We just returned from our mid-semester field trip to Qinghai Province. The size of Qinghai Province is nearly the size of four Taiwans combined. I have done fieldwork there for many years. Bus rides are long from one end of the Province to the other, especially riding from the north to the south. After 18 hours of slow ride sometimes I found myself still on the bus. The landscapes are expansive with both nomadic and farming communities. People are scarcely populated outside towns and cities. The appearance of the earth is most definitely overwhelming to first timers to Qinghai. For this field trip we did not take long bus rides as I did while I was doing my ethnographic work on pilgrimage and sacred sites a few years ago. Instead we went to places where both Chinese and Tibetan languages are spoken as our students are taking both language courses.
This semester the theme of our assignments is the same – landscape studies. Each student chose his or her own topic, such as built-environment and connecting points of natural elements and human dwelling. Landscape study is an interdisciplinary work by scholars and students from different disciplines of the social sciences and humanities. Among them geography certainly takes the lead; however, anthropologists and religionists also participate in it. Our course materials give an emphasis to the phenomenological studies of landscape; so our reading materials include writings by Edward Casey and Christopher Tilley. What I like about the phenomenological approach is that the earth is not the fixed, physical reference of our fundamental, biological existence; instead there’s intersubjective exchange between different life forms and the earth. And the motion of the land and the motion of human body and subjectivity are intimately connected. They may very much move together or one directs the other. While our students were doing their own projects, I also took time to make a project of my own. My short film is called “The Sentience of the Earth.” I explore the motions of the earth with low, wide angles highlighting the significance of the land while showing enough life forms on it, i.e. grazing sheep, yaks, and flowing creeks. Sound is essential in narrating this “earth story,” wind rubbing large boulders, a nursing calf, streams running under ice, footsteps of humans, ploughs cutting into the earth. “Sentience” here refers to anything with consciousness. This short film takes a bold step to assume dirt, rocks, and waters are sentient as a continuation of an ancient Buddhist philosophical debate whether or not grass or a rock is sentient.
Our students are wonderful as always. They are observant, critical, and reflective. We visited meditation cave sites, hiking up to a few local sacred mountains, stayed with host families, and worked with their children. Besides digital tools, i.e. cameras and HDV, some of us used drawing techniques to record the structures of built-places and humanly-altered cave sites.
Community volunteering was another important activity we had. Our program sponsored a local school to win a CIEE Ping Grant for building a solar-powered house for children to read and receive environmental education.