On the He family farm there are three ancient pine trees, two within the family
compounds and one outside. Over generations, the trees have been bent into strange and
extraordinary but enchanting twists and bends, branching at odd and dramatic angles designed
and directed by human hands. In order to bring the trees to the shapes they are now, the family
lashed the trees with ropes and twisted metal wires around the trunks, tightening the restraints
until the shape is set. Now the trees are old, older than anyone in the family. They stand as
permanent effigies of the family that bound them.
Scientists say that, besides the taproot, roots grow opportunistically when the weather is
warm and the space is free. These old trees in the courtyards have root systems spreading deep
and wide; veins beneath a skin of concrete. Over the generations the trees grew bound with wire,
taking the shape defined by humans, leaving a permanent definition on the trees for their
lifetimes. But while their trunks are twisted and mangled, their roots are vast, untouched, and
unrestrained by the facsimile of the cement casing. The roots punctured those long ago.
Sitting at the table after lunch, Frog pointed out that the kitchen is older than the United
“Well, not all of it, but the beams and the frame are.” We sat silent in that distinguished
room. After a moment she said, “I don’t know if you noticed, but Grandpa walks the same paths
every day and sits in the same place every day. He must have some power in repeating that path
all the time. He knows the farm so well. Sometimes I see him sleeping in between the rows of
The Dongba conduct special ceremonies when a new home is built because it places a
human space permanently into the world, upsetting the balance between human and nature.
Generations later perhaps nature has accepted the settlement and then what exists is a testament
to the intimacy of their relationship: fertile fields and a family that remains. I am no Dongba. I
cannot say how effective the ceremonies are but I can see the depth of the bond. There, that farm
draws life from you like few places I have ever visited. It gives back food and warmth and for
me, a subtle awareness that you have stepped into a new stream of time, time that is still
insatiable but without supremacy in life. A time we can ignore and let run without chasing it
down the stream or feeling like we miss something as it drifts by. Our attention isn’t in a fleeting
moment, caught in regret; it is in the space around us, a space that has been colonized by the
roots of the family.
Roots run deep there. Deeper than any place I have ever visited or lived in or
experienced. Roots seemed to be present everywhere I went in Yunnan. That day Frog and I
talked about Grandpa I imagined him walking in invisible ruts carved into spacetime. The
alluvial farm transformed into an infinite plane of soft clay where Grandpa walked the same
paths for his lifetime, pressing and repressing footprints into the land. I imagined Grandpa
walking the same paths that his parents walked and the same paths his great grandchildren would walk. Eventually, I couldn’t separate him from the land. After so many generations how could farm and farmer be anything but one in the same? Even with smoking and drinking, Grandma said, “Grandpa has only been very sick once. He has only gone to the hospital once.” What happened to the farm when Grandpa was staying in the hospital?
Grandpa and Grandma must be able to see a remarkable amount of detail in the land
around them; the minutiae of the farm would be as familiar as fingernails. The alluvial farm
would be as clear in their memory as it is in reality; they live within both worlds simultaneously.
We all do. But Grandma and Grandpa probably do not suffer from the same fading memory that
we do since their memories are on and of the farm. Those are the roots that I’m writing about.
Roots are memory and are an entanglement of living. These roots span time by digging into
space. Grandpa and Grandma are as rooted to the land as the old pines in the courtyard. Their
walks are the blood in the veins. They are eternal caretakers of the land, which is them and their
family. Their relationships (and each one like it) are truly dense, thick and heavy. But mostly,
they are alive and alive in a way that you can point to and touch it and say, this is a life. This is
here and now and has been and I hope always will be.
On the He family farm there is an ancient pine tree growing in the middle of their
courtyard. Since a young age it has been coerced into twists and bends and branchings by metal
wires. Now, the tree is so old someone built a metal scaffold to hold its branches up. I worry that
a storm could tear it down in a night; a tree hundreds of years old gone in an evening.
I also wonder if the tree really is that old or if the growing process hides its true age. Even if it is
a young tree it is as much an artificial structure as the compound surrounding it, all planned and
planted. I asked a gardener how difficult it is to move a fully grown tree. Don’t do it unless it’s
absolutely necessary to save the tree, they said. The most difficult part would be carrying it. I
asked her how to treat the roots and whether or not they would be damaged. She said not to
worry, the taproot might be damaged when you dig it up but it will grow back and new roots will
take hold eventually, if you’re lucky. But moving the tree disconnects it from the vast mycelium
network, which takes it away from the neighboring trees. It isolates the tree in a new
environment amongst trees that share carbon, nitrogen, and water like a family shares meals.
You’ll run the risk of isolating the tree forever. You wouldn’t want that for yourself, would you?