Thursday, 29 April 2010

The last paragraph

Yesterday I wrote the last paragraph to my book. That’s not to say that I have the thing finished yet – I still have chapter 4 to write – but I have wrapped up the ending, something that I’ve been mulling over for the last six months. The conclusion to a work of non-ficiton is rather a tricky thing to write. It is the bit of the book, where a departure from the careful curation of facts is required. You have to crank up your rhetorical game, set off a few fireworks and go out with some kind of take-home message. This might make it the least factual part of a non-fiction work. Even if the author has steered clear of the first-person, as I have done in The Way of the Panda, the ending seems to call for a hefty dose of subjectivity. It’s your last chance to justify why you’ve gone to the trouble of writing a book and to convince your reader that their money has been well spent.

I had lots of ideas for different endings and for a long while none of them was quite right. Some of them, I felt, were not sufficiently original. Others, I sensed, weren’t too bad, except that my heart was not quite in them. One, which I did rather like, would not have come well from someone with my ecological footprint. In the end, it all came quite naturally. When you come to read the book (because you will won’t you?), I don’t know if you’ll like it as much as I do but it’s a weight off my mind to have something down I am pleased with.

Monday, 26 April 2010

On Amazon!



My book is on Amazon. This is all very exciting, except that I haven’t yet finished it. On paper, I still have a lot to wrap up – one whole chapter, two half chapters and several bits of tinkering – and I am supposed to have the first complete draft with my publisher Profile Books this time next week. This, quite evidently, isn’t going to happen but I’m not actually that far off. I spoke to my contact at Profile on Friday and she has given me an extra week, which should just about do it. I had a great day on Friday, getting down 3000 good words, added a further 600 on Saturday morning and put together a very important 1000 words today. It is very exciting to see it all coming together.

This is the product description on Amazon:

In a most original book, science writer Henry Nicholls uses the rich and curious story of the panda from its ‘discovery’ 150 years ago in the highlands of China to its present international status as endearing icon of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF - fifty years old in 2011) and shy darling of the world’s zoos to do several things – to chart the emergence of modern China onto the global stage; to examine our changing attitude to the natural world; and to offer a compelling history of the conservation movement.

The product details say that it’s still going to be published on 30 September. You can preorder now, though as yet there doesn’t appear to be a discount for doing so. You can even preorder the paperback, down to be released on 13 October 2011.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Time travel

Driving up to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission was a little like driving back in time. As my driver Yong Deng – a very cheerful trilingual Tibetan gentleman with an impossibly soft and husky voice – turned the steering wheel of his 4-by-4 up the Dengchigou Valley, the clock stopped and the hands began to go in reverse. Over the next ten minutes, we travelled back 140 years.



Looking back down the Dengchi Valley to the West.

At the bottom of the valley, where the Dengchi runs into the racing Donghe River, a large dam revealed we were still in the 21st century. The road, though not smoothed with tarmac was nevertheless straight and relatively free of potholes. We sped quickly through a cluster of half a dozen houses with all the hallmarks of late 1990s construction. One of the buildings might have passed for a shop but it was shut. There was no sign of life, save a chicken that sped across the road just ahead of our thundering wheels.

As the pothole quotient began to increase, we slowed to a stop to wait for two men to move a 1970s-style truck. It was loaded with rubble, possibly from a nearby quarry, perhaps to fill in the potholes. As we went higher, the road got worse. A very small, old man walked wearing a cloth cap trudged stoically along the road, a large basket strapped to his back. A straggler from the Long March? The steep south-facing slopes on the northern side of the valley were cascades of scree.


The road, now a track, doglegged back, taking us higher up the north-facing southern slope. We passed another village, in which the entire community had come together to build someone’s house, perhaps that of a newlywed couple. They pointed and laughed. Embracing my role as preposterous tourist paying homage to pandas, I wielded my only weapon, my camera, and the crowd of happy faces quickly fled indoors (above).

Further up, further back in time, a man with a cow-pulled plough came to a standstill to stare. We passed a stand of lush bamboo. I looked back down the slope to see terraced fields. There were more houses, now made from timber, with shrivelled leaves of some sort pinned up like washing. Then, rounding a bend, we came upon the Dengchigou Catholic Mission.


It was locked up and there was not a soul to be seen. Yong Deng, whose voice would not have been heard, opened the car door and leaned unceremoniously on the horn. Eventually a young woman appeared and walked over to where we were standing beneath the Mission’s massive double-door. Above it, a sign read: “To serve the people,” something the woman did very well, handing over two tickets in exchange for 40RMB or £4 (above).


She sorted through a bunch of keys and unlocked the double-doors (above). I expected it to creak and it did not let me down. I stepped over the threshold and into a large and empty courtyard. Bar the absence of Armand David, his fellow Catholic cronies and some cultural relics that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, I felt as though I had stepped back more than 140 years to 1869. For it was then that David lived and worked in the mission and collected four panda skins widely acknowledged to have been the first pandas collected in the name of science.

More soon.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The journey begins

When in China last month, I succeeded in getting to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, the official starting point for the giant panda’s historical journey.

I spent about four hours in a car, being driven up into the mountains north of Ya’an City (which is a couple of hours west of Chengdu, which is the capital of Sichuan Province, which is about 2000 km southwest of Beijing, and you all know where that is so I’ll stop). It was my only journey outside a big city, so it would be a mistake to generalise about life in rural China, but I was mesmerised and terrified in equal measures by the sheer industry of the people I passed by that morning.
In the first biggish town we came to – Lushan – it was the industry of individuals I noticed, mainly men busy making, making, making things out of the world around them to make something of their lives. The speciality here seemed to be tree roots. There were workshops open to the street in which men were busy sawing, chiselling and sanding gnarled woody sculptures or varnishing the root system of what had once been a massive tree, presumably to adorn the entrance hall of some plush urban firm. Their sculptures were at once stunning and tragic.

In and around Baoxing, the next main town and the administrative seat of Baoxing County, it was not the industry of individual people that caught my eye. There was plenty of it on show, but it was hard to see amidst the full-scale mining industry that consumes this region. The raw material here is not tree roots but rock. In the industrial zone to the north of the town, factories line the street, with diamond saws spinning raw boulders into perfect table-top slabs. Trucks overloaded with vast hunks of white marble rumble in and out of urban centre (above).


Artisans hone more manageable blocks into dragons, Buddahs and the occasional panda. Road-side boutiques boast shelves of these wares. Passing cars whisk up a film of white dust that coats everything. At what must be a kind of town square, there are several sculptures celebrating the importance of Baoxing County in the panda story. There is Armand David, the Frenchman who “discovered” the first giant panda in 1869 (right). There is Ruth Harkness, the American woman who brought the first live giant panda from this region to the outside world in 1936 (below). In addition, the vast majority (69%) of the pandas gifted to other countries between 1957 and 1980 came from this one county. Beneath these sculptural shrines, the deathly Baoxing River carries its pollution slowly toward the Yangtze.

There was not a dull moment on the journey. At one point, north of Baoxing, my driver rounded a hair-raising bend on the road way above the racing Donghe River to find one of the aforementioned marble boulders sitting right across our lane; presumably it had tumbled from one of the aforementioned overloaded trucks on its way down from the mines at Guobayan. (By the way, if anyone has any info about these mines or has visited them, I’d really like to hear from them). We swerved calmly around the lump of bright, white rock and veered carefully back to the precipitous edge as if nothing had happened. On our return journey a couple of hours later, the marble had mysteriously gone, another example of Chinese industry.

Finally, about 30 km north of Baoxing, I spotted the bridge that would take us over the Donghe and into the Dengchi Valley. There is a large hoarding advertising Armand David and the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, though it’s now obscured by a couple of conifers (photo). That nobody had thought to cut them down suggests that perhaps Chinese industry does not yet extend to such out-of-the-way cultural relics or the country’s still amazing biodiversity. The successful bid to turn the mountains above this industrious valley into a World Heritage Site includes a proposal to build a museum at this precise spot “to celebrate and interpret the amazing collecting work of Pere Armand David”.

In the next post, I will recount my journey up the Dengchi Valley to the Catholic Mission.