No. 2 – Company

My friend, an anthropologist, the one who had the dream about the snow leopard, is taken by her partner to see a documentary which turns out to be about snow leopards too. She sends me the trailer and I watch it in my Vinh hotel room. Kiang, gazelle, Pallas’ cat: great beings of the plateau are moving in the delicacy of their own particular mornings over the auburn land. The last frame shows the perfect curl of a tail from the dark as the film-makers call out their excitement and joy and finally affirm that all their sacrifices have been worth it for that view. “Literally amazing,” my friend says and I grumble cattily that it’s “so horribly nothing like my life.”

What do I see on my field trip? Well, there’s the forest guard who invited us to his house at the dinner in the park HQ. The food was good and the wine plentiful. He sat there with his crisp-shirt and smile, holding forth with bright humour under the smoke-blackened thatch. There was a tin tray holding bamboo shoots and a bowl of black gobbets of lemongrass possible-dog. He talks about the kind of project he doesn’t want to see; the kind that just buys people cows and fucks off. Then the cows die when people have to spend their days foraging or head off to the city for work. We all laugh about it, but his wife, after a while, sits on a stool by the hearth till the men have stopped talking, resting her lined face on one hand. And then grandpa comes in to see the tiny baby and it’s all smiles again.

The head of the next village, the big man who slumps in his pearl-patterned sofa and won’t even offer us tea. “Those people,” he says, “do not know how to save.” The young men all go to the city now: factory jobs or construction. His son, however, arms folded and a thick chain round his neck, sits very straight on the next chair and fields our questions. The projects should buy them more cows. Out in the dirt lane, a slender old lady with a grim face drives a family of buffalo; whatever nests between her eyebrows has more force than the switch in her hand.

The kid with red hair and scrunched up face lies dead to the world on a mat. He can’t find a woman and, from the way he talks, drunk, to those on our team, it’s hard to believe that he will. His handsome big brother is married but he himself, he says sheepishly, was visiting girls when we called. I’m afraid I believe that he paid them. I’m afraid that, when I think of his future, I tell myself “Motorbike accident is kinder than liver disease.” He lights up goofily when H says she likes his red hair.

And old Mrs Lan, “Mrs Orchid,” in the homestay, panicking over her first ever guests: surely they’d like to try on the Thai costumes now? Now? Have we eaten enough? (We are stuffed.) Perhaps I’d like twelve hard-boiled eggs?

The old man with one arm in his orchid garden telling us how to act respectful to elephants.

The four-year-old going to school in a green policeman’s uniform and aiming a catapult at a bulbul in a mango tree.

The girl in the noodle-shop that I mentioned in a letter on Substack, with her Singapore training and worried young son and the middle-aged men who jeer and who smile when I won’t do to her what their hand gestures say I should do.

The tiny girl in pink, a granddaughter of one of them, running round and round and round the clutch of us, all sozzled and moaning into the microphone on the preceding night. Me not understanding a word that I ‘sing’ and her laughing and laughing and running as she laughs.

The middle-aged mother, in floods of tears, before the altar that holds the pictures of two of her three grown children, talking to the one I knew – the man my age who was lost in an accident just a month or so ago. I remember him as amiable, round-faced and slightly bewildered, but on the altar, he’s stiff-lipped and proud. His father, with his good-humoured smoker’s face which tries and fails to wrinkle itself into words after his stroke. And his 12-year old daughter, addressing me in English with a sudden and shocking intelligence.

It’s a crash course in humanity, this country, and the countryside especially. It’s like the circuit boards are exposed. I tell my wife about it on the phone and she says, ‘You never used to talk about this stuff.’ I say, honestly, that back then I wasn’t interested.

And now I am. Maybe I finally no longer need to be ashamed when I talk to anthropologists.

“What does the forest think about your project?” another anthropologist asks me in the Long Table forum. Life isn’t fair. Anthropologists are seeing agency everywhere now, so what can I preach to them after hours in the privacy of my skull? The fact is, I think, that the forest and I aren’t really talking.

For the second time, we failed to get on that road up the hill. The first time I got Covid but, even before that, we hadn’t got the right papers from the police and this made things difficult for the park director, so I told him not to worry. We didn’t really need to go there. I could see he was relieved and so was I because I hate being the difficult foreigner. This time it’s the park director himself we’ve forgotten to ask and so the border army say they can’t let us in. Either time, if it were a big deal, if it were important for our work then we’d make it work somehow, or we’d have the right papers to start with. But the justification in terms of the project is slender; I just want to get out there. I want to spotlight at night on the road, clamber over the black boulders searching for stripey rabbits. Wake up to the calling of gibbons. Hope for a hornbill in the mist. Is it really true what they’re saying, that since the patrols started you can see animals on the road?

The first night in the village I set up my hammock between a longan and a jackfruit tree in the garden of the ranger station. Why not? No lights and no music; the trees are dark and I dream. I dream that a colleague from the saola conservation world hands me a wooden box. It’s about 20cm square, with a removable lid; not fancy but neatly made. I’m told that what’s inside might just possibly be a new species, or something as remarkable as that. The chance is small but it’s there. When I open it, I find I have been given a slice from the snout of a young wild pig. It’s a typical piece of Vietnamese butchery, made by two strokes of the cleaver, transverse to internal structure. The skin, the bone, the lining of the buccal cavity form rings, but the hair has not been burnt off the outside. In fact the little brown eye is open (it only has one eye because the slice was diagonal) and it still looks alive. And then, with no throat, it starts squealing, constant and pitiful: “mẹ, mẹ, mẹ,” which is ‘mother’ in Vietnamese.

See, this kind of thing is why we’re not talking.

But the next night I have a just beautiful dream; the kind that’s a balm. Wandering through parks that I suddenly find exist along a river that’s both the Hương and the Avon. Great boars and moon bears appear to my delight among the willows. It’s one of those landscapes that seems to reach out, suggesting a connection with other dreams half-remembered. Many people have them: certain houses and vistas and woods which connect.

I have a friend who has an entire dream planet because he’s travelled the world so much and seen so many animals that he’s peopled another Earth with its own versions of the Amazon, the Antarctic, the outback and the tundra. He drew a map of it on Facebook. I seem to remember that there was a place, somewhere in the Indian Ocean which was an urban Kafkascape of travel agencies, bus stations and government offices where you fill in forms, hand over cash and make plans but can never quite leave for the forest. He is someone who pursues his own passion with splendid bravery; the kind of person you end up comparing yourself to. It occurred to me yesterday morning I might literally live in his nightmare.

Vietnam can seem like that. The state control of travellers, the buildings along all the roads, the acid that’s eaten the forest. You can’t just go and walk in a wood. You just can’t. I have a distinct memory from the old days in Hanoi of seeking solace on the water. The city has few parks but it does have lakes and the big one in the northwest had swan-shaped pedalos on it. Well I could take a swan boat right out into the open water, couldn’t I? Into the water which moves continually in the same direction but never goes anywhere. Which is silver, green and black at the same time and advertises nothing. Which is not interested in the colour of my face but only in the colour of the sky. I gave it all the welly that the kneespace would allow and headed straight for the horizon. Of course a guy with a whistle whizzed past in a speedboat as soon as I got to the edge of the flock and I had to turn my swan back inward so everyone could peer in and try and attract my attention. “Hullo!” “Hullo!” “Hullo!” They do it for the same reason people tap on fishtanks. That’s what the Lonely Planet used to say.

But I’m making excuses again. Sunday, May Day, is wet. The little hill is wet. Where the path dips by the red signs something large bounces once on its legs and flaps off through the understorey. I can tell what it was from the bounce and am joyful but not quite as much as I feel that I should be. In the afternoon I go back with umbrella, waterproof trousers and tarp. I push through a brambly something, find a nest in soft pine needles where no-one can come. It isn’t that hard. I tell a story to the black pines, or I try to, but I can’t make it work. So much was irrelevant to finding the saola. I don’t know the paths through this story. I don’t know the names of the weeds.

But to get to the point where I’d even go out, I had to spend Saturday collapsed in my hotel room, listening again to stupid podcasts though I’m not really sick. I refuse to see anyone and I eat melted-together sweets from a bag in the fridge. Or maybe for me to get to that point the sky had to break. For a blessed couple of days the heat is gone and the headache with it and there’s a wind in the streets. Why was all that necessary? What was it that I didn’t want to do?

The third night in the field the dreams got more complicated and I couldn’t hack it. The dreams were like company, like people. I had enough to do with people! I had to get the kids doing interviews, enter data in maps. Had to keep my head through the alcohol clouds and work out how to ask intelligent questions about rabbits.

I think I didn’t want to negotiate. That’s what nature is. The place you don’t have to negotiate.

On Friday I’d still been trying to get work done.

On Thursday, I’d been handed a box…

No. 1 – Snow Leopards & the Bad Things They Make Me Think

My last day in England before the big trip. It’s raining but it’s springtime and it smells of fresh peas. The blue and gold macaw sits under his plywood shelter at the entrance to the zoo but, in the red limes behind, the rooks are building and they talk to each other all the time. The Bali starlings’ record-scratches stick out of a meandering sauce of robin-song and a weird new call rises from behind the Lawsonia. It’s a drawn-out “owwwwww,” pained and questioning. I wonder what bird or primate could be making it and then I realize that it’s coming from the beast I’ve come to see.

There are two snow leopards in our village, in adjacent cages in the zoo’s southeast corner. It’s a small family-run zoo and still fundraising for a new breeding centre for them. The two cats have names like Transformers: Nefeli and Centurio and it is Centurio who’s calling, He’s calling into the gap between his cage and Nefeli’s. Calling again and again and again because, here and in the Himalaya, it is spring.

Two boys and their mother are watching and listening and the older one addresses me in some distress. “The leopard’s sad,” he says.

“Yes,” I say, without thinking, “he wants to get into the next cage, maybe.” The boy’s only nine or so. His mother gives me an uncertain look because she knows what I mean but she doesn’t know who I am. They’re just moving off.

“Owwwwwww!” Between each yowl there’s a little grouse-like chuckle in his throat like he’s winding up for the next one. It isn’t a purr because big cats don’t actually do that and anyway, like the boy said, he’s sad.

A nine year old boy may assume he’s crying for his liberty but in a few years he’ll understand otherwise. Probably also, like me now, he’ll feel the odd urge to mock. The Cat, the man in the cage, is so earnest. His eyes are so round, the little beans which are his eyebrows twitch so precisely and, though he’s dressed sharply and his sideburns stick out like a panther’s should, he has sawdust fragments on his deep-pile tail. He has no culture.

Nefeli is another story. She lies on her scaffold and stares into Centurio’s cage. She sits up, holding herself like a perfect Greek-sphinx bookend and then collapses again. She walks with him a little bit on the other side of the netting but is obviously less charged than he is. Well actually nothing is obvious to me about her. Is she… grumpy? Where is she in her cycle? Any attempt to understand her mood is just that, an attempt. I can only name what I think I’m seeing. Centurio, meanwhile, expresses himself to me plainer than any haiku could.

For how many days has he been calling like that and how long has she had to listen? The breeding season for wild snow leopards began in January. Here the daffodils are out. There are bees. He could have been yowling for months.

I’ve come to see them, irrationally and selfishly, because a friend had a dream about a snow leopard and I was also mentioned in the dream. It’s taken a lot to get me to the point where I could do that sort of thing. I should be with my family or sensibly packing.

I had this assurance, going in, that it was all going to be about eye contact, not sound. Eye contact with me, I mean. As a child, it was important to me to make eye contact with cats. I don’t think I noticed the difference then between house cats and the kinds in the zoo. Nefeli has moved off and I’m the only one there. Centurio’s gaze glances just off mine as if we were magnets pressed north to north. His eyes are empty of colour like the sky or almost so; there is just a little hint of greenish murk. He’s not a leopard. A leopard’s eyes would be burning gold. A leopard would quickly kill me if I went in there. Well probably. Certainly a tiger would; I’ve spent enough time with zoo people and there are stories about the inner door that somehow wasn’t locked. Really bad stories, some of them. None of those stories were about snow leopards, though. Certainly going in there would be dangerous but I don’t know if it would be certain death? Which means it isn’t. Certain, I mean.

He yowls again and his throat bubbles. Then he goes off to pace the other side of his cage to listen to the rooks which he also can’t get at. ‘Birding,’ I think. ‘Just a guy.’ Then I think: Trump once said that about Putin, didn’t he? ‘Just a guy.’ God.

I’ve been able to get out of bed these last couple of weeks by telling myself that life isn’t about the future, mine or the world’s. I’ve been avoiding thinking about the future of other species for a while, although it was supposed to be my job.

In her book Tigers in Red Weather, Ruth Padel talks about the hormone oxytocin. Tigresses, she assumes, must be just full of it or how could they still have sex with the same tigers who have just finished killing their young? She thinks about a man she loved, the same man whose betrayal left her alone and inexplicably obsessing about tigers until she had to write a book about them. She concludes that oxytocin is a horrible idea. Biology is mostly horrible ideas about beautiful things, isn’t it? Her book about Darwin made me cry.

It’s a famous Anthropocene Fun Fact that there are more tigers in Texas than the wild. It may not be true (Texas doesn’t keep records) but globally the captive population is indeed larger than the wild one. The pan-Asian tiger product industry is one reason for that and the ease with which tigers breed in captivity is the other. Captive populations of Giant pandas and African elephants remain smaller than their wild ones and people laugh at the pandas for it and say they have what’s coming to them for their lack of drive. The cats’ wild sex drive is strong enough to pump snow leopards into the corner of this little village zoo. Of course that isn’t all that counts, but it is a factor.

Snow leopard breeding is more tightly controlled than tiger breeding and so the captive population is genetically healthier overall. Healthier according to the definition accepted by the zoo authorities and the studbook keeper in Sweden anyway. It’s hard to define the health of a lineage.

I suppose I should talk about white tigers.

Snow leopards are a proper species. White tigers aren’t, they’re a breed. They were selectively bred from a pair at Cincinnati and their native habitat is the zoo. Respectable zoos no longer keep them, as a rule. They have the kind of genetic ‘defects’ common in animals bred for their looks but, for all that, they still outnumber many valid species on the IUCN red list. The collective evolutionary effect of their maladies is trumped by whatever the thought of them does in our brains.

Well it’s the same for the snow leopards, isn’t it? Proper species or no. They kill some sheep, they inspire some awe. The scales tip one way then the other as whatever we are flickers madly over the face of the earth. Whichever way the scales tip is ‘evolution’. If something, anything, dies out because something else could spread into its space and replace it then that is, by definition, evolution. Not genetic evolution necessarily but evolution nonetheless.

For ourselves, we are now under evolutionary pressure to want, not just sex, but children. They both always mattered, of course, but children matter more now, relative to sex, than they did and especially in men. If it makes sense to talk about anyone being ‘more evolved’ than anyone else then people who want children more than you do are more evolved than you. As for people who, like male tigers, want to kill other people’s children; well the jury is out on them.

Also there is no jury.

We like to think that unfair evolution doesn’t count. We think so even if the unfairness is in our favour. When our ancestors beat the dinosaurs by being smart and fast and plucky that was evolution. Now we know our ancestors just survived the worst day ever and we call it luck. The argument is that dinosaurs didn’t evolve for surviving asteroid strikes so how could they be expected to do so? Except nothing ever evolves for. Evolution is from. It doesn’t have expectations. Evolution is executioner, executioner and executioner. It shoots first and we ask questions later. Evolution is 100% death. Nobody has ever deserved it. That’s what I learned in school.

Sure, you can find other ways of talking about evolution. You can find different ways of talking about electricity too but the first thing you have to say is don’t stick a fork in the socket. Is there a first thing to say about evolution? I suppose it depends whose enclosure we’ve stepped into. Are we facing danger, in which case it matters to evolution what stories we tell? Or are we facing certain death? In which case it only matters to us.

Why am I talking like this? I used to worry who had stepped into our enclosure. I used to despise people who worried about human extinction.

This stuff is all just too easy to write.

When I leave the zoo someone calls after me. “Hello,” he says as if he’s pleased to see who he thinks I am but isn’t quite sure he’s right. His mild, donnish voice seems to be coming out of the Lawsonia from 10 feet above the ground. I wonder and then realize he must be the blue and gold macaw who’s woken up when the rain stopped. I say “Hello” back but he doesn’t reply; I’m not even sure he was talking to me.

To my friend who had the dream, I send a video of Centurio calling but she has to keep it away from her cat. Little Baboushka tries to run into the room where the recording is playing. Maybe that’s just because the sound is squeezing through a phone speaker. Maybe if she were in the zoo for real she’d do the sensible thing and peg it. Still I’d like to give the lecture just in case: “Baboushka,” I’d say to this cat I’ve never met, “he is ten times your size. Baboushka, sweetheart, he would eat you. It’s not a metaphor, he would literally eat you.” Baboushka are you listening to me?

Cats, eh? Gotta love ’em.

God knows why.

Introducing Traps, Cages & Spells

A stream where hunters could still find saola 20 years ago. Pu Huong, Vietnam (Do Van Thoai)

It was during the Climate Sessions series that we held in late 2020 that I first crossed paths with Nicholas Wilkinson. In between the big Sunday night sessions with guests like Martin Shaw and Vanessa Andreotti, I was holding calls on weekdays when participants were welcome to drop in and talk about whatever had been coming up for them.

In one of those sessions, Nicholas spoke about a question he’d been carrying for twenty years, since a lecture that he attended as an undergraduate studying Natural Sciences at Oxford.

— For a biology course it was a very odd lecture, and a very beautiful lecture, in which my tutor told a story: once upon a time, there was a world where people were hunter-gatherers. He used the word ‘palaeolith’ to mean hunter-gatherers, and ‘neolith’ to mean agriculturalist, which aren’t the words we would use now. The palaeoliths were better off than the agriculturalists, their food sources were far more diverse, whereas life for the early agriculturalists was grim. It was the first time I’d heard something that went against the assumption that the transition to agriculture was a form of progress. There’s been a struggle between the palaeoliths and the neoliths throughout history, he said – and the neoliths always win.

What Nicholas realised was that he had carried that story into his work as a conservation biologist: a tragic version of the story of progress, in which whatever you might wish for, decisions still need to be informed by an inevitable logic running through history.

— Against that background, I hear you guys talking about ‘hospicing modernity’, and I respond to that in a confused way, because I want to say, are you sure? Because modernity seems to be… doing pretty well.

Something about the way he told the story on that first call held the attention of all of us who were there, and Nicholas and I went on talking over the months that followed. One of the fruits of that was ‘Beast Dreaming’, an essay that was published by Dark Mountain last summer.

In it, he tells the story of the saola, a forest antelope of southeast Asia that may or may not already have gone extinct. Nicholas has spent his career studying the saola in the hope of rescuing it from the brink. The essay starts with a dream he has, shortly after a decision has been taken ‘to seek out any surviving saola and bring them to bay with dogs and so into captivity’.

The dream is horrific: the Greek army is camped outside Troy, Achilles tells the assembled captains that he has a way to win the war, and this will involve a journey through the Underworld to Ithaca where they will take part in the gang rape of Penelope. ‘In the logic of my dream,’ he writes, ‘this plan made perfect sense.’ It is hard not to see this act of violence as corresponding to the plan to hunt the saola in order to save it.

Two years later, a second dream includes an encounter with a being which ‘regarded me with a vicious intelligence I had thought was uniquely human’. This leads him to the question of whether there might be something else involved, beyond the agency that he and his colleagues see themselves holding in their decisions about conservation.

So ‘Beast Dreaming’ ends with a scientist contemplating what it could mean to take seriously these dream encounters, ‘to attend with curiosity’ to the possibility that they come from somewhere beyond his own mind and are telling him something about the work he is engaged in:

Perhaps the truth is that, if I want to act, and I don’t want to behave like a rapist, I have to choose communication. But I am frightened of who I’ll end up in communication with. The forest spirits in the saola’s own hills once fed enthusiastically on the blood of kidnapped children and the people feared them still. I remember a man rejoicing that they’d been driven back to their sources by the power of ‘the Revolution’, by which he meant the modern world.

from Beast Dreaming

When Nicholas told me that he had realised he needed to follow this further, connecting it to the story he had told us during the Climate Sessions, I offered him the use of a corner of the Homeward Bound site to pursue this in a series of letters under the title, ‘Traps, Cages & Spells’.

— During all my work on the saola and during my PhD, everything I thought and did was under the shadow of the idea that modernity was going to win and there was no point fighting it. Under that shadow, the saola could not be seen as anything other than an object and “practical” plans required treating it as such. That’s why I ended up dreaming of a dispassionately calculated rape. And also why the dream didn’t give me a new plan. Under that shadow, within that world, all workable plans were tragic if you thought about them hard enough.

I want to let that grim, “practical”, tragic voice speak. I think it is most dangerous when it doesn’t speak; when it listens to alternative views and prompts me to smile and nod and say nothing. When I let it speak – as when I first spoke about my tutor Barrie and his story about the ‘neoliths’ – then it seems real.

So now I am returning to Vietnam; to the universities, villages, park offices and cafes. Maybe maybe maybe to the forest for a little time. I’m returning to my maps and statistics and I’m wondering whether I can find a way out this time and whether I even want to.

I’ve appreciated the way that Nicholas is willing to bring that voice to our conversations at the Long Table, the membership community that grew out of the online series I taught over the past two years. He gives me a glimpse of some of the things that are at stake in our talk of modernity, and of the struggle to show up differently to the encounter with other ways of knowing, while carrying the things a scientific training has taught you. So we’ll be publishing his letters here, and you can also follow them on Substack.