, where the land is mostly flat, and plants are tended to by gardeners and grown in tidy lines. That early impression still lingers with me today, and I always feel that I must travel far from the city in order to access “true” nature.
As I’ve grown older, though, the lines between city and nature, artificial and natural, have started to blur. Even though the trees in the Botanic Gardens and Bukit Timah were landscaped to perfection by urban planners, I am hesitant to simply dismiss them as man-made, because of the indelible mark that they have left on so many people’s memories and conceptions of nature. As the trees mature within the city, they are not only confined by its regulations, but shape our ideas of Singapore as a garden-city as well. Therefore, it seems to me that nature is, essentially, fluid and undefinable, a mishmash of our own personal projections and experiences.
Xueyin writes of the same struggle to pin 'nature' down:
Recently, I have been interviewing many nature conservationists on how they define ‘nature’. An innocuous question with a seemingly obvious answer, this question always leaves my interviewees bemused when asked to decide if an indoor ornamental plant is also ‘nature’ or ‘natural’. I have yet to find a decisive answer.
The myth of nature as pristine wilderness has long since been debunked by William Cronon. For nearly no place on Earth is entirely untouched by man, so wilderness is a human invention of great unnaturalness. Even Singapore, the greenest city in the world, is highly engineered –almost all of the forests in Singapore are agricultural land that has since regenerated; the ubiquitous raintrees that shape our imaginaries of the local landscape originate in Central America. That is not to say that our nature is fake. I am fine with people creating their own definitions of what nature is to them.
For me, nature is magical.
Back when I still lived in China as a toddler, I used to visit my nanny’s house, which was built next to a ditch that separated the houses from wild vegetation. On hot, humid summer nights, the sky would be covered with glittering stars that mirrored the countless fireflies lighting up the dark path. I loved catching these tiny lights in my hands and putting them into a small tinted glass bottle. They could barely light up a room, but the orange glow enchanted my young mind. Those were the days when I dug earthworms to feed my tortoises, and when I caught grasshoppers and dragonflies with my bare hands.
Now, pollution makes it impossible to see fireflies in cities. The stars are barely visible. The forest and nursery opposite my HDB flat have also been cleared to make way for more HDB flats. Has nature lost to urbanization? I do feel like something has been lost, but I’d like to believe in the magic of my childhood. I still hope that it is still out there somewhere in a hidden place waiting to be found.