Writer finds she's a natural in the wilderness

Updated: 2014-07-23 07:24

By Xing Yi (China Daily)

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How to See Deer. This is the title of Zhou Wei's book. But she doesn't provide any clues on how to spot the animal. What her newly published book does do is remind city dwellers of the beauty of nature.

Once a minor genre in China, nature writing is gaining popularity here. The public has gained awareness of such works through Cheng Hong, a renowned scholar on American nature writing and the wife of Premier Li Keqiang.

Different from other nature writings, which usually depict the wilderness of one place, such as The Forest Unseen and One Square Inch of Silence (both were translated into Chinese) that are part of the same book series published by the Commercial Press earlier this year, Zhou's book has a strong consciousness of "places".

Visiting a local farm, hiking with a birdwatching group and studying plants in the backyard are just some of the 50 stories Zhou recounts in her book, which details her encounters with nature during her time living in Mount Vernon (Washington State), Beijing and Reno (Nevada) in the past decade.

Zhou picked the title of the book from American poet Philip Booth's poem of the same name.

"The word 'deer' should not be taken too literally, as it symbolizes all things beautiful and elusive in nature, or an epiphanic moment in nature, a sudden realization of truth and beauty," Zhou says.

But not every encounter is happy.

On a foggy night on Whidbey Island in Washington State in 2004, Zhou and her friends were driving and chatting through a densely wooded area. Suddenly, a frightened deer jumped on the road and was hit by the car.

"That's when I learned the word roadkill in sorrow."

Zhou was in a faculty exchange program and taught Chinese at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington State. It was during that year that she started writing about nature.

She set up her first blog to record her experiences during her yearlong stay in the US, including her encounters with nature. She wrote about learning the name of new trees and flowers, spotting a trumpeter swan, and observing a cottontail rabbit in her backyard.

"Almost every day there were some exciting encounters with nature," Zhou recalls.

Zhou kept updating her new discoveries in nature after she returned to Beijing and taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

In Zhou's works, one will find traces of the tradition of North America nature writing: She admires Aldo Leopold's simplicity and subtleness in A Sand County Almanac and Henry David Thoreau's classic Walden has had a very strong influence on her.

"Personally, I find the tradition of nature writing in Chinese literature has always been something of a leisure literature - it's more of a private taste, a connoisseur's hobby, lacking a bigger vision or environmental consciousness," she says.

"Modern nature writers in China do not have their own tradition to rely on, and they have to turn to other traditions, such as nature writing in North America."

When Zhou became a visiting scholar at University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, she visited Walden Pond like a pilgrim, and she also concluded her book with an independent chapter dedicated to "Thoreau and his Walden Pond".

As a lover of nature, however, Zhou doesn't deny city life, and she thinks cities shouldn't be seen as opposite to nature.

"I still remember when I was traveling in Hong Kong. I found a nice, quiet urban park amid the busiest streets and took a walk there. It was a very refreshing walk."

In Zhou's opinion, cities can be beautiful and inspiring, as long as people take heed of urban planning and population control, and take the habitat of wild animals into account during the process of urbanization.

"Human beings won't go anywhere if they don't know when to stop and leave the wild creatures alone. We have encroached on wildlife habitats too far," she says.


(China Daily 07/23/2014 page19)