19 July, 2017

What Is Unknown, What Is Known

Natasha King is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Thailand. She teaches high school at Mae Moh Wittayah School in Lampang, Thailand. Natasha attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia and majored in marketing and environmental science. After her grant, she plans to return home, be a contributing member of society, work in an environmentally-focused sector of business, and learn the names of more birds and trees.

Bangkok was a glorious tangle of new things, a litany of the unknown and the unknowable. I raked through the banyan roots with my eyes, watched slim lizards go scurrying for cover at all hours of the day and night, opened my mouth wide in wonder. What were the names of the trees, the birds? What creatures made their soft sounds in the branches, hidden from view?    

A sacred tree of Bangkok, one of many we passed on our first day in Thailand. 

I leaned out over my dorm room balcony one night and a dark shape blurred past, through the velvet night air below me. As it passed over the light from the streetlamps, I saw the outline of its wings: jagged, outflung, spread for a moment in perfect saw-toothed symmetry. A bat. In America, I had not lived in areas with large bat populations, and so these animals were something of which I only ever caught occasional glimpses.


The dark side of the city slipped through eventually. The canals of Bangkok were clogged with plastic trash. The dominant non-human life forms appeared to be pigeons, street dogs, and cockroaches. In places I did not go, factories were spitting out waste. On the beach at the nearby town of Hua Hin, the massive tower of the Hilton dominated; the sea itself was warm, a dull olive. I stood just past the water's edge and a small dead fish rolled over my feet, tugged by the tide. 

One of the nine water falls in Erawan National Park in Kachanburi

After a month we were sent to our respective provinces, and I went north, to the mountains, traded the city skyline for the encircling green topography of Lampang. Here, the narrow corridors of jungle pressed up close to my front door and straggled in verdant ribbons along the roadside. Here, I had the sense that wilderness was just around the corner, but I didn't know how to reach it any more than I had in the city. The rough-edged asphalt roads were just as inscrutable as Bangkok's alleyways. The strangeness tugged at me, prickling at my eyes and ears. Everywhere I walked, things were unknown and fraught with possibility, and yet to my eyes they appeared empty. Empty! Absurd, that the teeming jungles should appear empty.

The view from the Mae Moh viewpoint park.

In truth, I understood that I simply didn't know how to look. In America, I had built a hobby out of sitting and watching. Paying attention: I had thought that was the secret. It was how I had caught ospreys diving for fish, voles crouching by the side of the road, herons brooding sleek and beautiful at the edges of lakes. I hadn't realized how much that ability relied upon my familiarity with the landscape. Here, the jungle was layer upon layer of unfathomed terrain, and I had no idea where to begin searching. The heat and the shrill chatter of insects sapped my will, sent me groping for the door. I spent my free afternoons stretched out in the bedroom, working or reading, side-eyeing the AC unit that rendered the room tolerable.

I missed the easy comfort of identifiable birdsong, of insects I could name and banish. The jungle trees were strange and enormous, their bark ragged, their leaves bigger than my face. I itched to learn names, grimaced in frustration when my clumsy attempts at identification or translation came up short. "How do you say leopard in Thai?" I asked my students. "How do you say cobra? How do you say kangaroo? How do you say seal?" Suea dao, ngu hao, jing joh[1], meo naam—the words soothed my curiosity but couldn't sate the hunger entirely.

Some of many students who patiently taught me Thai vocabulary.


Every Tuesday my host teacher and I made dinner together on the cement patio of her house. One afternoon a bird landed nearby while we were cooking. She told me its Thai name, a few unfamiliar syllables that slid, despite my best efforts, almost immediately from my brain. "There's a story," she said. "Once there was a boy and he would ask this bird to sing and wake him up early for school. And every morning the bird sings and wakes the boy up. Then another boy throws stones and kills the bird."

"And then what?" I said, interest flaring inside me.

She shrugged. "Nothing. The boy woke up late."

A little disappointed by the abrupt end to the story, I eyed the bird which flitted around the patio in a friendly manner for another ten minutes or so. Thailand has nearly one thousand recorded bird species; this one was jet black with white wing bars and a long tail. Later I looked it up. Oriental magpie-robin. One of several hundred species of Old World flycatchers, it is known for its boldness and for its beautiful song. So why does the second boy throw the stone?


Winter brought cool, misty mornings, shivering students who adamantly refused to tolerate an overhead fan, and afternoons as dry and ferocious as cracked bone. In the early evenings as I would run, as the light dimmed through shades of fuchsia and gold into the deeper purples of evening, the wind tasted of smoke and each breath cut my lungs. Fire on the hillsides: up in the mountains, forests were being burned.

"It's for mushrooms," the other foreign English teacher told me.

"For mushrooms?" I said, disbelieving.

Later I looked it up. Astraeus odoratus is a prized variety of fungus which grows partially submerged in soil and which can be blanched or cooked into various curry dishes. I had seen it laying in pungent heaps at street markets, without realizing what it was. In Thailand it is believed that fire increases the growth of this mushroom; in fairness, forest burning does clear the land of leaf litter and any sort of undergrowth, and therefore probably makes the earth-colored fruiting bodies of A. odoratus easier to find. Deforestation is of course a complex issue with varied causes, and mushroom-gathering is only one contributing factor, but burning is unfortunately a frequently used method due to ease and cost. Therefore each dry season heralds weeks of smoky, hazy air as acres of vegetation are burned away.                      

A lotus pond in Mae Moh, lotus in Thai is Dok Bua

Invariably my mouth went desert-dry a few minutes into each run; I gasped for breath those early January evenings, mouthing at nothing as I went. Bats hurtled through the twilight around me, smoke made solid. Southeast Asia is home to some of the greatest diversity of bat species in the world, and around ten percent of the more than 1300 currently known species can be found in Thailand.

Bat colonies across much of the U.S. are collapsing under the advent of white-nose syndrome, a disease for which there is no cure and for which the best current defense is to hope it does not spread. Fortunately, the culprit fungus, a variant of the Pseudogymnoascus strain, is still confined to North America. In Thailand, I never again saw the bats as clearly as I had that night in Bangkok, but I welcomed the dark, aerial smudges of their presence. They did not have to be identified or lit from below; it was enough, for the moment, simply to know they were there.


Winter winds on and I start to relax a little. I walk under the towering hardwoods; I listen to the swelling birdsong, the dry leaves knocking against each other like rosary beads. I put the urge to catalogue and collect away, just for a while, and indulge in a little ignorance. I content myself with glimpses. A Tokay gecko moves into the gap behind my kitchen sink; when I startle him at night he scrambles for cover, usually falling off the wall in his haste. I only ever catch sight of the edges of him.

An unidentified but beautiful butterfly I found in the river bed in Pai.

In the nearby province of Pai, I stand ankle deep in a streambed. A black and green butterfly with a neon pink thorax sops river water from my index finger with a delicately unrolled tongue and I marvel, even knowing that I'll never find out its name. In the library at Mae Moh Wittayah School, my post for the year, I pause in my lesson planning to look out the window, and I see that the school grounds are filled with hundreds and hundreds of white butterflies. They swirl around the decorative trees in clouds, like tiny snips of airborne paper. In the morning sunlight they glow, and I am transfixed; I push away the insistent whisper in my head, the part of me that wants to know the names of all things. I cannot track the butterflies; I cannot name them or chart them; nevertheless, they exist.


In Koh Chang, I secure a spot on a snorkeling outing; the boat takes us out to Koh Rang, the largest island of the Mu Koh Chang National Marine Park. On the way there, a couple from Germany asks if we will see any turtles. The boat captain looks at me for translation. When he hears the request, he smiles and shrugs.

"He doesn't know," I say in English. The German woman looks disappointed but takes it in stride. I, too, pretend I hadn't been hoping to see turtles. Tourists, eh? We want our miracles pinned to a card. 

Koh Rang, one of the islands in the gulf of Thailand.

At Koh Rang, face-down in bright blue water, I see a medley of fish whose names I do not know. No turtles or dolphins or barracuda, none of those charismatic megafauna of the sea. But I tread water and dip my head just below the surface, and a school of tiny silver fish parts around me in perfect symmetry. Their nameless bodies encircle mine for a moment, a ring of fragmented light, a chorus of unlabeled miracles.


Did I expect macaques to hang draped from the branches in Thailand—did I expect civets to be crouched in the undergrowth like four-legged ghosts? Did I expect there to be no consequences of industry, no signs of the pollution resulting from the material comforts I enjoyed while living there? No, maybe I did not, but perhaps I wanted the country to be sorted and named, lit up with taxonomic signage for my benefit. Perhaps I wanted it to be pristine. Perhaps I wanted to know things, but only good things, to find a Thailand as untouched and well-labeled as an expertly preserved lepidopterist's collection.

Wary of putting Thailand into any kind of close-minded, ethnocentric box, wary of dismissing it as inferior, I had in fact tipped all the way over to the other end of the spectrum and put it into a different box altogether—some sort of rose-colored case of environmental virtuosity. But Thailand is just a place, in the end. Full of people and animals and trees, all jockeying for position as the rest of us are. It wasn't some magical land, an enchanted forest, and it shouldn't have had to be.


I meet a biologist at a dinner party. Also a Fulbright grantee, she is here researching the spread of chytrid fungus, that wide-ranging disease which has decimated amphibian populations worldwide. Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. I savor the name, the sweet polysyllabic tangle of it on my tongue.

Later I skim what the internet has to say about Batrochochytrium. A fungus of uncertain origins, it has been around for decades but has only recently spread throughout the world. Its effect on frog and salamander populations has been devastating. It is one of the many factors contributing to the massive amphibian die-off of the past three decades.

Batrochytrium: the name tastes more like ash, now. The fungus spreads throughout the outermost layers of the skin and the animal is eventually unable to properly breathe, hydrate, or regulate its body temperature. My initial spark of pleasure at learning the term for the thing faded in the wake of its terrible nature, dwindled in the face of what I came to know about it. Nevertheless, it had to be known. It is only in the knowing that we can push back.


All this time I have been reaching out and recoiling, simultaneously desperate to encounter the land I am living in, and afraid to know it in its most sincere form. Perhaps I wanted Thailand to be gorgeous, to be laid out at my feet, to be pinned to a card, Latin names and all. Perhaps I flinched back from the reality of it, told myself that it was enough to look without comprehending. I did not and still have not mastered walking that line between the urge to understand and the ability to see. But I am trying. Wake up, sings the magpie-robin; wake up, wake up. The stone is in my hand; it is the dead who are laid out at my feet, their bodies furred with Batrochytrium and Pseudogymnoascus. The remaining living swirl in perfect symmetry, in paths I cannot chart, along courses I must follow. I want to know Thailand not under the lepidopterist's glass but out there in the light as it flits like paper, as it goes up in smoke. The polluted and the pristine, intermingled but not yet out of reach. Under the water, off the shore of Koh Rang, I opened my eyes wide and wider; I looked at the coral and wondered about acidification and bleaching; I looked at the sputtering boat and wondered what I was costing the ocean, in my quest to encounter it; I looked at the eddying silver fish and thought what a miracle, this.

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