Andrew Alan Johnson
- Pronunciation: pa t:wan (ṕā t̄heụ̄̀xn or Paː tʰɯan in IPA)
- Part of Speech: Noun (“wild forest”)
- Provenance: Thai
- Example: “Why did the helicopter crash? It’s the pa theuan! It is full of ghosts—liver-eating ghosts. The kind that hop on one leg. Old tree spirits like this one. The army thought they could fly right over it. That’s why it crashed.”
Chao Mae Takhian lived in a tree trunk that shared her name. In fact, she was, at times, the tree, and at times she was a beautiful woman with flowing black hair and a penchant for sky-blue silk dresses. She also had a penchant for young men, and, if she was too fond of or too angry at one, she was known to send dangerous, even deadly accidents their way so that she might “collect” them to live with her in her tree. These included motorcycle accidents, surprise electrocutions—always a risk given Bangkok’s crumbling infrastructure and often-exposed power lines—or sudden poisonings. At the same time, she could send gifts to those who approached her in the right way—lottery ticket numbers, a lover’s affection, healing, these kinds of things.
She was discovered lying in a bog in Ang Thong province, to the north of Bangkok. She had appeared to a farmer in a dream and indicated to him where she was hidden. The farmer was terrified but thought it best to heed the dream. Just as Takhian had predicted, when the farmer dug in the indicated spot, he found two portions of a gigantic Hopea odorata tree buried in the black soil. One would imagine that he would have found something, even without divine guidance—the thick soil that formerly was the bottom of the Chao Phraya floodplain and wetland, now cut and drained by canals and turned into rice paddy, contains layer upon layer of remains.
Hopea odorata are tall and straight, with pale, smooth bark. They stand out, even in the dense forests in which they normally grow. Indeed, the comparison with an elegant (and even a little vain) noblewoman is unsurprising. For those living on the forests’ edge, the trees are stark reminders of the size and scale of the forest. If Takhian’s fearsome image is any guide, they are also reminders that the forest contains both violence and beauty; in many parts of Southeast Asia, both are aspects of the divine. But here, rather than standing at the forest’s edge, Takhian had been cut down and tossed into a mire.
Bogs have always preserved biological material inside them—trees, bodies, boats. In England, the discovery and removal of ancient “bog oaks” were a particular sign of the difficult (but inevitable) progress when cultivating fenland (nutrient-poor alkaline marshes). In a Lockean framework, the labor involved in pulling out these blackened and soggy trunks added value to the land, becoming at times a part of a Protestant ethic and patriotic duty. To pull out the dense and sodden wood was one (laborious) step toward making fenland arable, toward making it productive.
Thailand’s own twentieth-century cult of development worked in a similar manner to this notion of labor as a moral value. Technology—especially foreign technology—was the key element that could turn a floodplain that was essentially a lake during the wet season into productive land. Thai state propaganda promised that the country, given the right technological inputs, was destined to transform a flooded, canal-based economy and ecology into a rationalized one. Two rice harvests a year could be three. Houses built on piles (to avoid the yearly flood) and with gaps in the walls and floor (for cooling breezes) could be sealed, concrete, air-conditioned ones. Even the Thai monarchy came under this cult of development. Bhumibol Adulyadej, king for most of the twentieth century, was most often depicted doing development work: in a blazer, sweat dripping from his nose, clipboard in hand, camera around his neck. While later in his career he preached his own doctrine of self-sufficiency, this too was one built on the transformation of nature. His palaces designed new agricultural inputs, new rationalized city plans, and new economic theories (even if they were often ineffectual). The transformation of the flooded landscape became, like the English fens, a fusion of religious and economic notions of progress, except the narrative was a Buddhist march toward enlightenment, one led by those possessing wisdom (panya) rather than a Calvinist notion of labor.
Such a notion was always hierarchical. Royal proclamations to live within one’s means—the “sufficiency economy” (sethakit pho phiang)—applied primarily to the poor, and further to an idealized poor that bore little similarity to actual rural livelihoods. The rich, and especially the well-connected and prestigious rich (the “good people,” khon dii), had no such need to mind their consumption patterns. But there were older ways of living with nonhumans, before such managerial modes of being.
It is these prior ways of being that Takhian and those like her demonstrate. The waterlogged tree trunks were a sign of what had come before: large hardwood forests cut and sunk into black water, then unearthed during the course of transforming the land. In Bangkok, though, there were other such members of the pantheon of discarded wild things. A dead cobra (chao mae joong ang), for instance, haunted a highway where a field of tall grass originally stood, causing traffic accidents to unsuspecting motorists but accepting supplication from those in Bangkok’s marginal economy. In Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, Grandmother and Grandfather Sae—cannibals who posed a threat to uninvited wanderers in the forest—send cool breezes down into the city after they (or, rather, mediums possessed by them) are given gifts in a yearly feast of raw buffalo meat and blood.
These beings were from the wilderness, in the sense of pa theuan. The Thai word theuan refers to wildness. A pa, a forest, can be a manicured, maintained wood behind a temple. But a pa theuan, a wild forest, is beyond the control of humanity. This wildness can refer to anything that escapes social control—unregistered firearms, the underground economy, a savage street fight. It refers to something that is not standing reserve (following Heidegger) to be marshaled and maximized for gain, but rather to a thing from another realm that must be handled delicately. Takhian, the cobra, and Grandmother and Grandfather Sae are all beings from the pa theuan that must be contended with through propitiation, negotiation, engagement, and respect, thus transforming a dangerous thing into a partner. But in doing so, their fundamental otherness is maintained. One is never certain that a deal with Takhian will turn out in the correct way, just as one always engages with uncertainty when making a deal with the cobra.
It is this notion that I seek to contrast with the concept of “wilderness” in English. In a settler-colonial milieu, wilderness exists to be overcome, a challenge to be tamed. Even a national park has been mobilized for a particular goal: tourism, conservation, recreation. One conquers the wild in order to bring it into a rationalized order, to adapt it to human understanding and human control. But something that is theuan cannot be conquered, merely engaged with on its own terms. Humans must, in dealing with Takhian and others, momentarily give way to theuan logics, not vice versa. In this way, dealing with things that are theuan does not involve moving the nonhuman into the human realm, but rather inhabiting a shared realm, one that is always imperfectly understood and recognizes radically different others as co-creators.
The pa theuan—the inassimilable wilderness—is therefore agentive. It is a subject position with rights, desires, and politics. But here I depart from much of the current vitalist literature that seeks to understand nonhumans as actors—where soy, for instance, can be an agent able to be tried in court for murder. This is not what I mean. There is a difference in saying that Hopea odorata—the trees—are actors and saying that Takhian—the tree woman—is an actor. To talk about trees as enabling certain kinds of sociality, or networks of roots and rhizomes enacting particular ecologies, would be to reduce Takhian to a root network, to transpiration and carbon, or to the political economy surrounding Hopea odorata extraction. This would be to extend the logic of a human world with its rules and ontology onto something radically different, something that is in its essence inaccessible. In short, the theuan, being not only nonhuman but inhuman, is unable to be inhabited and thus can exist on its own terms.
Human knowledge has limits, and beyond these limits exist other ways of being that are uninhabitable but nonetheless should be allowed to exist. We can only imagine imperfectly how Takhian sees the world, but we deny her the space to live at our own peril. In allowing her to exist in her own right, we keep the space open for new worlds.
Yet she has not been allowed to exist. It should be remembered that Takhian, the cobra, and other beings from the pa theuan emerge into our world transformed. They have died; they have been chopped down, run over, and destroyed by Bangkok’s expanding reach. It is only through their exhumation that they reemerge like uncanny reminders that every city rests (uneasily) on the bones of what has come before. While their other worlds still exist, they do so in the shadow of developmentalist progress—in urban shrines, under motorways, on the sides of roads. The appearance of the pa theuan in the city, then, is a reminder that other ways of existing with nonhuman others once were possible but are now spectral. Their haunting suggests the possibility of another way of being and the limits of our understanding.
What can we learn from Takhian and her kind? There is a particular kind of arrogance in a developmentalist scheme of knowledge, one that posits that we have a master plan that we can and will enact in order to make the world a better place. The river can be dammed and produce electricity. The fenland can be made arable. New crops can produce more calories, and we can fit more people into less space. We can get more from the world, this way of thought tells us, and we can profit, make new toys, and fatten ourselves.
It is at this moment that, Takhian’s devotees would say, we run the risk of falling victim to those that we have overlooked. Remember that Takhian, like the dead cobra, attacks victims via traffic accidents, poisonings, electrocutions, and other failures of modern infrastructure. But in acknowledging the pa theuan, in recognizing that we share a world that we incompletely know with other beings that we also incompletely know, is a call to humility. It is a call to slow down our logic and rationality; above all it is a call to stop seeing the world as a place full of potential profit. Living with theuan beings is a reminder that we exist in relationships with things that lie outside of our frames of reference. While we must deal with such nonhuman actors, what they teach us is that we are not the only agents of change, and our world is not the only one.
Another Path: Pachamama
1. See Tony Day, Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).
2. Richard D. G. Irvine, “East Anglian Fenland: Water, the Work of Imagination, and the Creation of Value,” in Waterworlds: Anthropology in Fluid Environments, ed. Kirsten Hastrup and Frida Hastrup (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016), 23–45.
3. See James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).
4. See Daena Funahashi, “Rule by Good People: Health Governance and the Violence of Moral Authority in Thailand,” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 1 (2016): 107–30.
5. See Eli Elinoff, “Sufficient Citizens: Moderation and the Politics of Sustainable Development in Thailand,” POLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37, no. 1 (2014): 89–108.
6. See Andrew Walker, “Royal Sufficiency and Elite Misrepresentation of Rural Livelihoods,” in Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, ed. Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2010), 241–66.
7. See Andrew Alan Johnson, “Naming Chaos: Accident, Precariousness and the Spirits of Wildness in Urban Thai Spirit Cults,” American Ethnologist 39, no. 4 (2012): 766–78.
8. See Andrew Alan Johnson, Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014).
9. The Thai word is “” and is impossible to write using Roman characters, as it incorporates tone and a diphthong that does not exist in English. I Romanize this vowel as “eua” here, but it might be written “tɯan” in the International Phoenetic Alphabet or “thüan,” following a German pronunciation. Imagine pronouncing the English dipthong “oo-a” while smiling broadly. Other, related, meanings of the word theuan that I do not address here include “fake,” “illegal,” or “uncontrolled.”
10. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977).
11. For vitalist literature, see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010). For trying soy as an agent, see Kregg Hetherington, “Beans before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility and the Paraguayan Soy Boom,” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 1 (2013): 65–85.
12. Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitcal Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 994.