A Voice in the Wilderness
2023, Junior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Bun Saluth, Monks Forest Community
It was a miracle he had survived. Days of barefoot trekking from Oddar Meanchey where his dreams originated had drained the would-be Buddhist monk’s youthful energy. His shaved crown burned under the scorching sun, and his mouth was dry like a forlorn desert yearning for a drop of rain. But he had made it. The bottomless pits of his tired irises were fixated upon the Thai temple in front of him. After wiping away the dirt from the soles of his feet, he took a hushed step across the spotless threshold.
The head monk, wearing a saffron robe that shined amid the sweltering sun, stopped short after spotting him. “What’s your name, lad?”
“Bun, Bhante. Bun Saluth.”
“And I assume you seek my guidance in becoming a Buddhist monk?” He sighed slightly, his lips pursed, as if he had met more than enough wanna-be monks for a lifetime.
* * *
Jauntily, crickets chirped as the two Bhante friends hurried silently to class just as the teaching monks began.
“Trees, as we all know by heart, are sacred beings that are meant to be treasured. They are selfless givers of shade and food, and help one to reach enlightenment.”
“Thailand,” said another in an echoing voice, “was once thickly forested. Yet people became overwhelmed by their greedy desires: pleasures, material goods, standards of living. They began intentionally slaughtering the plants and animals our Buddha taught us to love. Hence, the coexistence of man and nature was broken.”
The other monk continued. “And so our mission is to pass on the ancient conservation techniques and rituals Buddhists have used. Learn to love the nature that nurtures us at all costs.”
As Bun sat attentively listening, his mind drifted back to a Tuesday afternoon from his childhood, when he lay on the tender grass, pouring his heart out to an elder tree about his dreams. The forest was more than sacred – it was a symbol of the childhood he could never return to again.
* * *
Five years in, Bun received his very first piece of mail from home. With trembling, sweating hands, Bun’s fingers flicked open the flap. His dreaded gaze brought him to three empty words: “War is gone.”
With those words, Bun heard the drop of the stone that was hanging at the top of his heart. The bloodshed was finally over; the bombing, the ransoms, the fear that had accumulated over the years and come to haunt him each night before bed. Yet Bun had a sudden awakening – the money-driven townspeople would seek to profit from the only free resource they could still get their hands on: trees, soon to be slashed for cash. He needed to get back home to lead the monks there and conserve the forests of Cambodia. Otherwise, his homeland would end up just like Thailand. A daunting feeling lingered in his heart – it was do or die to leave.
* * *
Oddar Meanchey was different. The locals appeared to be at ease, as if their bottled-up fears were drained following the war. But Bun had pressing matters to attend to at once.
He returned to the gathering place of the monks. He persuaded them to help easily, but it was a different story with the townspeople.
”Nonsense. Total nonsense!” an angry resident shouted.
”After decades of bloody war, you expect us to wait for nothing?”
”If you dare hinder our business plans, we will hunt you monks down!”
“All that will be left of you will be bones, you hear me?”
Those harsh words instilled an immeasurable amount of dread and panic in the monks’ hearts. Thereafter, the monks lived in fear in their locked-up houses. Each night, they prayed for all beings to be free from sorrow; they prayed for the sacred forest; they prayed for their own lives.
* * *
Bun awakened to the sounds of giant thuds. The clock that hung above his dresser shattered. Startled, Bun peeked through the curtains and gasped at the locals’ progress. Staring back at him was a stranger – what was formerly the home of hundreds of species looked as if it had been shaved clean off by some ruthless razor. The locals had made the forest resemble the surface of the moon: rocky, cratered, and pitted, having taken impact not from asteroids, but harvesters. The machinery had left only clods of chalky soil.
As Bun opened his door to investigate – thwack!
A tree fell just inches away from his house.
And the heat. The heat came pouring in, reminding him of his walk to Thailand, except this time, it was blended with suffocating smoke. Forest fires had become the norm – flames were always shimmering in the dried grass, smoldering and scorching. The place was no longer lush green. It was now the color of sangria. Of a burnt tortilla. Of danger.
* * *
The next day, Bun awoke to hear that a young boy had been found lying dead next to a tree stump. The boy’s face was now unrecognizable, his arms swollen and burnt, his ebony body curled up as if manifesting the last second of cacophony before his soul lit up to become nothing more than the ashes lying below the very loggers that killed the boy. The local doctor said that he died due to smoke inhalation from the fire.
As the locals mourned the boy, they each felt their heart heaving in regret for their actions. But it was also that very moment that a magical agreement, a realization, an impulse, appeared in all of their desperate eyes – with the help of Bun’s organization, they could finally change their rapacious ways.
* * *
If one takes a stroll through the lush green land, keenly peeking through the crowded leaves, if he’s lucky, he can spot the eyes of a lemur staring curiously back at him.
Wearing his bright, saffron robe, standing barefoot on the soil he nourished, and looking into the thick forest he still safeguards to this day, Bun Saluth feels extremely proud. Due to his age, he has trouble walking, so he sits down on the wet soil, inhaling its earthly scent. He leans back upon an elder tree that hugs his back firmly. Meanwhile, the town hears the sharp cry of an infant. A woman has just given birth to a baby girl, who will grow up one day to become brave and influential, not unlike Bun. And she will decide their future.
Through my exploration and research of the Contest theme, I have discovered not just one, but many unrecognized people who have chosen to fight climate change even when their own lives are at stake. When countless numbers of climate change heroes are working towards saving our planet Earth, what reason do we have not to put in our own efforts? One might say that the root cause of procrastination is the fear that our efforts may be negligible – but they aren't. Bun Saluth’s actions, my voice, and your support, are not insignificant. Added together, they begin to create an irresistible momentum to reverse the damage that climate change has wrought. As Bun’s story proves to us all, there is always hope if you insist, persist, and coexist with nature. It’s 2023, and we must act now.