I recently read about a new city near Beijing that the Chinese are creating from the ground up, with a projected population of 130 million and taking up a land mass the size of Kansas. It’s almost unimaginable: a totally artificial place with residents crammed into hundreds of equally spaced, cookie cutter high rises, rising like dominoes across the plains. According to the New York Times article, this mega-megalopolis will eventually have its own businesses to support this population but for now Jing-Jin-Ji exist mainly as a bedroom community for Beijing, which has growth restrictions.
The Chinese have created the most utilitarian of cities, a place for people to sleep when they are not working. The amenities are almost nonexistent: a few restaurants, no movie theaters and only two small parks for what is presently hundreds of thousands of people.
What struck me was a picture of a man fishing on the banks of a river that is mostly dried up, with views across the flat plains to Beijing. It’s not much but this and the two parks are the only natural areas around—natural in the sense that there are trees, grass, flowers, maybe some birds and small animals, an open sky.
I believe these bits of nature are necessary, because they are not created by the regimented laws of humans; they don’t conform to being utilitarian or the most efficient. Rivers and trees, birds have their own way of doing things and are, for the most part, outside the boundaries of human engineering. I believe we need something outside of ourselves, something natural and flowing.
Alongside the river in Jing-Jin-Ji may be the only place where one can see the open sky, see in all directions, instead of being hemmed in by skyscrapers, can view the sun rising and setting, birds escaping from the confines of gravity; at night there may be stars, a luminescent moon. It’s a reminder that we live in a larger universe; there’s worlds beyond the enclosure of this or any city.
But nature is in short supply in this urban nightmare. The Chinese officials, in their haste to build a world of busy commerce, seem to have forgotten that we need beauty in our lives—which I equate with nature—that we can’t exist only on work, food and sleep. I don’t know what happens to a population that is denied a place to lie under a tree, swim in a lake, sit along a river or stare at distant hills.
At the cabin now, summer’s lushness is becoming a memory, after a month of almost no rain. Most of the grasses are dried and brown, and the aspens are fading, the leaves crinkling up and dying, rather than transmuting into gold. The hummingbirds, those beacons of aliveness, are long gone.
Yet a beauty remains—a wildness caught by the wind through the tops of the pine trees or the now muted creeks. I breathe in the beauty, a necessity as much as the oxygen in the air. I’m not sure I could survive without it.