I’m fed up with the corona virus lockdown, I’m tired of being told I should stay at home and ‘stay safe’. I am old and cannot be safe, death will come before long whatever I do. ‘Staying safe’ narrows my life and weakens me physically and mentally, hastening the decrepitude that will make life miserable and death welcome. 

Having a rant brings little comfort though, I need to escape. No one can ground the flights of the imagination so I’m off to explore the jungles of the Malaysian Archipelago with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 -1913). I’ve no images of this expedition so here’s a photo taken in the nearest approach to a jungle in the suburbs of Barry: the Nature Reserve opposite the Cwmtalwg Pub on Severn Avenue.

A woodpigeon in an ash tree

When he was a land surveyor in Neath, South Wales, Wallace became interested in natural history. Later he travelled to the Amazon collecting and preserving insects, birds and other animals to sell to universities, museums, zoos and private collectors. His ship was wrecked on the way home but, nothing daunted, in 1858 he’s voyaging around the tropical islands of Indonesia collecting exotic species, including a pet baby orangutan which he observes carefully, comparing its development with that of human babies.

As he explored the world Wallace wondered how species came to be so different and yet sometimes so similar. He thought it likely that plants and animals had evolved but no one had yet explained how this might happen. Wallace had exchanged letters on the subject with Charles Darwin who was studying inheritance in pigeons . Both men had been influenced by An Essay on the Principles of Population by Thomas Malthus which discussed how human population growth was naturally limited by famine and disease. 

The idea that natural selection could be the mechanism of evolution came to Wallace when he was ill with malarial fever. When he recovered he sent a letter to Darwin which changed both men’s lives.

In the poem I imagine how the confused images of a feverish delirium might have helped Wallace to see the world in a new way.

          In delirium the jungle muttered 
howled and shrieked in a cacophony 
of uncanny sounds, I couldn’t make sense of it. 
I heard the wawk wawk, wok wok of the birds 
of paradise, and recognised the raucous calls 
of the mias, orang-utans, men of the woods, 
striding above me through the trees.
           My baby mias, my little pet, 
eyes full of childish fear, clung close to me, 
her soft red fur against my neck,
and all around the jungle called.
           I saw a nest of little birds, 
scarlet mouths squawking with hunger,
but no parent came, only the dragon bird
of frantic nightmares, the winged beast, 
the Malthus bird. In the valley of Neath
I’d lived in its shadow as it snatched
the ragged children with bone thin legs. 
Now its suffocating breath 
stank in my nostrils, my baby mias was torn 
from me but I escaped into an English garden. 
           I found Mr Darwin 
cooing softly to his pigeons. ‘Look,’ he said,
‘at my collection of domestic doves, 
varieties bred and culled for different features:
carriers, pouters, fantails, Jacobins, 
I’m almost ready to harness them.’ 
‘How far will they take you?’ I asked. 
‘Around the world I hope,’ he said, 
later, not now, it takes time to select 
the birds who can fly through a hullabaloo.’ 
           In the jungle the flurry 
of terrible wings split the heavy canopy. 
In a crazy streak of sun-light I saw
the unsettling faces of monkeys and apes
as they struggled to survive, I saw the leopards 
change their spots, I saw every species that reels
though the ravenous world shift into a new shape. 
In a seminal dawn everything began 
to sing a new song, to flaunt a new body,
to give birth to a new jungle.
           When the delirium had flown 
           my fevered visions
           cooled and condensed into lines of ink
           which I sent to Mr Darwin.

Wallace was interested in many subjects: natural history, anthropology, biogeography, architecture, socialism, spiritualism and whether there was life on Mars. Explore his remarkable life and work at

Anne Bryan


I’m a great believer in ‘make the best of things’, ‘no point in grumbling’ etc. but today I absolutely feel I must moan and wail at the present epidemic of social distancing, at the drought of hugs and kisses and chats with children and grandchildren and dear old friends. Skype and Zoom meetings are better than nothing, but I long for natural conversations. 

In desperation I go and talk to the old apple tree in the garden. It’s a very old friend: when we moved here it was already well grown and fruitful and it’s provided Bramley type apples for innumerable puddings for more than 50 years. Children and grandchildren have climbed it and hung swings from its rough old branches marked with many pruning scars. The tree is covered by delicate pink blossoms which are falling like confetti, but it’s also showing signs of advanced age. It’s leaning over and there are woodworm holes and rot in the trunk and branches.

Both of us will fall over and return to the ground before too long, but while we wait it feels good to sit in her shade. I like to think of Newton finding enlightenment under an apple tree but maybe I should also remember that an apple tree got Eve into a lot of trouble. I decide to start the conversation with a Haiku. 

as your blossoms fall
dark seeds take shape in secret
shielded by pale flesh

The tree drops a few petals.  I decide to try again, maybe something more cosmic would be better.

I bite your sharp fruit
tasting gravity’s pizzazz
and the sun’s gusto

The tree shakes its leaves slightly in the breeze. The leaves are only just unfurling but some have already been chewed at the edges by unseen insects. Bees are busy sucking nectar, trails of ants hurry up and down towards the top of one of the branches, I can’t see why. In autumn birds come and feast on the fallen fruit; blackbirds and thrushes love them and sometimes I see redwings that fly in from Scandinavia and in the last few years a couple of seagulls appear regularly and stab the apples rather awkwardly with their large beaks.  Slugs leave evidence of their munching meanderings on the fruit rotting in the grass; the slugs and the worms that live among the network of tree roots are food for frogs, hedgehogs and foxes.  I begin to see the tree as more like a metropolis than an individual, a network of comings and goings, nourishing and lethal, a harvest of success and failure, birth and death, a mesh of interactions in the natural world that link to science, art and myth.

I sit under the tree and try to weave some of the apple tree’s threads into an interesting pattern of words, it’s much more fun than wasting time grumbling at the limitations of my life which, like apple blossom, clings to the tree for such a short time. So, dear old tree, here’s a hug and a poem for you and all apple trees, wherever they grow.

Apples in the Art class, in lessons for
Beginners - take your pencils and try to
Catch the light on their convexities the
Dimples, the silky skin that so delighted 
Eve - desire slithered into her mind - taste the 
Forbidden fruit. Name the varieties -
Gala, Worcester, Coxes Pippins floating in
Halloween; make enchantments of spiralling peel.
Inhale the sharp sweetness. Drip through muslin
Jelly coloured with brambles. Ferment the juice it
Kicks the brain. Rest under the shade of the 
Leaves in July, the blossoms have dropped and 
Maggots are eating their way to the core.
Newton understood there was gravity in 
Orchards, origins of homely apple
Pies and puddings, motherly food fit for 
Queens and Kings. Sometimes in winter before
Rot sets in, redwings strip the flesh from the skin.
Snow White is a story of deadly apples,
Though in truth, earth sends its succulence through the
Umbilical stalks. Keep the doctor away with 
Vitamin C, eat an apple a day.
Wasps suck the juice that rises through
Xylem and phloem. It all shuts down at the 
Year’s end, but as the sun reaches its
Zenith again, petals give way to green spheres.

Anne Bryan