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Wetlands & Wilderness: Paving the way for an urban biodiversity sanctuary


Last Sunday, I walked alone in a wooded village near my suburban home in western Shanghai, where rice crops had just been harvested, their stalks perfuming the air under the late afternoon sun.

I stooped down to breathe in the fragrance of the field. The slanting sun had perfected the silence of the pristine village, which was broken only by the sporadic twittering of birds. As I crossed the rice field, I found myself gladly tiptoeing on soil ridges covered with wild grass and fallen stalks – I felt the soft earth under my feet.

There was no paved path in sight. Emerging from the field, I passed a dilapidated bridge and discovered a narrow earthen lane lined with reeds, trees and thickets. Patches of vegetable fields were scattered along a river, adding color to a hidden haven of rural biodiversity.

As I sauntered along, surrounded by swirling birds overhead, I saw a young man holding a camera in front of a riverside tree. He either stood or squatted, changing his position to zero in on something that interested him.

He was concentrating so much on taking photos that he didn't seem to have time for a reply, but as I moved on, he caught up with me in no time. We stopped by a soil ridge of another vast rice field, with a great view of birds darting up and down, back and forth.

"I'm from France, and I'm a fan of wild birds," the young man said. "I bought a new camera just yesterday."

It was the first time I had met a lone foreign traveler in a Shanghai village. I had met some expats in organized rural events, but I had never run into a foreigner who wandered alone in search of wild birds.

In a way, both of us were attracted to the village for its rustic landscape unspoiled by the hustle and bustle of urban life. Earthen paths, bird nestles and riverside plants and fields dominate the landscape of this small village called Fengbang, which literally means "rich in water resources" in Chinese.

"I work in an automotive company in downtown Shanghai, but I like to live here," the Frenchman told me. "I have been living here since 2015."

Later I found out that we are neighbors in the same suburban community.

As he stood on the soil ridge while I paced in the rice field, we chatted about various topics, from wild birds to rural landscapes, from Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to science fiction. I learned he also likes to cycle further west from where we live to enjoy the pristine scenes along the upper reaches of the Huangpu River.

Mosaic colors of plants

From our casual conversation, I realized that for someone who dwells in a big city, it's almost a luxury to live at the doorstep of a rustic landscape, where there's virtually nothing between the heaven and Earth except for blooming plants surrounding a few low-rise farmers' houses.

What better biosphere reserve can one find in a metropolitan city than a village "painted" with mosaic colors of various plants and tucked away from the tentacles of urbanization?

When I settled in the city's western suburbs in 2012, I was afraid the village near my home would gradually give way to real estate development, as urbanization was once all the rage. Now, a decade later, the village has not only survived, but also bloomed into a hidden haven of biodiversity sustained by clean soil and water, which in turn support the growth of myriad plants in wilderness.

A wide variety of plants growing in the wild goes a long way toward sustaining biodiversity, a senior scholar said at a national conference held in southern Hainan Province on November 19.

"In wilderness, there are many kinds of grass that feed different birds, but in some cases, designers have kept only some kind of grass after turning certain wilderness areas into (what they believe to be) 'tidy-looking' wetlands, hence a decline in the number of birds," explained Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. He was speaking at the Boao Conference for China Forestry and Grassland Economic Development.

Wetlands have grown exponentially in China as the country seeks a development path in harmony with nature. What Zhou noted was only a need for improvement in certain cases, so that plant diversity can be preserved or even increased. In Fengbang Village where my French neighbor and I roamed in leisure, myriad plants grow luxuriantly side by side with food crops, weaving a rare picture of wilderness to which Zhou pays much attention in his pursuit of biodiversity.

Soil: the Earth's skin

And Fengbang has more than just plants to attract nature lovers. Its zigzag earthen paths, in contrast to the hardened road surfaces in many downtown areas, have created a sanctuary for biodiversity.

"When mentioning biodiversity, we first think of plants and animals, yet the most biodiverse place on Earth is the soil beneath our feet," Wang Xiangrong, a renowned professor of landscape designing and chief editor of the Chinese Landscape Architecture magazine, wrote in a recent article.

"Soil is the skin of Earth ... The organisms living in the soil are rich and diverse, not only the common ants and earthworms, but also countless micro-organisms invisible to our naked eyes."

He added that soil biodiversity contributes more than 25 percent of global biodiversity.

I hope Fengbang Village will become a landmark – a lighthouse for that matter – in our rural revitalization drive for its sustained efforts to prevent many of its earthen paths from being hardened into pavements.

I went to the village again on November 28 and found that a large plot of land had just been tilled to prepare for the planting of new saplings. This land was earlier used as a fish pond, resulting in the loss and hardening of soil in many ways.

A happy encounter with a French neighbor who appreciates the scene and sense of wilderness reminds me of what English nature writer Edward Thomas (1878-1917) said in his book "The Heart of England:"

"It is a land that uses a soft compulsion upon the passer-by, a compulsion to meditation, which is necessary before he is attached to a scene rather featureless, to a land that hence owes much of its power to a mood of generous reverie which it bestows. And yet it is a land that gives much. Companionable it is, reassuring to the solitary ..."