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November 11, 2023

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Creating a secret wonderland of rural biodiversity at doorstep in Shanghai

I will turn 58 next summer, and yet some senior farmers I met during my recent field studies of rural landscapes said I looked much older.

“Are you in your 60s or, wait, perhaps 70s?” an agile elderly farmer looked at me and asked with a polite smile, while using a watering pot to irrigate his small vegetable patch, lying beside a vast rice field surrounded by skyscraping trees and sprawling shrubs.

It was 6am when I ran into the farmer in suburban Shanghai. The air was fragrant as the lush plants draped in morning dew exuded a cool odor. The old man was moving with a kind of dexterity and dynamics typical of one who has worked a long time in the bosom of nature.

As I watched him working the land, I supposed he’s about 70. But when I ventured to ask him whether I had guessed it right, he surprised me by saying he’s 85.

Before asking him to make a guess about my age, I took off my hat to show him my hair — as gray as his. I thought he would say I was close to 60, but alas, I apparently appeared feebler.

I told him I usually work on computers and have little time exposing myself to nature during the day, except in cases of field studies or interviews.

“No wonder,” he said. “Fresh, open air is key to good health. That’s why I’ve stayed here for more than 20 years, although some of my neighbors have moved to new, concrete apartments in high-rise communities.”

By “here” he meant Shenjingtang Village in Qingpu District, which is a 20-minute walk from my suburban home. He said he went to Qinghai Province in west China as a soldier in 1958 and returned to the village about 20 years ago.

Before the visit last week, I had explored the village only once since I settled in the vicinity 10 years ago. The drifting dust and the deafening noise from an erstwhile stone processing plant drove me away on my first visit.

“Now they are all gone,” the elderly farmer said merrily, referring to the polluting plants that once existed.

His observation was confirmed by a recent report in The Paper, a Shanghai-based news portal, which said the village had gone all out to spruce up its rural landscape over the past few years. As a result, a river that passes through the village has been cleaned up and elected as one of the city’s most beautiful rivers.

Shanghai began to host the annual election event in 2018 with an aim to clean up the city’s rivers, especially those running through villages or urban communities.

Recalling the ever-changing rural landscape, the elderly farmer added: “You may not know that there was almost no tree in the village 20 years ago, but look how many we have now, especially those camphor trees and various shrubs which give fragrance to the air and defend the low-lying rice fields against soil erosion.”

Indeed, I was amazed to find it had changed almost beyond recognition: The stone processing plant had been removed, and everywhere I went, it was like walking in a labyrinth of pristine forests with dense foliage and zigzag pathways.

As I enjoyed a leisurely stroll in the village, I ran into an organic farm spanning 200 mu (13.3 hectares), which had just taken shape. A young staff member told me the farm would open next month and aims to attract children and their families who would love to grow and harvest organic food on their own.

“We will use organic fertilizer only,” the young man noted. “We will buy specially treated animal or bird manures, especially those of pigeons, to cultivate our land.”

Unlike some other villages, which have converted farmers’ homes into cafes, restaurants or shops to attract visitors, Shenjingtang has created a stunning rustic landscape that amounts to a secret wonderland at the doorstep of urban as well as suburban communities.

What a rare haven of rural biodiversity at our doorstep! It’s a wonderland of wilderness tucked away to the north of Metro Line 17 that connects the Hongqiao transportation hub with the city’s western suburbs.

The healing power of nature

Trekking through thick woodlands and jumping over peat bogs in the bucolic village while birds swirled above my head, I felt like a lonesome traveler whose sapped energy was being revived bit by bit with the absorption of fresh air scented by permeative plants.

I’ve been suffering a relatively low level of blood oxygen since I first contracted COVID-19 in May. At the end of my half-day exploration trip, I began to better understand why the 85-year-old farmer had chosen to stay, why he looked younger than his actual age, and how a rustic landscape could ultimately attract visitors with its unique resource — fresh, open air sustained by a revival of rural biodiversity.

Indeed, as Cleveland Clinic, a well-known academic medical institution in the United States, points out, breathing in fresh air goes a long way toward increasing one’s blood oxygen level.

The elderly farmer was not the first to find that I looked older than my age. During a field interview in Xibeigang Village along the Wusong River in early October, a 70-year-old farmer, who looked younger, said I impressed him as someone who was at least 75 years old.

I went to Xibeigang last month because the section of the Wusong River passing through the village had just been cleared and widened as part of a bigger project to create an ecological corridor along the ancient waterway, which connects Shanghai with Suzhou in Jiangsu Province.

“Look at this beautiful bay area,” the farmer earnestly explained the sea change in his village’s landscape to me. “Many years ago, you couldn’t walk along the Wusong River here, because it was the site of a big factory. Now it’s gone, and its former ground has been removed to widen the Wusong riverbed.”

As a native farmer, he further explained that many factories along the Wusong River had been removed to reduce possible pollution of the water. He pointed me toward a newly furbished riverside wall, on which there were two polished metal pieces inscribed with words and pictures telling the history of the ancient river, which used to be a transportation artery in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (AD 960-1279) dynasties.

According to Shanghai’s master plan for 2021-2025 and beyond, Xibeigang Village belongs to a 111-square-kilometer area along the Wusong River designed to become a biodiverse haven. Xibeigang means “the northwestern port” in Chinese, as it’s located in northwest Shanghai, on the upper reaches of the Suzhou Creek.

“Now I take a stroll along the widened river every morning and afternoon. It’s like my back garden,” the elderly farmer observed. He invited me to visit his newly renovated house by the river and said he would like me to come often and walk in the fresh air with him if I had time.

He added that he had learned that a cruise terminal would be built along the widened river in the near future, receiving passengers traveling from the lower reaches.

Last year, cruise services began on the Suzhou Creek. When passengers sail from the creek to its upper reaches — the Wusong River — Xibeigang Village will be one of the first points of contact between urban and rural Shanghai. When that day comes, the vast rural heartland will be brought to the “doorstep” of more residents as they travel on cleaner and wider rivers across the city.

In a sense, a revival of Shanghai’s rural areas is not just about giving farmers a better life; it’s about bringing citizens closer to Mother Nature, which helps us heal.

Room for improvement

Despite the city’s relentless efforts to clean up its rivers and river valleys, there’s still room for improvement.

For example, I saw some plastic foams floating on a river in another village close to Shenjingtang on an afternoon last week. I took a short video of the floating foams — without specifying the location — and uploaded it on my WeChat, a social media platform for communication among friends.

A surprise came as one of my friends saw my video and asked me about the exact location of the floating foams. I told her that I only had a rough impression and would go there again in a minute to check its geographic position on a navigation map.

A bigger surprise was in store when I approached the site and saw two men looking around in earnest, as if trying hard to find something. I struck a conversation with them and found they were local cadres in charge of river management. They said my WeChat friend, an environment enthusiast, had just passed my video to them, with a rough guess of the location.

When we arrived at the river bend where foams were still floating on the otherwise clean water surface, the two cadres made a timely call to their colleagues and assured me the floating foams would be cleaned up soon.

“Please come later to check again,” they said.

I went there the next morning and found two workers had cleaned up those plastic wastes from the river. Then I spotted a small plastic bag drifting with the waves in my direction. I took a long twig from the ground and picked it up as it drifted close to where I stood.

At that moment, the sanitation workers gave me a friendly smile. It made my day.


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