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.