Sculptured Earth

Yunnan is a mountainous province and home to many of China’s ethnic minorities; not coincidentally, it is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Some 150 km north of the provincial capital of Kunming there lies a region known as “Red Earth”, with villages perched at 2,500 meters below peaks at 3,200 meters.  As with any alpine region on earth, the scenery is magnificent as one plies, sometimes breathtakingly, the switchback road in a friend’s rickety Honda.But the mountains here are unique, unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.  For they are meticulously sculpted, from valley floor nearly to the peaks, into a patchwork of terraced fields.  Even in mid-November, the patchwork is colorful, the light green effect of turnip leaves with white flowers, the darker greens of other vegetable crops, the browns of already dried fields of corn, rice and other grains, the brilliant red where the soil has been plowed up in preparation for the next round of planting.  A photographer’s wonderland as the colors change daily with the movement of the sun and clouds, and seasonally with the succession of crops and freshly tilled soil.As my camera clicks to capture the beauty of the place, I can’t help wonder how many hands over how many hundreds of years sculpted these terraces. Certainly in their minds was no thought of beauty, nor of environmental impact, simply of survival, of feeding themselves and their children.  Even today one can read that purpose in the face of the old woman trudging home, bent forward under the load of turnips in the basket strapped to her back.  Were they relegated to these marginal lands by a traditional sense of home, or by pressure from the more numerous Han Chinese advancing into the valley floor?  Can I expect them to continue to maintain these fields and the way of life bound to them for my delectation?  Can I chide their sons and daughters for fleeing to the sterile factory dormitories of Shenzhen?Probably the sharp steps will be cambered by erosion, and the variegated colors will revert to a monochrome state of neglect.  Probably the whitewashed villages will shrink and crumble.  Probably the low per-person productivity will be judged unsustainable.

But for the moment I am awed by the human capacity for endurance.  I am awed by the innovation and tenacity with which our ancestors refused to acquiesce in their niche, and instead literally shaped their environment so as to sustain their lives, and then had the gumption to claim that God intended it so.

But what’s this “our ancestors” shit?  Do I really have the presumptuousness to claim kinship with the Yi, the Miao, the Bai, the Hani who worked such wonders?  Yes.

One Response to “Sculptured Earth”

  1. Norm Markel says:

    Thanks Bob. We missed you at the D-D dinner. You missed Judy’s 5 star performance. Norm

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