Remnants of the past

The jungle has a remarkable way of erasing its past. Within years, months, or weeks temples, monuments, ruins, or the uncountable remnants of war are swallowed in a sea of green. To the naked eye history has been obliterated, but look carefully and you can still see pieces of the past. Hidden, yes—but there. Few jungles on earth have a history as complicated and violent as the rainforests of Central Vietnam. This history extends back hundreds of years, but the most recent involvement was, of course, the American war, during which the jungles were burned, bombed, mined, and sprayed with chemicals. The human toll was horrific: one would be hard-pressed to find a single square foot that hasn’t been blood stained at some point. It’s easy for me, as a naturalist, to forget about the history that haunts these forests: I am so focused on the biodiversity of this region that I sometimes overlook the dark past that taints these jungles. In my own defense the artifacts that remain scattered throughout the undergrowth are easy to overlook. But they are there. Occasionally our group will come across bombshell craters: perfectly circular pits pockmarking the land. I’ve seen tunnel entrances that lead into labyrinth complexes deep underground. I’ve even come across scraps of metal that my guides claim to be from airplanes. However, nothing could have prepared me for what we encountered during the second part of our Quang Nam trip.

We had just completed the first phase of our survey and were moving to another site. After two days of difficult hiking we arrived in our chosen survey location. Then we set about searching for an area flat enough to pitch camp. That was easier said than done. This mountainous jungle terrain has cliffs that would give a protractor vertigo. After another hour of searching we found an ideal stream-side location: semi-flat, with few large trees, and far enough from the water so that we would have time to react in case of flash floods. (Since our Bach Ma expedition I’ve insisted that this last point be given high priority). Everyone unanimously agreed that we would make our shelter here. I let my backpack fall to the ground, fell to my stomach beside the stream, and let the cold clear water quench my thirst. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this tired. Every muscle ached—even muscles I didn’t know I had. It was good to finally rest. I told the group that we would have a ten minute break, then I rolled over on my back, shielded my eyes, and started to nod off. But two minutes later one of the Katu guides came to me and said that we would have to find another camp. “What?” I said, sitting bolt upright. I asked why. He tried to explain in Vietnamese but I couldn’t understand. All I could catch was the word chet, repeated five or six times, which translates as “die” or “decease.” I threw up my hands in frustration. Then the guide pulled me to my feet and brought me over to a corner of the campsite. There I saw three earthen mounds carpeted with tangled vegetation. Người ngủ ở đây, he said solemnly, pointing to the knolls. “People sleep here.” I asked if they were Vietnamese. He nodded and confirmed that they had been killed during the war. I looked around. Everyone in our group was quiet with downcast eyes. I knew that we couldn’t camp here. The Vietnamese guides wouldn’t sleep here out of respect for their dead comrades and the Katu were superstitious about the restless spirits said to wander these jungles at night. I shouldered my backpack and we set off to find another campsite. Again I reflected on how well the forest hides its secrets. And how much beauty and life there is in a place that has seen so much death.

Plane wreckage
Plane wreckage
Damselfly perched near the stream-side graves
Damselfly perched near the stream-side graves
Rocky jungle stream
Rocky jungle stream

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