In 1964, the United States passed the epoch-making Wilderness Act — one of the most poetic pieces of legislature ever composed. “A wilderness,” it proclaimed, “in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In the same era, the prolific children’s book author and artist Helen Borten traveled to the jungles of Guatemala — home to some of the most untrammeled wilderness on Earth, which very few humans and virtually no foreigners or women entered even as visitors at the time. Moved by the lush community of life in this otherworldly wonderland, Borten set out to invite children’s imaginations for an enchanting visit. In 1968, she published The Jungle (public library), rediscovered and brought back to life half a century later by Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion.
The story unfolds as a day in the life of the jungle, lyrically narrated and vividly depicted in Borten’s distinctly mid-century yet singular illustration style, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques. As the hours unspool from morning to nightfall, wild and wondrous creatures awaken and assume their respective parts in this intricately choreographed dance of coexistence — a living testament to the words of Rachel Carson, who had made ecology a household word just a few years earlier and who so poetically observed that each creaturely existence plays out “not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
In the opening vignette, Borten transports the imagination to the almost surreal world of the jungle at daybreak:
In a hot land near the equator, where winter never comes, a new day is beginning. The climbing sun looks close enough to touch as it turns the sky pink. Out of the mist a vast ocean of leaves appears, splashes with yellow, orange, and violet blossoms. It is the roof of the jungle. Butterflies dip in and out of the blossoms. Macaws and parakeets feed and squawk in the treetops. They drop more berries than they eat. A vulture circles around and around overhead.[…]
Under the leafy roof, it is dim and still. Time seems to have stopped in a wild summer world of long, long ago.
The trees are heavy with ferns and orchids and drooping beards of moss. These are “air” plants trying to reach sunlight by making their homes high above the ground. Their roots take hold on bark instead of in the earth. Dust collects around the roots, forming soil in which to grow. There are air plants cupped like pitchers to store rainwater and others with long roods dangling to the ground.[…]
From the ground, you cannot see the sky or feel the sun or hear the wind. It is cool and silent in the twilight gloom. Pale trunks disappear into the shadows above, like ghosts trailing robes of green. There are no low branches anywhere. Some trunks are covered with spikes. Some are smooth and look to be carved out of bone. And some have so many air plants molded around their bark that they will be strangled to death. There are more different kinds of trees in the jungle than anywhere else on earth.
This ode to place is also an elegy for time. Emanating from the bold and loving celebration of our planet’s living splendor is also the bittersweet awareness that some of the animals Borten depicts are now endangered or entirely extinct.
The jungle seems deserted.
But thousands of tricksters hide behind the screen of leaves.
A piece of bark falls…
and becomes a lizard.
A leaf trembles…
and become a sloth.
A vine uncoils…
and becomes a snake.
A spot of sunlight blinks…
and becomes a jaguar’s eye.
Borten’s lyrical prose deepens the naturally enchanting science of the jungle. As the story unfolds across the hours of the day, we learn about the noisiest animal in the world, about the invisible universe of strange and magnificent nocturnal creatures, about the species composition of the insect orchestra scoring the jungle at dusk.
High in the trees, the birds are about to begin their morning chorus, On the branches, monkeys sit motionless, their long tails hanging down behind them, like dark quarter notes dotting the gray dawn. Soon the sun will chase the mist and another day will begin in the mysterious green world. below.
Born in Philadelphia in 1930, Borten spent the first half of her career composing and illustrating such lyrical, visually arresting, scientifically inspired books for children. Just before she turned sixty, she pivoted into the seemingly unrelated field of broadcast journalism. But she brought to her journalistic work the same ethos that animates her children’s books — a reverence for truth, whether scientific or humanistic, and a stewardship of that which is most beautiful and vulnerable. In 1991, she won a Peabody Award for a landmark NPR documentary exposing gender discrimination in the courts, the dangerous deficiencies of legal protections for abused children, and the way family courts often break up families in their deformed attempts at justice. In era when the vocabulary of children’s imagination is being forcibly robbed of reverence for the wilderness and antiscientific, anti-nature, anti-truth propagandists are hard at work, Borten’s children’s books emerge not only as beacons of loveliness but also as quiet, steadfast pillars of resistance.
Couple The Jungle with The Forest — a contemporary counterpart by Italian author Riccardo Bozzi and artist Violeta Lopíz, also from Enchanted Lion Books, celebrating the wilderness and the human role in nature not as conqueror but as humble witness, then revisit Uri Shulevitz’s vintage watercolor serenade to daybreak.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.