Friday, July 4, 2008

A Lesson From Crows

In a dream Henry and his dad are once again in Gansu Province. But they have become two crows who are peering out over the arid town of Jingchuan from one of the old caves that long ago were dug into the sides of the tall sandy cliffs along the town's southern edge.

It is daytime there and small vehicles are busily motoring about on the streets.  Men and women, a few with children, are walking into and out of the stores on Zhoung Shan Road, the town's main artery. Other people can be seen in front of the small mud brick houses in the dusty back area of town just below the cliffs. All are shadowless under a typically cloudless but hazy sky.  Eventually the crows leave their perch; the father and his little counterpart. They dip low toward the town for a moment before their wings catch the air currents swirling invisibly over the Jing River valley. They begin to climb.

First they fly north across the valley's wide floodplain and then turn to follow the gravelly river bed west, mountains on each side of the plain, fields and villages below. Carefully tended fruit orchards and irrigated terraces planted with neatly spaced rows of vegetables or wheat pass underneath, this directly below in vertigo flashes of green against backgrounds of yellowish tans. Small villages are set on either side of the highway that runs parallel to the river; more clusters of small mud brick houses with tiled or thatched roofs. Each entrance door is covered by a sheet of cloth, fluttering in the breeze. The houses are dark and most are empty since almost everyone who is not too old leaves early in the morning for work or school. Most will return only when the sun sets; many younger people of working age will seldom return and some have left for good, as they have moved on, often far away, to find work elsewhere in China’s urban economy, joining more than 150 million others who have given up on an increasingly meager subsistence in the rural countryside.

The two crows rise higher above the valley, high enough to see beyond its bordering mountains. In either direction are more dry and nearly treeless mountains as far as they can see. Almost every incline not too steep has long ago been terraced for planting, which is a solitary and back breaking occupation. Only occasionally a man or woman is seen stooped and tending to one of these terraces, always alone and often separated by a quarter mile or more from the next farmer. Small dusty trails lead up and over these mountains connecting terraces to other terraces, and remote villages to other more distant villages on mountains even farther away.

At the long valley's widest point, the black winged pair circle once over the small city of Pingliang, which they see is surrounded by the same parched and precipitous landscape. Something more about this place below feels familiar but at this moment they are pulled by a greater force and so continue on. Ahead to the west the horizon turns greener, a sign that they are crossing the narrow southern tip of Ningxia Province, the autonomous region for Hui muslim Chinese, where moisture from clouds collects in front of Liupan, the tallest mountain range in this area and a geological fortress historically remembered as one of the most difficult passages in the Red Army's Long March northwest across China, after which so much changed, in so many directions.

As the two birds draw closer to Liupan Shan they can see the rare dark emerald forests of spruce trees on its steep eastern slopes. Flying fast against this mountainside the air grows thinner from elevation and damp from cloud mist. Near the top a cold updraft lifts them way above the summit, the ground suddenly disappearing below. The little crow struggles against the battering winds and dizzying height, and gives his father a frightened glance. The father crow reaches out with his claws and gently but tightly gathers his little one beneath him. Then they veer toward the orange sunset now on the western horizon and set their path toward Lanzhou.

The little crow feels safe now, having learned that he doesn't really have to fly all on his own.


Anita said...

Andy, for years I have wanted to urge you, quite seriously, to keep writing; now, I really must insist! Thank you for sharing this profoundly beautiful dream; it is true celebration of a most memorable Independence Day. Wicked awesome stuff.

Anonymous said...