– or is it the Eyes that Look at Heaven?
Two tall peaks, each with a pool of water at the top, gave the ancients the inspiration for the name of this mountain range in Zhejiang Province near Hangzhou. Then the mystery thickens, because it is for us to find out their meaning – if heaven is looking at us, or are we looking at heaven, or is this the portal where we discover our oneness in everything?
A note on the road
The road up Tianmushan has more than 200 hairpin turns, all with mirrors installed at the bend, which is more like a tight u-turn that turns upwards than anything else. Be prepared to hang on to something as you whirl your way up. Once you are in the nature reserve, the path is also tricky. The stones are not flat, and the stairs are steep and long. Be prepared for a workout. If you do wear out, there are mountain walkers who carry bamboo chair frames, and will carry you out for a fee.
If you are deep in the mountains and there are many stairs to climb it might cost a lot, so it is better to ask about the various turns in the road. At one the people coming back up from the lower areas told us that it was very very steep and not worth going. Now – that is all in the eye of the beholder. Our group tramped through it all. On the way up from the steepest set of stairs I praised my bamboo walking stick on each step. You can buy a lovely bamboo walking stick for one rmb in the parking lot at the entrance area. I couldn’t be parted with it at the end of the day – it had become an old friend. It now sits in the dining room and I send it love and affection every time I walk by it. The red painted character on the rock is “chan” – the Chinese name for Zen (Buddhism), which originated in China.
Here we are with the King of Trees, the oldest tree in the park, now very elderly and barely alive, and my Bamboo Staff, bless its heart. The King of Trees is an ancient Cryptomeria whose bark has been removed by years of pilgrims who believe that it will cure leukemia.
Fog and Mist
A famous poet wrote “there is no way to know the mountain’s true face!” The mountains south of the Yangzi are often in the mist, floating in and out, clearing a little, then closing in. There is no way to know the true face of this mountain either, and I wondered if there would ever be a clear day when you could gaze into the eyes of heaven. This weekend we had thick mist and clouds so dense that we came out of our walk as if we had a shower in spite of the fact that it wasn’t raining. I want to see the eyes-of-heaven ponds, so I am going to have to go back. This trip was spent getting acquainted with the mountain face itself, but we must have been crawling on the chin, cheeks and nose! Next time I will climb up to see the mountain’s eyes in person.
Haven for endangered species
The Eyes of Heaven mountain range is a glorious mix of rare and unusual species all thriving together in one luxuriant span of mountainous verdant green. There are 39 “endangered and protected” animals in the range, 3 varieties of plants with the highest level of state protection, as well as 15 other varieties at the second level of protection.
For in the true nature of things,
if we rightly consider,
every green tree is far more glorious
than if it were made of gold and silver.
– Martin Luther
Ginkgo Heaven – why I whisper thanks to every ginkgo I see on the street
Tianmushan near Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, is most famous for its elegant Japanese cedars which line the paths around the nature reserve, but there are also about 250 native ginkgo trees spotted around the area. This gathering of the world’s oldest tree, dating back some 165 million years, is the oldest known natural collection in the world. If they could talk they would tell you that this has been their neighborhood for the last 70 million years, because ginkgo fossils found in the area appear to be virtually the same as the trees still living on the mountain today.
Ginkgoes need company, because their ancient form of reproduction requires a male and a female tree together in order to bear nuts. But not having a mate doesn’t stop them. If an old tree falls down, the base has buds that will grow into a tree. The buds, hidden at the tree’s base, are safe from most disasters like fire or a dinosaur stomping around in the forest, and will spring up if the conditions are right.
Ginko tree on Tianmushan
You can see the nuts hanging on the tree in the photo to the left (or maybe it is the top one depending on your browser) on the right side of the picture. They look a little like green grapes. A farmer lady showed me how to stomp on the nuts to remove the fleshy outer part, which is like poison ivy for some people, so it’s better not to touch it. You can see the white nuts on the inside – they look a little bit like pistachio nuts.
Charlotte once did a voice-over for a local temple in Beijing where there are two old ginkgos. This is the description from her script of the two trees – one male and one female. The script read:
These two gingko trees are Red Snail Temple’s second sight of splendor.
Planted during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and now reaching a height of more than 30 meters, these two gingko trees are also known as “spouse trees” for one is male and the other, female. With a cluster of different-sized branches growing around the bottom of the male gingko tree, one can almost feel that this single tree is host to an entire forest. People say that every time a new dynasty comes into being, the male gingko tree will grow another branch at the base of his trunk.
Mysteriously, these two gingko trees are not self-pollinating. Every spring, the pollen from the male tree will be carried over to the female tree by the wind.
When spring arrived in 1994, there was no wind for many days. On the day of April 25, however, the male gingko tree, branches and leaves shaking violently, suddenly gave off a thunder-like sound. Following this event, people saw a cloud of yellow pollen floating towards the female gingko tree. Having received the cloud of pollen, the branches of the female gingko tree moved as if they were dancing, creating quite the spectacle.
This single female gingko tree, which grows over ten kilometers away from Red Snail Temple, is also pollinated by the male gingko tree at Red Snail Temple. Nobody knows, though, how the male tree’s pollen travels such a long distance without fail, year after year.
Red Snail Temple’s male and female gingko trees are beautiful in all seasons, but they are most splendid during autumn. On a certain day in autumn, the green leaves and fruits on the trees turn golden yellow over-night, creating a heavenly picture.
Sounds like the Ginkgos at the Red Snail Temple have quite a love life! But what is amazing about these trees is how they survive through almost anything. There is a venerable ginkgo at a temple in Hiroshima about half a mile from the blast site of the atomic bomb that survived and is still growing at the new temple. In 1946 the temple had been completely destroyed, but the tree (and three others nearby) remained and proceeded to bud again in spite of all they had suffered.
Just so you know, the biggest collection of cultivated ginkgoes in the world is a plantation in South Carolina where there are 10 million ginkgoes grown for their leaves, which produces an extract that is used for medicine to improve blood circulation.
This is why we need ginkgos:
1. They are strong and tough and survive even where conditions are very difficult, like in cities where pollution, poor sunlight, and other abuse keep other trees from succeeding. Ginkgos almost seem to thrive on abuse, which is why so many cities plant them along the streets.
2. They are beautiful. There is something very generous about the ginkgo tree and its unusually shaped leaves. They tend to be vigorous, and give the feeling of strength. This is what the poet Li Shanji wrote about the gingko in the 1800s:
In exquisite billows,
The foliage cascades
From its shrouded source in the sky;
Green abundance veils the top-
Dwelling place of the lone crane.
Like a dancing phoenix
Its trunk soars to the clouds,
Like a coiled dragon perching on a cliff
These images reveal its hidden forces.
2. They provide first-rate medicine from their nuts and leaves. They were listed in the earliest Chinese medical herbal from 2,800 BC – yes, BC – as being helpful for blood circulation and the lungs, and there are copies of herbals from 1436 which use the seeds for skin problems, head sores, and freckles. Another Chinese medicine text from the 1500s reports the seeds as being useful in the treatment of asthma, coughs, bladder irritability, and female issues. The Japanese have used them for digestive problems. Now scientists are testing ginkgo compounds for various conditions, including pain in their legs of diabetics, symptoms of multiple sclerosis, sexual dysfunction due to anti-depressants, insulin resistance, and ringing in the ears.
That is why I am now whispering “thanks” when I pass a ginkgo along the street. What a gift to have such a tree on our planet.
Autumn in China begins around August 7 according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This is hard to understand from a Western point of view because the temperatures are still brutally hot in most places except the far north. More of a “turning point” than a change in temperature, the beginning of autumn is a marker of hope and expectation for cooler weather.
Crickets are said to reach maturity when Autumn begins. You can hear their singing in the evenings, even in the cities. You can also hear their songs in the cricket markets, where cricket aficionados gather to appreciate the songs of the singing crickets and debate the merits of the fighting varieties. Bringing a cricket into the house is a wonderful way to extend the fall season as winter approaches.
The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is a major autumn holiday in China. Families gather and spend the evening eating together, especially “mooncakes”, dried fruit and nuts wrapped in a pastry shell, often with hard boiled egg yolks in the middle to represent the beautiful autumn moon.
Red Leaves begin to appear in the mountains, and are deeply appreciated. Whole cities can turn out on autumn weekends for mountain climbing and hikes through local hills. Watch out for mountainous traffic jams! If you are from the northern part of the US or Canada, it won’t be as spectacular a show. But red leaves are exciting no matter where they are.
Fall Fruits also bring the flavor of Autumn to the table. In China the summer ends with juicy Honey Peaches, but autumn brings sweet chestnuts which you can find roasted in woks full of hot stones on street corners, huge yellow and red pomegranates, and crisp red Fuji apples with their delightful fragrance and flavor.
Sweet Osmanthus blooms in the Autumn in the south, and you can take the blossoms and put them in sugar to make a perfumed syrup to use in sweet soups during the winter months, an aromatic reminder of warmer days.
Fall is considered a melancholy time in China because the harvest is finished, the days are shorter, and many of the green trees and plants are in the dying period of their cycle. Because there are these feelings associated with Autumn, it is considered a good time to write poetry. Take a glass of wine out to share with the moon and you may get struck with writer’s muse !
And if by chance your own poem doesn’t arise, here is an Autumn poem by a Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) poet, Ma Dai.
An Autumn Cottage at Ba Shan
After the shower at Bashang,
I see an evening line of wildgeese,
The limp-hanging leaves of a foreign tree,
A lantern’s cold gleam, lonely in the night,
An empty garden, white with dew,
The ruined wall of a neighbouring monastery.
…I have taken my ease here long enough.
What am I waiting for, I wonder.
Further musings on the Fall – Autumn rhythms in China
Autumn in China begins around August 7 according to the Chinese calendar. This is hard to understand from a Western point of view because the temperatures are still brutally hot in most places except the far north at the beginning of August. I hid in the air conditioning at our house and went outside only if necessary for most of July and August. My seasonal radar noticed that “li qiu,” the beginning of autumn, had arrived and I felt my hope return. The beginning of Autumn is like the “border” of the fall season, a “turning point” rather than a change in temperature, showing that the next season is on the way.
In Chinese thinking, Autumn is the time for all things to draw inward and gather resources together. Seeds and fruits mature and fall to the ground. Instead of sap rising, like in the spring, it begins to settle down into the roots. The grass loses its water and turns light and brown. Our dogs like naps curled up in the warm spots of sun in the house.
Autumn is considered a period of decline, but like other periods or states of decline, the aging of the famous or the decline of a nation, it is often hard to discern it. If you think only in a straight line, this will be a sad thought, but if you consider the seasons in their cyclical nature, this is only decline that brings the quiet of winter, which will inevitably lead to the greening of spring and the robust summer of the next year.
According to Chinese medicine, Autumn is a good time for filling up with warmer, heavier foods. People should prepare for the winter like the squirrels do – more nuts and seeds, as well as whole grains, cooked squashes and other root vegetables, and perhaps small amounts of lean meats. Cool weather means we need to focus on giving more fuel for our “furnace”. A season for cozy comfort foods means you don’t need to feel badly for eating some carbohydrates, since you are just in harmony with the season.
I often forget to wear my socks until the really freezing cold weather of winter arrives, but my Chinese friends tell me that I should wear socks or even better, wear a pair of slippers once the weather has begun to change. When autumn really sets in and my definition of “cold weather” is met, I put my socks back on and enjoy their warmth. Sweaters too. In China, people will have socks and sweaters on long before I do. “Oh, don’t you have pains in your knees if you don’t wear slippers?” they ask me. When I tell them “no,” they marvel and tell me that Americans have strong constitutions.