Clouds and maps.
It’s 7am. Easter is over and I’m not hungover. Still the long-brewed green tea hits me in the gut. I’m sitting under a luxuriant stilt house whose beams and floorboards are polished by touch. In the yard out front, under a green tin roof, are a cluster of logs. Not great, sombre, illegal logs, just dusty thigh-thick logs from the hillsides. Some look like ash from an English woodland. One has been corkscrewed by a vine and another, zombie-faced by termites, bleeds out clay. A neighbour, a gentle older man who helped us set cameras in 2018 has been caught and heavily fined by the rangers. He doesn’t go to the forest any more. This house belongs to his brother, a small-time wildlife trader, possibly former; he’s away.
Everyone has green tin rooves over their yards now and, beyond the one across the street, I can see the face of the hill with the cloud moving on it. These are the hills you see in classical Chinese paintings indicating the bright omnifocal chaos in endless living motion - or something. They’re a looming presence over the village, beneficent at a distance, murder on the hands. I also see them as a facade, not in the sense of being fake, but in the sense of facing. They’re a proscenium to the world behind which affords few views, and whose major residents and components appear to be the khe.
Our map of the khe is rolled up, rather battered, on the bench beside me. Đ, who is our GIS guy, has been entering the names on a digital version. ‘Khe’ are stream valleys. Google will translate the word as ‘slot’. You can point to a stream and name it as - say - Khe Rao Nứa. But the actual running water is only the skeleton or spirit of the Khe. The great ones stand rather like human figures with their feet behind the little limestone hills and their heads way up under the crest of the border ridge. I recently learned, from an elderly veteran in his orchid garden, that the very very top of the stream, the place where the water stops, is called the ‘brain’ of the Khe. With what I’d learned in the Katu lands to the south, I immediately thought this would signify the great power of the place. I had a vision in my head of the place where the living water bubbles out, cauliflower-shaped and chiaroscuro, like an impossible gem or fungus nestled in the high valley like a pearl or an eye in the palm of the hand. Spirits would be there, watching your approach.
In fact, the stream sources in the Annamites are nothing like that. They are simply, as the old man said, ‘the place where the water stops’. Considered, of course, from the perspective of a human being who starts in the village and climbs up the stream to its headwaters. “Headwaters” is, of course, what they are. There’s a similar term in Vietnamese (đầu nguồn) and it seems like ‘the brain of the stream’ is just a way of saying: ‘the headwaters but I really mean it;’ the tippity-top. Probably. Of course the fact that we call them ‘headwaters’ might suggest that we too once thought of mountain streams as standing figures. That it would have made sense to us to talk about a spring as ‘the place where the water stops,’ because you’d be considering it from the perspective of a walker.
I suddenly realise I’m speaking on something about which I have very little authority and I want to drop back into safe facts. To be clear, nobody’s actually told me ‘the streams are like people, their feet are in the village, their heads are in the dark places’. It’s just that, talking to people in Vietnam about the Khe, the metaphor makes sense. Of course, now I’m talking about this as if from no perspective. The metaphor makes sense to me. I’m not a proper anthropologist, I just get in conversations with them. This wasn’t what I meant to talk about this morning at all but I think I’m craving something refreshing. The night before last was a heavy one and there was more drinking the next morning. Around 11am I stood above a drainage channel watching the clear water flow. The feeling of it flowing through my vision was the best thing yet for my hangover. I think that’s why I want to talk about streams and mountains this morning.
Anyway Rao Nứa is a great leaf-shaped area. Except for the tops of the highest emergent mountains, every part of the forest is in the domain of one or other Khe. And of course they are nested because Khe Rao Nứa flows into Khe Sức and Khe Sức into Khe Vều. That’s what makes the place so easy to map. The names of the hilltops are a nightmare, each peak on the ridge has a name and different villages will consider different peaks to be the key one that names the hill. The Khe are much more tractable to becoming districts. In fact the GIS can do it for you if you like. GIS stands for Geographic Information Software, in case you’re not an ecologist. If you’re an ecologist, believe me, you know.
This wasn't at all what I expected to write about this morning. Last night was a hard one and there were shots over breakfast too. Yesterday around lunchtime, staring into an irrigation channel was the best thing yet for my hangover. Breakfast had been at a noodle place. One of our companions was a hunter with a face that looked unnervingly like Pan’s. In the morning he’d actually thrown on a long woollen city coat which makes him more devilish. There was a young lady on the steps of the noodle place in a little fur jacket and a short black skirt - a skirt which Mr Pan made a sudden grab for as he passed. Two bottles of rượu on the table and an extra glass for her. She sits next to me and tells me she worked for 4 years in Singapore before coming home. She has a son, about seven, though she has no husband and her son doesn’t want her drinking with the foreigner. Presumably he knows what usually follows and perhaps my beard is scary. Whenever she gets up to get more drinks, the other two hunters make extravagant hand gestures at me while devil-face guy in his long coat sits there with his inscrutable smile. I didn’t used to get into this kind of situation though it’s pretty normal in Vietnam. I was too full of nerdy, clumsy passion for the saola or its image and too scared of all kinds of corruption. I threw myself painfully at the human world because I felt I had to, knocked back shots and suffered hangovers because I felt I had to because only then could I worm my way to that nugget of information about a saola that was killed last week, last month, last year in this or that Khe. That was the point of the maps, of course; I had to know where the Khe were. This trip it’s been seeming like I’ve mellowed. I’ve been enjoying it rather. Enjoying the human world and the lack of stress. This hungover Easter Monday I think the human world can go fuck itself. Preferably after it gets me coffee.
Looking into the irrigation channel. Looking up to the clouds moving on the face of the limestone. These things are a balm. The cloudy face of the map with the names peppered on it offers reassurance of a different sort - but not that different. These things are bright and alive but they are also blank and soothing because they are far away. They attempt no negotiations. That’s what ‘Nature’ is, right? And it’s all terribly problematic, of course, but without that coffee, I’m not interested in talking about it.