THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 1
In the Dark Sky
Echoes the Crane’s Call of Sorrow
Stranger, since you have come all this way, please stay.
When your trees take root and your plants grow green,
You may return, if so desires your heart.
(Folksong from southern Viet Nam)
As a member of the Mekong River Commission, Ho had plenty of opportunities to contemplate how mighty the river was, and how fragile it could also be. Born and raised in the Mekong delta in the southernmost region of Viet Nam, Ho was quite intimate with the river. As a child, during both dry and flood seasons, he felt close only to the portion of the river running through his village, known as Song Tien. But as he grew older, his attachment extended toward the whole length of the Mekong River, its regular flow pattern as familiar to him as the rhythm of his own heartbeat. The once-thought untamable river had for thousands of years been the lifeline for the inhabitants of the Delta. Even so, even as late as a hundred years ago, its origin was not known.
That mighty blue river is like a dragon, Ho thought, its head hidden among layers of cloud massing over a sacred mountain in the Tibetan plateau; its sinuous body moving to different moods, now whishing foam spewing through highlands and wild jungles, now flowing gently over flat plains; its nine tails wriggling without pause across the delta toward the shore of the South China Sea. In fact, the portion of the river that runs through the Mekong delta in Viet Nam divides itself into many branches, which captured the imagination of the Vietnamese as nine little dragons, and thus the mighty river is known to them as the River of Nine Dragons (Cuu Long). During the flood season around September, Ho reflected, the river turns into an immense sea, red with alluvial sediments, overflowing its banks and submerging rice fields; during this time the roofs of houses appear like conical hats placed face down on the surface of the water. When the dry season comes in April, the river retains substantial dimensions, spreading out its dark brown water two-to-three miles wide. Along its banks lies the lonely landscape, villages few and far between.
Further upstream to the north, not far from Khemerat waterfalls, Ho could not help but be surprised to see, even after a few months of the rainy season, that some portions of the river still showed a very low water level and were seemingly about to dry up, giving the impression one could wade across. He realized only too well that, if the Delta had not yet suffered drought, and if, in the lower reaches of the river where his village was located, the earth and the people had not experienced a case of angina resulting from lack of water as nourishing life-blood, it was thanks to the tributaries which acted like collaterals.
In Ho's mind, the Mekong River now took on anatomical patterns, and even more so a mathematical model filled with numbers: its flow falling from 40,000 cubic meters per second during the flood season down to 2,000 cubic meters in the dry season -- 20 times lower. The riverbed does not slope sufficiently for ready flow, but instead goes off at a negative angle, rising higher as it approaches the sea. Only about 10,000 years ago did the wild Mekong River begin to build up the delta from the bottom of the sea by depositing layers of sediment it had carried along downstream -- sedimentary layers containing pyrite formed by combination of the iron in the river deposits and the sulfur in seawater. With a passage of time measured in millennia, gradually the land mass rose above sea level to be subsequently overlaid with thick, multiple layers of silt deposited by annual floodwaters, resulting in vast and fertile fields for rice cultivation.
Pyrite in the newly built-up land was harmless so long as it remained buried deep in the soil or was submerged in water. Only when oxidized by exposure to air did it turn to acid sulfate, and then endosmotically spread laterally over the earth's surface, creating havoc for farmers in the southern portion of the delta plain. Later, Ho came to understand that the pedogenetic properties of the delta, its soil formation and development, greatly varied from location to location within short distances. The soil at one spot might be of strong acidity, while a hundred meters away it was not at all acidic -- depending on conditions like the water level, land elevation, and the type of vegetation growing upon it. Indeed, Ho learned much from the rich experience local farmers shared with him. Those farmers knew better than anyone else the region in which they lived, knew it as they knew the lines on the palms of their own hands. As a result, they had discovered for themselves ways of cultivating their crops in conditions thought to be beyond any restorative manipulation. They were aware that acid sulfate soils were like a tiger in its lair, and that one should never arouse a sleeping tiger.
No mere intellectual sitting in his ivory tower, Ho had painstakingly done field research and authored the voluminous dissertation entitled "The Ecosystem of the Lower Mekong Basin". However, even after having conducted such field studies, he had still been taught lessons by those who make their livings from the river. Starting from a conventional way of thinking, he reasoned that in order to increase rice production, one must prevent intrusion of saline water during the dry season, and then during the flood season store floodwaters in huge reservoirs, which can be released during the dry season to flush out the salt and remove acid sulfate from the soil, as well as to irrigate paddy fields. However, instead of preventing saline intrusion, farmers in the southern region of the Delta diverted saltwater coming in from the South China Sea to their fields during the dry season. Initially everyone thought such a maneuver crazy. But in actuality the farmers had applied the technique of "submerging in water" with marvelous results: a decrease in soil acidification was observed, and during the rainy season rainfall washed away salinity from the soil and allowed crops to flourish, to say nothing of the additional benefit of having fish and shrimp brought into fields and canals by the sea water. It was a farmer himself who had thought up a rice-shrimp culture in harmony with the complex ecosystem of the Delta. It was not "teacher Ho", but that very innovative farmer who many times appeared on a television channel where he guided his people on how to make the most of the saline water by practicing an integrated rotation system of rice farming and shrimp raising. The event which saw farmers destroy the saline water-intrusion floodgate in West Go Cong provided Ho and a group of hydraulic engineers sent by the central government with a profound lesson, a lesson to remember for a lifetime.
Ho's thoughts turned to the natural disaster of flooding that occurred every year, fully aware that everyone felt insecure when dealing with the Mekong River, an untamable dragon. Drawing from the thousand-year-old lesson in coping with the temper of the Red River in North Viet Nam, people of the southern plain wanted to mitigate this mighty southern river with a solid system of dams and dikes.
Son Tinh, the Mountain Deity, represents the power of dikes, while Thuy Tinh, the Water Deity, symbolizes the destructive force of floods. The myth goes that both deities wanted to possess the pretty princess that was the Red River Delta. When the water was raised by Thuy Tinh, Son Tinh elevated his mountain ever higher to stay dry and safe, and in such a manner the final victory was won by Son Tinh. That story stands for the triumph of man's power invested in a system of dikes on the banks of the Red River.
In the last analysis, it would appear that farmers in the Mekong delta were more inclined toward a Taoist perspective. They chose the challenge of living with the floods instead of suppressing them. They did not build highly-raised dikes, but dug deep canals to drain floodwaters into the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, at the same time making use of the canals for better transportation, following the centuries-old tradition inherited from the Oc Eo civilization of the Phu Nam kingdom -- even though the kingdom had been demolished by a huge flood that had flowed over the delta region around the middle of the 6th century.
The motor boat glided swiftly in the middle of a new canal -- new in a manner of speaking, for in fact it had been dug more than five years ago. By the end of this century, additional canals thousands of kilometers long were expected to be dredged. What struck the eye was the brownish yellow color of metallic rust spreading over the whole landscape, from roots of Melaleuca cajiputi trees to hulls of boats, from wharfs to fishnets, and even human legs -- in short, whatever touched the water of the canals. One was made clearly aware of the claws of the tiger that had been aroused from sleep in his lair. Except for the fish and shrimp brought in by floodwaters during the rainy season, no organisms were able to survive in water contaminated with acid sulfate, notwithstanding scattered clumps of acid-tolerant sedge. The farmers needed only to identify existing grass species to know which soil areas could be used for crop cultivation. At this point in time, they were patiently waiting for a heavy rainfall and a big flood to wash away acid sulfate from the soil, even as they never stopped exploiting and burning forests, digging more canals and building dikes on their banks. Marshy wetlands, like those of Tam Nong, grew narrower and narrower, their total acreage becoming greatly reduced, while the future of bird reserves could only be said to be up in the air. One wondered, Ho thought to himself, if Dong Thap Province wouldn't eventually end up as little more than fields of acid sulfate soils compounded by intrusion of saline water, having not much to show aside from a few shrimp ponds, several scattered small fields of green young rice plants, and houses with red-tiled roofs. And perhaps there would be not a single crane flying along the banks of the mighty river gradually being drained dry.
Thuan urged the group to return to the boat if they wanted to reach Tam Nong district before dark. Besides Ho and Thuan, the other members of the traveling group were Dien and Be Tu. Be Tu had gone overseas to study when she was young. She had taught English to Thuan and helped him look for an opportunity to pursue higher education abroad. Dien was her elder brother. The boat accelerated, leaving in its wake multi-colored waves reflecting slanted rays of the sun poking through red evening clouds. Ho made this trip upon a courtesy invitation by Muoi Nhe, the Tam Nong District committee secretary, who was Thuan's father. Having just graduated from the University of Can Tho, Thuan was now in charge of surveying the hydrology of the Tam Nong area. Quite different from his father, Thuan was tall and robust in contrast to the short and skinny Muoi Nhe. As much as Muoi Nhe was a practical man, Thuan was full of dreams, passionately committed to the task of protecting the natural environment and bird sanctuaries. It might be said that Thuan was a photo negative of his communist father, Muoi Nhe. Thuan felt removed from his father's past, saw no personal connection with the recent American-Vietnam War, and, in fact, did not wish to hear anyone talk about it. Though a good student, he did not earn an A for the course on Marxist-Leninist politics. Coming from a revolutionary family did not constitute something for him to be proud of. Furthermore, Thuan had never shown any sign of striving to join the Communist Youth League, let alone given thought to qualifying himself for entry into the Party. Indeed, in so far as the red criterion was concerned, it might be said that Thuan was an embarrassing disappointment to Muoi Nhe.
Through the support of Be Tu, his English teacher, Thuan had been awarded a scholarship by the International Crane Foundation (ICF) for studies either in Europe or the U.S. Without hesitation he had immediately decided on the second choice, since in his opinion everything in America was the best in the world. Though not overt, it was a popular phenomenon spreading from the South up to the North, especially in the latter, that every family had an American Dream, defined by the hope of sending one of their children to the U.S. by some means.
"But I still have to pass the English examination first of all," Thuan said. "How terribly difficult it is! A score of 550 or more is required, but I have only made 540, then 530. I've simply not been able to move up a notch."
Be Tu consoled him. "That's pretty good, you must admit. I know of some native-English-speaking Americans who failed their English tests."
"Perhaps, but to change the subject, I would like to ask you, teacher, about the present conditions of different crane species in the U.S."
"In the whole of the Western Hemisphere, only in North America does there remain the two species of crane, Whooping and Sandhill Cranes. The first is an endangered species and therefore great efforts are being made to conserve them; the second fares better. At first glance, cranes look like herons, but this is not so. Cranes belong to the genus Grudae. They fly with their necks stretched forward, the wings flapping downward more slowly than swinging upward. The echo of their call, Kar-r-r-r-o-o-o can be heard from afar. They are not much different from the Eastern Sarus Crane subspecies found in Viet Nam. Generally speaking, cranes prefer living in the open. They build their nests on the ground, and produce only two eggs a season. They like to feed on shrimps, crabs, shellfish and also on vegetation growing on wetlands and mudflats in Florida and California, which are similar to the floodplain marsh in Tam Nong District."
Rather intelligent and studious, Thuan always carried with him a cassette tape recorder, not only to record bird calls, but also to practice spoken English. Be Tu was very fond of Thuan for his special skills in imitating the calls of different species of birds, including that of cranes.
As the boat moved along, Thuan confided, "I really do want to work long-term here, but the only problem is that my father and I clash all the time, and to the extent that he has wanted to kick me out of the house. But come to think about it, it's not entirely unreasonable he should do everything possible to advance the economic welfare of the district people, even at the expense of the natural environment."
Having said that, Thuan stopped short, refraining from further elaboration.
Along their way, they often saw felled Melaleuca trees piling up topsy-turvy along the banks of the canal and even on the roadsides, fresh young trees not escaping that fate.
In a sad tone Thuan said, "Since the day when the "Doi Moi" renovation movement was set in motion, more and more poor people from many provinces have flocked to this area. They are following one another's example in cutting down the native Melaleuca forests in order to procure more land for rice cultivation and additional acreage for shrimp raising, 'because both rice and shrimp make big money, and also make it fast'. If this awful trend continues, pretty soon Dong Thap Province will run out of Melaleuca trees. And once the Melaleuca forests are gone, there will no longer exist Tram Chim Tam Nong, or Tam Nong Bird Reserve."
"Thuan, isn't there a policy for preservation of the Tam Nong natural environment?" Be Tu inquired anxiously.
"Oh, but there is. The central government has issued instructions regarding the planning and preservation of the ancient village of Dong Thap Muoi. It's embarrassing to say, but an emperor's edict still yields to the village customs, as a proverbial saying goes. This means there are no clear rules and regulations. Everything remains haphazard as it used to be during the war and, in truth, all power rests in the hands of the local Party committee. And Tam Nong is a case that can be seen as dien hinh."
Not familiar with formal Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, Be Tu asked, "What do you mean by 'dien hinh'?"
"It means, 'typical, a representative model'; similar to the term 'role model' in English."
They all laughed.
Through Ho, Be Tu learned further that Muoi Nhe, Thuan's father, was a rare representation of the quintessential characteristics of those last- surviving genuine communists. Born and raised in Dong Thap Province, even before finishing elementary school Muoi Nhe had gone to a resistance area. Actively involved in the Viet Nam War and beyond doubt valiant, he was honored as a brave fighter committed to annihilating the American enemy even as his left eye was damaged by a bomb splinter during a mopping-up operation. Now in peacetime he served as Tam Nong District committee secretary. It could not be said that Muoi Nhe had no love for his home province; only that he had a very different view of it. Ecology, to Muoi Nhe, meant no more than an environment that was made comfortable, "easy to breath" for the local people. That desirable end justified all modern means applied "on a large scale" all over Tam Nong district. The Melaleuca forests were cut down not only with machetes, but also with chain saws; fishing techniques were no longer confined to fishnets, but extended to include explosives and electrocution by the use of electrodes wired to batteries; bird hunting was done not merely with traps, but also with shotguns loaded with shrapnel, and even equipped with telescopic sights. The landscape of Tam Nong, Muoi Nhe's homeland, could be said to undergo changes everyday: forests were being obliterated piece by piece; fish and shrimp -- big and small -- were being killed en masse and floated scum-like on the surface of the water; ordinary and rare birds alike were being hunted as game. In short, the way of life Muoi Nhe had brought to the local inhabitants was not only "easy to breath", but also prosperous: there was hope of getting rich fast.
Visitors were treated to a meal of copious foods and drinks, including a dish of crane cooked in Chinese medicinal herbs. This was meant to enhance longevity, because in Muoi Nhe's view of Oriental medicine, such a dish could not simply be an accompaniment to wine drinking, but was an aspect of herbal medicine. Tibetan nomads believed that on top of the sacred mountain where the Mekong River originated, there resided a deity in the form of the dragon named Zjiadujiawangzha, who protected and kept that source of water pure, and people who drank from that source would live a long life. But instead of believing in a miracle produced by the river's water, Muoi Nhe saw a miracle in this rare earthy bite of food served to these invited "ecological ambassadors". In fact, the meal prepared with the flesh of a rare game bird reminded Be Tu of an exciting period of struggle during her student days. At that time, as an active member of the World Wildlife Conservation Society, she had, together with her fellow members and friends, descended on the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to vehemently protest against the permission given a restaurant in Moscow to specialize in serving dishes prepared from the flesh of endangered animal species. It was said that diners at that restaurant had had to pay up to a thousand US dollars for a dish of such rarity, and the rarer the animal the more expensive the dish. Perhaps at that time the menu of that Moscow restaurant had not included the dish of Eastern Sarus Crane offered at this moment by Muoi Nhe. Only much later did Be Tu come to learn that there was a supply line emanating from various bird reserves which delivered all sorts of birds, including rare species, to Quan Chim Bird Restaurant in Saigon. It was a choice eating and drinking place frequented by upper class diners. In Be Tu's eyes, no matter where and when, hunting as game endangered rare animals of this planet was a barbaric crime.
Merely from implementation of a "five-year spontaneous development plan" Muoi Nhe had gained record-breaking accomplishments measured in numbers: the district population speedily doubled; the acreage of the reputedly rich Melaleuca forests in Dong Thap Province was reduced to one third; the crane population in Tram Chim sanctuary dwindled from a thousand to about 500. In the eyes of poor farmers, "comrade" Muoi Nhe had been instrumental in quickly transforming for agricultural use the submerging buffer zone around the bird sanctuary, thus making Tam Nong into a district well on its way to prosperity.
Muoi Nhe received the visitors in a newly-built district headquarters building, large and well constructed. On a wall of the reception room was a bright red flag serving as background for an altar whereupon stood a large plaster bust of Uncle Ho. A change worthy of notice was the absence of multiple slogans that previously would have been seen everywhere around the office. Muoi Nhe was a small man, his dark skin suffused with the paleness of an anemic person affected by chronic malaria, his rugged bony face gnarled and hard, accentuated by the fierceness of a huge scar at the corner of his left eye. No longer wearing a combatant's helmet and rubber sandals as in times past, Muoi Nhe was now seen in a short-sleeved white shirt and dark trousers. Around his wrist was a gold Seiko watch, a trophy of war earned for his achievements in fighting capitalism and suppressing overseas Chinese after the Liberation of the South. He carried a leather briefcase and wore leather shoes. Conspicuously displayed in a corner of the room was a 19" color TV set complete with a VCR.
"I leave whatever electronic devices in my son's care. People from the neighborhood always come and seek him out whenever they need help with anything having to do with electronic technology," Muoi Nhe said, looking at Thuan with unconcealed pride. But the proud moment passed quickly before he deprecated his son in the same breath. "That's all he's good for. As for politics, he knows zilch. He's so used to living in the city, and being familiar with nothing but books, he listens so naively to other people that he keeps babbling to me this idle talk about a living environment and a dead environment."
Without pause, Muoi Nhe proceeded with conviction. "I appreciate your having come from a long distance to see me. Before hearing what you have to say regarding protection of cranes and other birds, I must say at the outset that above all else the people of Tam Nong District must have two meals a day. Those who have come to stay here are poor landless peasants, having not a square foot of land upon which to plant a claiming stick so to speak, sweating all year round as hired hands to work for other farmers without having enough to eat. So the most urgent matter to consider is how to reclaim enough land for them to grow rice and raise shrimp. That's the view accepted by our district Party committee, which allows for lessening of the size of the Melaleuca forests and enlargement of the reclaimed buffer zone so that we have more land to distribute to the people."
Unable to hold back his pride, Muoi Nhe went on. "The total amount of land for rice-planting and shrimp-raising increases steadily, and faster every year. Taxes on agricultural products which we submit to the government exceed projected figures in comparison to other districts in Dong Thap Province. What's worth recommending is the people's voluntary cooperative spirit, which makes it unnecessary to pressure anyone; they all know the district Party committee cares for their welfare wholeheartedly."
Later on, Muoi Nhe showed his visitors a few new houses with bright red-tiled roofs not far from the district headquarters, houses marked by antennas stretching up toward the blue sky to receive television waves. They stopped by to visit a Mr. Tu Trung's family. Tu Trung was an ex-serviceman, who originally came from the hamlet of Phu Hoa, in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province. Having come to Tam Nong penniless, less than three years later he had build a life, not merely adequate, but one truly of ease. Tu Trung alone had stripped more than five hectares of Melaleuca forest to sell for tens of millions of dong. Not only did he make enough money to build a house, but he also bought more land to engage in double rice cropping which greatly increased yields and earned him profits more quickly than did cutting of the Melaleuca trees.
What had surprised Be Tu upon coming back to Viet Nam was hearing repeated everywhere the mantra: "Quickly doing business, quickly gathering profit, and quickly growing rich" -- even if you are an academic researcher. It would appear that during the war everyone was roughly reminded that they had only this one life to live and therefore no one cared to believe in the promissory Communist paradise of another lifetime. According to Muoi Nhe, Tu Trung's was considered an advanced worker family, typifying Tam Nong District during its entry into the Doi Moi period with a view to joining the whole country in progress toward modernization and industrialization.
It was Ho himself who had helped Muoi Nhe introduce HYV, the High Yield Variety of rice, into the buffer zone of Tam Nong District, with the hope that this variety would improve the lives of the local people without the necessity of further destroying the Melaleuca forests. However, all that had happened subsequently was completely beyond Ho's expectation. As planned, the Department of Hydrology at the University of Can Tho had four big flood gates built in a canal surrounding Tram Chim to maintain water equilibrium in the reserve. Ironically, local farmers made full use of them in drawing water out of the wetland reserve for irrigation of their fields during the dry season. More than that, since the water level was low, they were prompted to destroy the Melaleuca forests even faster, as they saw clearly that growing rice, especially "teacher Ho's high-yield variety", produced very good harvest. In particular, since this variety of rice was in need of a lot of water to grow, during the dry season the farmers not only drew water from Tram Chim but also built dikes to prevent water from flowing downstream, resulting in a desperate lack of water for people in the lower reaches. Absent a higher authority to coordinate or monitor his action, Muoi Nhe had succeeded in developing Tam Nong District at the expense of Tram Chim, sanctuary of a thousand cranes, while causing depletion of water for agriculture farther downriver.
Muoi Nhe continued in a confiding tone. "During the war, the people sacrificed themselves so very much. Our hope was that when our country again enjoyed peace and independence, the Party would have a chance to attend to their happiness as compensation for their losses and sufferings. Indeed, the welfare of the people is the top priority for our district committee. Even so, some comrades from the central government who came with a few blond-haired blue-eyed American men found it fit to criticize our way of operation, which they called 'haphazard', not planned, and which they said destroyed the environment. Let me ask you, what's so important about the environment that we must sacrifice the livelihood of our people for it? Would you ever accept the idea that a mere visitor can come to your house and order you where to set the altar of your ancestors and how to arrange your furniture? For ages colonialists and imperialists, like leeches, sucked dry all the natural resources of many African and Asian countries, became rich and well-fed, and now they have leisure time to entertain themselves with bonsai and birds. Returning to Viet Nam, they don't give a damn whether our people are fed or go hungry and, furthermore, they have the effrontery to teach us that we must keep green, must protect the Melaleuca forests in order to conserve cranes. That's absolutely not acceptable."
As if all the anger had accumulated and grown inside him, Muoi Nhe exploded, his voice sharp and hard. "Talking about destruction of the environment, who can match the job done by imperialist America during the last war? During that time we were not afraid of confronting any danger, but when it came to chemical warfare, we had to give up. To chase us out of the jungle, the Americans didn't hesitate to apply any evil means available: they used the most updated machinery to dig canals for draining marshy floodplains; their airplanes dropped napalm bombs and sprayed Agent Orange to burn forests and kill off all vegetation. The forests are still there after the war to be sure, but they are completely poisoned and ravaged."
Muoi Nhe kept his voice harsh. "We suffered pain and lost so many lives for the sake of the country and the people. But as peace returned, soon enough one could see that many comrades in so many echelons of the Party are no longer on their guard. The nature of imperialism remains the same, both in war and in peace. Our comrade, the astute General Secretary, has instructed us to guard against the tricky 'peaceful evolution' doctrine of the enemy, but I don't know why most people are not aware of it."
Then Muoi Nhe went on to confess his anxiety. "I wish the situation were as it was during the war, with all people being one in following the Party's directives. Now everyone seems to have the right to express his opinion, especially those who declare that they have gone abroad to study. Curiously, they have not been Party members for long, but are quickly promoted. How can they talk about efficient leadership when they are not yet 'red', only 'expert'?"
His voice then took on a low sad tone. "I am an invalid who's pretty advanced in age, and I wouldn't argue if the Party retired me, as truly I want to spend the last part of my life looking after my mother and my family, not going on like I have been forever. But then I still hear the call of the Party and Uncle Ho, and so I think I must hang on and sacrifice more for the good of the community. Internal conflict as it happens now is very hard to resolve, as you can't see where the frontline is. That's what I keep saying to others at provincial meetings and to those comrades who come for a visit from the central government."
His eyes glistening with tears, Muoi Nhe turned with reverence and longing to the bust of Ho Chi Minh on the altar. His voice was somber with regret. "Had Uncle Ho been with us still, we wouldn't have had to witness such a wavering of the leadership. Just look at my son, Thuan. He grew up not enduring a day of hardship from the war; he knows nothing besides books, but all the same he dares to give me advice."
Muoi Nhe roared like a fierce tiger, while Thuan appeared like a fawn, sitting still and holding his peace.
On their way home, Ho told the group, "It was not uninspired when a comrade from the central committee who knows Muoi Nhe very well suggested that the only way to stop him from destroying the Melaleuca forests is to rekindle his hatred by pointing out to him that one must watch over national security -- to deplete the Melaleuca forests is to destroy the resistance areas."
"Perhaps until the end of this century," Dien observed, "not only the degenerate Red Capitalists, but also the few surviving real communists like Muoi Nhe, those not well educated and fanatic, will remain the root cause of suffering inflicted not only upon humankind but also on vegetation and wildlife."
In the eyes of a scientist like Be Tu, the wetlands and Tram Chim bird sanctuary not only contribute a great deal to the beauty and richness of the natural landscape, but they also are an abundant biological treasure, a cradle for the cycle of birth and growth of many species of birds and fish and other living creatures. The reserve is a reservoir that stores water in the flood season and regulates water distribution during the dry season -- a foremost age-old factor in sustaining an ecological balance in danger of being obliterated.
Diary of a Witness. Day…Month… Be Tu found her innocence lost, her way of feeling and thinking changed, during the one time she hurriedly went to Saigon hospital to visit auntie Ba's child. In the midst of dazzling Saigon, a hell on earth still existed: in the hospital ward for children who supposedly suffered all sorts of diseases, the illness shared by all was malnutrition. Be Tu could not forget the sight of skinny pot-bellied children lying alone on creaky beds spread with thin straw mats stinking of urine, lying in rooms whose walls were full of holes, located next to a dark, dank low-ceilinged and wet WC with a toilet full of floating faeces. Not far from this ward, across a yard covered with tall green grass, was a different, newly built Pediatric Center, arrogant and sumptuous with glass doors and a shiny tiled floor, all its rooms cooled by air-conditioners. Supplied with a full range of drugs and modern equipment, the Center served children of well-to-do cadres and the minority of rich families. The fees, quoted in US dollars, were very high, but that did not prevent the Center from being filled to capacity.
When Be Tu arrived at the ward, it was too late to get the child transferred to the better ward so as to save his life. It was an untimely death for lack of medicine. She thought of the uncountable number of children who died everyday unnoticed and under such unreasonable circumstances. Separated merely by a lawn were the two worlds of light and darkness.
Day…Month… As part of her field work, Be Tu accompanied auntie Ba Xuan to become a hired hand in harvesting the He-Thu rice crop -- an early rainy season crop cultivated from May to August. The group rented a wooden barge to go from Ben Tre to Dong Thap Province. Except for auntie Ba Xuan, the rest of the group was composed of youngsters born just before or after 1975. Of the age group which made up more than half of the seventy-million total population of Viet Nam, these youths had in common poverty, little education, and lack of ambition. Be Tu was surprised and almost shocked to learn that some among them were illiterate and had early been hooked on smoking and drinking. The weather was fine with beautiful sunshine, no sign of an incoming flood. Owing to previous acquaintance, the group was welcome to lodge at Uncle Tan's house. The place was sparsely furnished, but since it was large, its floor offered enough room for them to draw sleeping circles for separate small groups. Uncle Tan was thoughtful enough to reserve for auntie Ba Xuan and Be Tu a wooden-planked bed in the left wing of the house.
There were other groups of hired reapers in the area as well. They had traveled by arrangement on bigger boats along the canal, and had disembarked wherever hired reapers were in demand. They divided themselves into small groups, set up makeshift tents with nylon sheets that were sufficient for protection against the sun but not adequate enough to shield them from rainfall. Rice collected from every member was cooked in a common big pot. Males and females walked together in groups to the river for their toilet and laundry. A hundred such groups who had come from many places then spread themselves out in rice fields still submerged in water. Because harvest had to be done before the flood, these hired hands had to work long hours from early morning until dark. No matter rain or shine, they planted their legs in the wet fields, and their arms swiftly gathered and cut rice stalks. Though it was not so bad to reap standing rice stems, more work was involved for the reapers if they happened to cut those fallen on the ground and smeared with mud, for they had to wash them in the river before spreading them out to dry. After each day of such intensive work, everyone was exhausted; no one was spared the discomfort, even the pain, when their hands and feet became wrinkled due to long exposure to cold water, or were nicked either by sickles or by sharp edges of rice stalks. The happiness they looked forward to was that after a month of enduring hardship they would earn a measure of rice sufficient to keep them from going hungry for a year. They were not different from Mexican migrant workers, second-class citizens, who during vegetable and fruit seasons, spread themselves over fields in California, under the scorching sun, to sell their labor for below-minimum wages.
Everywhere she traveled, Be Tu witnessed first hand that the majority of the people lived in abject poverty with heartrending resignation. Lavish display of wealth at some places rendered surrounding poverty even more poignant.
"National Divide – Unsustainable Development and Socio-Economic Disparities" was the title of a controversial article written by Be Tu -- a person who expressed her passionate love for nature in a moderate voice, who was inflamed by social problems but retained gentleness in her reaction. While human ecology was becoming a hot topic of debate all over the country, her words full of heartfelt feelings were a refreshing stream extolling happiness between man and nature -- an inseparable harmonious union.
That night in Tam Nong was one more long, unilluminated passage in the cycle of karmic conditionality, spreading its dark robes over the whole of Viet Nam and enveloping the continent of Asia. Mingled with the gushing flow of the Mekong in its thousand-year-old rhythm and the echo across the inky firmament of a sorrowful crane's calls, Be Tu thought she heard the cries of a child.
NGO THE VINH
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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