At the foot of the walnut tree my ShuShu hugged the trunk, his chest glued to the familiar bark, with each limb wrapped around, like a cub clinging to his mother’s back while she wards off predators. In this position he shimmied slowly upward. I watched from below, gripping a large empty straw basket with my Ayi’s pink work gloves. My new hiking shoes sunk into the loose ground, which smelled of rotting matter; a cool environment kept by the walnut tree in a constant state of shaded decomposition.
Halfway up the tree ShuShu paused to rest, reclining against a web of branches which barely responded to his weight. Wedged between his ankles was the thick end of the long bamboo rod he had carried with him. High above, the tapered end swayed gently in the mid-autumn breeze. Before continuing, glanced down at me standing awkwardly. He shouted a few words, I didn’t understand, but his face and tone told me I was doing something wrong. I put down the basket and took a step back. From then on what I witnessed was a man in his element. Swift and agile, he shifted from one branch to the next. As he danced around the trunk, the bamboo rod never left his side. At times, the grip of a single arm supported the entire weight of his body; but he made it look easy, as if this iteration of the human form had been specially tuned to scale this exact walnut tree. As he climbed, the density of branches around him thinned, letting the morning sunlight through to illuminate his ascent, to that by the top, the worn beige fabric that clothed his figure stood out against an airy canopy of leaves fluttering green and yellow.
After a few moments, the first walnut fell a yard or two in front of me with a short thud. Now I understood what he had yelled down at me: where I was standing was not safe. My ShuShu had picked up the bamboo rod and was whacking nearby branches. I shuffled backwards as the walnut downpour began. Hundreds of them rained down in front of me, breaking off stray leaves and weaker branches as they fell. They met the ground in a randomly syncopated rhythm–thud, thud-thud-thud-thud, thud-thud–each making a shallow hemispherical divot in the sodden earth. My ShuShu was hidden, but his bamboo rod kept appearing like a branch with a mind of its own, battering the walnut stems until they relented their fruit. After about a minute, the downpour stopped. I poked my head beneath the tree to see ShuShu standing on the highest branch, several stories above, admiring the landscape on this sunny morning.
Staring up at him, I no longer felt like a brief visitor in a rural village, but instead imagined myself an accidental passenger on the rotting wooden deck of an old but sturdy ship, standing idly while men around me ran from port to starboard and back again, busily maintaining the course of some grand voyage; and the crisp autumn breeze, instead of fluttering the leaves and swaying the rod of bamboo, was stirring up waves all around, imperiling our journey, but simultaneously filling our sails with the energy they needed to tug the ship onward; and him, a man I only know as ShuShu (uncle), a veteran sailor with his dark, wrinkled face and thick mustache, perched atop the crow’s nest, surveying the ship’s future, which never ceased to be a vast expanse of ocean; and leaning against the mast beside him was not a long bamboo rod designed to separate the walnut fruits from their stubborn stems, but instead was a slender wooden telescope, tapered at the end which he would press against his eye, pointing it at the horizon year after year, hoping that land might someday appear.
To me, traveling to Northwest Yunnan to live among Tibetans for two weeks is like a voyage to an unknown land, where locals struggle to understand my broken Mandarin, and I completely fail to comprehend their rapid Tibetan. In Hongpo village, men climb walnut trees by day and smoke cigarettes by night, and women construct ingenious irrigation systems in the morning–dragging a hoe through the soil to funnel water from a nearby stream so that it floods each section of their corn plot equally–pick mushrooms in the mountains in the afternoon, and milk cows in the evening. My host parents wake up to the sounds of chickens and pigs at sunrise. When night falls, they go to bed in a crudely built room at the rear of their second floor. They live by the rise and set of the sun and the slow turn of the seasons. I sleep on a mattress on the floor of a small, empty room separated from the starry night sky by only a thin wooden ceiling, like the hull of a ship.
Still in my first month in China, I am eager to be amazed by all I encounter, and to fit every new experience into some greater story of discovery. I am intoxicated by the newness of travel, and quick to forget those around me are real people, living real lives–lives that don’t seem all that extraordinary to them.
My ShuShu, pausing at the top of the walnut tree, does not fell that his ascent was in anyway heroic. And while he is the protagonist of some tale of the high seas in the imagination of the American exchange student who follows him around all afternoon, to himself he is a farmer who grew up in a nearby valley, owns five chickens, three pigs, a cow, and a dog, and collects walnuts to dry and then sell at market. He has a twenty-three year old son, whose Carmelo Anthony poster still hangs in an empty room in his house, and a wife, who is his daily companion and coworker. On his altar is a bust of Chairman Mao, surrounded by a modest offering of fruit. In his living room is a brand new flat screen, in front of which he leans back every night with his wife to watch a television drama about the Japanese invasion.
As he looks out across the landscape, he does not see an ocean of possibility, he sees the Himalayan foothills, blanketed by a dark green forest, from which he has made his living for so many years. He does not feel the crisp breeze on his wrinkled face as the power that will propel him to new lands. To him, it is a reminded that summer has turned to fall, and soon will come the harvest, when the thousands of corn stalks he sees below him will be relieved the weight of their ears, and his wife will relax, the daily grind of the past few months having paid off.
After a few moments rest, my ShuShu straightens his cap, grabs the bottom of his bamboo rod, and begins to calmly lower himself down the tree. When he reaches the ground, together, we fill the straw basket with the walnut fruits strewn across the ground.