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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
My river is dying! Some summer reminiscences, with a poem
In summer of 2000, I tagged along on a (social work) conference visit to Poland, for a vacation. We landed in Kraków and the coach sped through the countryside; mostly low houses clad with tin roofs. Some of the concrete masonry was visibly crumbling. Then – wham – we were “hit” with gigantic billboards of some global brand names, many more than the “Golden Arches” or Daewo: Carrefour; Geant; Champion; and wait for this – Tesco! This was not just about some occidental status symbols or life style. Junk food or the motorcar, we could take it or leave it, but now the supermarkets are capturing people’s everyday life; their daily needs. It was a real wake-up call – I thought that this new wave of globalisation must be taken more seriously.
Then, the panoramic image of the great Polish Plains was amazingly soothing, for the vista of flat fields stretched on, unrolling reassuringly without end before me. Now and then, I could see farmers toiling, busy harvesting with horses and wagon, and making hay. Some fields were ablaze with poppies and lupins that seemed to have run wild. There was an absence of fences – absolutely no barb-wired or wooden fencing, rustic or otherwise. Presumably, in the country, folks had deemed such exclusion as unnecessary.
This open landscape of great expanse of fields was immense, and I felt a sense of freedom that was most liberating. This fleeting tourist was used to living in the UK where high walls, hedges, fences, and “private property” and “keep-out” signs are commonplace. Well, in Poland, I could roam free, barring the dark forest and hidden dangers of the mighty river. The pastoral scene transported me back to my home village in Wuxi …
It was as if the image was actually etched into my brain, but I had this cinematic dreamlike vision, an “experience” that has been with me ever since – such strange childhood memories …
It was still and chilly, before daybreak, and a hazy light mist hung in the morning air, across both banks of the river. The reeds and shrubbery on the banks were bare and grey. All ghostly, not a sound. I was there, holding my breath, fearing the glimpse of any movement of souls or vegetation, scared-stiff.
Could it be that I only dreamt it?
Only the grown ups would go to the river, to wash the rice and vegetables, and clothes. All the villagers fetched water daily, for cooking and washing, and we knew it was clean and safe. And people could travel and transport their goods by the river. The river sustained our life.
To me, and it was the same for my elder sisters, the river was one of our greatest fears; a dangerous curse. We were not big and strong. We simply could not swim. I remember clearly that once my big sister was nearly drowned in it. She would have been aged about six or seven, but she was old enough to help with the washing of clothes by the riverbank. One day, she slipped and fell into the river but, luckily, a grown-up pulled her out of the water in the nick of time.
Another episode involved myself when I might have been three or four, I could not say. Whilst crossing the river by a “bridge” (this would have been just a plank of wood), I dropped my wooden stool into the bloody river (you see, there were no desks or chairs in the village school, and we all had to bring a seat plus our own rice bowl to school as well). So, I received a good beating from my grandma for losing the stool, but that was after a good chase down the village when she finally caught me. Even at that young age, I appreciated that the wee stool was too valuable an item to be lost; damn river!
So that may have been the origin of our childhood fear of the river, and we remain reverent.
I went back to the village in the spring of 1974 just before going abroad for further studies. It was the first time that I experienced and played with pure white snow. My uncle and other comrades were busy damming up and pumping out a section of the river. Their purpose was to dredge up the rich mud to fertilise the fields. They had to do this every year as it also maintained the ancient (canal) waterways. That night, for dinner, we enjoyed the bonus of delicious fresh fish.
More years later, in 1980, I returned with my husband and baby. It was in heavy rain, and we simply had to take off our shoes, taking care not to slip on the narrow path between the fields. When we arrived in the village, well muddied, we had to take buckets to shower ourselves. The river still took care of all our needs; the water was just as clean and safe as before. Ducks swam and dived in it. My uncle borrowed a boat and took the whole family and us for a wee trip: my grand parents and baby, four generations. He rowed the boat from the back of the village, weaving through the network of waterways, all the way to Tai Wu (Lake Tai). Although Tai Wu does not rank amongst the biggest in the country, it is nevertheless a very very big lake. But my uncle knew a safe spot along the shallow shore where we had a refreshing swim. The water was beautifully fresh and warm. That was one fantastically nostalgic boat trip and all the happy faces of dearest that I shall never forget.
Cometh the madly get-rich-quick 1990s, the country reached boiling point with new entrepreneurship – individual, collective, the PLA and the state enterprises – all racing and driving the new economy. I revisited my uncle again in 1995 in the midst of the booming economic miracle. There was such massive and miraculous development that, seemingly, millionaires were being made by the minute. It seemed limitless. Heavy industry took over absolutely, even in this rice-bowl region (the famous flat alluvial plains of China). My uncle showed me how my grandparents’ grave had to be re-located. Worst of all, the communal (and ancestral) fields, so fertile of rice and wheat down the centuries, had to be sacrificed. Heavy industry – the much more profitable business ventures – eats up the land and brings pollution. What material wealth could possibly recompense for the lost of natural and futile fields? Waste and rubble were dumped over the countryside. Now, the villagers all have to drill wells for drinking water, and even then, the water that comes up has a chemical taste.
Mother visits Wuxi every year and has witnessed even greater developments. She says that now a major trunk road has been built, and even uncle’s house in the village can be reached by (motor) taxi. Indeed, I read the national performance indicator of economic achievement/development is now reported in terms of how many thousands of kilometres of tarmac highway have been opened.
My river is now nothing more than a trickling ditch, no more ducks, no more fish …
Those Polish plains that kept speeding past reminded me so of this aching truth, of the vicious rampaging of the “free market”, of such economic developments. The awful aching truth is that my river is dying! And so I shall weep.
Wan Ying HillDivision of Accounting and Finance, Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK