We had reached the banks of the river. The air cooled dramatically as we walked underneath the shade of bamboo thicker than my arm. The dirt path had more people along it as cars and mopeds sped by dispersing our little group every now and then. An older man with a scale sold some green plums to a few of those in our group. He was sitting at a nearly unnoticeable intersection in the road. A small path that was overgrown with bamboo and other native plants hid what I assumed was his home. It was a small wooden home. The tile roof with the upraised corners one sees almost only in China.
There was a tea stand on the clay beach of the river. Some small children splashed around in the cool water. We stopped right near the tea stand and I almost stepped into part of the constructed wetlands. They seemed as though a child had tried building sand castles moats to trap the little streams that flowed out of the forest and farms into the river. There were native algae, lily pads, river reed, and other plants that filtered out the runoff before it drained into the river. It was a simple and small design and possibly one of the more important ones when it came to affecting the city of Chengdu southeast of Anlong. The native water plants would remove chemicals that washed out of the farms’ showers and kitchens. Not all of this water was filtered to simply go back to the river. Much of it can be used to water crops and vegetables.
Behind the locals sitting on the beach drinking tea, there was a gray building with two concrete cylinders sticking out several inches out of the ground. One of them had a thin pipe running from it towards the building. Ming explained that this was a biogas digester where plant and animal waste fermented to create natural fertilizer and a biogas that provided a fuel for cooking. It had been a while since we were at the Zhao’s house and several students began asking where the restroom was. Ming pointed at the building and explained that it was right there. Before he let anyone use he pointed at a large sign that illustrated how to use it. The toilet was in the ground like most of those in China, except it was altered so that liquid and solid waste went into two different holes. One of the more attentive boys in the group asked a question that most of us probably were thinking.
“Why do you collect both with separate devices, the biogas container and the composting toilet?”
“You don’t want to mix animal and human feces because humans have very different bacterial cultures which interfere with the biogas fermenting process.” Ming responded. “Any more questions?” Most of the students asked to now use the restroom. Ming nodded and smiled.
For the rest of the afternoon we all swam in the river, which while gray from the soil felt clean and shockingly refreshing. The students all disrobed into their undergarments and were like children again laughing as they pushed and splashed each other. Some of the locals even joined us and sat down to converse with the group.
After we warmed up with some hot tea and dried off we walked over to see more of the wetland terraces that cleaned and filtered the water. These ones were much larger, with concrete sides that layered into a half pyramid. Each layer had different foliage and the students climbed up on them to take pictures and get a better view. Ming said this was one of the constructed wetlands used for directly watering some of the traditional vegetable farms that we were about to see.
We ambled through wood and stone supported paths surrounded by eggplants, beans, rice, and leafy vegetables. This was an example of traditional farming. Different crops attract pests that eat the plants, but other crops attract predator bugs that keep the pest population in a natural balance without pesticides. Still, all around the vegetables seemed full and healthy.
Underneath a square thatch gazebo we learned that even when artificial fertilizers and pesticides stop being used the soil and plants are still addicted to the chemicals. So over time, the farmers would slowly stop using these chemicals in planned sections of the farm, one sizeable patch at a time. In this way not all the plants and soil go into shock and over time the whole acre is weaned off this dependency and the soil becomes naturally fertile again. Just as the soil and plants take time to recover, so do some of the benefits take time to return to the farmers. I learned as surely did the high school students, that there is a loss in profit as the yields decrease in the short run because the crops were particularly vulnerable at the beginning of the transition period. So many farmers dropped out at first because they could not bring in sufficient income, but some stuck with it and soon began to receive increased revenues and crop yields over time.
Ming confided in us that he truly believed this was a sustainable model, environmentally, economically, and socially. Anlong’s attitude and dedication to the environment, if spread elsewhere in China and the world, would be one of the best steps to improve living conditions and living in the future. Parker, their group leader suddenly spoke up and asked if there was any name card that Ming could hand out. He did and most of the students seemed grateful and that they had learned something on this tour. Even more hopeful was that some, just like the girl on the bus, would begin to see how interdependent their own actions and their environment are. As we left the thatch gazebo for dinner, the sun began to set behind the trees and shadows deepened in the waters of the rice fields.