Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mushrooms, Squash, and Snow

I’m back in China again! This week, I’m in Lingqiu, where we’re installing 200 drip irrigation systems in passive solar greenhouses. These are the same greenhouses we visited in the summer, when heavy rains were flooding farms and tearing plastic greenhouse covers—the same greenhouses we saw again in fall, when the mornings were cool and crisp, and farmers were harvesting fields of millet and corn. Now it’s midwinter, and the landscape is bleak, dotted with patches of ice and snow encrusted with coal ash. It’s been weeks since the snow fell, but nothing melts quickly: even on bright sunny days, the temperature is well below freezing.

What a wonder, then, to duck into a tiny brick passageway, pass through insulated curtains, and come out inside one of these greenhouses. The ground is blanketed in green crops, the air is warm and humid, and in most greenhouses, little pots of houseplants and flowers adorn the entryway. One greenhouse has a spreading grapevine trellised up to the roof; it’s dormant right now, but its vines spread wide, describing the shady canopy it will make in summer. Another is filled with rows and rows of delicate summer squash plants: these heat lovers blacken and die at the first touch of frost, but inside the greenhouses, they are blooming and fruiting and stretching towards the sun. Veggies aren’t the only crop enjoying the warmth: another grower has filled his greenhouse with rows and rows of oyster mushroom bags. Each day, he carefully harvests the delicate mushrooms, packing them into Styrofoam coolers so that they won’t freeze during the trip to market.

We’ll be here another week, finishing installations right up until Chinese New Year on the 14th. Already, people have started returning to the countryside to spend the holidays with their families: college students are on vacation, and most workers get at least a week off. Soon everyone will be busy preparing extravagant meals for the holiday, and what a joy it is to have fresh and local ingredients for those dishes—fragrant mushrooms, crisp celeries, deep green spinach, and sweet, bright carrots. Happy New Year, everyone!

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