The Flying Desert

According to Reuters, a village in China is about to be swallowed by an approaching mountain of sand. Decades of over-intensive monoculture and poor water management have been causing alarming levels of desertification in northern and western China, and now the sand-chickens are coming home to roost. Beijing has suffered from a dozen sandstorms this year -- sandstorms! -- but Longbaoshan village is being approached by a more menacingly hyperbolic symbol of Nature's wrath, a giant sand dune named the "Flying Desert," 165 feet high and six miles long, marching toward the village at roughly thirty feet a year.

The Flying Desert has turned into a tourist attraction, and as much as there is to say about a world in which such things take place, I don't think that I need to be the one to say them. I've forever forfeited the right to speak seriously about China's ecology (see last week's note about sparrows for details), and moreover, the comments sort of say themselves. There's your predictable half-joke about the inadequacy of the Great Wall, some derivative DeLillo-esque discussion of the conversion of absolutely anything into a tourist attraction, some snide comments about the fact that it's just a big pile of sand, some insightful discussion about the ability and inability of the Chinese state to deal with environmental issues, and some musing on the psychological implications (most likely Jungian, I'd venture) of living under or thinking too closely about a giant sand dune. I don't have the energy to expand on these points -- it's like one of those connect-the-dots where it's strikingly obvious halfway through that the thing's a giraffe, but one still needs to go through the motions of filling in the legs and tail.

What gets me here is the way in which Longbaoshan's plight is, quite literally, like something out of a book. That book, in this case, is Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes, in which a teacher on a holiday day-trip stumbles into a village surrounded by encroaching sand dunes. The locals imprison him in a pit at the foot of one of the dunes, where he is forced to dig out the ever-piling sand in exchange for his food. Abe is one of those authors it's hard to tell with, but the story reads basically as allegory. Somewhat obscure and surreal allegory, sure, but allegory nonetheless -- the world of the dunes is the kind of reality you get to by jumping off a bridge and meeting the troll underneath. Whereas, in today's entirely real and everyday China, Longbaoshan and other communities at the edge of the encroaching desert are being fed by the government in exhange for digging China out of the sands -- the locals are to be fed with grain shipped in from other parts of China in exchange for foregoing food agriculture and instead engaging in reforestation and the planting of soil-fixing crops.

The other literary bell that Longbaoshan's plight rings is that of W.H. Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening.

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Every day, it seems, the newspaper furnishes events that previously had belonged exclusively to the realm of the fantastic. Poetry becomes reality, and vice-versa.