Saturday 26 September – Shaxi in Part II

The interviews that Franz was conducting within the local community of Shaxi for his research brought us into contact with farmers from different economic and educational backgrounds – some better able to adapt to change than others.

We were all keen to get out into the hills and see for ourselves how easy – or hard – it was to find mushrooms, so were really pleased when we had the opportunity early on.

One of the first interviews was with a very poor farming family – they made little money from farming and the son was unskilled, his main ability being mushroom collecting during the few short summer months; the mother was chronically ill and there was left to buy medicines.

Like many of the households, the buildings around the central courtyard were shared with other families, usually relatives. However, this is not always the case as during various governmental reforms designed to make housing more equitable, landlords were required to share their own properties which were only partially occupied with new families. In Dali and no doubt other places, this extended to many privately owned homes.Head of the householdHead of the household

The different economic status of the families around this courtyard was clearly evident – half of the buildings were in a good state of repair while the rest suffered from dilapidation; one side of the courtyard lay vacant and derelict – the family had once planned to build a house for their daughter… Where the daughter's house should beWhere the daughter’s house should be

The son agreed to lead us into the mountains the following day if the rain appeased. It did. We walked to the next village and set off at about 9.30 through the narrow lanes of Changle into the hills, out past fields of maize and plots of land planted some 10-years ago with chestnut, walnut and other crop-bearing trees – part of the reforestation scheme (a curious definition). Heading out of ChangleHeading out of Changle

Forest protection laws had been introduced many years ago in an attempt to encourage local people to manage the hillsides around the villages, prevent deforestation, and provide an additional source of income. Each family was allocated a parcel of forested land, but the boundaries were never clearly defined, leaving people disempowered – and the environment as vulnerable as ever. Elders expressed concern that without clear government guidelines, and with no-one responsible, there was an increased tendency to exploit whatever resources were available. They were particularly troubled that there was a move away from protecting forests and resources for the future, towards thinking just of the “now”.

Interviews had revealed differences of opinion as to why there was a decline in mushroom productivity over previous years: some said that there were too many people walking through the forest, compacting the earth and preventing the mushrooms from emerging; some felt there were simply too many people collecting – certain mushrooms commanding a very high price; yet another concern from the other side of the valley was the practice of the Yi minorities in cultivating the hillsides for potatoes – destroying areas that had previously been available for mushroom collecting.

It is perhaps all of these things, but there is another contributory factor – and this is only my perception from what was being discussed, Franz was the one doing the scientific research – and that is that the climate is changing. Rains are coming at different times, but overall it is dryer. What this means for the fragile economy is as yet unknown – nor how this will impact on this one particular poor family.

The Mushroom Collector carried a split bamboo woven basket slung over his back, and we were handed walking sticks – a nice gesture, but surely not necessary.

A short way up the hill this gave way to open scrub, and the signs of erosion on the red soil. Pine trees, mutilated for firewood, were effectively bonsai’d – few trees were more than a couple of feet high. Stumps were evident where they had been removed completely, even though the area was protected from felling Some were heavily encrusted with bearded lichen, looking bedraggled, cobwebbed and neglected.

We moved higher, into a more forested area, the thick lush, vibrant green pine needles refreshing against the red soil. Looking back we realised how high we were climbing, the Shaxi valley a thin, pale green sliver between the blue clouded mountains on the other side of the valley.And into the hillsAnd into the hills

High in the hillsHigh in the hills

It was easy to forget what we had come here for – until The Mushroom Collector disappeared off into the forest leaving us wondering if we should follow. Suddenly we became excited that perhaps we would be the first to discover a mushroom, and we moved eagerly, and slowly, through the trees peering for something we weren’t quite sure of. Were the mushrooms white? We investigated white rocks. Were they brown? Red?

A shout brought us running – the first find, white, edible, but not valuable. He gently worked the stick into the soil clearing it from around its base and prised it up – before stowing it safely in the bottom of his basket.Another findAnother find

We walked on, the pattern repeating itself – our expert disappearing off and discovering another one, or two, more finds. It was later, during more interviews, that it became clear that mushrooms appear in the same place – so of course he knew where to look: many places would have drawn blanks, or already been harvested, but our eager stone sightings and leaf-turnings would always have been barren.

We climbed on. The hillside became steeper. Paths petered out into animal trails. Animal trails petered out entirely – and I was then grateful of the walking stick, using it as another pivot point as we sometimes slid, sometimes scrambled down – and across – ravines. And it really was incredibly steep. Here I was with a local guide who did this route perhaps every day out of necessity, a fit young guy from Switzerland and our Chinese interpreter. And me – determined, but not very used to climbing mountains. There was no going back. It was just a matter of keeping up.High up over the valleyHigh up over the valley

When we rounded the mountainside and I saw a thick green reservoir below us, I had a thread of hope. It was now four hours in and we had barely rested. Let alone eaten. We had bought some scant provision – a few boiled eggs and some rather dried pastries – a bit like Eccles cakes but stained pink in places: the printing on the bag was on the inside… And not enough water. I don’t think any of us had expected it to be so exerting.

The reservoir was not for drinking, but we did stop to eat and then the path got easier and we found ourselves walking into an area of cultivation again. And invited into the Reservoir Keeper’s house. He had lived there for 19 years with his wife, looking after the reservoir – and fishing it. There was a huge fish in a “holding tank” underneath the constantly running tap – for later. We gratefully replenished our water bottles, and The Mushroom Collector settled into what was obviously a social routine of smoking cigarettes through a huge bamboo bong.The Reservoir KeeperThe Reservoir KeeperThe Reservoir Keeper's WifeThe Reservoir Keeper’s Wife

Despite great protestations from the wife, we declined her offer of a lunch and headed down a more gentle path – the course of water back into the valley, where the vegetation became more interesting. As well as mushrooms, I had been keeping an eye out for interesting flora, and I was eventually rewarded with a few gentians, orchids and begonias. There were other plants I couldn’t identify, but which Frank assured me were medicinal – given that one in three plants is considered to have medicinal properties, that wasn’t too difficult.Orchid speciesOrchid species

One in particular was interesting, resembling Spindle, Euonymous europea, and another with small red berries hanging down in bunches like red currants, which had a very strong spicy taste. And wild Monkshood – know for its toxicity – which I didn’t taste.The Spindle like fruitThe Spindle like fruit

The Spindle like fruit

And then we were descending back down through the red eroded soil into the cultivated fringes of the Shaxi valley, passing women with wooden yolks bearing huge baskets of harvested corn cobs, children just out of school running up through mud-brick flanked passages, more women bent over with their huge crop of dried tobacco leaves disappearing down through the narrow streets.Forest trailsForest trails

We had found only four edible mushrooms in our seven hours – not enough to keep a family alive, let alone one with a seriously ill mother. We pressed The Mushroom Collector for further information about her fall and subsequent illness, and why Western and Traditional Chinese Medicines weren’t able to help, but the answers weren’t at all clear. What was clear to us however, was the lack of money to buy options. As we walked back towards the house we agreed that we would double the fee we were paying, with half to go for medicines for his mother. Returning to the villageReturning to the village

While we were concerned for her health, I really wasn’t prepared for the request that followed: to take a photograph of the farmer’s wife – in case she died. I was ushered into her bedroom where they were attempting to peel back her bedclothes to show me her injuries, she passively resisting, protestations, my acute embarrassment and the pre-flash – there was no light in the room – bouncing around trying to find a focus as she subjected herself to this indignity.

I felt it.

But I also knew that the husband would be so comforted by an image of his wife – to remember her by – when she died.

It is then an enormous privilege I have, to be able to give him this gift. But I am not at peace with myself enough to feel that yet.