And then rushed into the embrace of the mountains
Of the Kontum Plateau, ferried through Lo Xo pass,
Blew past Măng Đen, dizzied among hairpin turns,
Floating in the lushness 1,200 m above sea level,
Amid a mosaic of prime evergreen, gasping.
And up there we saw: strata of emerald forms,
Of beech, laurel, magnolia, heather, and myrtle.
Under unbroken canopy, in the undergrowth
Of that species rich upper montane wet forest,
Hidden somewhere in that mystery must be
Our very own Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush.
Garrulax konkakinhensis was our day’s journey
And query, who appeared in our dreams calling.
So we began our search, checked known locations.
At the first spot, magpies. The next: babblers.
But we kept looking, listening, knowing the forest
Gives up its secrets slowly. And passion we knew
From experience associates with wild patience.
On our lips the other name, Khướu Kon Ka Kinh,
For the shy terrestrial bird who has no need for names,
But sustenance and song. Then came a rasping buzz.
Close by us, there in the undergrowth, a voice
Signed among the trees. A few turns of the
Kaleidoscope, new shapes and colors rearranged
Themselves into the winged creature we sought out:
Brown and black dappled, spotted, and speckled,
The chestnut patch brushed behind the knowing eye,  
Blurring well into the daylight world of shadows.
As if a slight breeze stirred, gentle movements
Among the leaves and branches told us our bird
Retreated out of sight. We all breathed again.
The laughingthrush exists. The mountain forest exists.
This was only prelude, for we struck deeper into
The interior seeking greater clarity, closer listening.
And so we stood like trees staring back into the trees,
Ears peering through the green abundance,
Touching the colorful cacophony of sounds.
Reader, desire follows you into the field,
Where what you want colors what you see.
On the road back to Pleiku, looking out across
The highlands that held us, we all smiled—
There was no need for words. Each replayed
In their mind’s eye the day’s loveliness.
Then came news of extinction. The Javan rhino
Dead, the last of his kind found slaughtered
At Cát Tiên, horn sawed off. Joy fell from the sky.
Let us not tell our children a story that begins,
Once in the forests there was a laughingthrush . . .
We had met with Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush
Again and again, there in the heart of the heart
Of the forest, there where our fellow humans
Had not cleared, hunted, trapped, and defoliated
Life out of existence. There sweet thrush-like notes
May stream yet as water over rows of stones.
Others there sang the songs of their species too.
And our bodies also lighter with laughter.

Copyright © 2023 by Hai-Dang Phan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.