A dream about a conservation action as rape

Penelope unraveling her work at night. Silk embroidered with silk thread. Dora Wheeler Keith, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was a dream I had, more than 5 years ago now. Precisely it was 5 years, 5 months and a day or two ago. I had come from a Saola Working Group meeting in Hanoi where we’d formally decided that we were definitely going ahead with it. We were going to seek out any surviving saola we could find, chase them down to streams with dogs, catch them and take them to enclosures to live out the rest of their days as breeding stock. Otherwise they would all of them die in snares and the species would be lost.

From there we went down to Hue. I remember talking to an SWG colleague in a tourist bar in that city. “How would you feel,” I asked him “if the first saola you see is one you see chased down to a stream by dogs?”
“I would be so happy,” he replied; giving what was unquestionably the correct answer.

Now that a few people have seen this post and told me what they think about it, I realise I need to add that I still think that, if there is a correct answer, this is it.

From Hue I traveled overland to Phnom Penh, where I stayed with friends and gave a course, and from there to a village called Kati on the edge of the Seima reserve in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia.

It was my last day in the village and my work was done. I was lying in my hammock underneath the house of the village head. It was the kind of stilt house that has a concrete-floored storage space beneath it, rather than the old kind with a bamboo floor that people might spit through. The village’s fiddle-thin dogs would all howl together at ungodly hours of the night for no external cause. But the stars were bright and I was alone. Jupiter, Mars and Venus were aligned in the sky so you could see the plane of the ecliptic at a slant to the Galactic plane. My work was over and I wouldn’t have to worry about datasheets or public bathing or where to shit in the cashew orchard. I had a morning walk to look forward to, back to the truck, with the chance to watch birds on the way. It felt OK now to listen to stories of my own country on my Ipod so I listened to Michael Harvey, a Welsh storyteller, tell the oldest story of King Arthur.

I dreamed, however, of Troy.

I’m not this classically epic on a regular basis. I dream a lot about Batman and Star Wars. Possibly I was telling myself I meant business.

In my dream the captains of the Achaeans were gathered outside their tents with the walls of the city in the distance and Achilles stepped forward and spoke.
“If you actually want to win this war” he said, “then it is simple. We go through our dreams into the underworld. The roads to the underworld go down from every place and we can travel those same roads back up to any place. So we will come up in Ithaka and we will find the queen of that place, the lady Penelope, and we will all of us rape her one after the other. That is how the war will be won.” In the dream logic, this plan was brilliant.
Odysseus is listening on the edge of the assembly and thinking “well I can’t fault the logic. When he puts his mind to it, Achilles is as brilliant at plans as he is at everything else, of course he is. And the war must be won.” So he has no option but to acquiesce to the gang-rape of his wife.

Of course Odysseus, would never have done that. The war was no Great Cause for him, he was only there because he’d failed to convincingly feign madness. Achilles was there for personal glory, Menelaus to revenge himself on Paris and the rest of them were there because they’d promised to go. But I was in rather more of a 20th Century mentality, I thought I was in a war that had to be won because it mattered. It was also one that was really starting to seem hopeless. It was entirely obvious what the dream was about. It was about the decision by committee to do a terrible and traumatic thing to an individual saola so that the wider cause of saving the species could be served.

I remembered this dream often in the years since and told it maybe five or six times. Often I feel rather disgusted at myself afterwards because the person I can hear talking through my mouth is clearly either proud of having made a hard decision or proud of having had a meaningful dream. Sometimes, conversely, I feel ashamed of wasting my time worrying about dreams, convinced I’m ‘rationalizing my inertia’ as my father would say – finding an excuse to talk rather than to act. And indeed my actions since have been rather limp most of the time. Telling it now, I see someone trying to tell a dramatic story: “I dreamed, however, of Troy” da da DUM.

Instead what I believe I should be hearing is someone who is truly ashamed of what he’s got himself wrapped up in. Not because it’s bad on balance. On balance, as I said, I still believe it’s the right thing to do but I don’t believe everything actually goes on one balance sheet like that. Rape seems like a special kind of evil because, unlike killing, there is no non-contrived situation where it can be done for a greater good. But if there were a situation like that, the trauma of the rape would still be there, it wouldn’t just be cancelled out in the moral algebra. I don’t want to think I think like that. However utilitarianism is useful for decision-making and we do need to make decisions and move on, don’t we? Once again, this isn’t an announcement that I’ve changed my mind about what ought to be done.

To write about the dream I went back to my old notebooks and found there were three things I had forgotten.

I’d forgotten how Kati and the land around it seemed: flat, disarticulated, laid out for the termites.

I’d forgotten that I’d already used that metaphor of rape a week before in Hue and while I was awake,

And I’d forgotten the part about the underworld.


This is my old blog. I started it when I first went out to Vietnam and I didn’t intend it to be shared very widely – just for family and friends.

Now I need a blog again. I have some stuff to work out. So, for the moment, I’m resurrecting this and I might share it a little more widely.

Looking back at my old posts, I’m often embarrassed. One thing I wrote seems actually racist – though of course that wasn’t how I saw it then. But the more general feeling is embarrassment that I’m stuck in the same concerns and still talking about them in more or less the same way.

I’ve decided to keep these old posts, though, rather than starting a new clean blog away somewhere else. Cutting it all away would be dishonest and I don’t want to hide. So this is my official announcement of blog resurrection for the benefit of the internet crickets. I’ll start inviting people in once I’ve swept up a bit and put some snacks on the table.

The infinite dimensions of reality

Photo by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

There is a world. It is not this world, but this world is part of it. This world, as we see it, has three dimensions but if we change our mode of perception we can understand that there are many more than three. Changing our mode of perception is not something we can do perfectly. Human beings cannot set a true number on the dimensions of reality. We may name them differently and we may divide them falsely. Reality may, in fact, be far stranger even than this. But we can still broaden our understanding of the world by broadening our perception of its dimensions beyond the three or four we normally consider.

In fact, anything that you can name might be a dimension. Temperature, for example, could be a dimension, Intelligence could be a dimension, Love could be a dimension – or at least lovingness. However you may find, on a close inspection or even at a quick glance, that these ‘dimensions’ themselves explode into multidimensional worlds which offer you opportunities to explore, to dwell or to become hopelessly lost. What you see depends on who you are and particularly on what you want in this moment. No-one comes into such a space without a purpose and – be warned – no purpose is excluded. You must state your intentions clearly if you are to see clearly. But even clarity is not a wholly positive thing.

Anything you can imagine is in such a space. Yourself or your world, a car, a holiday, an angel (if you can imagine an angel). A wolf, wolves and Wolf itself also exist in such a space. In such a space they have many kinds of size. They have length, height, breadth, duration, heat, hairiness, population size, capacity to feel wonder, capacity to evoke wonder, etc etc etc. The dimensions are infinite or, if finite, emetically many. The number of dimensions is called ‘n’ which stands for ‘number’; it could be anything. Whatever you are imagining is a shape.

Isn’t this the hippy-dippiest stuff? But I learned this on my biology degree. I’ve tweaked the language slightly but I don’t think I’ve said anything that we weren’t taught. We did have lectures and practicals on systems theory and ‘what is life?’ and our animal behaviour lectures glanced at the question of consciousness but these things were constantly signaled as weird and to be viewed with skepticism. The idea of the n-dimensional hypervolume wasn’t signaled as an oddity at all because it wasn’t meant to be a truth about the world, just a way of thinking about it. We were expected to treat that distinction seriously and mostly did. It was an idea which was out there. It describes a species’ niche. Richard Dawkins, who was on the faculty then uses it in The Blind Watchmaker with genes as dimensions.

OK what is my point here exactly? There’s a simple one about what kind of language one trusts but that wasn’t really what I was after.
No, what I want to say is that this way of looking at the world (or beyond the world) has influenced me very deeply. It has given me the impression that reality is a very small space indeed in comparison to the vastness of potentiality that surrounds it on every side. And that there are a lot of sides.

It’s obvious that if you move forward you will encounter a table or a wall, another person or a hole in the ground. However if you do anything else, you are also moving (or growing) in some direction. If you make a resolution to smile more, you move or grow in the direction of smiliness. And there is something ahead of you in that direction. You aren’t making it by smiling, it is already there.

The world out there is not some multidimensional holodeck vacuum traversed by intangible grid lines but a landscape. There are places within it that are hard to reach. There are places in it that are hard to leave. There are traps to spiral into and holes to well within. Possibly there are narrow passes leading onto high and unknown meadows filled with birdsong… but to talk like this is silly. A ‘landscape’ is only 3-D but it’s the best image available. The point is that the world is out there in a lot of directions and its shape is only vaguely known. Things don’t happen, they are navigated.

Perhaps this way of thinking affected me more than it did other biologists or perhaps it worked its way into all of us. So I might think something like “Nazism is also a continent which can be reached from where we are. So going back in time and murdering Hitler wouldn’t help any more than murdering Columbus.” Not that that’s an option – just to be clear on that point at least.

I’m not saying that’s an insightful or a correct political view or that it’s unique to people who have been taught in terms of n-dimensional hypervolumes. I’m just saying this idea, which wasn’t taught in a political context, changed my thinking about politics in this particular way. And about other things too. But that I was given to believe that it was facts that you had to be careful over, ways of thinking could be simply picked up and put down like spectacles.

Some praise, some dumbness

Today the golden plover are back; it means it’s autumn. Cows in the misty meadows in the sunrise aren’t enough to tell me, I have to see birds move. The clouds of martins over these houses have busted their hawsers and gone and the golden plover are back. Today was a day I couldn’t work. It’s hard to admit it, you’re supposed to put in a solid nine to five each day and the to do list is always immense. It’s just hard to be a large mammal in a world that keeps telling you that you are an ant. Might as well come out about that.

I went out walking over the empty fields, and over the motorway, into the elm wood and then I came back. Stepping down from the bridge I see that the pigeons circling over the ploughed field are not pigeons at all. Their wings are clean-cut, their beats precise – taut as carbon fibre. Their flock is V-shaped, or rather it’s an inwardly-branching V like a simple cladogram. However, it is not like a goose skein; goose skeins trail but this flock wheels. And as it wheels it crunches together at the front, a knot of birds like a fist to punch through to a new horizon. But it doesn’t punch through anywhere, it wheels again. That’s the other thing that shows they are not pigeons, beyond the clipped beats and the skeining – they cannot, cannot make up their mind.

They swing wide over the empty earth and race towards me and I shout – I have to – and then they’re up. Nothing to do with me, it’s the continuation of their arc; seems they’re not staying. I think there are two kinds of desolation these days: the distant tundra that elicits fear for what’s melting beneath it and this ploughed field, far deader than the Arctic, which elicits guilt. Golden plovers are poets of desolation, perfectly crafted and moving in squadrons but this place doesn’t have what they want. The empty earth on the right has been harrowed already but the empty earth on the left still lies tumbled in great, evicted, fossilizing heaves. It must be a boulderfield to the plovers. They wheel and rise on the force which I see as heat haze, up into the total September blue. As they turn their white breasts to the sun they twinkle, simple as that: their wings beat across them and they twinkle like fairylights, or like a flung handful of child’s glitter in the sky. And then they’re out of the range of my vision, a falcon could see them but I can’t. All I can see is a single airliner, high and white, co-opted back into the sick economy on a flightline that doesn’t bother with England.
So. I did nothing worthwhile all afternoon.

I had a link to a video but somehow I lost it. It was of the magnificent Dr Martin Shaw unpacking a fierce little book of his called ‘Courting the wild twin’. In the interview, he quotes a philosopher hero of his who I’d never heard of: Gaston Bachelard. Here’s the phrase from Bachelard: “The world seeks to be admired by you.” Google it and you’ll find Martin Shaw. Apparently it’s not what the world at large takes from Bachelard’s work. Apparently Bachelard was a philosopher both of science and of poetics. Apparently that is possible, or at least is was.

Martin Shaw also mentions an idea I’d heard from Joseph Campbell about different kinds of love. How the love of the troubadours, which they called ‘Amor’ was different both from Christian love and from Erotic love. Eros and Caritas are impersonal, Campbell says, they just spill out across everything indiscriminately. Amor is discriminate, it praises particular things, a particular woman, a particular planet, a bird.

Anxiety is the enemy of praise. Guilt is the enemy of praise. “The guilty care only for themselves”. There is no room for praise on the to do list. Or, at least not on mine. I suppose if I were a vicar… But that is responsible praise and that’s not what I mean.

Over Thanet and Holland, over Alps and Carpathians, over Lesbos where the camps are, over the desmesnes of murderers with sour faces and the burnt lands and the melting lands and the borders that shine and the borders that crumble and the steppes whose herds have been hoovered up and lost, and the Himalaya whose bones surge as their wigs slip and over all the TV screens in all the bars in all the towns in all Eurasia, there’s a forest whose teeth are not all drawn and possibly, hopefully, a beast still in it which I have never seen but which I have designs on. And when I think of her my mouth is empty. I have nothing to say.

stand back from what you believe in

I have just read a work of Charles Darwin which has changed my view of myself and my place in the world. It is not one of his books (which I had never seen the point of reading directly) but a letter. It is available online at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-5500

Please forgive the fact that I am too stupid or lazy to work out why WordPress isn’t letting me insert a proper link and read the letter. I don’t know if it will affect you as it affected me but I’d like to see if you have any conclusions on it before you read mine. I’m going to go straight on now and say how it made me feel, OK?

The first thing is what he says to Haekel about not being over-critical. Most of all, I am thrown for six by the sentence:

“I feel sure that our good friend Huxley, though he has much influence, wd have had far more if he had been more moderate & less frequent in his attacks.”

Huxley, in case you’re not familiar with the story was ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, the angry, honest, young man who stood up the greasily eloquent Bishop of Oxford and, the story goes, the whole prim, reactionary vestigial edifice that was the Victorian establishment – to champion Darwin’s ideas. Darwin himself, meanwhile hid away at his country house, accused by some of hypochondria and, perhaps, cowardice. I now see this in a rather different way.

The second thing that struck me about the letter is what an incredibly nice letter it is. Perhaps this has something to do with the ‘lost art of letter writing’ or somesuch. I should probably have to read a lot more letters from Victorian gentlemen to see if letters exhibiting such consummate skill in niceness were commonplace in the period or whether it was just Darwin.Be that as it may, I would love to get a letter like this – or an email – from another scientist who wasn’t a friend of long standing. He takes every opportunity to be nice and encouraging to and about Haekel, he advises him with a humility and non-overbearing-ness that make me proud to be English. However I look back with some shame on emails I have sent to colleagues myself, frequently squeezing out a terse acknowledgement of excellent work before launching into the agenda of problems that seem to me the real meat of the issue.

Now I’ve been taught all these principles that Darwin both expounds and exemplifies in a Buddhist context – the ideal of loving speech. Specifically also the practice of starting with the positive before seeing if you still need to mention the things which bother you. But, secretly, there has been a counter-argument brewing within me for some years now. And, to try and make the attempt to represent that subconscious squall in a few bulletpoints, it goes something like this:

  • some things are true, and some are false.
  • people cling to false views because it pleases them, but they have no right to do so.
  • such people defy, not only evidence, but logic itself. People like this are not endemic to the southern United States but can also be found among (say) the staff of international conservation organisations and the governments of all countries.
  • the flawed logic and the baseless argument should be shown no mercy.
  • to show them no mercy is your duty, and your heritage as a scientist. It’s a different ideal from this Buddhist one which has anyway probably been twisted – or, indeed selected – under centuries of Confucian authoritarianism not to upset the status quo, even if the status quo is founded on lies.

Now I haven’t been able to disagree with any of this but, to look at it another way;  what kind of person holds to principles like those in the bulletpoints? Adjectives for such a person, anyone? Mine are honest, angry and grim.

I want to focus on grim – in my internal thesaurus it goes naturally with two words, both of which begin with D.

A friend of mine once claimed to be the Angel of Death. It was regarded as a symptom of an episode of schizophrenia and I never knew much about it – including the extent to which my friend ‘really’ believed it. However it did seem safe to say that, for this friend, being the Angel of Death was not an entirely negative thing. In trying to understand this rather later I wondered if there was anything in myself which would appreciate the title. Of course I can definitely see the attraction of invoking yourself as a great spiritual power – in other words I’d love to claim to be an angel – but of death specifically? The thing that leapt to mind as the most ‘Angel-of-Death’ part of me was certain habits of thought which I regarded as part-and-parcel of being a scientist.

It is the part that looks at the universe and sees – not really a malevolent place, not even a bleak place, but an utterly uncompromising place.  Don’t tell this angel that if you take a step towards God, He will take a thousand steps towards you. It’s only you who cares in what direction you’re walking, and it’s only you who’s going to suffer for it. The undemocratic, inhuman nature of reality is awesome, and that is the wind in this angel’s wings. He isn’t actually a bringer of death, only a messenger – but a messenger empowered by his mission. And his message is “this is how it is, don’t bother trying to hide.”

One powerful story which this angel likes to tell is the ‘nevertheless they move’ story. For those who don’t know, this is a story of Gallileo. The pope supposedly threatened Gallileo with torture if he would not retract his theories that heavenly bodies move. And Gallileo did retract but reportedly muttered afterwards, under his breath: “nevertheless, they move.” In this case, the fact that the story is almost certainly not true doesn’t matter – it even makes it more powerful. Humans beings are weak and can be destroyed by torture. But killing the messenger will not change anything: they do move. Deal with it.

And we have had to deal with it. And actually we’ve done so fairly well, despite the fact that a literal reading of Genesis does indeed leave the distinct impression that the earth is flat,  and that it rests under a tent of sky above which is water.  In fact, as far as I understand the subject, it wasn’t Genesis itself that the religious establishment quoted against Gallileo, it was more the spiritual understanding of the time that the universe was a series of concentric spheres with the heavenly bodies at an outer – and therefore purer – level than the Earth (Hell, in turn, being inside the sphere of Earth). And as with Gallileo, so with Darwin. Victorian gentlefolk did not, by and large, believe in the literal truth of Genesis. It was a question of two spiritual beliefs: one about the nobility of man and another, rather more complex and less well known one about the nature of species. This second belief owes more to Plato than the bible. Agassiz, who Stephen Jay Gould considered to be the last respectably creationist biologist, claimed that a species was ‘an idea in the mind of God.’ And God presumably does not change His mind.

Yet Asa Gray, a supporter and friend of Darwin and a faithful Christian asked why people thought natural selection was a challenge to religion when they could accept Gallileo and Copernicus. In fact now, even that description of Asa Gray seems to make him somehow false. A faithful Christian seems to mean someone who isn’t prepared to give up on the comforts of faith and so splits his mind in two. When in fact that is the opposite of the truth. Of course, you can read his letters as well on the same site. They’re just as interesting reading.

So the question that this leaves me with, in the end, is – did evolutionists create creationism? It sounds a bit ‘the Dark Knight Returns’ (sorry if you haven’t read it – it’s a batman comic).  There are places where I wouldn’t dare suggest such a thing for the fury I’d get back in return. Really I’m asking a question about the usefulness of any kind of violence.

If these intimations are true, what would be the way forward? And how does it apply to ideas which are directly affecting the material well-being of third parties such as (say) the idea that swidden agriculture is always destructive and backward and should be stamped out. With ideas like that surely you have to speak out and get angry – right? However they had been played, I am sure that Darwin’s ideas would have taken more than a century to be truly accepted. One doesn’t want to wait.

Evolution by natural selection is not a pretty truth. Darwin knew that. Modern publicisers of his work often seem to gloss over it as part of a political strategy. Yet it remains the fact that we are the way we are because of death and loneliness – death after death after death over all the continents and seas of Earth through an expanse of time so vast as to exceed our imagination by seven orders of magnitude.  Expressions of this kind were actually what I was seeking in Darwin’s correspondence. I was looking for the reaction of a man who had been given to see the grim face of reality, no matter how little it pleased him. That wasn’t what I found, however.

Or perhaps that was what I found. But, if so, Darwin faced those facts in a quite different way from what I had been led to believe. He did not gloss over the disturbing nature of his theory but nor did he dwell on it and become melodramatic as I tend to. I thought that pointing out the grim nature of reality was what being a scientist was about and Darwin was a kind of hero – a suffering hero – of this myth. I was completely wrong about him. He wasn’t a saint – he got angry when people attacked his theory and attacked him directly, particularly when they were people he had considered friends. But what I find in his letters is a quality of very ordinary goodness which, like skill in writing, is almost imperceptible unless something calls it to your attention. It’s a skill I’ve felt that nothing in society, or in the ideas that obsess society, is encouraging me to cultivate. It’s a value that has come to seem naive.

Now who is to blame for that?

the conceptual street

I was riding back on a very crowded bus in a bad mood, up Nghi Tam in the evening. “It sucks,” I was thinking (influenced in my wording by our American housemates), “to live in a city where everyone talks about you because they are sure you can’t understand the language whereas, in fact, you understand it just enough to know that they are talking about you but not to catch what they are saying.” Halfway between blissful ignorance and streetwise perfection; along with most of humanity, I suppose.

Anyway, looking out of the window of the bus I saw a shop in Thuy Khue. Thuy Khue is the name of a street and I knew the shop was in that street because it said so on the frontage, after the number: 345 Thuy Khue. That’s normal in Hanoi but the street I was on was certainly either Yen Phu or Nghi Tam (I was near the junction of those two).

In fact I might not have thought about this further – many things in Hanoi appear to make no sense – if that had been the first time I had heard of Thuy Khue. But it isn’t; a few days ago Hannah announced that there was to be a reading of Vietnamese women’s poetry on Thuy Khue. “Where the hell is Thuy Khue?” I asked and she didn’t know.

Then on thursday a motorbike taxi driver took me the long way round back from the Daewoo Hotel, all the way through a very pleasant part of the city which I’d never been through before round the far side of Ho Tay (West Lake). Taking a cut down a tiny alley with the lake at the end I saw again the street name (Thuy  Khue) on a building – I cannot now remember what kind of building. “Ah so that’s where it is!” I thought.

But that was, at a guess, about three miles from the shop I saw today with no possible single road to connect the two locations and a large lake between them. And I know I’ve seen another shop on Thuy Khue somewhere else in the city but I can’t think where.

It seems clear to me that Thuy Khue cannot be a street which would be visible on a two, or even a three dimensional city plan. Instead it must weave itself through some additional dimension, but which one? I cannot help thinking that the kind of shops on the street would give me a clue. In the kind of statistics which ecologists use, and which I’m about to have to try understanding again, a variable – temperature for example – is referred to as a dimension so that, in theory, a place or a thing can be defined in its entirety, not just in terms of (what we normally think of as) its position, by specifying its location on every one of a total of n dimensions, where ‘n’ is an unspecified number, presumably very large.

I imagine that Thuy Khue exists on this kind of dimension, and that the presence of a shop on Thuy Khue and the distance along it (as indicated by the number) reflect the extent to which it exhibits a particular attribute. But, again, which one? It would have to be an attribute which the vast majority of shops do not possess at all or they would all be on Thuy Khue. Of course there may also be shops or even houses which are on Thuy Khue but at points where it does not intersect with the three dimensions of normal space. How these shops would be able to do business, and with whom, remains a matter for speculation.

Unfortunately I cannot remember what any of the three Thuy Khue shops were selling, if indeed they were all shops. The only thing that I’m sure of is that there was a reading of Vietnamese women’s poetry on Thuy Khue. But Hannah never went to it because it turned out that it was actually last month. I can’t help wondering, in fact, if there is perpetually a reading of women’s poetry last month on Thuy Khue. It all depends how it intersects with the dimension of time, I suppose but I’m out of my depth there.

Perhaps the name of the street would give me a clue. I am not sure what it means. Most of Hanoi’s streets are named after famous people, often revolutionary heroes of one sort or another but some have more esoteric meanings. I think the street which our street meets, Xuan Dieu, is called ‘spring rhythm’ or ‘spring pattern’ or something but I can’t be sure. Perhaps I can look up Thuy Khue in the dictionary but then I’m not exactly sure that I have the name right. I think that both ‘u’s were ordinary ones (not the ‘smile’ u which sounds a bit like Lurch from the Addams family)  and that the second had a ‘heavy’ tone marked by a dot underneath but, then again, I’m not sure. Was it actually Khuy Thue? No, that sounds wrong…

18/7/8 – I should have posted this long ago

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I am sleepy this morning, and stormy. Almost at the end of Moby Dick, the second day of the chase. Last night we met with people of village 6, a meeting organized by Thuy. It was very jolly, really. And Thuy told me that, in the old days, Saola weren’t in the higher areas but in flatter ones but now all those areas were logged and hunted. That was the news I had been hoping not to hear. Yes, people agree that the more remote stream sources are the places to find them.

And an old woman told us also, yesterday, that the spirits too had been driven up to the stream sources by the government who declared them superstition. The monster snake, the sight of whom is death, still lives in the river and has been taking more victims since the sacrifices have tailed off – whether those were to him or to those spirits who would protect people from him, I am not sure. Nikolas finds that an important question.

Nikolas, in his attempts to describe, even perhaps to storify, the situation of contest over wild animals, has described the urban multitudes who crave wild animal products for their own greater potency or health as ‘industrial animists.’; We conservationists he calls ‘monotheists’, though he doesn’t really know why. A friend gave him the name and he thinks it oddly appropriate. He cites in support our ability to rank everything – species and places – in terms of some mysterious quality.

But I think this monotheism is a sham, a mask for protection in a monotheistic world. Just the same as our constant appeals to the rhetoric of human wellbeing as the ultimate goal. But we are pagan in our souls. And I know what it feels like, though I’m only 29, to have your gods cut up for lumber and sold to buffoons with big egos and big cars. The devouring of that which is full of meaning by that which seems all empty noise. And every time I journey down here on the train I pass mountains which have stood all the ages of several cultures, proud above forests and fields, gnawed entirely away to feed the cement works which have sprouted by them.

Captain Ahab is painted as a picture of demonic human pride – fatal pride it is called by the author. And there is a legendary horror, a, a deep thrill, in contemplating the fall that pride will bring. And that is why I love the legend of the Monkey King face to face with the Buddha in the high courts of Heaven.

What horrifies me is that the pride might be justified – that human appetite ego-boosting irrelevancy might roll on to the ends of the universe and beyond the end of time, subjugating or devouring all in its wake with a lazy, smug confidence that remains forever unharpooned.

And my position is simple: I am on Moby Dick’s side. For all that I do cry when I think of Ahab and Starbuck’s wives and children back home in Nantucket. That is not the point. If, in reverence, they left the whale then that would be good, but if they should pursue it, then it should destroy them and that I believe this is shown in any story I wrote at primary school where anacondas swallowed headmasters – always arrogant and overblown – and the spirit of Nature, huge and roaring, red in tooth and claw simply pounded the skinny, cackling spirit of man-made things. I was rooting for Him – I still am – but I have less power to live only in the world I want to live in. And that thought – that’s what places me in the hard, hollow little whale boat – like a seed husk on the ocean with something monstrous rushing up directly from beneath.

Hooray for Moby Dick! Even then I support him and would press his bible and be his prophet though he would not care. Only I would not want to see the face he has reserved for me. Now that sounds monotheistic. I suppose the habit is deeper in me that I think. After all I’ve always thought myself a hedgehog, not a fox, my mind fixing on one great thing alone – or one great thing at a time.

And another thing – old style pagans, or animists, didn’t need to be on anybody’s side. They had no gospel to preach, no tub to thump, things just were that way – isn’t that so? Now I know that there were, and are, heroic pagans who have forged their own old ways into vehicles which will carry them even into the turbulent swells of world religion but that is a phenomenon evinced by that religion, is it not? But I have no choice. Is my conviction the certainty of denial?

Denial is a river in Africa as Lucy used to say…

I mean

I’ve seen a picture of a leering, tipsy, snake-faced businessman from China, about my age, pounding a tiger with his fist as that tiger sits naked on a slab in a compound of a zoo. The tiger is drugged, of course, and I savour the thought, as a slated lemon, of what that tiger would do to that man were it not drugged and there is something in me which believes that that is what the man deserves. – believes it sudden as a lash. A kind of justice that could be called vengeance. Is that not pagan?

No. Because I have the reality of always seeing that justice undelivered. Were the laws in place I might fear and dodge them like everyone else but the laws are gone and I’m become furious, railing at the logic of the modern gods but only in my heart because the language I speak is theirs.

And I’m luckier than some because I’m clever enough and trained enough to ride that language a little and govern it a little . And I’ve had the time to wrestle with it in this way and some conviction that this is worthwhile, though I am frequently lost and unsupported. And still I can’t really say the world needs more tub-thumpers!

And yet there’s one more mystery. Why is it that, though as a child it was the great predators which fascinated me most and the awesome power of volcanoes and storms (please don’t let them work out how to stop volcanoes) – why is it that those cereatures which have sways me most are gentle:

The Sea Cow

The Passenger Pigeon

The Saola.

There’s a mystery here I can behold. There’s a silent goddess I could say: a dark-eyed one. And I have given names to her – no I have not given them but I know she can be called Martha, and I know she can be called Mwanamizi. And I know that, writing like this, I can explain nothing about her.

The world can kindly rope you down, you know? It doesn’t have to crush you in its jaws. Yes and the world can slaughter innocents and those innocents can look at you, unblinking as they recede.

And they are not angry

And they are not resentful

And pain, for them, is something greater than a song but to you might be best expressed as a song. And for them might not even be called pain.

And this can only be written from a great dampened distance because those two arms reach directly into the shadows at the base of your brain, right through your furrowed forehead inviting you into a dance where Death, you know, will be in attendance, will be a dancer too and not the only one.

And I draw back form that proffering, into the world where things can be done and as soon as I’m back in that world of rational thought, the thought that asserts itself is:

“They killed them. They killed them all.”


I could show you exactly where I am on the map – for I am at the confluence of two rivers: rivers whose names are unlikely to appear on the map but which names I know. And these rivers are now in thunderous spate; I look up the tight throat of Hra Lang and see tea-coloured waters churning themselves into frenzy. Not a few hours ago I washed my face and arms in a thin clear pool as a big black butterfly, a Great Mormon, frantically sucked at the salt from my palm. Now lightning flashes over the flanking hills of the valley of Hra Lang and the sky is a colour I would flounder in naming; a stern peaceful colour, a divine grey speaking first of sword blades and second of eyes and third of an other morning ever breaking under the prow. In an arc down over me a looping lady of a tree proffers hard red berries before my face. Should I reach out to take one and slip, I would not stick long in the stream’s gullet but be mashed to a pulp in the ten-yard stretch before I even entered the wide pool where Duc and I once swam. That pool which, though now foam-flecked, is still calm by comparison. No, better for me to crack and eat the three tart little forest rambutans I have brought down here with me – the kind whose flesh is yellow – and to toss the husks and seeds into the chundering flood.

At time like these the little grasses which grow on wet rocks and are like miniature bamboo stand out in the stormy light. the whole forest, as green as still as ever above the furious water, seems to be waitingfor something.

Were it not for the fact that this prow of stone between the streams was home to a colony of tiny black ants whose nest I disturbed earlier when searching for a place to put my feet – were it not for this fact, this might seems a good time to review what’s happened in my life these past few months and think, in awareness of the power of stream and sky and under witness of the forest, what is truly right about what I have done and what is small, twisted or simply not enough. But striking out deliberately on such a venture would be foolhardy – a fact I ought to know from experience – so perhaps I ought to thank the ants and their perpetual inquisitiveness even in the presence of powers which, if awesome to me, ought to them to be ten thousand times more so. In the book I am now reading the author has just stopped and taken stock of his ship at a point where – though the voyage in the story is already underway – the voyage of that story is just beginning. The author as much as admits that he is scared of that voyage, uncertain he can complete it and, in his typical magnanimity towards himself, makes a virtue of this: for all human things must be imperfect and this book is but a draught or a draught of a draught and he prays that never should complete anything. To me this roughness makes the adventure much more exciting.

And then I look up again to where a graceful, almost leafless tree stands slender against the green and white, her branches like a deco candelabrum, her eyeless gaze seeming a ray of pure pain, the pain a ballad only approaches, against a sky that now has turned white and bullyish. A butterfly heads downstream, held over the chaos by its own paper wings, each of which bears a radiant stigma of electric blue that flashes in the stormy light, preternaturally bright, making one think of secrets known in outer space and written in nebulae. The little sisters have found me again. I shall move and shell another rambutan.

I have not gone far, though this seat is a little uncomfortably tilted towards the flood. At lunchtime today I made a good decision. We had arrived at the camp which was to be our final destination of the day and I was asked – by Tung the student, whose name means ‘pine’ – if we should not press on and perhaps make it back to town by nightfall. I rather wished he had not asked because I felt again the driving duty to be on with my work and not to spend this whole afternoon in this scrappy forest doing nothing.

Scrappy forest, I say! True it has been logged in this place but the tree-clad hills still rear over the passing clouds, bronze-blooming and unblemished. True there’s a trapline running back from our camp and the Saola is probably eliminated already from these environs but… And there I stop because I have become and arbiter when my aim was to deny my right to judge.

So too, in the meeting before I came out here and for which I delayed my trip, the meeting at which, to my surprise, the national director of WWF was present, the meeting for which I prepared abysmally, being stressed and, beyond that, frightened and there being a power cut in the office all afternoon. In this meeting from which I am still trying to exonerate myself in these pages above the raging stream I said, perhaps to the surprise of those present, that I did not want to be employed by WWF to manage this project further – though perhaps I should have added ‘at least not beyond the end of this year’ – that I was not best suited for the role and should work in the capacity in which I was engaged – if engaged I ever truly was – namely that of a researcher.

I do not like being in command and though I sit now, at the prow of this rock (though a little askance for fear of the ants)I would sit at the prow as pilot or as lookout not as captain. So when Tung asked me, after stump-slithering down a straight-cut logging trail with a twenty-kilogram rucksack in the now unimaginable noonday heat, if I wanted to go on, I could only sit and pant then commence worrying and thinking of my duties and all I must get done before my next trip back here – which indeed is very soon. Thinking of these things in a painful, indistinct, hammering sort of way I said that, yes, if we could make it, we should go on. Though we would have to spend the night in Khe Tre, still we could be in Hue tomorrow in the morning. Tung seemed to favour this idea (though he asked if I was tired, which of course annoyed me – but that’s another strand of the story). Bao, our guide, did not seem best pleased with the idea but then, his being paid a daily rate meant that I could not be entirely sure of his motives. I said that we should eat noodles and go on, feeling sorry that we should not enjoy the meal of fresh-caught fish Bao had promised, and then I looked at the sky and saw there was no doubt but it would rain. Our way home follows the river; what we would have done – assuming we had escaped the flood itself, which came most quickly – if caught in this, out in the forest, our path now become raging barrier, I do not know. We have no tarpaulin, it having been left at Gur A Xang for our next visit. Yes I am most glad I decided not to risk the rain this time. Yesterday I was not so sensible and made us hike up A Xang stream in the afternoon with the rain making work impossible and progress dangerous. Bao and Tung had to go back there this morning while I stayed in my hammock feeling exhausted. I t may be that Tung, for all that he is a microbiologist, is more limber than the run of students, or it may be that a couple of months in the city have left me out of shape but however it is, I was this time the slowest of our party which I did not really like. I got annoyed as always with the response of Vietnamese students to counter my attacks of grimness with extreme goofiness and also I was annoyed by Tung’s overbearing helpfulness – rushing across the stream with a shout of ‘No!’ when he saw me use my teeth and not my fingernails to open a rambutan, a matter which might be considered one of personal choice and not infallible law.

No I do not like being in command – but.  And there is a but.

And I’d better find out what it is before it does me or somebody else a mischief. Closing my eyes on the bamboo floor I imagine a Saola caught in the flood and swept downstream from it haunts on mount Hra Lang. Resigned she would be to her fate as always, bold and pure and never violent as we now perceive whales to be.

Melville declares the Great Sperm Whale to be without doubt the greatest living creature on the planet. In his long list of whale species he believes to be mythical he last of all names the Blue.

Spots of rain have started again and there are violet flashes in the sky over the valley of Hra Lang. The light is dim and unknown frogs are rustily cheeping from the herbage. It’s time to quit this prow of stock and leave it to the next watchman, whoever that may be.

I have yet one rambutan.

rat race

There must be few sights more innocently strange than to see a mandarin tree – a three foot high wobbly cone full of fruits which look like floating eyes – on a bike ahead of you cycling down the causeway. Black jeans protrude from where the roots might be and white plimsolls push the petals. The little bush looks nervous, cuddly and authentically nightmarish. It turns away down the road in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and I continue down Pham Dinh Phung which, at this end, is a dark avenue of Khaya trees (Hanoi’s equivalent of the plane) hiding yellow colonial villas filled with government offices. Some of the Khayas have been unlucky enough to form a nest for a strangler fig; a seed dropped, no doubt, by the red-whiskered bulbuls that flock through their shaggy crowns. Curtains of whiskery tendrils trail over the stream of traffic as it heads towards the lighter end of Pham Dinh Phung. On the left are cafes, most of them closed. On the right now the entrance to the ancient citadel and the demolished mausolea of the kings. The great north gate, built like a bolt head, still bears the crater marks of French cannons. A few things take root in it. A guard in a green trenchcoat turns away through a smaller gate flanked by two red banners bearing, in gold, the hammer and sickle and the star of Vietnam. A thin faced man rattles the ice round in his coffee, the music starts on something heavy and classical, then switches to some equally heavy crooning. A little girl, all in red, goes past on her red bike. I remember my green bike leaning on green railings in front of green lake water reflecting palm trees.

well I should get down to work. the music’s a bit loud.