In Taoism the object of spiritual practice is to become one with the Tao — to harmonize one’s will with nature in order to achieve ‘effortless action’. When I stepped off the plane in Beijing, I had no clue what the Tao was nor was I too keen on being a follower. I left for China with an itinerary provided by Earth Charter Communities Network but I hadn’t really looked at it too closely. I knew I was to speak at a couple of universities in Beijing, I knew I had a bicycle date with a teacher named Mrs. Dong, and I knew The Nature Conservancy wanted to learn from my experience in, of all places, a Giant Panda preserve. I knew I had important places to go and important people to see. Little did I know what REALLY awaited me…
Earth Charter Communities Network, (ECCN) is a social enterprise organization that uses dialogue to help design and develop lifelong sustainable lifestyles in both formal and informal settings. Its mission is to help people create dialogues with nature and with their community. The organization offers courses in global citizenship, dialogue skills and sustainable living for graduate students at Beijing Normal University. They provide docent led community nature programs in Beijing’s Olympic Forest Park, educational consulting for The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan Panda Preserve, and they recently launched a Sustainable Education Travel Program in collaboration with organizations in Orange County, California. I found myself as the willing “test case” for the Sustainable Education Travel Program.
The first Chinese person I met was on the airplane — a four-year old girl. We gazed out of the plane window together and saw a snow covered Siberia for the first time. We were the only people on our huge 747 marveling at the landscape. We both agreed it looked cold. I was reminded that there are huge expanses in this world that are still mostly uninhabited by humans… for good reason.
Beijing will remind me of the substantial impact humans are having on our Earth.
ECCN’s International Director, Stephanie Tansey, who recently published the book Recovery of the Heart: Dialogue with People Working Towards a Sustainable Beijing, met me at Beijing Capital Airport. We headed for my hotel on the campus of Beijing Normal University. The sheer number of people overwhelmed me. There were more people walking, pedaling bikes, driving cars and scooters, and riding taxis and buses than I ever could have imagined. The scale of Beijing is beyond my comprehension.
After a late night walk taking in the sights and sounds of Beijing, I began my next morning by packing for Sichuan Province and awaiting an escort to my first speaking engagement at Beijing Normal University. The speech went very well and focused on the history of nature centers in the United States, the development of my nature center, the role of the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) in the back-to-nature movement to reconnect children to the outdoors. I have been a member of ANCA for 15 years, and I served on their board for 10 of those.
One of the things I do as a member of ANCA is provide consultations to other nature centers on topics from starting a nature center to strategic planning preparation to program evaluation to board development – and most things in between.
The presentation at Beijing Normal University went smoothly and the resulting dialogue was inspiring. I know that the disconnect to the natural world in the United States is a concern, but I was alarmed to discover that many Chinese do not know how to connect at all!
That evening I was invited to an art exhibit sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. A Chinese woman played beautiful music on an instrument called a guqin while the artist, Yu Lanying, displayed her inspiring work of underwater scenes depicted in Chinese ink on rice paper.
En route to the exhibit, I was informed that Beijing has five ring roads numbered two through six, the One Ring Road being defined by surface streets around the Forbidden City. The rings are concentric circles that were built to encircle the city as it grew. The sixth ring now encircles 20 million people. I had no idea which ring or connecting road we were traveling on most of the time, but each was filled with vehicles that put Los Angeles rush hour to shame.
On every excursion I was given the honorary seat of “shotgun”. At first the roadways appeared to be mired in mass chaos, but eventually I began to see that they had a flow. My guides wisely assured me that this mass of honking people movers maneuvering inches away from other vehicles and pedestrians were “following the Tao”. I was assured that I would understand if I too learned to follow the natural flow.
I woke up the next morning to a blizzard. My flight with Stephanie to the Sichuan Province was delayed and I had an opportunity to connect with loved ones and friends online. The Internet in China is a real challenge with poor connections and Chinese government restrictions. Eventually the roads and runway were cleared of snow and our flight to Mainyang was rescheduled.
The drive to The Nature Conservancy’s field offices on switchback mountain roads was an experience I won’t soon forget. Villagers, dogs, drying corn, chickens, scooters, rocks, busses, police checkpoints, toll gates, and military personnel with Uzis were all just part of the Tao.
The mountains and rivers of this region are just beautiful. I explored the river before my presentation to TNC staff and found my rock. I find a rock to bring home with me everywhere I go. It’s funny how I always know just which rock is mine – my special connection to the earth. I wish everyone felt it.
The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan Province Land Trust Reserve is located in Pingwu County — one of the most important remaining pieces of giant panda habitat left in the world. The reserve is putting into practice cutting-edge methods of land conservation for China, and it will be the biggest, best-supported example of such a strategy in a country where protecting natural resources is of global importance.
The Pingwu County Land Trust Reserve, as it will be called, connects several existing nature reserves that needed well-guarded buffer land to keep out poachers. It will provide a crucial refuge for a number of important species, including giant pandas, and will help create new career opportunities for the local people. Most importantly, it will be the prototype of an innovative new model for protecting land in a country where conservation is not a top priority.
I presented my program to TNC staff, and afterwards I had the pleasure of dining with additional staff, botanists studying the region, and a family of four travelling the world while volunteering. The TNC staff has little clue how to run a Nature Center, but they do have passion. I provided them with a mini-consult and was proud to put my ANCA consultation experiences to good use. Such excitement lies ahead for them as they plan the direction of this beautiful and sacred land!
In the morning, I hiked with Jimei Wang, project coordinator of TNC’s Sichuan Program and Stephanie along a small stream coming off a mountain. The trail began in an area historically used to grow medicinal plants, and made its way up a small canyon. We discussed possible program themes for educational tours, and general administrative items. I tried to relay to her that the vision will not become a reality without a strong leader – and that she must be that person.
I drank from a mountain stream for the first time in a long time. Who’d have thought it would be in China?
After lunch we went with TNC staff to visit Community 2, one of four communities in a small Chinese village near the reserve. We drove four kilometers up a road to the small farming community of 90 people that was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake that hit the region in 2008. We parked in front of the home of a 72 year old man who invited us in to get warm around some burning embers in a small bowl shaped vessel. A TNC intern translated as we learned of his life in the village.
The community of these small villages is being lost because young people move to the city seeking jobs and a more adventurous life. The village is left with a senior population with very few families. Village children attend boarding school starting in elementary school. The poverty is difficult to imagine. He spoke of wild pigs, monkeys and bears and how the government has banned the villagers from hunting the pigs that destroy much of their crops.
While we learned of village life, TNC staff investigated some recent mudslides that occurred above the village. They suspect that the mudslides are due to the excavation of 10,000-year-old underground logs being dug up by villagers to sell to the timber trade. The price paid for these ancient logs approaches that of gold. The drawback is that it loosens the hillsides and creates mudslides that destroy the fields of the village below.
We stopped at a Homestay on the way back. A Homestay is a village home that is used to house visitors to the region. We were invited inside and offered raw peanuts, wild kiwi fruit and tea. Jessie, a young American boy from Colorado, was staying at the Homestay with his older sister and parents. Jessie showed me around. The family had two pigs, chickens, beehives and fish farm for a river species that sells for $100 a pound. Unfortunately, the fish farm is not very successful. In the kitchen, behind an impressive three-wok set up, the Homestay mom prepared a dinner of dumplings, steamed bread, and parts of animals that probably should not be eaten.
The scenes I experienced at the villages were unlike anything I have ever seen. Poverty was evident but they were surviving on the land by farming terraced fields that provided them with sustenance. Corn is grown to feed pigs. Rice is grown and other vegetables are grown for daily survival. What surprised me was the way that the villagers treated the land that seemed to provide them with everything. Quaint village farms were reminiscent of littered freeways. Trash was everywhere. I wanted to grab a trash bag and clean the landscape but I knew they would take that as a sign of disrespect. Little did they know that I took their treatment of the land as a sign of disrespect.
The mist-covered mountains of Sichuan Province were one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. I did not look forward to returning to the mega city of Beijing.
The man who drove us back to the Mainyang Airport was the most aggressive driver I have ever ridden with. Taoists avoid abstractions of reality and strive to see things as they are in the given moment. In this moment I was bit nervous. After returning to Beijing, I walked for close to three hours along busy streets, by shops and high-rise neighborhoods. As I was learning to be part of the flow, I stumbled upon the outdoor recreation section of the city and went into several shops.
During my urban walking adventure I was invited into a school called Misiyu Children Logical Thinking House by a Chinese lady who turned out to be the principal. I tried to communicate with the teachers but had better luck with the students. The first thing they noticed was my blue eyes. I asked their names expecting difficult-to-pronounce Chinese names, but instead was told Mary, Jack, Lilly and other very American first names.
The principal phoned someone associated with the school and asked if I would please speak to them. The woman on the other end (who I think was the school’s English teacher) asked who I was and what I was doing in China. She relayed this information to the principal, and I was offered a job to teach English at the school!
I continued my walk past a nice park and shop after shop of street vendors selling vegetables. I stopped to observe a crowd of men huddled around a game board strewn with 3-inch diameter disks covered with Chinese symbols. The board had various lines connected to make several shapes. I was told later that they were playing Chinese chess.
After taking several wrong turns into dead ends, I found myself recognizing shops I had visited earlier in the week. I was craving a cup of coffee and went into a restaurant touting western food, coffee and wifi. Little did I know I was to become a restaurant consultant and make a lifelong friendship with the owner.
It is funny how many people wanted their picture taken with me. I enjoyed the interaction and often asked for a picture with them. This is what took place at Aidebao Western Food and Coffee. A good cup of coffee is hard to find in China so I walked in without too much anticipation. The staff sat right down at my table and began to try to have a conversation. It was difficult. Pictures were, of course, taken. The owner then introduced himself as Li Qiang. He was a young guy who really did a great job with the interior decorating. I was very comfortable and let him know I liked his place and coffee. He eventually brought out a computer and launched a program that translated typed conversations into English and Chinese. We talked late into the evening.
He told me that Americans come into his restaurant, look at the menu and leave. I looked at his food descriptions within the menu and decided he needed help. “Chopped meat in casing” did not whet my appetite and I thought that maybe the simple word “Hotdog” might serve him better. I asked if I could take a menu with me and return the following evening with suggestions. He gladly accepted and refused payment for my coffee. Thus began my restaurant consultation gig.
I woke up the next day and took a bus ride, subway and walk to meet with Stephanie and Peng Zhao, the Sichuan Program Director for The Nature Conservancy on the other side of Beijing. The mass of humanity on the subway was unreal. Dialogue with Peng was productive and the suggestion of providing internships for TNC staff in the United States was well received. The Nature Conservancy has such an amazing opportunity to affect real world change in China!
Later we were off to the Forbidden City. Its scale is hard to imagine. “Beautiful”, “opulent”, and “grandiose” do not do it justice. A meal at a Chinese Muslim restaurant ended the tourist phase of my day. It was time to get back to my new restaurant consultation job. I met with Li and discussed my suggested changes, including adding the restaurant’s history and philosophy to the menu.
The next day was spent bicycling through Beijing with Mrs. Dong, a high school master teacher and Qi, a staff member of ECCN. It was by far my favorite way to travel through the city. We stopped at shops and scenic areas as well as visiting the Guo Shoujing Memorial. Guo Shoujing was a famous Chinese scientist who studied water conservation, astronomy, surveying, calendric systems and algorithm. We visited Duck Island, had lunch, bought a teacup, and then headed to Mrs. Dong’s school, Beijing No. 5 Senior High School.
We toured an area in the school’s courtyard where the school hopes to create a nature center. A terrific opportunity! I would love to continue to help with that project. I gave my nature center presentation to the school’s Eco-club and other invited students who spoke English well. One of the students I spoke with, Millie, truly “got it”. She questioned the Chinese education system, which is based on standardized testing. She questioned the wisdom of learning everything from a book. We talked about how a person can read every book there is about fixing a motor, and take test after test, but until they actually turn a wrench with their own hands they cannot call themselves a mechanic.
Millie truly desired the hands-on experience that we, as nature centers, all provide. I wanted to take her right into the outdoors and have her experience the natural world firsthand. Instead, after my presentation, I did one of the ENC’s Traveling Naturalist programs – this was definitely our most distant school to date! We did various geology lessons and it was terrific watching the students experience a hands-on program. We talked about the layers of the Earth using M&M’s. We observed erosion by shaking rocks in a can and excavated “minerals” from a chocolate chip cookie. Many of those students have since emailed me. They recognize the issues, but do not know how to act.
The next day I was taken on a tour of Olympic Forest Park by ECCN staff and docents. I was impressed with park’s sustainable practices and native plantings. I played feather hacky sack with the person guarding the greenhouse, and talked her into letting us in. I observed Mrs. Dong give a tour, visited the underwater garden, and watched a child emulate me as I picked up litter.
That evening we traveled to the town of Shang Di to speak to community members about building their own nature center. It was wonderful to see real interest and participate in dialogue with an invested community in Beijing. My translator for the evening was a tea master. At his home after our gathering, I learned about and bought some organic tea gathered from 500-600 year old trees and an Eight-year-old named Sunny taught me to make dumplings. She was a tough critic!
On Sunday I visited Stephanie’s house for a meeting of Earth Charter Communities Network and Chinese master teachers. The dialogue centered on the triple bottom line: economic prosperity, environmental justice and social equity. I explored Olympic Park’s “Birds Nest” and “Water Cube” – site of the 2008 Olympic Games. I visited several teashops and ended my evening having dinner at Li’s restaurant. It was by far my best meal in China. I enjoy his conversation and treasure my new friend’s company.
Meals throughout my stay were adventurous for me and definitely did not consist of much “western food.” They were a communal experience and I had no idea what I was eating most of the time. I asked what I had eaten only after the meal was finished. Warm water is always served so that you knew it was safe to drink because it had been boiled.
On my last night I once again gave my nature center presentation, this time to post-graduate students and professors at Capital Normal University. I said goodbye to my good friend Li. He thanked me for my assistance with his menu and gave me a teapot and a figurine of a Chinese cabbage that turns color when placed under hot water. We drank tea and talked all night. I will miss him most of all.
By the end of my stay, I had learned to follow the Tao. I will always remember the feeling of when I became part of the natural flow. Earth Charter Communities Network is having an impact in China. I was honored to have been asked to visit and help in some small way. I truly hope I was able to assist them in finding a connection to the natural world and developing a vision for the roles of nature centers in China. Imagine the impact of 1.3 billion connected Chinese. ANCA has a tremendous opportunity to expand its outreach and has a role to play in the development of nature centers internationally. It is as natural as following the Tao.Bo Glover Executive Director Environmental Nature Center
The Environmental Nature Center is hosting the National Summit of the Association of Nature Center Administrators on Aug. 21-24, 2013. ANCA Summits bring nature and environmental learning center administrators together for information sharing, mentoring, training, and professional networking. For more information click HERE.