The Naxi and the Garden City Lands

Thanks to the efforts of Ying Wang of the Cinevolution Media Arts Society, I had the good fortune today to participate in a gathering with Vancouver documentary maker Jay Samwald at the Richmond Cultural Centre. He interactively treated the rapt group to behind-the-scenes stories—illustrated by film clips—about the in-progress making of Tears of the Gods. It is about the threatened language, culture, and environment of the Naxi people of LiJiang in southwest China.

Some things Jay said reminded me of the extensive writing about dying languages and language diversity by renowned linguist David Crystal, who combines incredible knowledge with the ability to express it clearly enough for ordinary educated people. I decided to look through David Crystal’s writing to come up with something that would help me to better grasp the linguistic aspect of Jay’s message. Back at home, I soon found a suitable passage, and it got me thinking about parallels between a threatened language and the threatened Garden City Lands.

This David Crystal passage is from an article titled “Vanishing Languages“:

To lose a language is to lose a unique insight into the human condition. Each language presents a view of the world that is shared by no other. Each has its own figures of speech, its own narrative style, its own proverbs, its own oral or written literature. And there is no reason to believe that the differing accounts of the human condition presented by the peoples of, say, Irian Java will be any less insightful than those presented by writers in English, French, Russian and Sanskrit. Moreover, the loss of a language means the loss of inherited knowledge that extends over hundreds or thousands of years.

Here’s my first try at expressing the parallel between a threatened language and the Garden City Lands:

To lose the Garden City Lands would be to lose a unique insight into the ecology and history of our island. The peat beneath the surface is sphagnum moss, non-living but preserved by the acidic conditions for hundreds and thousands of years, and the native species near and at the surface are descended from life that has been there for up to the same length of time. Where there is living sphagnum moss, it has been continuously connected to the sphagnum moss below it that is now peat. Like the last native speakers of a language, a large part of the lands is the last remnant of the Lulu Island Bog that still has a bog ecosystem that has not evolved far toward bog forest ecology, and its loss would mean the loss of their inherited knowledge.

Furthermore, there is a significant part of the lands on the west and north sides that does not need to be conserved as bog, and it can be conserved for urban agriculture for food security. That means security in the foods that the City Centre people of many cultures prefer to eat. That part of the lands will enable and foster secure diversity in culturally appropriate food just as the bog part will protect and enhance diversity in native species.

Finally, it is anticipated that there will be  paths and gathering places, and there are ways to use what is there and add fittingly to it that will enable access and interpretation while minimizing the possiblity of visitor-induced damage. That aspect will invigorate the conservation and diversity throughout the lands.

Today’s experience has given rise to a new perspective on the legacy of the lands: Looking at a thrivingly conserved Garden City Lands, I envision a community that is more—not less—fluent in the way the lands speak to us.


  1. 1
    Veronika Dikoun Says:

    Thank you for your insights. I think the analogy you offer is completely sound. Just as every language is an answer to the problem of how to communicate, so every unique ecosystem is an answer to the problem of how to live. More than ever, we need a diversity of solutions to the problems of life. The bog is far older than we are – we could learn a lot from it!

  2. 2
    kewljim Says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking insight, Veronika.

    I’d also like to share a comment that Jay Samwald sent by email:
    “Thank you for your kind remarks. Your thoughtful support reminds me of the imperative nature of this project, and the ramifications of the themes that I am exploring.”

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