1 Zen Garden



I’ve been spending my days clearing the steep little valley where my hut sits between a rock and a huge old tree, a few yards from the sea. Slash and burn — more slash than burn at the moment, with all the rain we’ve been getting. Thick, tangled vegetation, everything connected to everything else by the parasitic creepers and runners whose mission is to engulf the entire landscape. Jungle is tangle and jumble, filaments twining around everything from the ground to the tree-tops. Big sheets of creepers hanging from the trees. When I moved in, there was nothing but the path with the steps Hodgy cut, and a few yards of space where the builders could stack their wood. That’s all we’d cleared, and there was nowhere to go except down to the sea, or back up to the other huts.

It’s a lot of work to strip it back to bare earth, but that’s what I’ve been doing to create some space down here. It’s young jungle, though, and underneath I find evidence of previous clearing in the form of charred wood. But for me it’s discovery — uncovering a different landscape of rocks, going down to the intermittent stream. The area is gently undulating, and on this steep hillside that’s of value, giving me horizontal, walkable space close to my hut.

As I cut and clear, I begin to see that this can be a kind of garden, and that between gradients I can define paths between the rocks. I like the look and smell of raked, opened soil. The butterflies seem to like it too; as the clearing grows, more and more come, enjoying the wind-break — five or six different kinds, but most often the ones colored like tigers, tawny orange, white and black, and the ones I love the most, black with a hue of gentian, and white ones veined with almost Wedgewood blue.

Small darting lizards in smart green livery are also attracted to my work, hopping up on rocks or leaves beside me, long-limbed and four-handed, regarding me dispassionately with swiveling eyes, waiting for me to disturb something edible,

Picture me like this, then, if you wouldn’t mind, because there’s no one around to take the photograph: walking through a garden of forking paths, in a whirl of dark butterflies, with a blade in my hand and lizards darting around my feet.

Cutting is the fun part; the hard work is dragging the vegetation out so you can burn it, patiently raking and pulling and severing. Then going over the soil with a adze, prizing out roots and axing clumps of grass. Still, it will grow back quickly, so the last thing is that you must walk the ground you want to stay clear. I will make paths firm and bare enough to walk barefoot, threading to and between the rocks: a garden of forking paths. I’ll keep these well manicured — the rest I’ll allow to grow back selectively. I’ll let dark ivy leaves caress the rocks not smother them. It’ll be a place to walk, sit, meditate, trip. A zen garden.

I feel like Bob Arctor at the end of Philip Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. His mind broken by the fictitious drug Substance D, he surrenders his shattered identity and is given a new one by the sinister rehab organization, New Path. He is no longer Bob, no longer Arctor, now he is simply ‘Bruce’. He is put to work on the land, as his warden preaches at him about the benefits of living and working in nature. And it’s true, he finds himself calm at last, his mind empty but for mountain and sky and leaves and earth. That’s why I’m thinking of him, because my mind has also gone blissfully blank, though unlike Arctor I do still have a mind, and am capable of coherent thought. But some other time, not now.

There’s something beautiful about working on the land. The closest I’ve come to it was working on a farm during university holidays, and those, looking back, were some of the happiest days of my life. Brown skin, harvest dust. Tired muscles, and a red moon as I drove to my girlfriend’s house. Thinking about that, I feel the ache and tug of the past. A long, long time ago now. Another lifetime. But still, somehow, the same person, just as ‘Bruce’ is still, at some level, Robert Arctor.

It’s hard work, or slow work at least, clearing jungle. Using the word ‘jungle’ might seem overdramatic, since this is not old growth, probably only two or three years since it was last cut back, but it’s the only word that conveys the impenetrability of completely matted, entwined vegetation. There are young trees, thin enough to sever with a blow, briars and bushes, banana trees and elephant palms with their watery stems, shoulder high brush, and everything tied together by nets of ivy-like runners. Big mats and screens of it hanging down from trees. It’s all so woven that you have to cut away underneath and at the sides and then roll it up like a carpet.

The only thing holding me up is the rain — not because it stops me working, most of the time, but because it makes it impossible to burn anything, so I’ve got backlogged piles of decaying vegetation. The wind dropped a few days ago, the sea-swell stilled, and the season felt as if it was changing — but it was a false spring, and there’s still rain most nights, sometimes heavy.

Still, I’ve made some progress in a week. On this side of the stream the ground is quite gently sloping, with nice flat rocks — on the other side it rises quickly to the foot of a cliff about twenty feet high, which would make a beautiful climbing wall, I’d say. And there’s a lot more to uncover, beneath the blanket of vegetation. I love it. Flat, gentle ground is to be appreciated around here. It’s restful. Somewhere you can stand and look at the sea.

Here at the bottom of the hill, the perspective creates a powerful illusion. The ground falls away steeply to meet the sea, which seems to rise equally steeply to the horizon. The feeling is of being in a deep V between land and water. At the angle, the join is marked by big heaped rocks and the white water churning at and over them. At night a restless breeze comes off the ocean and skids up the slope, water and air in constant motion, yes and the land too in subtle ways. At eye level, the brilliant lights of fishing boats line the horizon like dazzling screens or sails of light, under mother-of-pearl canopy of reflective clouds.

Hodgy came down to have a look, reclining like a huge, blue-green lizard on a rock, and pronounced me to be a ‘weapon’. I was gratified: this is one of his highest accolades. Bow, the young boxer with his quick, spare frame, is a weapon.  Hodgy himself, of course, was and still is a deadly weapon. But so is anyone who will focus their energy and get something done.

We talked about building a roofed platform on the rocks in front of the cliff, as a place for meditation. Down here can have a different vibe from the main clearing, which is centered around the two boxing rings and the Jigaro Bar. It will be more peaceful, meditative; another level of Jamrock.

Maybe some flowering plants would enhance it. Some old sculptures? I’ll bring the kinnaree bird down here — steel and gold leaf, with a bell hanging from her uptilted beak — and she can perch on a rock facing the sea, her wings raised in glee above her back.

2 Perfect Day

Athena was here all day yesterday. She loves Jamrock, and comes to hang out as much as she can. I am so happy that I have found this place and that it’s something I can share with her, and her brother too. In turn, she helps make Jamrock what it is. It’s a space for her to be herself, where everybody knows and accepts her. That’s something she’s never had before in her life. She’s never had friends before — but she does now. For her, Jamrock is inclusion and belonging. She feels at home in the loose community here, enjoys the animals, the characters, the stories and all the crazy shit that happens.

She turned seventeen a month or two ago. She never went to school, not since kindergarten, and that gives her a fresh openness and makes her in some ways a page on which the good people with whom she is now surrounded can inscribe something beautiful — about what men can be, if nothing else. Athena is brave, and she is honest, and what more, really, can you ask of anyone? As I keep reminding her, she made all this happen. It was Athena who started the thaw after ten long frozen years, Athena who got desperate enough to set the cat among the pigeons. That was nearly two years ago now, and it was just the beginning, of course, and it hasn’t been easy, not for her or for Pete or their mother Atchara; but they’re all coming through it now, I think. Love is coming, in different ways for all of us.

Athena’s unusual background means she sometimes gets asked a lot of questions it’s a drag to answer. She doesn’t want to be constantly going over her backstory, and why should she? I encourage her, if strangers ask where she went to school, or why she doesn’t speak Thai,  or anything like that, to just make something up, a story.

She doesn’t yet have the confidence for such role-playing, but the other night there was a young Russian guy at the bar who started asking those questions, so I took the lead.

“Athena was raised in a forest by wolves.”

It had the desired effect. He went quiet, and we changed the subject. Then he wanted to know where the forest was.

“I don’t know,” said Athena.

“How would she?” I asked. “As far as she knew, the forest was all there was.”

“OK,” he said, “then what kind of forest was it?”

“Tropical,” said Athena.

“Really? Tropical forest with wolves in it? That is most unusual.”

“Google it,” I said.

“OK,” said the Russian. “I will.”

After he’d gone I said to Athena, “We may have to rethink the wolves part. It may have to be monkeys.”

“Shit,” she said. “Really?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Tigers, maybe? Leopards? Up to you. It’s your childhood.”

In the end we settled on orang utans. Regardless of the details of her fosterage, Jamrock — Jungle School and Capital of We — was made by and for beautiful misfits and feral humans like her. This story is as much about Athena as anyone else, that’s for sure.

I’d got up late, and had done just a little light work in my valley, because Hodgy and I had stayed up the night before, talking and playing pool. When I got hungry I went up to the clearing and took a shower, then revved my bike up the ragged trail to the road. Athena was in her usual place at the end of the bar, lying on her front and playing with her phone, with Chickadee, the possible chicken, sitting on her back. I drove into town to grab something to eat and do a few errands, and when I came back I asked Athena if she’d like to come down to the valley and set fire to things. Ooh yes, she said. She’s a bit of a closet pyromaniac, like me, and we had fun building a fire and getting it started and tending it, sitting on rocks and talking in that comfortable way that has developed between us.

Then we walked all of my paths, because they are still fresh and need the tramping of feet to tamp them down. Suddenly she exclaimed as a hole opened up under her bare foot and a centipede with bright orange-red legs and head came shooting out, heading at high speed down the slope, hotly pursued by one of my lizard friends with an iguana-like fringe around his jaw. We watched as he took his time crunching up the big insect.

Then the rain came in from the sea with thunder and lightning, so we sat on my verandah watching the illuminations. As the storm passed over us a vertical bolt came down like a hammer somewhere at the top of the hill, close enough to set our senses reeling.

We were trapped for an hour or two by the heavy rain, but we didn’t mind. I put some music on, and Athena sat sketching as we talked and laughed about people and wolves and orang utans, or whatever you want to call the arsehole who snatched her at five years old and kept her hidden from the world for ten whole years. She even called herself by her assumed name at one point: I showed her how to roll a joint, and she had a go, holding up the end-product, lumpy and saggy as a Christmas sock, laughing and saying, ‘Look! Kate’s first joint!’

It suddenly got dark, and even though the rain wasn’t letting up we climbed up to the clearing and had a game of pool at the Jigaro bar. There was no one around. That’s what happens when it rains — people get stuck where they are, whether in their huts or up at the main bar on the road. Rain hammers on roofs so loud you have to shout to talk. Bead-curtains of rain hang from every eave and doorway. We got bored with pool and braved the rain again, just a few yards to the big boxing ring where Nung and Ai had set up the music gear. I turned the power on, slightly nervous about electricity because everything was so wet. Athena sat down at the keyboard and started messing around, finding a big dramatic sound and playing the white notes, with unselfconscious enjoyment. I stood beside her and supplied bass notes and twiddled knobs, and together we created epic thunderstorm music, abstract and cinematic, with the rain hammering and the thunder rumbling.

After a while Johnnie appeared out of the darkness, bare-chested with a towel over his head. Athena was sitting on a stool, listening to me sing All Along the Watch Tower, looking happy with the way her Sunday was turning out. Today had turned into something special for her, despite her low mood. Fire, rain, lightning, weed and sketching and talk and music. So I asked Johnnie to look up the chords to Perfect Day, the Lou Reed song, on his phone, and we stumbled our way through it and belted it out the choruses together with gusto, a spontaneous serenade to the laughing Athena.

“It’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you…”

By this time it was already about nine thirty. It was still raining, and Johnnie pointed out that there were several empty huts where she could sleep if she wanted to stay over. It was a good idea — the hill road would be treacherous even if the rain stopped. So we hauled our asses up the trail to the roadside bar to find something to eat. We were in luck. There was fish curry and barbecued chicken, plenty left for the two of us. The rain stopped, and we went all the way back down to my valley to drink tea, eat Oreos and call her mum to let her know she wasn’t coming home. Around midnight I armed her with my head-lamp, a can of insect spray and a bottle of water, and she set off back up the path to her hut.

And it’s true. Days don’t come much better than this.


3 Soldiers

It was some time around the beginning of November that I took my rented motorbike out for a late afternoon run up into the hills. It was a beautiful day, just coming into high season, as now. I stopped at the Kata outlook and took photographs. Then I coasted down the side road, a long twisting descent through forest, with amazing views westward out over the sea. I took more photographs along the way. A row of four spirit houses. A forest shrine. The road halved by a fallen rock. And then a strange structure, an open wooden framework shaped like a boat, with a deck and a poop deck and a mast with a crow’s nest. Sparks were flying and falling as a couple of men worked with a welding iron at the bow end, silhouetted against the sky. A hundred yards further on there was a large restaurant. After that, a couple of informal dwellings, and then the road petered out into a mud track. So I turned and went back to the boat and looked around inside.

Rastafarian colors, green, red, black. Rough wood and old statues. Images of Bob Marley and marijuana leaves. Downstairs, dozens of leather belts, bags and even jackets hanging from the ceiling. I bought a belt from a slender young Thai with beautiful hair. This, I would find out later, was Ai, trusted lieutenant of Nueng, the builder of this crazy boat stranded like Noah’s ark on the hillside.

I took to coming here around sunset, bringing my laptop or my notebook. I would sit up on the top deck and write, or map out ideas on big pages. The place had a spectacular sea view to the West, and the sunset. With my sky obsession, I was drawn there several evenings a week. Now that I was cut adrift from teaching, I was spending my days writing hard, and by lat afternoon needed to get out and get some air. Jamrock was a place where people talk to each other. If you’re sitting up top, drinking a beer and admiring the view, and someone else comes up the spiral staircase from the main deck, of course you’re going to have a chat and find out a little about each other. While Jamrock only attracted a sporadic trickle of people, those who found their way were often worth a little conversation. Nung, the dreadlocked patron of Jamrock, would roll a joint for 300 baht if asked, or sometimes for free just to be hospitable. And the man is nothing if not hospitable. Nung, thin and muscular as a snake, mustached and chin-bearded, with a great pile of locks coiled up on top of his head, is a distinctive figure: Khun Jamok, Master of Disaster, geezer-shaman of these hills and this rocky coastline.

One evening the deck was full of heavily muscled guys, most of whom seemed to be soldiers or former soldiers, Australians and British. I chatted with one or two of them, and got talking to a Aussie called Clay, who turned out not to be military himself but a counsellor/therapist who said he wanted to work with traumatized soldiers here. There were huts down the hill under the trees, and a PTSD Australian soldier lived there. The idea was for other ex-soldiers going through post-traumatic stress to come here, live in the forest, exercise, meditate and find some peace. Something called the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation was involved, and there was a film crew here to document the beginnings of the project.

Clay was an adept in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and wanted to be involved — but he was frustrated; all they wanted to do, he said, was get wasted and go into town to find hookers. ‘I can’t work with anyone who smokes marijuana every day,’ he said.  So Clay and the soldiers never got off the ground. Nor did the film, as far as I know; a trailer was released, but that’s all, to date.

There was jamming at the rock on Sunday nights, with some talented musicians turning up to play, and, more than once, a girl who lit up flaming torches and danced around the deck to our music — I liked to join in on hand drums, and we all played faster when Maria from Ukraine spontaneously combusted like that. The musicians were the first people I got to know through Jamrock — Peter, German, a brilliantly gifted saxophonist and flautist, his friend Philippe, French, who played bass, and Thais like Samart, a very talented percussionist, and Daeng, peerless on the didgeridoo, and at times the music had a sparse weirdness — drums, sax and didge — that was completely right for the jungle, the treetops, the rhythms of crickets and frogs, and the moon peering over the treeline on top of the hill.

One Sunday night I brought Pete and Athena, Atchara’s teenaged kids whom I was taking care of for the moment while she was still Bangkok. I’d been jamming with the others, and we were taking a break; someone had put on some reggae music. There were about fifteen or twenty people — most of them strangers — sitting round on the the benches that ran along the sides of the deck, and I had just sat down with the kids, when out of nowhere an extraordinary figure appeared, inducing a moment of shocked silence. Naked apart from a pair of shorts, his body from neck to toe was mottled with tattoos, black, blue-black, blue-green, red and yellow like the skin of a lizard or snake; coiled muscles snaked beneath the skin as he moved around the deck in a distinctive dance to the music — or tried to, because he kept losing his balance, as if the deck, for him, were pitching in a heavy ocean swell. Whatever he was on, it seemed to have taken him into some other realm altogether, leaving his powerful body in ours, and giving everyone a moment of unease, as they tried to assess the potential situation. His appearance was so alien, it was as if he had erupted from some mythic time, a figure from legend or fantasy — Hannuman, or the Green Man.

There are plenty of superheroes around here riding around shirtless on their motorbikes. Most of them look as if they were drawn by Max Fleischer or Walt Disney. This guy, by contrast, looked like he’d been drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Vetruvian Man. As he swayed and overbalanced, everyone seemed to take their breath in, waiting for the crash. But none came, because each time he fell he executed an instinctive and perfect roll, like a paratrooper, the huge packs of muscle on his back turning his body into a smooth hoop. The only noise was when his bare feet, on the upswing, brushed a table and unsettled some drinks.

Lying on his back, he looked at me upside-down and seemed to point towards me, so to break the tension I went over and held out my hand to pull him to his feet. He lay back on the bench and we spoke for a minute or two; our conversation was probably a little incoherent, but I remember him saying, ‘Are you one of us?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What do you call yourselves?’

‘People of the land,’ he drawled, with a note of  irony in his voice, as if to offset any pretension in the phrase.

So this was the famous PTSD soldier of Jamrock.

Now, having lived here for a couple of months, I would say that it’s as good a way as any of describing what this place is about. People may come here and try to impose their ideas on the place, but it resists definition, evolving and deepening before you can formulate the words. Film crews and foundations bounce off it. Maybe writers too, we will see. In the mean time, best to keep it simple, and acknowledge that it is, ultimately, about the land. This piece of land. These forty rai, this forest hillside, this rocky shoreline, and the people who live on it.

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2 thoughts on “1 Zen Garden

  1. Wonderful isn’t it? I have the same thing going on in the opposite climate and conditions but making a garden is one of the best things one can do. Happy clearing!

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