Sunday, February 10, 2013

My First Research Project

I did get my wish to work at the ecology department’s subalpine forest ecosystem division. Everyone in the institute including my director was surprised it was something that I wanted to do. The research site was going to be in the remote, harsh minority region, so it would be especially difficult for women. Those places had only forests and mountains. The unique environment with many rare plants and animals exists only in the subalpine habitats. Other research sites were small patches here and there surrounded by agricultural fields and much human interference.
     The first project that I worked on was to create a standard for spruce seed distribution for nurseries. Sometimes even seeds of the same species of trees could prefer different habitats. First, we needed to collect information on how the trees were doing in their natural habitat and in the existing nursery. Two other senior forest engineers worked on the project. Mr. Zhou (周) graduated from our college in the 1950’s; he was 58 years old. Liang (梁) had an associate’s degree and was about 45 years old. So altogether, three of us worked on the project. Mr. Liang was also involved with another project. So most of the time, I went with Mr. Zhou to do the work. I was an assistant engineer.
   In the summer, usually we went out for our field trips.  The area was where almost 10,000 people died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  Mr. Zhou and I took a public bus to the local places we needed to visit. From there, we went to the local forest bureau, forest station, or local county government with a paper of introduction from the provincial forestry department and then we received their full assistance and support, a place to stay, meals, transportation, and guides or helpers. They dropped whatever they were doing, since one of their duties was to assist us. It was also a very good opportunity for local leaders to get news from the outside, and to treat us with the best of their local foods and so on.
   Most of the time, the trouble was the long time it took to get there and back because of the roads. Summer was the growing season, field season, and the rainy season with landslides and falling rocks because of the fragile mountainsides. We often heard stories about people who died from road clearing and building. Every now and then, you could see a tomb or monument alongside the road in memory of the road builders. I don’t think that we ever had one trip that was on time. Usually we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with miles of cars, buses, and trucks all waiting for the road to be cleared of debris from landslides or falling rocks. Four hours waiting was a short time; one day was long. We usually prepared one meal snack, so waiting for the entire day really made everyone hungry and thirsty.
    Sometimes, I went ahead to watch the workers. They all wore helmets, but sometimes the rocks continued to fall while they worked. There was one, supposedly very experienced, man who would just stand aside and watch the rocks fall. If he whistled, every worker ran away from the site. Then they waited for awhile, and then went back to work again. It was very scary just to watch those poor men working like that. When the road was cleared, the empty bus would drive through, then all the passengers ran through and that took a lot of courage. I felt my legs shaking. The roadside workers encouraged me to run through. It was not really a big deal for me once in awhile. Everyday, they risked their lives to clear the road for us.
     Life was very hard for the people, both the Han and the Tibetan people. Han people usually built their houses along the valley near rivers or streams so they could grow crops easily and had easy access to water and transportation. However, they were often victims of landslides. Every now and then, local foresters pointed out a place on the other side of the valley. It didn’t look unusual except for a huge pile of rocks. Beneath, a family was buried alive in their house. Sometimes, even when they worked in their field or walked along, a tiny stone rolling down from high above could kill them. Every year, there were cases like these.
      When we worked in the field in western Sichuan province, there were usually at least three people plus a driver helping us. It was really easy for us. They did most of the manual labor and we needed to do the paperwork and calculations. We always met wonderful people who offered their best meals to us. They always told us how glad they were to see guests from the outside. In the wild, I didn’t encounter any wild animals, although we saw their droppings. Once we saw a giant panda wandering on the other side of the creek. It was exciting to watch!
      I volunteered once to give a seminar about sampling techniques and simple statistics for the local forest station. I was teaching all men, most of the people there were young men and most of them listened attentively and quietly. One young man, though, tried to give me a hard time by asking me tough questions, but he did not make me fail. I was prepared for their questions, and I had fun with them.

On the roadside to the Tibetan autonomous region in western Sichuan