Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Log 568 Dec 28 2017: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 5; Two things catch my eye today: one is a small town in Ontario, the other the effort being made in China not to destroy the Earth’s resources

Today my attention has been caught by two items that recall something to me from my past. The first of these is that the coldest place in Canada today at minus 36 degrees C is a small north-western Ontario town called Armstrong, that was the first place where I ever met any indigenous people in 1968, a place in which  I learned a valuable lesson about the warped priorities of the Canadian government. 
      The second item of interest was a story about how since 2015 China has been embarked on an experimental programme of building so-called “sponge cities”  in an effort to overcome the deleterious effects caused by their having covered so much of their country with concrete, as they have built vast new cities to accommodate the millions of rural people who have flocked to become urban dwellers working in their thousands of new factories.
(Perhaps I should mention here that as I am approaching my tenth decade, my areas of interest, always rather eclectic, or scattergun, as others might say, as befits a newspaper reporter, have gradually become more and more  trivial, so that today, for example, I was also irresistibly drawn to a silly story about how Meghan Markle’s half-sister has hit back at Prince Harry’s suggestion that his new fiancee has found in his family “the family she never had,” a fate, one might remark in passing, that might casually be said to be worse than death. The sister called the new pseudo-princess “a shallow social climber”, who, since she made it in Hollywood has been just “too busy” for her real, supportive family.)
Well, let’s start with Armstrong, Ontario. The lesson I learned in this small village, which in 1968 was accessible only by rail, was that automatic, built-in racism informed much of the federal government’s attitude to “the Indian” populations of whose interest the Canadian constitution demanded that the federal government act as trustee.
There were two elements of federal responsibility in this small village; at one end of the village was an installation charged with maintaining one of the mid-Canada corridor posts designed to give us adequate warning of any attack that might be launched by the “Soviet menace.”  Naturally, these fellows had the best of facilities: the best food money could buy, and plenty of it, comfortable housing, good schooling for their children, library and gym facilities for their recreation, and so on.
At the other end of town, where  the needs were so much more desperate,  lived an impoverished group of Ojibwa who had lived until 1942 in a small reserve along the north-western shore of Lake Nipigon.
 When high water levels began eroding the shoreline and flooding their buildings and burial grounds they quit their reserve and began to settle along the CNR railway line. The largest  number of them settled in Armstrong. So since 1942, as an off-reserve population, these people had more or less fallen out of the ken of the government’s Indian Affairs Department, and I found them living in the most appalling tumbledown shacks, crowded up to 28 or 30 a shack, their lives dominated by alcohol and poverty. As I have recently recorded in my post 563, I travelled with a local chief, Willie John, from the south shore of Lake Nipigon,  who did his best to help them in their desperate situation.  But the level of neglect was indicated by the story of one woman who told Willie that her food vouchers were  paid by the government not to her personally, but directly to the local grocery store, the act more of a colonial master than of a responsible government fulfilling its trusteeship duty.  When, returning from this trip, I went into the office of the department for the region and asked for information about these people, I was refused point blank, as if their affairs were of no interest to anyone except, minimally, to the department.
The second thing that caught my attention today was this idea that China, which is usually seen in the west as a monolithic nation devoted only to ideology and to making money, also has a highly developed sense of the need for human beings to cut our cloth to what is possible: in other words, to reduce our impact on the Earth at least to the point that we do not threaten to destroy  the very existence of life.
I was not surprised to read of how they are trying to create cities that will not be covered by the concrete that expels all water falling on it and creates disasters. I recall the three months I spent in China as part of a National Film Board crew assigned to make some movies about  China. The strongest impression I came away with was of the meticulous use they made in the commune in which we filmed, of every piece of materiel.  Most impressive to me was that none of this information was forced on to us by our hosts: rather, we discovered it by asking endless questions whenever we saw something that caught our interest as our bus drove around the commune from one  filming location to another. For example, when we saw a house under construction and asked if we might stop and look, we discovered how, in this economically poor village, people wee helping their neighbours to build a house for  a newly married son.  Everything except the glass for the windows was made in the commune. The bricks they were using were made by their own village brick woks, and when we came to examine how these were made we uncovered an amazing system designed to use as little land as possible, but within that parameter to make use of all available materials. For example, the topsoil, to a depth usually of a human person, had been removed to reveal a thick  layer of clay that could be made into bricks.  Once this layer had been removed, the top soil was replaced, and the field replanted to provide essential food crops, such as wheat, rice or, perhaps, herbs  to be used in Chinese medicine.
This was customary in almost every inquiry we made along these lines.  When we were told the apple trees were pruned, we also discovered that the prunings had been used to make the baskets in which the apples were sold to the nearby town.  The used products depot collected every broken bottle, every smashed door frame, even, so help  me God, every clipping from the barber’s shop, all of which were sold on to someone who could make use of them.
Everyone in the commune had a job and many of those employed were in small-sized industries that arose from sheer ingenuity. One enterprise, for example, was based on small pieces of scrap metal that had been thrown away by a factory in a nearby town. Out of these small pieces of scrap, the commune had fashioned a metal stamp that cut out even smaller pieces of metal they could sell to a nearby town for use in the manufacture of a transformer.
Strong winds would occasionally get up and blow off branches from the newly-planted trees that lined every road in the commune.  These fallen branches did not lie on the ground for more than a few minutes before a horde of peasants would emerge to grab them up and take them back to their houses to be put to whatever use they could find for them.
When we discovered that an elderly man was employed to circulate around the commune’s roads on his bicycle to pick up the droppings of the horses, we asked if we could film him at work.  It caused a lot of amusement when the village man making our arrangements, Mr. Yuan, an amiable sort, pleaded that he could scarcely expect to command that the horses would drop their loads just because we had set up our camera. But eventually he suggested we set up our cameras on a certain road a few minutes after lunch, and see what kind of luck we would have.  No sooner had the horses trotted towards us than they obligingly dropped their loads in the road,  whereupon our old man, dressed in his immaculately pressed best shirt, swept around the corner on his bicycle, jumped off, shovelled up the manure into his basket and took off, but the real surprise occurred when we followed him home, where he had erected a pit in his backyard for the manure that eventually emitted a gas he had harnessed to give his home a small electric light, and to boil his kettle. The old man told us he had been given this job by his comrades, and he was quite content to be able to make this contribution to the common good. Talk about using resources carefully:  this Chinese Communist society practised the art without even regarding it as something exceptional.
Of course there were some irritating features of working with these Communist cadres: for example, just as we would be ready to shoot a peasant working in his old hat, a cadre would come along, snatch his hat off his head and replace it with a new one.  But I do not remember these irritations with the same intensity as I remember the good humour of those we worked with, a good humour that became even more memorable five years later when I returned to China to research a film about child services that we were making for UNESCO.  In our travels across the land we were handed on from one organization of women to the next, mostly middle-aged women, who were responsible for these services, and I found them full of humour, very amusing, endlessly lively, and extremely interesting to work with.
I finished with a conviction there was a lot to be said, especially in countries which lack basic resources,  for a rigorous system of work discipline, which they certainly had, although I was always aware that underlying it lay a heavy hand of authority that did not brook any argument.
Nevertheless, my conclusion from having been able to ask them unremitting questions about their operations every day for three months, was that, although they were not accustomed to being asked such questions, they made every effort to answer them all.
To the best of my memory, only one question went unanswered: it was this: You have sunk 103 wells in this small patch of a few hundred acres of land, and similar communes have been doing the same thing all over the North China Plain.  What do you think has been the effect on the groundwater.
The only answer I ever got was: that is a matter for the department concerned.
In other words, they didn’t know. And it is no accident that this has become one of China’s major problems in the modern era, nearly 40 years on.

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