Hunting a Unicorn: A Conversation with William deBuys

A portrait of the writer William deBuys. Photo by Ben Moscona.

In a modern age that has produced landscapes of scarcity and loss, how do we spin stories that make us engage more deeply with them? This question has animated much of the work of environmental writer William deBuys. Rather than turn away from such landscapes, it is precisely here where we must look, deBuys argues, whether in the salt-encrusted lowlands of the California deserts or in the remote mountainous corners of Laos.

He and I sat down three weeks ago when he participated in the Terra Incognita Art Series, a Borghesi-Mellon Workshop put on by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities. We explored the craft of storytelling in a discussion of both his most recent book The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (Little, Brown, 2015) and his study of the Salton Sea and its surrounding landscape, Salt Dreams: Land and Life in Low-Down California (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Daniel Grant: Your latest adventure was into the mountainous region between Laos and Vietnam. Could you tell us how it came about?

William deBuys: Well, this is one of those moustache-twirling moments… I had just gotten back from a job in Borneo and I gave a presentation in a room of high-rollers in Georgetown. A week later, one of them called me on the telephone and asked me if I’d like to write about the saola—a rare creature that lived in the mountains of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. About six weeks later, I was on my way to Vientiane, meeting with conservation biologists.

A saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), sometimes called the "Asian unicorn." Photo by Bill Robichaud.

A saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), sometimes called the “Asian unicorn.” Photo by Bill Robichaud.

DG: What is it about the saola that captured your imagination?

WdB: For me, it embodied elusiveness and mystery. Only a handful of hunters in those mountains had ever seen it, no Westerner has ever seen it in the wild. It’s very beautiful—it has long, slightly curved horns (they can be half a meter long) that blend into one—which is why it’s sometimes called the Asian unicorn. But there’s something else besides the elusiveness and the beauty, which is the saola’s serenity. Bill Robichaud, with the Saola Working Group, spent time with one in captivity, and he found it to be so calm that he could actually pick ticks out of its ear. It was calmer and more serene than any farm animal that he had ever encountered here in his native Wisconsin. There’s something ethereal about the saola.

DG: Is part of its allure that it’s so wild that it appears peaceful?

WdB: It gives the impression that it has had so little contact with human beings in its evolutionary past that it doesn’t react to us. The saola seems to have a completely neutral set of sensory equipment, as far as humans are concerned. But where canids are involved, they go berserk. Evolutionarily, the wild dog of Southeast Asia was probably their most significant predator. So if any canine goes by, even a lap dog, someone’s pet, a saola will go into high alert. Its hackles (the hairs on the back of its neck) will rise. It will assume a defensive posture. It will breathe heavily. It will snort, suddenly become very aroused and fierce.

DG: Could you walk us through the benchmarks of your journey through Laos?

WdB: Well, it became a quest. We were after evidence of the saola, to see if we could find a track or some scat. We went into this distant place… it was a very physically demanding journey. In an area where poachers from Vietnam, likely well-armed, were active, we were accompanied by Lao militia, armed with AK-47s, which weren’t just for show. It was an adventure that exceeded what I thought were my possibilities.

DG: It sounds like you took on the narrative form of “the quest”?

WdB: I had in mind Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard; I was absolutely gobsmacked by the sense of clarity and movement in his work. I used the structure of The Snow Leopard for my day-by-day entries.

DG: How does this narrative of the quest align or evade with the tropes of the hunting narrative?

WdB: So many of them culminate in the “great stalk,” where everything goes silent save the search for the animal. But for us, because we never encountered the saola directly, that moment was of perception and apprehension of the fullness of the past of that forest. So in that way, it’s an inversion of the hunter’s story.

DG: The way you’ve been able to attach it to the past is one of the most remarkable features of the book.

WdB: Thank you. Because I knew the form a priori, I didn’t have to invent the structure of the book. That left me to be able to put my energy into the scene construction, to build the emotional tenor of the book. I did have a very good editor on this project. For a long time, the ending didn’t work, and my editor told me I needed one more glimpse of Robichaud. I dropped in one of his stories to the right place, and used it to tie up a lot of loose ends.

DG: Were you conscious, during the journey, of the way you were going to convert it into a story?

WdB: Pretty much. I think in my pack I had a copy of The Snow Leopard. I went into this thinking if events permit, I’m going to use that structure to tell a quest tale. You use the journey as a kind of a clothesline on which you hang a number of digressions that inform the reader about the issues, the whys and the wherefores. I’m talking about wildlife and nature and the wildlife trade, and trying to tell the story of the immersion into deep beauty. To be honest, there are quite a few tales out there that you can find that follow this pattern—it’s one of the oldest structures. And you have this forward motion because there’s movement through space, and movement through heart. And that keeps the pages turning.

DG: I’m thinking about this space as being the rugged mountainous terrain on the border of Laos and Vietnam, and the desert valley landscape of your last book, Salt Dreams, where you write, “in low places, consequences collect.” Both are stories of loss. Can you juxtapose the narratives of these two topographies?

WdB: I wanted to tell stories where land has agency. My first book was about mountain country, and I thought about Salt Dreams as the opposite side of the bookshelf. When I think about headwaters, it’s kind of a pun. It’s the waters in your head, the mythology, the deep forest of the unknown. In that sense, my expectations of mystery and surprise and unpredictability fit with the Annamite Mountains. When I wrote my first book, I took my manuscript to graduate school, where I realized that academics were talking about environmental history. My first work was naive, in the sense that I was innocent of any professional training.

William deBuys and Joan Myers, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

William deBuys and Joan Myers, Salt Dreams: Land and Life in Low-Down California (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).

DG: Having a sense of the landscape as an actor in the story, can you give an example of a scene of this?

WdB: You mentioned Salt Dreams. In the Salton Sea, any poisons that are in the water, the salt from the Imperial Valley’s agriculture, collect there. And they represent the failures of the real estate developments along the Salton Sea. The fish die-offs and the stench there was Biblical in its power. So the Salton Sea is an example of humans attempting to adapt to the environment, and the environment responding. And the people of California are still attempting to figure out what to do with the Salton Sea. There are project on the books but they all cost an immense amount of money and resources. But if the sea dries up, then those poisoned sands will be a source of terrible dust storms, and the downwinders will have respiratory problems—it’s very like the Aral Sea in Central Asia. So these consequences go on ad infinitum.

DG: All of these works are moral tales, and I was wondering if you could connect the dots on what kinds of morals you leave the readers with.

WdB: Unlike many historians, I do want to tell a moral tale. I want to squeeze the situation for as much meaning as I can get. All meanings are moral—they give us guidance on how to live. With The Last Unicorn, for instance, I hope the reader falls a little more in love with the beauty of nature, with the amazement of diverse places, and feels more motivated to act in defense of them.


William deBuys speaking about "a healthier rural west" at a conference at Stanford University. Photo by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, March 2017.

William deBuys speaking about “a healthier rural west” at a conference at Stanford University. Photo by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, March 2017.

DG: How does the scarcity of water, and the scarcity of this wild creature… What does loss and scarcity mean in these contexts?

WdB: I think it’s a human trait to be able to create abundance out of scarcity. In the American Southwest, we created abundance through dam-building, and then we used it and used it and used it, and turned abundance back into scarcity. Maybe this is just the human predicament. But if we could exercise true, fundamental restraint, our chances over the long haul would be substantially improved.

DG: Can you share any examples of that kind of restraint?

WdB: Well, I’ve never come to a human community that’s in a perfect equilibrium with its environment. I think humans always live in tension with their resources, and perhaps it’s a dynamic equilibrium, but it’s the tension that makes an interesting story, and it’s the tension that we need to study.

DG: It’s interesting how each of your tales is so grounded in region and locale. Is there anything that can be generalized?

WdB: I don’t want to suggest that I think I have the answers to these questions. With each of these efforts, I’m trying to explore some little corner, specifically because I don’t have the answer. It’s always in little increments. I’ve never seen the future—just chipped away at the edges of it. And that’s the fun.

Featured image: William deBuys. Photo by Ben Moscona.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

William deBuys is the author of eight books, including The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures (Little, Brown, 2015), A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American West (Oxford University Press, 2011), The Walk (Trinity University Press, 2008), Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell (Island Press, 2001), and, with Joan Myers, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (University of New Mexico Press, 1999). The book he produced with Alex Harris, River of Traps: A Village Life (University of New Mexico Press, 1990), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and his first book, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (University of New Mexico Press, 1985), was recently reissued in a revised and expanded 30th -anniversary edition. He was a 2008-2009 Guggenheim Fellow. His conservation work over many years has included land acquisition, river protection, and grass banking. From 2001 to 2005, he chaired the Valles Caldera Trust, which then administered the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. He lives on a small farm in northern New Mexico that he has tended since the 1970s. Website. TwitterContact.

Daniel Grant is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is working on a dissertation about the ways people we don’t typically think of when considering water history in the American West—undocumented immigrants, border patrol agents, Cocopah Indians, ditch riders (zanjeros), and irrigators—interacted with water and one another in the California borderlands, and the different meanings of water that we can extract from such interactions. Website. Contact

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