Tigers in Red Weather, by Ruth Padel

The poet as super-naturalist
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The Independent Culture

The fauna and flora she describes have an aura as if she is in love with them. This is the poet as super-naturalist, always giving more than her best, no-holds-barred, for that elusive flash of the sublime: a pure life force in gold and black stripes.

The tiger is lord, parent, the living shrine, the great animal solitary. Meet one of these gods and Padel feels she can do anything. And she does, admitting that she has had no fitness training as she scrambles up a sheer forest bank, her lungs hammering, and that she is a wimp about water as she paddles a kayak over fierce rapids. Through lush forests in Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia, she risks leeches, mosquitoes, ticks, a scorpion bite, not to mention pit vipers, elephants, aggressive sloth bears, and the power animal itself.

This is no mere gutsy travelogue, but a poet's attempt to do what the scientist does: "saying precisely what and how you saw". What she saw was the tiger in the throes of extinction. How she saw was with her heart and soul. What is utterly compelling about this book is her dedication, her determination to transmit precisely how the last tigers in the wild feel and look like to a human being.

Here is her encounter with one in Sumatra: "A twig snapped. On the trail we could not see there was a presence. The jungle was differently still, as if holding its own breath. Something was listening to us breathe, watching us listen.

In soft earth, over the imprint of my Tunisian trainer, was laid, like a love-token, a very large, deep, fresh pugmark." Elsewhere, the equally endangered rainforest is under scrutiny. An epiphyte clings to a branch like a muezzin platform on a minaret. Rays pierce the canopy like eerie fireworks from stained-glass windows. Her prose is image-rich as her verse: a river surface swarms with apricot triangles, sunrise is an orange eye in blue- veined cloud, the sea is dark peacock, and trees are flying-buttressed, crocodile barked, the Naked Maid of the Forest a shining ginger-pink ghost. "Cutting this would be like blowing up Notre Dame," she concludes.

Padel also immerses herself in the heart-breaking world of the tigers' defenders, for whom conservation is the oncology of biology: dedicated guardians battling against corruption and the rampant illegal trade in tiger products.

A tigerskin fetches £5,500. Tiger bones are smuggled to China on a vast scale for use as analgesics in traditional medicine. Tiger penises turn up in whisky and soup. Even their whiskers make desirable toothpicks.

These are the bleak eco-facts - this book is packed with them - and then there are the myths. She discovers local tribesmen who claim to be were-tigers, and a shaman who calls up a spirit-tiger to help her save its earthly forms. There are tiger-riding goddesses, and Jaga, the most terrifying tiger of all, who flies like a bird and swims like a fish. Typically vulnerable, Padel adds her own dreams from forest camps.

Tigers in Red Weather is a brave, committed, poet's-eye view of one of our most popular and elusive animals in its shrinking habitat. "I felt I'd taken a major sacrament and would never be the same again," Padel exclaims, as she is released from a tiger's gaze.

Pascale Petit's new books of poetry are 'The Huntress' (Seren) and 'The Wounded Deer' (Smith/Doorstop)