*This is another essay that was originally conceived as a chapter in the ethnographic book I wrote about the Chinese peasant village I studied in two consecutive summers, Dang Jia Shan. Now that I am instead "publishing" it online (bit by bit) I have the luxury and what I think is a great benefit of adding photos. For a print book, I needed to instead describe the landscape in words. Some of them now seem rather superfluous when you can simply take in a photograph. Nonetheless, I present my full original verbosity. The villages in this region of the Loess Plateau in northern China, Shaanxi Province, are succumbing to desertification ... a depleted and lowering water table, sterile soil and an inability to keep the topsoil in place as plants struggle and disappear due to malnutrition and thirst. The regional government does make attempts to reclaim the soil by planting and tending a variety of well-suited native bushes, trees and ground-cover. For awhile it paid villagers to plant these themselves on their land. Results varied. Please find more topics about Dang Jia Shan in the Travel Essays section.*
When Anrong and Anju were kids, they watched the floods from the roof of their grandparents’ yao, perched at the southwest edge of the hillside on a cliff overlooking the main valley. Sometimes they could hear the water coming, and they would rush to the rooftop to sit and watch. Sometimes they just knew intuitively a flood was imminent—for one eventually comes to know the behavior of their land, how much water it can absorb, when it is overwhelmed and what will be inevitable, like watching a child who is gorging himself on candy.
The land upvalley came rushing down every so often during the late-summer thunder. Below the two brothers their peripheral world condensed and floated by. If it was still raining, they held over their heads the heavy mats made of sorghum stalks that normally cover water jars inside the yao. Sometimes an entire tree was swept off its feet and tossed down the valley, and the brothers watched with a sense of wonder as the flatland transformed into a mighty river, carrying trees like barges downstream. One year a grazing sheep was taken by surprise and floundered past the village, bleating helplessly in the mad rush of rain. Now a small dam stops the rogue water a little way down the valley northwest of the village, and it backs up into a large, silty lake. When it’s not underwater, that is where the best crops grow.
The second year I came to the village, all the crops in the lower part of the valley had been sacrificed in the temporary current. It’s a crapshoot, farming land like this. If you plant in the valley and the rains come, the crops drown. If you don’t plant in the valley and the rains don’t come, the thirsty hills will have lower yields and the fertile valley land will have been wasted. So the villagers plant every piece of land every year, and see what happens.
From what I’d seen my first year in the village, I would never have dreamed of this soggy sight. Then, the land had been parched and tragic, betraying the people with the threat of sterility and seemingly collaborating with the silent sky, which neither spoke nor cried, but merely stared, impassive, with its giant blue eye.
Before we ever arrived in the village the first year, Anrong told us that the wells were drying up, the natural spring was drying up, the weather patterns were changing. And it was all believable; I could see it clearly then. Even the Yellow River, Huang He, was pitiful. Our team that year, in late June, had been scheduled to take a boat ride down the river, which runs through Jiaxian City, but it had to be canceled because the water was too shallow—the river that is central to scores of fantastic legends, that so many writers of history contend is the very womb of the Chinese people, their fertile crescent, their little Africa out of which they spread. At the ancient Xianglongsi Temple perched precariously at the very edge of a high rocky cliff rising straight up from the shores of Huang He in Jiaxian City, we looked down on a wide ribbon of sandbar-strewn water. Absent were the thunderous, rushing waters of the past—the river had been known through history as China’s Sorrow because of the great number of intensely devastating floods it produced, as if it were an entity filled with rage.
But we saw only a quiet sigh of yellow from a river that seemed too tired to speak. We then walked down the cliffside on a set of rock and cement stairs to the riverbank. From beside those whispered waters I looked up to the sky that used to form words like rain, and wondered whether it also was tired, or just too wide to speak. The planet here had simply ceased its conversation and fallen into oppressive silence. Maybe the river had merely felt unnecessary and dried up out of self-pity, feeling rejected. The Chinese people now no longer need imperial legends—they don’t need any legends or myths or heroes in their emerging modern world. Perhaps the river was just sinking down into dreams of its grand past. It told the sky to just leave it alone, let it die in peace.
That year, in the dryness, Anju stood at the village spring gently scratching his elbow, as he does when he’s thinking carefully about what he’s saying. His son, Wei, was down in the stone-lined pit that was built to hold the water spat out by the spring. It was a very lonely mansion, this pit, big enough for several people to jump down into, as if the water output was expected to be substantial. When Anju and Anrong were kids, it was; in fact the spring used to provide a reservoir big enough to swim in. But now Wei stood in his tennis shoes in a mere puddle of water with a kitchen ladle, scooping the water into a tin bucket.
“I don’t know why,” Anju said. “The water table is drying up, the weather is changing. I don’t know why. No one here knows.”
The crops were spindly and stunted; it was mid-June and there was no forecast for rain. Anju and the other heads of the surrounding village councils had been meeting to plan the rain festival; it would have to take place in the following week.
“If the rain doesn’t come in the next two weeks,” he told us, picking at his elbow and staring down at the ground, “the crops will fail.”
The day after the rain festival that year, some obliging clouds moved in, and I was slightly impressed by the efficacy of the festival. But still, the rains were not substantial, and I left a few days later with a very bold image of drought in my head, of perpetual dryness with no relief. In my mind’s eye I saw the village baking in the relentless hot sun, its crops withering away.
“We have to move,” Anju had said. Down into the valley, down to the water table. And I pictured them like the children of Israel, walking solemnly with staffs and canes across a dusty desert floor into an unknown future.
But the second year, 2006, we had to walk into the village from a long way out because Anrong told us the road we’d taken last year through the valley was submerged in a lake of water. I could hardly believe the truth of this, and thought perhaps Anrong was using the word “lake” liberally; maybe it was just a bit sloggy. But as soon as we started walking, it was obvious that it was a different place than the previous year. It was so much more green; crops grew tall and wide everywhere. It was early August.
“Is this unusual?” I asked Anrong about the flooded valley.
“Not really, no. The valley always floods if big rains come.”
“So big rains still come, then.”
“Yes,” he said. “But it’s not like it used to be.”
But now I knew the land was not one-dimensional. The sense of tragedy I’d felt so keenly the previous year was diluted. There was a fuller life to this region than I’d perceived before; nature was not as sinister now, its betrayal of the villagers no longer inexorable. Or perhaps still inexorable but not with a vice-like grip, instead with more mood and unpredictability.
We came in from the northeast on a road I had not traveled the year before. It was all new scenery to me, the back side of the village. From the flat plain the path climbed uphill and wound along the wide mesa top, so we came down into the village from above. As we walked along the high path I could see other valleys carved from the malleable dirt, with the same deep arroyos that landscaped Dang Jiashan.
Everywhere across the hills, terraces opened their green palms to the sky and offered up their seedlings to the unfathomable whims of the land god and the rain god. We passed by the village temple, at the highest elevation in the village, where the peasants bribe the dragon's mother with their offerings, asking her to pass on their prayers to the high god himself. Floppy stalks of millet brushed at our waists. Sorghum stalks met our eyes, straight and tall. Rows of mung beans five inches long were turning black, ready to be harvested. Corn filled the valley floors with a six-foot high carpet of tasseled green.
The land had possibility.
It’s stark country, in spite of the late summer’s temporary verdant robe. The lines are hard and crisp, following steep pitches. This vast plateau, once covered with a uniform mantle of dirt, is now fractured and splintered, gashed open and swept away. If there is green in the land, it’s a very deliberate green, either stubborn and self-determined or coaxed. Things don’t just grow willy-nilly. When the land erodes beneath the forces of nature, it seems to do so with sharp, amateur scissors that cut in straight, jagged lines, no subtle or soft curves. The graceful rounded doorways of the peasant dwellings are notably incongruous.
When the light hits it at an acute angle, in the morning and evening, the colors of the dirt are magnificently rich and warm. The bottom layer, filled with iron, glows a rusty red and the top layer, the loess for which this plateau region is named, is golden, like ripe wheat. The line between the red and gold layers is not a straight line; it wanders wildly up and down, drawn with a very fine pen. There’s no mixing of the two colors, no wispy, smoky lines blurred like chalk or curdled like crayon; it’s a hard line, as if the aridity of this region has evaporated all doubt. One day there was red and the very next there was yellowish brown. One day the land was seabed and iron, and overnight, it seems, the loess blew in and began to lay down its own bed. The iron-rich dirt didn’t intrude up and the loess didn’t filter down; they merely met at whatever shape the land was then in and have coexisted ever since.
The fine dirt—the loess—originates from the Mongolian plateau at a time in the past when it was well-watered and fertile. When the climate changed, as the Ice Age came and left, and the perpetual uplifting of the Tibetan plateau eventually cut off the monsoon rains, the soil was reduced to a fine, dry dust and was then carried southward by cold, fierce winds. This cap of yellow soil for which the Loess Plateau of north-central China is named (an area of over 150,000 square miles), varies widely in depth from about twenty meters to as much as one hundred meters. Dust storms here are still notorious in the present day, as the surface of Mongolia continues to migrate southward.1
After the loess was compressed into its thick cap, then the water began cutting through, forming valleys and gorges and arroyos. The region is quite comparable, on a smaller scale, to red-rock and canyonland areas around southern Utah in the way the canyons are cut and the way large, random sections refuse to be whittled away. The landforms are magical—a profusion of gullies and spires; animals, ships and castles of dirt tower over the valleys, with as many suggested shapes as the clouds form in the sky.
The land is so soft in texture, it changes year by year. Sometimes I sat among the crops, with my back against the shin of a terrace, struck with amazement that they remain standing in such good shape. From time to time they must be repaired, but mostly they withstand the rain and wind quite admirably. Sometimes there would be a bulge of dirt behind my back and I had merely to turn around and claw at it with my fingers to get it to fall off. Then I could sit happily, look out at this speck of the world, and write my little words about it.
This area was terraced long ago, though I don’t know exactly when. The terraces come down the hills as far as they can before the slope becomes too steep or drops off to an almost completely vertical cliff. One day while walking along one of the high paths we came across a woman working in a steep field. It looked as though if she stepped backward she would fall off the hillside, down hundreds of feet to a dusty demise.
“Isn’t that dangerous for the children?” someone asked.
“Sure, yes. The villagers wouldn’t let their children work these fields,” Anrong said, as we imagined a little kid stumbling and rolling right off the cliff. But the kids run all around the village on their own; surely they must venture down to places like this. I remember, though, my mom talking about her childhood on the farm. She and her siblings didn’t know how to swim. My grandparents didn’t know how, and so the kids had never been taught. My grandparents worked in the fields all day long and couldn’t keep their eyes on the kids, so my mom says they “put the fear of god in us” about the water in the irrigation canals, so the children would be entirely too terrified to venture close. I imagine parents use that technique here, too, for nearly as soon as they can do so, the children are sent out to roam the hillsides looking for wild edible plants and medicinal herbs.
I don’t know how the land was formed into the terraces, nor does Anrong exactly. But we visited another village in the province that terraced their lands only recently, in the 1950s. At that time Gao Xi Gou was a poor village dry-land farming the hillsides, whose agricultural production was suffering for the changing land—the deforestation and desertification of the area. Their village council had taken a bold step and, in the truest tradition of socialist spirit, come up with a plan for their village; everyone who was a resident took part in terraforming the area into what is now a lush-looking paradise in the middle of an otherwise drab and suffering landscape. They began by terracing their hills, and their process is documented in photos in a little museum at the village. As you enter the museum the first picture you see is a larger-than-life photo of the village council members who founded this plan, standing together in the hills holding their farming tools, looking off into the distance; it makes even a foreign visitor swell with pride. The expressions on their weathered faces of beholding a far-sighted, wise vision, and gritty determination, couldn’t look more heroic.
I’d never before thought about precisely how a steep hill could be transformed into agricultural fields. When I was in Peru I saw the work of the industrious Inca everywhere, entire regions throughout the Andes completely terraced to grow their thousands of varieties of potatoes. For them it must have taken lots of shovels, for their civilization didn’t have the technology of the wheel. The citizens of Gao Xi Gou, however, made an enormous stone cylinder that was so heavy it required eighteen men to pull it with ropes. The cylinder surface wasn’t smooth, but notched like a cogwheel its full length. Essentially, they used this man-powered steam-roller to flatten the land and pack it hard and sturdy. The roller now sits outside the museum, and I found myself fascinated with that hunk of rock—with the ingenuity, teamwork and raw manpower it represented. Everywhere I visited in China, throughout ten weeks of traveling, I saw that manpower is still today the dominant technology.
Some of the villagers in Dang Jiashan have dug wells, and with access to electricity they pump the water. When I first saw one of these wells, I just assumed they had rented some machinery to dig it. (I had only been in the village a few days then, on my first trip, and still hadn’t quite realized the true nature of this region, technologically speaking.) The machinery, of course, was simply some dude. It took seventy days to dig a seventy-foot well. One guy with a bucket was lowered down each day to dig in the narrow tube, and the dirt was hauled up and out. Then from the bottom up, it was lined with bricks. With the brick lining, only the tiniest person could now be lowered into the well. The handful of wells in the village were a marvel when they were built. But now, with the increasingly anemic water table, it can take nearly five minutes for a pump to sputter out water after it’s been turned on.
One of the images I remember so vividly from my first summer in Dang Jiashan is of an afternoon when we went to the spring and watched Anju slowly fill up the tin buckets. Papa took one of the buckets, and with a kitchen ladle scooped out spoonfuls of water onto a plot of vegetables near the spring whose leaves were wilting. It seemed so pitiful, those vegetables trying to make a stand in the dry, cracked earth, and being granted such tiny sips. Some of them were squash, and their big, floppy leaves seemed absurd—an ostentatious dream, a feverish delusion in their malnourished state.
That year when I looked around at the predominantly brown earth, the terraces of runty plants poking through parched dirt, the spaces between each plant in a row seemed foolishly far; I couldn’t imagine the leaves would ever grow enough to fill them in. Living in the village was hot, dry, brown. The land was desperately thirsty. The villagers were saying they had to move to find more water; they were going to leave behind their beautiful, timeless village as a result. That year I resented the land, scorned the clouds for their weakness.
And the next year I feared it all—the sudden fecundity of green, an irrational lushness; the power of the sky and the force of its rains that could tear through the land, destroy crops and build a lake in the span of an afternoon. The bipolar nature of the weather, handing out its cliché of feast or famine. And little bits of irony, too—for the abundance of this year’s rain had cut off the villagers’ supply of water. The water in the flooded valley was far too muddy to drink or use in any way, and the spring lies across the valley from the village. For several days the valley couldn’t be crossed.
I wanted to know this land, even if just in one season. But I came in two different years and in the end I just felt confused; I felt betrayed, for I had come so earnestly. I wanted to know one thing from this place. People… people are complex—in society, under the effects of the motion of time, technology, globalization; individually, within family and cultural dynamics. I came willing to accept that I could never fully grasp these complexities that define the human environment. But I wanted something more from the land, something tangible—one thing, be it tragedy or triumph; I didn’t even care so much which it was. I wanted to know something, anything, and I looked to the geophysical landscape. If I couldn’t know the people themselves, I hoped to know the land that shaped them.
It’s what my dad taught me—to look to the natural environment for answers. Whenever I’m confused with the social world, the “human world,” I go to nature and walk or sit silently, and I’m able to say, “Yes. Yes I know this.” I know this womb. I know this flesh from which I’m born. And I wanted to seek solace from the cultural upheaval of Dang Jiashan village in the stability of the land. I wanted to nurse the wounds of all these rapid cultural changes with the glacial pace of geologic change.
Many battles have happened here: Geologic battles between the packed earth of land and the salty depths of sea, between low ground and plateau, stillness and wind, rain and sand; human battles between the Han Chinese and the northern Mongols, between the Chinese peasants and roaming bands of minority tribes, peasants against landowners, the Kuomintang against the Communist revolutionaries; and ultimately, the perpetual battle between geology and humanity.
Right now the people are peaceful; it’s the earth, ushering in the desert, that is antagonistic, and the peasants are trying to stake a claim to their ancestral land. To the land, not to their ancestral past, not to time or tradition. The people fight to stay in their physical space, to find water nearby, and to keep their hills from blowing away.
Maybe I’m too harsh on the desert and the aridity. The water brings down the past also: tearing down the loess dirt that has built up over the millennia, washing away the ancient sea creatures that have been lodged in the cliffs for millions of years, sweeping them back down toward the ocean. Splitting open old graves, eroding old courtyard walls and rerouting long-used pathways.
When the rain falls profusely, the villagers are ready with their tin buckets and ceramic jars to catch the water as it runs off of the eaves of their homes. Only the very, very oldest of yao, or the crudest ones for livestock or storage, don’t have eaves of some kind across them, jutting out from the hillside, either brick or hardened mud on wood supports; most of them jut out far enough from the hillside to require support with several tall wooden poles spanning them and the ground.
Though some of the roofs and all of the paths of the village are just native dirt, it’s all packed down so well that the water runs across it like a hard, smooth surface. Inside Mama and Papa’s courtyard, a little trench is dug into the dirt, which I never even noticed until a big rainstorm my second year in Dang Jiashan. All the water that fell in the courtyard rolled down an imperceptible slope into the little gutter and flowed all the way outside, beneath the gates and into the path.
Once in that second year, the green year, I asked Papa about his wedding and he said that he and Mama were married in October, an unusual month for a peasant wedding. These types of events usually take place in the winter, especially around Spring Festival (the lunar new year), because the peasants can spare the time and energy more easily then since they’re not in the fields from dawn to dusk. They picked October because of the local streams and rivers, which were much fuller in the past. Wedding tradition involves a procession from the bride’s yao to her husband’s. In those days, following the path between Mama’s village and Dang Jiashan required about thirty stream crossings, as the creek and the path made their way together as if the earth wore braids. In the fall, when the water level had lowered after the summer rains, it was easy enough to jump the narrow crossings and wade through the others. But in the winter, when the water was frozen, it was much more treacherous to travel the path crisscrossed with slippery ice. So they married before the water froze.
But now that wouldn’t be an issue: the streams are small, seasonal and few; it’s a different landscape.
Coincidentally, the villagers’ move down into the valley as they move into the future exactly parallels the Chinese notion of time. I tend to picture time as a horizontal phenomenon, moving forward like an arrow shot from god’s crossbow, marked from left to right on an X axis. The Chinese visualize time vertically, unfolding like a scroll from top to bottom. The past is at the top, the present at eye level, and the future below. The Chinese word for “up” is shàng—morning is shàngwǔ; last week: shàng ge xīngqī; go to work: shàngbān. The word for “down” is xià, hence xiàwǔ: afternoon; xià ge xīngqī: next week; xiàbān: get off work. It’s appropriate that the villagers will have to look up, literally, to see their past, to see what was before.
But the inhabitants of this patch of earth also strike a metaphor with their terrestrial forebear. They’ve resided here in this region in a thick mantle of historical and cultural preservation, building up over the centuries and millennia like the loess. When the rain comes, it convolutes the earth into troughs and peaks. It’s not the same earth as when the loess silt was laid down in a steady, flat mat. It’s the same soil, the same grains of dirt that lay down there to rest so many ages ago, but it’s not the same earth; it’s a completely different topography. Now like the earth, the people are fracturing, splintering, letting the rivers of change and modernity cut through them and reshape them. They are the same human DNA, the same family blood, but they are becoming a new civilization, a new people.
My second year in the village, even though it was the wet year, my memory of the previous one was strong. Every time I stood on the little hook of hillside across from our courtyard and looked around at the valley below and the village behind, the terraced fields and steep cliffs, I imagined it was the eve of an epic battle, waged between tradition and modernity—the rain backing tradition, and the desert backing change and modernity. I imagined myself a field marshal surveying the battlefield before the fight: calculating, strategizing, steeling myself. The fields, the folds and folds of mountains and valleys, plateaus and crevices, lay quietly, innocently, sensing the impending battle but unaware of the details. The corn and millet stood with a baleful gaze at the land whose loyalty they cannot count on. Armies are gathering: wind, rain and drought; sterile sand and green growth; new technologies, ideas, dreams; family loyalty and the eye of the ancestors. It is a war both ancient and imminent.