When a forest becomes more than a nature area

Imagine, the rustle of leaves, a dash of green, as a spiky green mass falls from above, meeting the earth with a dull thud. This is the moment that you dash forward, led by your nose as you follow the luring aroma of the King of Fruit – the durian. This is the “chase” that “durian hunters” in Singapore relish in, as they venture deep into the forests, in search for that “magical” fruit.

Durian is a tropical fruit native to South-east Asia, with a strong scent that you either love or hate. In Singapore, durians are well-loved by many and most are bought from neighbouring countries like Malaysia.

A typical durian stall in Singapore (Source: https://thesmartlocal.com/read/sitdown-durian-stalls/)

However, some durian lovers hunt for the fruit in Singapore’s own remaining forests, where a substantial number of durian trees are left behind from past kampongs (traditional villages). Mostly comprising those who grew up in kampongs, durian hunters know the forests like the back of their palm, trekking through the foliage without clearly marked paths. Younger durian lovers have also joined in the hunt, learning the ropes from experienced seniors. The community is so big that there is even a Facebook group, Singapore Durian Picking, where members share durian picking tips and of course, their valuable finds. Look how passionate they are about this hobby!

It’s more than the durian

For Singapore’s durian hunters, durian hunting is not just about the simple act of picking up a durian and eating it. Instead, durian hunting is imbued with socio-cultural sentiments. As many durian hunters grew up among durian trees, durian hunting is a way for them to relieve the simple thrill of durian picking, a reminiscence of their carefree life back in the kampongs.

Thoughts of a durian hunter on one of her durian hunting trips (Lindsay, 2015)

In a fully urbanised city-state, the durian trees have been a constant, rooted tall as massive transformations surrounded Singapore’s remaining forests. In this sense, the durian trees have become a key to the past, transporting durian hunters to a way of life that has been lost. Even when there are few finds, immersing themselves in the forest still offers a rare respite, and the hours of trekking serve as great exercise.

Seeing beyond the “nature area”

Crucially, durian hunting in Singapore offers an alternative perspective to seeing nature. Cultural geographers have long problematised the dualistic view of nature and society (Cronon, 1996; Gandy, 2003). While the growing focus on environmental sustainability has spurred the integration of nature into urban spaces, this framing of sustainability renders nature to be valued solely in ecological and economic terms (Diaz et al., 2015). In this way, ‘the bush [is still viewed as] the place for nature’, pocketed within cities, or ‘places for people’ (Phillips and Atchison, 2020:158).

Yet, the divide between nature and culture is not black-and-white. As the durian hunters show, urban forests can have intangible socio-cultural relations with citizens, not to mention the fact that the durian trees are also evidence of the traditional ties to the land for kampong folks.

‘Cities [should be seen] as co-productions of human and non-human relations

(Phillips and Atchison, 2020:156)

A more-than-human perspective illuminates the importance of looking at the interrelations between urban nature and citizens. Rather than being a passive subject, Singapore’s durian trees are actively shaping durian lovers’ encounters with the few remaining forests. In this way, the urban forest is ‘becoming’, not just ‘being’ (Phillips and Atchison, 2020:159).

The risks to bear

Despite the rich socio-cultural meanings of durian hunting, this activity is not formally encouraged by the state. In fact, picking fruits from public land is liable to fines and even imprisonment for nature areas.

Penalties for collecting fruits on public land and in nature areas, as stated in Singapore’s Parks and Trees Act

While rarely enforced, this rule has been stressed in 2019, with then Minister for National Development asserting that “Trees, including their fruit, which are located on State land belong to the State“.

Furthermore, many durian trees are also found within “forbidden forests” on restricted military ground.

Singapore’s protected military area sign (Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/700-arrested-for-trespass-each-year-parliament-9994930)

Here, the severe consequences of trespassing and risk of being hurt by live artillery trainings, have not deterred all. As recounted by Lindsay on her first journey into the “forbidden forest”, being on military land added a spice of adventure:

A durian hunter recounts the thrill of durian hunting on military ground (Lindsay, 2015)

A contrary imaginary of nature

Evidently, durian hunting runs contrary to the state’s narrative of nature. Although Singapore boasts an extensive network of neighbourhood parks and nature reserves, greenspace provision has largely centred on providing an aesthetically pleasing environment, creating recreational spaces for healthy living, and enhancing biodiversity. The affective landscapes of citizens’ interactions with nature have arguably been side-lined. Yet, examining how nature is ‘emplaced’ and experienced reveals the intricate human-nature relations, which are vital in fostering intangible connections and appreciation for urban nature (Phillips and Atchison, 2020:156). I aspire towards the day when we see the urban forest as more than just a nature area.

[787 words]

References

Cronon, W. (1996) ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’, Society for Environmental History, 1, 1, 7-28.

Díaz, S., S. Demissew, J. Carabias, C. Joly, M. Lonsdale … (2015) ‘The IPBES Conceptual Framework — Connecting Nature and People’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 14, 1-16.

Gandy, M. (2003) Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lindsay (2015) ‘Durian Hunting In Singapore’s Forbidden Forest’ (WWW) Year of the Durian (https://www.yearofthedurian.com/2015/08/durian-hunting-in-singapores-forbidden.html ; 8 January 2021).

Phillips, C. and J. Atchison (2020) ‘Seeing the trees for the (urban) forest: more-than-human geographies and urban greening’, Australian Geographer, 51, 2, 155-168.

3 thoughts on “When a forest becomes more than a nature area

  1. A very insightful and engaging post! I really enjoyed how personable your voice is! It is very interesting to see how concepts of nature can be influenced by more than human cultural practices. Furthermore, how analysing nature can illustrate past and present human connections. I also really enjoyed your voice showing your views!

    Like

  2. Hi, what a great post! The nostalgia and sentimentality associated with this way of picking durian really shines through. I loved how this was then brought forward into a broader conversation on the duality of the natural and the unnatural in cities. It is a great example of how remnants of the the pre-urban landscape are still so culturally significant for many citizens. Thanks for such an interesting read

    Like

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