MacRitchie, Raj, and the CRL

Back in my darkened room, I opened the photograph on my laptop for the first time in years. It was 3 am. I had spent the last few hours out on the dried lakebed, huddled with friends on blankets, faces held up to the sweeping bowl of sky. Even here, at the edge of the suburban sprawl of the college campus, the stars held firm and bright. We tried and named what constellations we could, searching for shapes in the darkness, stories to make, hushed, to each other, while we waited for shooting stars. One came in the end, out of the corner of my eye, a white streak arrowed between the canopies of the trees. It hovered for an immortal, wondrous second there, and then there was only the deep silhouettes.

I had found out a few minutes after that, scrolling through social media as I returned to the dormitory. When I got back, I dug through the accumulated detritus of files through the years—half-finished blog posts, grant applications, project presentations—till I finally uncovered the photograph. Hunched over at my desk, the blanket drawn around me, I stared at the bright screen till my eyes hurt.

***

In a fit of pre-collegiate overenthusiasm, I accidentally deleted all the pictures I took in my first few years around MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore, so it’s a miracle that file survived at all. I remember the day I took the image clearly for several reasons. It was one of the only times the MacRitchie walks—as I always called them, though the nature walks shifted through a variety of monikers through the years—started from the main entrance of the nature reserve, as opposed to a side entrance halfway through the eleven-kilometre jogging path that looped through the rainforest around the reservoir. It was also one of the only times my mother had attended one of these nature walks with me, which meant I hadn’t needed to worry about a ride back home after. And it was a few days after the forest had burned.

Balancing a degree above the equator, Singapore does not generally worry about rainfall. But by that March, weeks had already passed without a dark cloud on the horizon. What had at first been a welcome couple of days where no one worried about bringing an umbrella when they left the house lengthened into a distinct unease. The grass had started to yellow and shrivel; when you walked over a field, the ground crackled, like static. People said drought, El Niño, and back then a little more hesitantly, global warming.

A year had already passed since I started coming to MacRitchie for these walks. One of my teachers had told me about them. With all the fervour of a lonely fourteen-year-old in want of a fresh obsession, I went as often as I could, turning up laden with a camera I barely knew how to handle and a seemingly endless supply of questions. Why did that tree look like that? What birds ate this kind of fruit? How did you know where to find them? What kind of snakes could you find here? Where? Subaraj Rajathurai, whom I called Raj, the veteran wildlife consultant and nature guide leading the walks, answered me with equally limitless patience.

When I arrived that day at the walk meeting point, he smiled when he saw me. “Great! Another guide for today!” I looked to the side in confusion, wondering who he was talking about; he laughed. “You’ve been coming for long enough—we don’t have enough people today, you can tell them what you know.” I shook my head in confusion. I didn’t know enough yet to teach others, I was sure of it; I couldn’t identify birds from a kilometre off from a half-second chirp alone, like Raj could, nor did I know anything about the history of the forest, from plantation to preserve, like Raj described in such depth every time. The insects baffled me. I couldn’t name a single plant or tree.

But still I could tell as we entered the forest that day that something was different. The air itself held a strange, tense quality to it. The leaves on the forest floor had shrivelled and when I picked one up it broke into fine-grained sand in my palm. I watched the pieces drift slowly down. The place smelled different, too: that dense, decompositional scent was missing, and the air felt somehow hollow. Raj told us about nocturnal snakes he hadn’t seen in years he met yesterday in the broad daylight. “They’re confused, poor things. They expect the rain, and none is coming.”

Nearby, he gestured to where the forest fire happened. We could see the blackened ground and the charred bark. I gaped. The fact of fire in MacRitchie seemed such an alien possibility. A year coming to the forest, learning about the relationships that governed it, the animals that inhabited it, had convinced me of its definite solidity. How could a place with so much life ever change?

I stayed by the patch of burnt trees, looking at how easily the edges of the place had frayed, the hole that emerged at the centre of it. I didn’t realize the group had moved on until I had to run to catch up with Raj mid-explanation at his next stop. He was talking about the Cross-Island Line, abbreviated as the CRL—the MRT line proposed in the next round of expansions that would connecting the east and western tips of Singapore and cut a neat tunnel underneath MacRitchie in the process.

I had heard this speech before on every walk so far; it was why the walk series had started in first place: how the trains would run under some of Singapore’s last primary forests, including where we stood right now, how the exploratory drilling alone would mean countless destructive paths forged to the forest’s heart. How it meant this forest, this last green heart, this heritage changing irrevocably. Unlike the fire, which the forest could grow back from eventually, it might take lifetimes to reclaim MacRitchie from that kind of destruction. As he talked, I knelt down and took a picture of him. “To fight the Cross-Island Line, to save our forests, we need people like you,” he said. “We need people like you caring about this place.” He looked down and caught my eye.

***

I have kept that photograph open on my computer for weeks now. Maybe I keep forgetting to close it because every time I look at it the knowledge of Raj’s passing hits me afresh like a gut punch, a physical caving in my stomach, and I am briefly immobilized understanding once more the loss of his presence in the world. In the photograph he stands at the centre, slightly angled to one side. The thin trunks of the trees angle towards his head, like the forest radiates outwards from him.

It makes sense to me. My experiences of MacRitchie and in forests beyond have followed an expansive path beginning at his feet. A few months after the drought ended in days of glorious showers, I applied to start guiding nature walks myself in a different area of MacRitchie with the NUS Toddycats. I turned up every few months a little too sleepy to a carpark at the edge of the forest, still clutching a camera I didn’t quite know how to use and full of questions, but explanations and stories, too, many that I had borrowed from Raj. We told people, morning after morning, about the CRL and the ways this place worked. The walks didn’t aim to inspire protest, though we gave participants postcards if they wanted to write to politicians afterwards. Instead, we wanted the public to learn about MacRitchie.

If you don’t know about a place, you can’t value it. Through knowledge grows devotion, and, eventually, love. The simplicity of this formula never failed to astonish me every Saturday we reiterated it, not least because I saw how my own path mirrored it. If I hadn’t had the chance to learn about MacRitchie, would I be where I was? Would I, as I took more environmental science classes, learned about conservation research, and joined the rainforest clubs in school, be doing what I was? Those first lessons from Raj in the forest had rooted a small hard kernel of conviction deep inside me. I saw this kernel mirrored in my fellow guides and eventually the participants, too. This conviction held that the forest mattered. That these places meant something. That this country would be the lesser for their loss or degradation.

And every month I returned more proof emerged about how fragile this place could be. We guided in the height of the first haze event, standing in front of the lone oil palm tree while a sun rouged by smoke reflected a fiery light off the leaves around, a disturbing echo of the fires raging an island away. Over the years, I watched the edge of the forest shift, successions of weeds replacing each other in turn. Clearings that had been empty when I first came gradually choked with “mile-a-minute” vines and the globular fruits of Zanzibar yams. Bird populations changed, less concretely, through time: fewer babblers, more bulbuls. The snakes we had seen with regularity disappeared from sight. The stream muddied with silt from construction upstream. The spectre of the CRL hung above it all: if this was what happened without major development, what would happen later? This forest, I recognized over and over, was a trembling thing. It shifted so easily.

And whenever I met with Raj, I appreciated more fully what he had seen these places through decades before I’d even thought of arriving here. He described when the edges of MacRitchie had used to be villages, now evidenced only by bricks we tripped over on the path, and the plantations that had stood here before that, the remnant trees now shrouded in new growth. He spoke of a balance tightroped over time, from his childhood into the future, the line held taut between the green and the grey, and the importance of fighting for that harmony. He had seen these trees grow.

At the time, he was on the working group advising the CRL’s alignment. He and other experts from the island pushed hard, analysing the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) that began to come out one by one assessing the impact of the line’s construction. He and other environmental experts across the island fought hard to set mitigation measures in place as the site investigation, which would determine whether the area was suitable for an MRT line in the first place but also potentially meant highly invasive drilling in the forest centre, went ahead. Based on the EIA and the working group’s recommendations, the exploratory drilling was shifted from randomized locations in the forest’s centre to along pre-existing trails and pathways. Trained naturalists from NParks Singapore and independent groups monitored the drilling as it took place.

It wasn’t, necessarily, a victory. A victory would have been—to me, at least, fifteen years old now and learning what change meant for the first time—the total abandonment of routing the CRL through the forest’s heart. The government would use the alternative alignment instead, the one that went around MacRitchie but took six minutes longer. They would say the forest mattered more than the longer journey. That would have been a victory.

But to me, fifteen years old, the concessions meant something regardless. When we talked about the CRL and the Population White Paper and routings and soil testing, they represented such abstract terms divorced from the reality of the forest. The increased monitoring, the safety measures, showed, at least, that the voices, like Raj’s, that brought the humid forest to those air-conditioned tables could have tangible impact. That being loud in your caring for a place could have meaning.

***

Through it all, battered, overcrowded, despite—or perhaps because of—it all, MacRitchie remains so vivid. Press coverage loves describing the forest through the debates over the CRL as a “green lung” in the heart of Singapore. The phrase synthesizes the much-emphasized economic benefits of forests in a concretized environment as a cooling influence and an air purifier. But beyond such quantifiable ecosystem “services”, the idea of the lung sticks with me: the image of MacRitchie as a pulsing growing organ, a living piece that invigorates all around it.

Every time stepping into MacRitchie is a fresh reminder of exactly how living it was. Each walk ends with a reminder for participants to return. “You see something new every time.” I do. A baby flying lemur peeking out, with eyes like pools of amber, from beneath its mother. A starfruit tree crowded with bright blue parrots. An electric bee. A new dragonfly glistening like a jewel by the stream. A log with fresh fungi flowering upwards. Over the years I watched the fungi crumble into rich, dark humus. The last time I returned, a sapling began to finger upwards from the new soil. No matter what happened outside, the forest will keep trying to grow.

A little over a year ago, just after I turned eighteen, I spent a week helping Raj lead walks in MacRitchie for fourth-grade classes from my school. As I prepared at the time to go to college, planning to major in environmental science, it felt like coming full circle. It had taken five years, but finally I’d accepted Raj’s invitation to guide with him.

I remember how in those bright, sticky mornings his voice carried so strong and so joyful no matter what. Like every walk of his I’d ever attended, every child listened when he spoke. Their eyes widened. I could almost see, bit by bit, the learning of wonder for the forest, and animals, and nature. I thought about all the things—protests and conservation and research and understanding—that had already grown from that wonder and that would continue to grow from it. There was power in this.

On those walks, we talked of the CRL only briefly. The soil testing was nearly over; the EIAs for the final alignment of the line had just come out. It had narrowed down to two options for alignments of the line: the first proposed one, that went through the forest, and another that skirted the edge of MacRitchie. The EIA identified potentially “critical” impacts to the stream systems where we held the walks if alignment 1 went through. Other impacts included habitat loss, increases in roadkill incidents, and forest fragmentation. Only strictly enforced mitigation measures had any hope of reducing these impacts. The less-destructive second alignment that went around the reserve, however, had a higher price tag and the looming caveat of a six-minute longer journey. People talked about the damage that six-minute delay would do to Singapore’s economic productivity.

On one of the last walks, we ended some fifteen minutes late. As we walked along the streams at the end, we had come across two Malayan gold-ringed cat snakes twined around each other, mating. I had never seen them here before. We spent ages marvelling at their brilliant colours and the lithe strength of their bodies, searching for their heads among the tangle of scales. I wondered if such sights would remain if they went with alignment 1 and the CRL was routed through MacRitchie. How much were we willing to lose?

***

A few weeks after I found out about Raj, I opened social media again and saw the announcement that the Land Transport Authority had chosen to go with alignment 1. I still don’t know how I feel exactly. It feels more complicated than when I was fifteen and getting the news about the soil testing. I’m disappointed, obviously: though I have hardly invested anything compared to all the brilliant, dedicated people who gave so much of their time and energy to fighting the Cross-Island Line, I still was a part of it in some tiny way, and in some tiny way, all those Saturday mornings, this was my fight I had lost too. I’m far from satisfied or content, but I’m appeased, at least a little, for the mitigation measures announced with the alignment. I’m worried about how the forest will change even more, how this fragile, dynamic equilibrium will shift, likely irreversibly. I’m scared for the things I might not see again and for the precedent the alignment will set for further development in Singapore’s core nature reserves. In some small way I’m grateful, too—not for the final decision, obviously, but because I appreciate more clearly than ever that without MacRitchie and the movement around it, my choices would look very different today. But most of all, I think, I’m sad because it feels like, to me, in many ways like the journey I began because of Raj has now come to defeat without him.

I keep thinking about what he would say about all this. It’s another question I can’t quite answer. Except that if this is a journey he set me on, it hasn’t ended yet. The wonder still holds. The forests still matter, even more, not less. His photograph is still open on my laptop and I mouse over to it a few times a week, looking again at how the trees radiate outwards, each a path expanding towards the sky. In the face of that immense fragility, there he was, standing strong and loving stronger. It begins there. It always begins there.

kids

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