- from Life on Earth
Recently, Wei An's sister and brother took me to see his apartment, in the Beijing suburb of Changping. With us were three of Wei An's friends: his college classmate Zhou Xinjing, the poet Shu Cai, and the novelist Ning Ken. Wei An's basketball, camera, and canvas traveling bag are still hanging inside the front door, and his study is just as he left it when he died in 1999. On the bookshelves are Chinese translations of the foreign writers he admired, and in a box on a bottom shelf are his manuscripts. Between 1988 and 1995, he wrote seventy-five brief meditations on the things that he observed and cared about.
Wei An wrote sparingly, and he wrote slowly. His meticulous self-editing was one of the qualities that puzzled and charmed his friends. Those with me that day reminisced, agreeing that he was sincere and unspoiled. Ning Ken recollected going swimming with him at a reservoir that they called, with great satisfaction, their own Walden Pond.
In the winter of 1986, Wei An read Xu Chi's translation of Walden, and the book changed his life. He discovered what he called Thoreau's "free, unrestrained, simple and open" organic style, and began composing in prose that, like Thoreau's, was poetic. He said the middle way fit him.
As an American, I have an impulse to regard him as a naturalist, but his work resists this. For Wei An, the essence of Thoreau was not a "return to nature" but rather the "completion of man." Having grown up in the age of irony, I sometimes find it difficult to translate the unguarded expression of emotion and the direct discussion of truth, beauty, and goodness that are Wei An's idioms. His work reminds me, however, that our engagement with nature must necessarily be both romantic and scientific, and that the two cannot—or at least should not—be separated.
Bird trappers get going before first light and arrive in an orchard before the birds start flying. They set up three big nets in a triangle around a fruit tree. [End Page 56] On the tree's branches, they hang caged birds they have brought, and then hide themselves to wait. The bird trappers call the caged birds "decoys," and the decoys are there for their calls. Inside their cages the decoys turn around and around. Whenever they see wild birds flying by, the decoys flap their wings and call anxiously. Their miserable, sad cries make the wild birds turn back. Some of the wild birds hit the nets, others land in trees outside the nets, but after a while they too are drawn toward the cages. When the wild birds strike the nets, they fall down like leaves from a tree.
The Chinese painter and essayist Feng Zikai wrote that the old sheep used by shepherds to lead the flock to the slaughterhouse is considered a traitor to sheepkind. I will not say that the decoys are traitors to aviankind. Words like "traitor" should be used only in reference to humans.
I stumbled upon a beautiful spider in a northern woodlot. Its web was strung between two trees and was built from several parallel circular threads linked together by a few seemingly random radial threads. It was a big spider, with long, thin legs. Its body was unusually striking—light green alternating with orange. When I first came across it, I felt that flash of strong fear that is unlike the fear caused by any of the earth's other scary creatures. The same colors that are considered beautiful on one thing are horrifying and frightening on another.
There is a particular kind of beetle that you find on trees-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), also known as stinky toon trees. It is small, spotted, and shaped like an elephant. Biologists call it the elephant beetle, but country kids call it Old Mr. Lock. It likes to attach itself to the bark of the tree-of-heaven, sometimes quite low to the ground where one can reach out and...