With age, Bill has gravitated toward a quiet curmudgeon. The sapphire sky and
soothing breeze of the California coast that attract tourists of the world
often depress him. He reminds himself to be thankful but seems to have run out
of gratitude after living in the golden state for 15 years. He starts to blame
the weather, by being perfect, for calling up his personal failures and flaws
and suggesting that he might be undeserving.
Many believe that life consists of a series of happy events, or that ideally
it should. Over time, they develop abilities to ignore evidences to the
contrary so completely that they are no longer capable of appearing sad. Bill's
reality, however, seems made up more of miseries and disappointments. It is as
if there were a filter in his brain where happy moments are quickly forgotten
and almost all the things he has learned have come from painful experiences. It
might even be a deep-seated inferiority complex. In a perfect world, natural or
artificial, he just doesn't feel fit.
It was mid-autumn and again instead of travelling back to Beijing he had to settle
for WeChat calls. Aunt assured him that she was doing fine, although a second
hemorrhagic attack had led to short-term memory loss. Bill had nothing to say.
For years, he had tried to enjoin folks away from sugar and white flours. In his
mind, they were the root cause of all their problems. Everyone listened and
even agreed but no one followed through. He would have made a fool of himself
if wrong. But what if he were indeed right? It was no consolation to keep the
truth and watch loved ones perish. It felt hopeless.
A call from his graduate school buddy, Lei, stirred Bill's imagination. Growing
up in the northern Wanda Mountains, Lei told the story of his parents whom Bill
met during the couple's visit to Beijing 25 years ago. In their 80s nowadays, the
two had remained in a small town on the Chinese-Russian border. Fit as a fiddle,
they led an active life and spent a good part of their day in the hills.
The vast northeast was left behind in China's decades-long economic boom. For
the forest region, where Lei was from, the lumber industry that used to host
the largest reserve in Asia and supply the construction needs of the whole
nation evaporated after preservation policies took over in the mid-90s.
Generations of young people since had left for the south for jobs and the
local decline was painful to watch.
Of course, the weather is to blame the most. Winter lasts six months and night
life only exists for a few weeks in a year. Mother Nature here flouts capitalism.
Life in the nation's economic backwater, however, has its unique appeal. The
dwindling population are not farmers as large pieces of arable land are only
available in the plains down the Wusuli River. After lumber, their main income
comes from gathering. Nature has blessed the area with bountiful wild edibles:
fern brakes in the spring, golden oyster mushrooms and lingzhi in summer, pine
nuts, lion's mane, hazel mushrooms, and late fall oysters, and even certain
lingzhi in the long winter. Lei's cousin, WenJie, gave up her job in the city
two years ago, went home, and became an e-tailer, selling dried and preserved
wild foods from the mountains.
How nice! Bill thought. The 30-below winter alone would make him happy. The snow
would give him something to do with his sedentary body. The freezing cold would
make mere surival a triumph worthy of celebration. All beautiful in his mind.