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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Last Unicorn - Searching for the Saola with William deBuys

In 2011, writer William deBuys joined conservation biologist William Robichaud on a trek into the jungled river country of Laos in search of the elusive and endangered saola, one of the earth’s rarest creatures. The small country of Laos, surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, holds within its fragile borders a richly diverse, rapidly disappearing ecosystem.  Smugglers from Vietnam, their own country now devoid of its once plentiful flora and fauna, haul out everything from Siamese rosewood to elephant trunk snakes and scaly “pangolin” anteaters.  Most of the contraband is en route to China.

The Vietnam I knew in the late 1960s—when many of my male friends were either drafted into the Army, or recruited by the Air Force or Naval Academy after graduation—was a country divided north from south. I knew Vietnam only by what I saw on the news, or by what our liberal, armband-wearing civics teacher whispered about “the political truth” of this unholy war.

What little I now know, I glean during snippets of conversation while I’m having a pedicure at Diamond Nails—one foot spa-soaking while the other is being expertly exfoliated, toes soon to be meticulously polished.  I often ask the Vietnamese nail technicians to tell me about their homeland.  Most are too young to remember the Vietnam War, but not too young to have intimate knowledge of the chemical devastation to their country’s landscape, which peels back another, deeper layer to deBuys’ story.

Reading William deBuys’ eloquent story The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (2015: Little, Brown and Company), I found myself immersed in a post-war culture where everything that grows or crawls or trots or flies, is either eaten or commoditized. Including human beings. This post-war world is poignantly, beautifully and humbly rendered by deBuys in The Last Unicorn.

To trek with deBuys and Robichaud into the rarely glimpsed world of the elusive saola is to awaken your senses to “air musky with leaf mold” and to slender apes summoning the day. The songs of the gibbons lie “beyond metaphor, beyond the ordinary meanings of words.”  To travel up the canyon of the Nam Mon River is to stand with men "in stunned silence... at the place where the saola disappeared."

To travel with him through the pages of The Last Unicorn is to follow an illegal snare line along the crest of a jungled ridge only to find a red-shanked douc hanging upside down, snared by one foot, dead.

DeBuys does not portray himself as indefatigable.  He admits to not being physically equal to the grueling pace set by the team leader, biologist William Robichaud.  Each night brings bone deep, muscle weary exhaustion. Yet I can envision the journals, into which deBuys poured both the beauty and harshness of each day, laying restless beside him—repositories vibrating with strength of prose and the vivid, keen imagery of this sensate world.

I am grateful that at the close of each day, or during brief quite moments on the trail in search of the illusive saola, deBuys found the energy to record this quest in the pages of his journals so that we might take this journey with him. We are the richer for it, which is not a small thing in a disappearing world.

Perhaps I will buy a copy of The Last Unicorn for the women at Diamond Nails. Perhaps one of them remembers a grandfather's tale from long ago about a mysterious, dark eyed creature in the woods traveling unharmed across a borderless land.

Notes: View more photos in a slideshow of William deBuys travels in search of the saola. Read “A Wildlife Mystery in Vietnam: The discovery of the saola alerted scientists to the strange diversity of Southeast Asia's threatened forests” (Richard Stone, Smithsonian, 2008).  Read "Sticking it Out" guest essay by William deBuys in the Colorado Plateau Advocate magazine, Spring 2015.  Read The New York Times March review, "Searching for a Magical Creature."