Reflections of an Environmental Refugee

c Xianyi Shen

c Xianyi Shen

Most of my days in my twenties were spent alone writing in a rented one bedroom apartment on 15th floor in Beijing’s Wudaokou District. Fast and furious, I wrote on a first generation PC which only had one function – Chinese typing software for Word. This workaholic life continued until one morning my mother called me requesting that I return home immediately: ‘Your father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the final stage of throat cancer.’

With the guilt of not having made a visit to my parents in a number of years, I instantly stopped everything in Beijing and flew back to Zhejiang, which now had a brand new airport near my hometown. In terms of the Confucian tradition, I was not a good daughter. Fulfilling filial duty had not really been the focus of my attention for a long time. At that time, I thought the demands of being a dutiful daughter were purely an ideological tool for suppression of women. (Years later when I read English feminist writer Juliet Mitchell‘s Women’s Estate, I thought how accurate had been here analysis that the patriarchal family order created women as secondary people.) No wonder her work was not promoted in China! But setting aside all these reservations born from my political stance, I decided to give in to my mother’s request. My father was the only person in my family I respected. Not because he was my father but because his artistic spirit was something I valued and had modeled my own artistic life on. So I left Beijing, taking all my film script work and unfinished novels with me. When I finally got to the hospital in my hometown, I saw my mother’s darting, sometimes, frantic blood shot eyes and my brother’s sallow, depressed face. I knew the situation was bad. That night, my father went through a seven hour operation – because of the spread of the cancer cells to his neck and lymph nodes, they had to remove his larynx entirely. We stayed outside of the operation room, weary and on edge, waiting for what felt like a delayed death sentence. Next morning, when my father woke up, it became apparent to both us and him that he would not be able to speak again. This was a shocking reality, as bad as his not being able to swallow water or to urinate or engage in the simplest physical tasks. He lay on his bed, staring blankly at the food tube fed through his nose and into his stomach.

My father lay on his hospital bed for three weeks. He shared his room with four other patients. During that time we saw two cancer patients die in front of us. The nurses came to remove their bodies, while the remaining family members cried in their devastation. One of the patients who died was a very young girl. She was only 12 and she had had neck cancer. She died two days after her operation. This case especially shook my father, who always believed that the mind was stronger than the physical body. He thought a body would follow the will of a mind which would prevail through any condition of physical weakness, something very much in line with Mao Zedong’s way of thinking. But the cancer ward taught him a heavy lesson. Mind is powerless when it comes to a certain illness.

My mother tried everything to improve my father’s health. Apart from the mix of western pills and traditional herbal medicines, she regularly brought him a turtle to consume, to improve his nutrition. Chinese believe that turtles are long-lived creatures and there are some organic materials in their bodies that can enhance a human body’s strength. First she cooked a turtle soup for a long time with all sorts of herbs. After my father drank the soup she would then take the turtle shell to make plastrons. He would eat the shell powder. I didn’t know if that way of eating worked for his illness. But with all the radiotherapy he did later on and the western medication, he nevertheless survived for another thirteen years.

During the days we stayed in the cancer ward, we were quite troubled by seeing so many new cancer patients being carried into the hospital and dying on their beds. The wards were full, the new patients had to sleep on makeshift beds in the corridors as well as the narrow space in between the staircases. Nurses and doctors were bombarded by demands from the patients and their families. The invalids puked, coughed, and howled, seemingly, at every possible moment. The place was like a hell on earth. There was no human dignity in a Chinese hospital like this one we stayed. Zhejiang was a fast developing industrial province with many large-scale factories, there had been lots of talk about water and soil pollution, that the factories released chemical waste into the rivers. But no one could really conduct a thorough investigation provide clear evidence of the links between heavy pollution and bad effects on human health. All the big factories were state backed. For example, many women and young kids who had never smoked, nevertheless died of lung cancer. Why was that? Some doctor theorized that airborne particles known as PM2.5 (meaning they are 2.5 micrometers or smaller) contributed to many death cases of the lung cancer patients. When inhaled, these tiny and often toxic particles would pass through lung membranes and enter the bloodstream. While they didn’t always cause cancer, they were a ubiquitous byproduct of burning coal. But in China, PM2.5 has become a part of life.

Another time I read a report from the World health Organization. It said there were 13 million Chinese people dying from cancer each year and this number was rising. According to this figure, if there were 55 million people in my province, then, one could expect that about 500,000 people were dying of cancer each year. During the last two decades, there were many ‘cancer villages’ and ‘HIV villages’ appearing in China. It said in those villages every family had someone who died of cancer or blood infection. And these cases were directly linked to environmental issues. Now even the Beijing government was quite alert about the problem. They released a report recently saying more than 70 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes had been polluted. This made me wonder, if that was admitted by the Chinese government through official channels, then what would the percentage be according to independent organizations like NGOs or the World Health Organization? You wouldn’t want to hear the real facts. Was that the reason we Chinese only drank boiled water?

My father’s cancer was the catalyst for my thinking about the fragility of human health in relation to our environment and for an increasing sense of foreboding, indeed, gloom, in particular, about China. I saw my earlier life in Beijing, frantically living within an urban system out of control, trying to meet writing deadlines, running from computer to another job and back again, always catapulting myself into the next project, but all the time surviving with a kind of tunnel vision. My life was run through with this desire for personal achievement at any cost. The phrase rings through my mind, at any cost, which sums up so much of what China is about. My costs were personal but also political. China in the last 60 years has been driven to national goals, at any cost. The cost was becoming more and more apparent. Cancer is eating up the population, even as another industrial park is built, or power station constructed.

My mother died of terminal stomach cancer just a year after my father finally succumbed to cancer. I didn’t know how much her condition was the result of environmental contamination, or perhaps it was just widow’s cancer. But I know she had been suffering from the condition for a while and that the doctor’s had misdiagnosed her ailment—they had given her pills for a heart condition rather than for stomach cancer. After both my parents died, I felt I was indeed an environmental refugee living in western Europe. Is the rain in Spain the same rain as the rain that falls on the Huabei plain in Northern China? Is the snow that falls on a Beijing roof the same that falls on top of the People’s Palace in Warsaw? If so, there are no more places for environmental refugees. It’s the same water system on this planet Earth.

Postcards from the Baltic Sea

  1. The Palace of Culture

Before heading towards the Baltic Sea, I have to stop in Warsaw and stay in one of those over heated small hotel rooms which stink of smoke. Well, each time I visit Poland, I get a mixed sense of desolation and nostalgia. Even though this time I come here for the Weather Station’s project to do with the issues of climate change, still, I feel I am a cultural tourist – wandering in those foreign streets reminiscent of some old Polish films I watched when I was in China.  From a historical point of view, one can say Poland is a sorrowful land, that gives an impression like the solemn landscape of Siberia seen through a Dostoevsky novel. As a Chinese growing up in a communist house, we had some interesting ideological connections with East European countries. Bolesław Bierut’s name is still mentioned a lot in post-Mao era China. As I walk along some stately broad street in the center of Warsaw, I feel I am back again in Beijing, passing through a gigantic brutalist urban space, trying to find somewhere agreeable to sit and think. Actually, the more I walk around Warsaw, the more the city resembles for me Harbin – the northern capital of Chinese Manchuria. Harbin has this particular style of architecture that shows up in Warsaw: a mix of classical European mansions and brutalist socialist buildings.

The Palace of Cultural and Science was the place where I screened my film UFO In Her Eyes some years ago. I thought it was a perfect place (a gift from Soviet Union) to screen a film about totalitarianism. The building itself reminds me of my mother. For about twenty years, my mother worked in the Cultural Palace of our hometown Wenling in South East China. The Cultural Palace of my hometown was not as grand as the one here, but its function and its style were very similar – serve the people with well intentioned entertainment. And my mother was proud of her job, until one day the building was torn down along with other socialist buildings in my hometown. For some nostalgic reason, I do hope this grand building survives in Poland, not only symbolically, but also pragmatically, despite its complex ideological background.

  1. Czesław Miłosz

Last night I was drinking with some obscure Polish artists in Café Amatorska, discussing the gloomy future of our planet. ‘Stop worrying! Humans will die, but the planet is not going to die! That will be the scenario. It’s a good scenario as far as other species concerned.’ They told me in Vodka infused loud voices: ‘Human species are over-rated! The most selfish species should have been wiped out long ago’. Obviously this bunch of Poles was not Christians. ‘You know what’s the most ecological way to live?’ A painter stared at me earnestly: ‘It’s this: we humans must stop giving birth. So the most destructive species can eventually die out. Charge me with the crime of Against Humanity? Oh yes, please!’ He concluded bitterly. Perhaps they were right, and were more absolute than me. The night continued with sarcasm. But I have never been a good drinker, nor do I like to indulge in fantasies of an apocalyptic world. So I left early with a headache.

This morning, on a train to the Baltic Sea, I am clear-headed, and want to write again. I enter the dinning car, ordering a bowl of Zurek – Sour Soup – meanwhile reading a book from Czesław Miłosz. Is there any connection between this sour soup and Milosz? There must be. Both are great stuff. Sour soup is one of my favourite Polish dishes. The thick broth comes with a boiled egg and sausages, a hearty thing to eat in the cold weather. Miłosz, the exiled poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, was someone whose poetry I loved reading when I was still writing poems in Beijing. He was hugely important in China with his books – especially ‘The Captive Mind’ and ‘Miłosz’s Alphabet’. Exiled in France then in the USA for 30 years, his writings examined the moral and psychological pressures of life under a totalitarian regime. In that respect, Milosz is similar to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except the latter went through a much harder life in Stalin’s gulags. I, naturally, feel akin to these writers, especially when they talk about the dilemma of the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, and the alienation of living in the western ‘free’ world. Even though Miłosz had a good professorial position in California, he still referred to himself as ‘The Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue’. He returned to Poland after decades of life in the west and died in Kraków at the age of 93.  Some of best lines from Milosz in my opinions are these:

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.


And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

I close the book, thinking back to the conversation we had in Café Amatorska last night about the end of the world. Yes, no one believes it is happening now, as long as the sun and the moon are above.

  1. Gdańsk

It’s a three hour train ride from Warsaw to Gdańsk. I pass the grey yellow plains of April. Ah, northern landscape, I sigh. How ironic that a southern person like me has ended up in the north. All my adult life seems to be about living in the cold and big northern cities: Beijing, London, Berlin, Zurich. And how I dream everyday about returning to a warm and lush semi tropical land. I miss the heat and those big leaves and smelly flowers. In my eyes, those small-leaved northern trees are never as beautiful as the big-leaved tropical plants. But probably there are fewer and fewer big leaved plants surviving in my tropical land. This is not only a metaphor but a reality: the tropical land is going. It only exists in our memory or imagination. It only remains in an anthropologist’s photo archive. The Amazon rainforest appears only enchanting in those well-angled expensively-produced documentary films. Perhaps the day when Claude Lévi-Strauss finished ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the tropical land had already been swallowed by the northern civilization – the process that began in England with the pre-Victorian era factory chimneys.

Gdańsk is another sorrowful place. The most famous thing in recent history about the town is perhaps its German character. After the World War One, Germans formed a majority in the city and Gdańsk was not under Polish sovereignty. In accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig. In  1939, Germany invaded Poland and the attack began in Danzig; later on the Soviet Union trashed the city entirely. Double rape! No wonder the country has produced those incredible poets and artists in the last century. But the future of Gdansk looks uncertain – the houses have been re-built after the war but most of houses are empty and unemployment is high. People are poor here, with all their good qualifications fading in their drawers.

I stand by the once famous port, now abandoned, with broken ships and messy cranes lit along the bank. The area by the water is waiting to be ‘developed’, to ‘shine’ again. I try to stretch my imagination, visualizing the newly built budget hotels one after another along the harbor in the next five years, with the holiday makers from all over the word coming here to kill their summer days.

  1. Sopot

This is where the famous ill-tempered German actor Klaus Kinski came from. One could not be totally convinced that the eccentric German cinema icon actually was born in this calm and pretty little Polish beach town. Now the city has a population of 40,000. Most are elderly people, and then many tourists. On the beach, the Royal Hotel stands proudly on the white sand facing the peaceful blue bay. Somehow, those grand family houses remind me of the rich town of Deauville in northern France. Maybe Poland’s Sopot is the Deauville of France, if you restrict the comparison to landscape.

In the local library I meet a little group of readers who were given some photocopied pages of my novel. In fact, three pages out of my four hundred page long novel. They admitted that they didn’t have time to read through my book. One woman told me she hadn’t read a single book for years after she had her baby. ‘Of course, I understand that,’ I reassured her and everyone else: ‘Don’t worry, we will just chat.’ So we talked about the reality of being Polish, being Chinese, being in between German power and Russia power. It seemed to me that everyone preferred to be under German influence rather than Russian influence. ‘And what about Communism?’ I asked. A blonde woman shook her head violently: ‘No, communism kidnapped our freedom. We prefer to hide in the religious’. Then a man from East Germany added: ‘And capitalism. It’s better. There is no freedom anywhere anyway.’

  1. Hel

Hel is a pine-tree covered beautiful peninsular. ‘It is the end and the beginning of Poland’, as the locals jokingly claim. It is so long and slim that nearly every house is located right next by the water, with a great sea view.

We stay in the Marine Station where they have kept members of many endangered sea species in their lab. The grey seal is a big thing in the Marine Station. They even have four infant seals in the pool at the moment. As I stare at one of the large, fat, young seal babies diving in the water, I am almost sardonically surprised that this big sea mammal has managed to survive alongside human world for so long. And their great whiskers! I can only admire them. I am told that when they sleep, if they are in the water, half of their brains remain awake, so they can detect any danger around them. But if they sleep on the land, both sides of their brains go into sleep mode. I wonder, given human’s barbarian nature, wouldn’t the seals be killed more often on the land than in the water? In order to survive, perhaps they have to learn to not sleep at all.

In the noon, there are about 20 middle school students around the age of 15 walking me through the forest by the sea. Most of them are local, born in Hel with their parents working on the island for the fishing and tourism industry. The boys impatiently want to show me all the war remains on the peninsular. The girls are talking to me about the pollution in the sea. We enter the ruins of bunkers which were built during World War II and look at the burnt forest in the southern end of the land. Young, beautiful, but vulnerable, they seem to be hopeful but also fearful to leave this place and to enter the big cities for their future.

‘Hel is the most beautiful place in Poland. Look the sea and the forest here! But I think maybe California is better.’ A 14 year old boy remarks while I gaze into the shimmering sea shore.

Standing by the edge of the water, a naïve but profound question rings in my ears: where is our future? What is our future? Well, I think the sea is our future. The sea is the place that gives birth to everything. Yet, humans don’t want the sea, Humans want the land, the useful land. One of the ancient folksongs from the Baltic Sea region goes like this:

Now I’ll sing the sea into grass, the seashore into fish,
The sea sand into malt, the sea bottom into a field.

‘Can we imagine a human world without the sea? Or, the Planet without the sea?’ I ask the students around me. They look gloomy when hearing such a question. We wander about some more, strolling by the abandoned fortifications one after another under the bright burning sun of Hel.

A Thousand Words for Snow – Part One


A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story starts from their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing at this moment? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking, her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food. Their father died a long time ago. He died in a snowstorm while out hunting. The youngest son here is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. He is only nineteen and a half, but he is the hero of the region and everyone calls him Smart Tekk. He is the one who speaks good English and has ventured far out into the world. He made front-page news from Germany to America, from Russia to Australia. At this very moment, he is telling his family of the adventure he has just had:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput – the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipor drifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered. You only remember some of the snow from your life. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow one can always remember…’



Our young Nanook is asleep in his bed. But this is not Greenland. There is city traffic outside, mixed with the sound of aeroplanes. The curtains are tightly drawn, but still, a beam of morning sunlight is sneaking in and penetrating the darkness.

Tekk opens one eye. He observes this strange space and wonders if he is still in a dream. He closes the eye again. The dreams he has just awoken from seem to be inconsistent with his current surroundings. He dreamt he was swimming with a young polar bear through the water, but the bear swam faster than him because polar bears are famous for their strong long distance swimming. He had to give up the race in his dream. Now he feels as if his face is wet: probably from his swimming in the water. But what sort of dream is going on right now? Tekk opens his eyes again and moves his head on the soft pillow. Well, there is a television set on the wall, a fridge, a desk, a chair, a mirror, a wardrobe, and a bathroom beside his bed. Everything seems clear and concrete in his eyes. This is not a dream then. Tekk sits up with confusion. Then he suddenly recognizes his orange suitcase standing on the carpet in the middle of the room. It is a brand new suitcase his family bought for him before he left Greenland. Yes, it is not a dream: it is real. He is somewhere in Germany. He must have landed here yesterday, after a very long and complicated trip. He vaguely remembers he was on a long distance bus, and then he was put on a small local plane, and then he was in a big international airport, and after that he was flying on a very big plane, and he was given some free wine and alcohol by a smiley stewardess, and after that… he can’t remember anymore.

He hears a knock on the door. Tekk does not move at all. There’s another knock on the door. He silently places his feet on the carpet. Now he hears someone turning the key in the keyhole and opening the door. There she is: a young white woman, wearing a uniform with a vacuum cleaner beside her feet. Tekk jumps up with astonishment, and asks in his halting English: ‘Who are you?’

He realises he hasn’t practiced his English lately.

The woman is a bit apologetic when she realizes the hotel guest is still in his room. ‘Entschuldigen Sie!’ She says: ‘Should I come back later?’

But Tekk stops her: ‘Wait, you don’t go!’

The woman turns back: ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Is this Berlin, right?’

She smiles. ‘Yes,’ she answers, ‘it is.’

‘Where about in Berlin?’

‘You are in Hotel Kantstrasse, we are near the Berlin Zoo.’

‘Berlin Zoo?’ Tekk repeats, slightly surprised.

‘I mean, this is a hotel, not a zoo.’ She explains in English that is equally hesitant: ‘but we are near Berlin Zoo.’

Seeing that Tekk is not responding, the woman asks again: ‘You want me to clean up now, or should I come back later?’

Tekk stares at the maid, weakly shakes his head.

The woman leaves with her Hoover, closing the door behind her. Now Tekk sits up. He realizes he is fully dressed. He has slept with his clothes on. He touches his head, finding that there is nothing there apart from his short hair. Where is his walrus fur hat? He loves that old fur hat. He can’t walk around in the world without his hat on. He spots it lying on the desk by the window. He grabs it and presses it down on his head. Now he feels a bit better. He pulls open the curtains. Light floods in. He opens the window. Outside there is a city skyline. He can see huge advertising signs on top of some tall buildings. One reads ‘Benz’ and another ‘BMW’. He looks down. The streets and cars are like small toys. He feels dizzy. He closes the window. Again he walks around in the carpeted room, trying to get used to the space.

He enters the bathroom. The washing basin is strangely designed, like a huge lotus flower. It’s not that he has seen many large flowers in his life. As he touches the basin, a ring of lights turn on automatically, just like in a sci-fi movie. Tekk stares at the shiny washing basin, trying to understand where the light bulb is. Then he gives up. He needs a wash. But there is no faucet for him to turn on. He tries to move his hands under the tap, but nothing comes out. Then just when he lowers his head down to check the tap, a stream of water bursts out and drenches his face and head.

‘Tiaavuluk!’ Tekk curses, grabbing a towel and wiping his face dry. He opens the fridge. There are many small bottles of wine and vodka. He opens a vodka and drinks it directly from the bottle. It tastes good to him and gives his dry throat a kick. He sits on his bed and sips more, as if he is drinking tap water. He then opens the fridge again and finds a package of peanuts. He eats all the peanuts and brings out another vodka, as well as a coke. When he is about to finish the second bottle of vodka, the door bell rings.

Tekk opens the door. A tall, handsome European man stands there and smiles at him.

‘Good morning. You must be Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. Can I come in?’

Tekk nods his head. The man steps in and shakes his hand right away.

‘I am Hans. I work for this year’s International Global Warming Conference. I will be accompanying you during your stay here.’

‘Everyone calls me Tekk.’ He answers a bit shyly.

‘Sure, Tekk. I speak a little Greenlandic, but I won’t embarrass myself here. Is this your first time in Berlin?’

‘Yes.’ Tekk nods but somehow he feels as if he is being looked down on. So he adds: ‘but I have been to Copenhagen once, and to Stavager. Have you been to Stavager?’

‘Hmm…’ Hans shakes his head. He has never heard of such a place. ‘I am not sure. Is it in Denmark?’

‘No.’ Tekk laughs. Hans notices that the boy has a loud and untamed voice and seems to enjoy his laugh. ‘It is in Norway! They have got this domikirke. Very big.’

‘Domikirke?’ Hans is no longer following what the boy says. Besides, he is a bit bothered by the strong vodka smell in the room.

‘Yes, a domikirke. A huge old cathedral. Very scary inside.’

Hans decides not to sit down. He checks his watch and seems to be in a hurry.

‘That’s great to know, Tekk. If I visit Stavager one day I will go to see the domikirke. But now we are pressed for time. Let me take you for some breakfast, if you are ready. We have a whole day’s schedule after that.’

Tekk agrees and puts on his woollen boots. He follows Hans to the door.

‘Don’t forget your key!’ Hans takes the key from the key slot and closes the door behind them.



It is a beautiful café with lots of art hanging on the walls. Tekk feels a bit uneasy sitting on such soft cushions. Hans has ordered some breakfast for them already. A waitress comes and gives each of them a plate: fruit salad for Hans, an omelette for Tekk.

But Tekk stares at his plate, not touching the food.

‘I thought you said you like eggs?’ Hans leans over, slightly concerned.

‘Yes. But don’t they have some meat?’

‘Meat? Sure, meat is inside the omelette.’ Hans points out.

Tekk suspiciously pokes the omelette with his fork. Yes, there is some ham inside. He eats quickly, but he is clearly not satisfied: ‘I thought there would be real meat.’

‘You want real meat. Okay, I’ll ask them for a plate of smoked ham.’

Hans calls the waitress and orders a plate of ham. A few moments later, a large plate of pink tinged meat arrives, decorated with a few slices of melon.

At last, Tekk is happy. He instantly brings out his own walrus ivory knife from his pocket, which sends ripples of shock amongst the people around him. Before everyone’s silent gaze, the young Nanook picks up slices of ham with his knife and swallows them ravenously. Hans watches him eating, but doesn’t make any comment.

In no time, all the ham has been dispatched. Only the melon remains on the plate.

Tekk cleans the blade of his walrus ivory knife with a white napkin, then wipes his mouth. He now speaks.

‘You know, Hans, this meat is too soft. I like solid meat, like the caribou you get back in Greenland.’

‘Right, Caribou meat! I’m afraid we don’t have that here in Germany’.

‘You should try: more solid meat. Good for teeth.’

Hans finishes his fruit salad, and finally says: ‘I’m a vegetarian’.

‘What is a vegetarian?’

‘A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat.’

‘Why?’ Tekk looks at his German companion in bewilderment: ‘You don’t have good teeth?’

Hans is amused. ‘My teeth are perfect,’ he says, ‘I’m not that old yet! But it’s nothing to do with teeth. It is just…how should I put it?’ He thinks for a few seconds, then remarks: ‘eating animals has a bad effect on the environment. Nor is it good for one’s health.’

Tekk looks at Hans with a quizzical expression. He wants to laugh, but he tries to be polite. All he can say is: ‘if my family heard about this, they wouldn’t believe it. You know, only caribous eat grass.’

Hans shrugs his shoulder. ‘Then I am a caribou. I eat grass and you can eat me. We make up a perfect food chain!’

‘You German people are funny.’ Tekk says, feeling a bit offended.

Hans finishes his coffee and takes out his wallet: ‘I think we should move on. I want to show you around.’

But Tekk can barely stand up. He feels a bit drowsy from the vodka he drank this morning in his hotel room.

‘Hey, have some water.’ Hans hands him a glass.



Hans and Tekk walk along the street, like a comedy duo: one very tall, the other rather short. One walks fast, the other slow. They trundle down to Savingny Platz. The street brims with cafes and bars. Tekk looks around as he staggers along, curious about the world around him. He looks drunk, as is obvious to anyone passing. It’s strange to see a drunk Inuit, fully dressed up in furs, waddling through a fashionable district of Berlin. Hans tries to guide him as they cross over the street.

They pass a bar decorated with flowers and neon lights. In front of the bar, there are some chairs and tables. A lady in a miniskirt is conversing with a gentleman friend. Her naked legs are exposed, and are very attractive to Tekk’s eyes.

Tekk lurches towards the mini-skirted lady. Without saying a word, he lays his head on her white naked legs. The woman recoils in shock. Seeing his obvious drunkenness, she screams. Her gentleman friend stands up and drags Tekk away. He berates him: ‘was ist loss mit dir, mensch?’

Hans intervenes, pulling Tekk out just in time, apologizing profusely to the irate couple.

A few minutes later, Tekk finds himself in front of a huge building with a glass structure outside. ‘This is the headquarters of the International Climate Change Research Center,’ Hans says as he drags Tekk into the lift. ‘I want you to meet the chairman and the organizers of this conference. ’

‘Why?’ Tekk feels his head splitting in the elevator. He can barely walk straight, and he feels like vomiting.

‘Because they are the people who invited you for this trip, and pay your hotel bills. They would love to have you speak at the conference.’

As they enter the office, they are told to wait for a few minutes as the chairman is still in a meeting. Tekk sinks his body into a sofa. When Hans returns from the bathroom, he discovers that his friend is already sleeping, snoring loudly.

As Hans waits on the sofa patiently, one of the organizers comes to greet them. But as soon as he sees the state of their guest, he suggests to Hans: ‘why don’t we let this poor fellow rest today, and do some sightseeing if he wants to. He can come back for the conference tomorrow.’

Hans agrees.

In the afternoon, Hans takes Tekk to the Tiergarten, which makes the young man feel much better and more energetic. As they walk deep into the woods, they come across a pond. Some ducks are swimming around peacefully. Then they see a little canoe, with a man and a woman paddling. Tekk stares at the little canoe. He feels his heart swell with yearning. When the couple on the boat wave at him, he takes this as an invitation. He runs along the bank and, without removing his clothes, jumps into the water and swims towards them. This makes the couple on the boat a little frightened and bemused at the same time. Tekk manages to climb onto it in no time.

Tekk is laughing and having fun in his new canoe. Despite Hans’ yells and gesticulations from the bank, Tekk grabs the paddle from the man’s hands and starts to dip it into the water. Hans runs along the bank and yells to the couple: ‘Please excuse my friend! He is from Greenland – he doesn’t know the rules here!’


Read part two of this story

A Thousand Words for Snow – Part three


Continued from part two, which you can read here.


The evening passes for Tekk without any significant moments. He is in some grand restaurant, with the most beautiful seafood and meat before him, with luminous candles on the table and inky red wines and golden beer. But Tekk only manages to eat two pieces of roast beef. He feels depressed, although many friendly delegates are trying to hold a conversation with him. But he has no vocabulary for the cultured white Europeans. Nor can he involve himself in any sophisticated discussions about carbon dioxide emissions or levels of acidity in the oceans. He misses his family, his favourite dogs, his igloo, and most of all, the freedom he can only feel in his natural environment. He asks Hans to walk back with him to the hotel, while everyone is having wine and gooseberry cakes.

Later, alone in his hotel room, Tekk feels a little better. He removes all of his clothes, stripping down to his shorts, although he leaves his walrus fur hat on. He loves his fur hat. It reminds him of all those great times when he and his father went hunting for walrus, and watching his father skin animals with his knife. He misses his father, though he knows his father’s dead body is lying there senselessly deep in the snow by their house. Suddenly, tears run down his face.

He lies in the bed, pressing the remote control, flicking through TV channels.

On one channel there’s a cooking programme, on another some soap set in a rich family’s house somewhere in Europe. On another is a police story with car chases and gun fights. Tekk watches this for a while, but it’s in German. He soon grows bored, and his feeling of lonesomeness returns.

He switches off the TV, lying still, trying to sleep.

Through the thin wall, he hears the noise of two people making love next door. The noise grows louder and louder.

He lies there, eyes wide open, listening to the noise.

The next day, Tekk asks Hans to take him to the zoo again. This time, Hans only accompanies him to the entrance, and tells Tekk that he will come back to meet him by the gate in three hours time, because he has to work at the conference. Tekk is happy for this three hours by himself in the zoo. He walks straight to his friend’s enclosure, and in no time, he is standing in front of Knat, the lonely polar bear. He watches the creature’s every single move, but is careful to remain obscured, so that the bear doesn’t see him.

Today, around the enclosure, there is a television crew from the BBC reporting on the famous polar bear. Tekk watches a blonde woman presenter, speaking in front of the camera in English:

‘Welcome to the BBC World Service! Right now I’m in the Berlin Zoo, standing in front of Knat, their famous polar bear. I want to give you some insight into why Germans are worried about him and what is the real problem. We were told by the zookeepers that Knat has been leading a very reclusive life and stays in his cave for most of the time. He’s also been showing some signs of losing his appetite. Usually polar bears would eat raw meat, but recently he’s los interest in that, and instead he’s begun to eat human food like vegetables, cooked food – even croissants and bread which the tourists give him. We wondered if the famous carnivore could become a vegetarian. In a week’s time, Knat will cerebrate his fifth birthday with the zookeepers and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of cute photos of Knat’s birthday party…’

The bear in the background roars towards the camera, which frightens the television presenter slightly. But she adjusts her smile and continues her report. But then a group of animal rights activists swarm in front of the camera, raising their banners and shouting together: ‘caging is a crime!’. The bear seems to be getting more and more disturbed. But at this point, Tekk steps out from behind the tree, and into Knat’s field of vision. After a few moments, Knat notices his friend. Then he gradually grows quiet. Tekk is chanting words in his Inuit language, louder and louder. His chant seems to pierce the noise of the protesters and the crowd of tourists. The bear seems to sway back and forth in time with his chant. And then the eyes of bear and man lock again.

It’s at this point that everyone else begins to notice the strange scene happening between the bear and the fur-clad Asiatic man standing by the fence, who’s producing a resonant song from deep inside his chest. Knat releases a long sad groan in response, and raises his head, stretching his whole back, as if waving his head to Tekk. Suddenly, there is a silence, only punctuated by the background sound of traffic, and the occasion animal noise. Tekk and the bear stand frozen, gazes locked, as the crowd and zookeepers look on. But then, like a string breaking, an air of hopelessness comes over the bear, and their mutual gaze is broken. Knat, as if releasing some heavy weight, turns to go back into his cave, dragging his paws over the concrete. Tekk leaves quickly before anyone can question him.



The week-long conference is heading towards its climax. It’s the morning Tekk is going to give his speech. He has a text Hans helped him to write. Over the last few days he has been practicing it and he has learnt to read it quite well. This is his speech:

Dear delegates of the 5th Global Warming Conference,

My name is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup and I am from a village in Greenland. I feel honoured to be able to present the story of my family and my people to you here. I must admit that I know nothing of global warming or climate change, but still, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to come to Berlin.

Here is my story: I am from an Inuit tribe. We are hunter-gatherers. I am indeed a Nanook, that is, a good hunter. Originally, Nanook in my language meant the master bear. In our culture, polar bear is the master of all bears. Only he can decide if hunters deserve success in finding and killing bears; he will also punish the bad hunter who violates the rules. My father was a bear hunter and so am I. We have to hunt for our food. We have no shops near us. The nearest supermarket to our house is three days away by dog sled. So we have to do fishing and hunting to keep our life going. We always listen to the calls of the bear master when we hunt. After arriving in Germany, I was very surprised to see our master was caged in the Berlin Zoo. So, while I have been here, I have had to go there everyday to worship him. I am worried about his condition. I hope he is not going to punish me one day.

The last thing I want to do is thank my friend Hans. He has taught me good manners and I have learnt through him something of the European way of life. But I am not sure I will become a vegetarian like Hans, because if we eat the good animals from the sea and we only eat what we need to eat, then there is no need to be a vegetarian. We can’t eat three seals in one week. We can only eat so much food everyday. It’s strange then, for me, that there is so much food in the supermarket. What happens when they can’t sell it all by the end of the day? They throw it away, or let it rot? Anyway, I know big cities have more opportunity for living, but I prefer my hometown and I already miss being there. I hope to fly back as soon as possible. This is the end of my speech. Please excuse my English and thank you for listening.’

After this speech, everyone applauds and agrees Tekk is the most charming guest in the conference. He is instantly asked for photographs by his new fans. A few minutes later, a man in a nice suit approaches Tekk. He introduces himself as Werner Vidoni and he is the head of Berlin Zoo, specialising in animal behaviour.

‘What do you want from me?’ Tekk is a bit surprised.

‘Oh, we need your help, Tekk, if you don’t mind my direct approach.’ Werner explains.

‘What sort of help?’

‘You already met our polar bear in the zoo, and you know he is very precious for our city. Indeed, I have witnessed your power with our Knat. I was there the other day, when you calmed Knat down.’

‘Yes, I know Knat.’ Answers Tekk somewhat enigmatically.

‘Knat was born in our zoo and his mother died shortly after his birth. So he has lived a somewhat lonely life for a bear. Now in the last several months he has grown more and more reclusive, and he eats less and less. We are quite worried about Knat’s health. Since you are from Greenland, the native land of polar bears, I wonder if you might have some good suggestions for us. And if you like, we can invite you to accompany our bear keepers, so you can get closer to Knat and tell us what you think about his diet and his behaviour. ’

This is a surprising appeal for Tekk. He is lost for words. He nods his head in earnest.

‘Tekk loves Knat, I am sure he will be very happy to have an opportunity to get closer to him.’ Hans hears the conversation and answers for Tekk.

Next day, Tekk is picked up by the zookeeper from the hotel. On the way to the zoo, two documentary filmmakers with a camera and recording machines also join them. They want to make a ‘Reality TV Show’ about how an Inuit trains the bear and they believe the whole of Germany will love to watch the show. The team is received in the zoo by the enthusiastic staff. Before Tekk enters a back door leading towards the inner enclosure occupied by Knat, he kneels, facing the cave where the bear is, and prays silently. When the ritual is over, he wipes dust off his trousers and says: ‘now we can go in.’

The zookeeper is curious about Tekk’s ritual, he asks: ‘Tekk, what do your believe?’

The young Nanook answers with an old saying from his Inuit culture: ‘We do not believe, we fear.’

‘You fear?’ The zookeeper repeats: ‘what about God? Do you have some kind of god like we do here in Europe?’

‘God? Everything is god. Seal is god, walrus is god, fish is god, and polar bear is god too.’

‘So do you fear these gods? I mean, if you don’t believe in them, you wouldn’t fear them…’

‘Belief is not important for us, but fear will protect us. We fear nature’ says Tekk.

The documentary filmmakers record Tekk’s speech. Soon Tekk’s mysterious answer will become an enigma for the Berlin media. Soon the genial Nanook will become a celebrity, as famous as Knat. Tekk’s photo will appear in Bild and Süddeutsche Zeitung alongside that of the polar bear Knat, with the headline: WE DO NOT BELIEVE, WE FEAR.

The day passes by with Tekk inside the enclosure, along with the bear and the animal specialists. Tekk has been talking to the zookeeper about his and his father’s knowledge of polar bears. ‘You know, polar bear is the great long distance swimmer. But here in the zoo, he can swim nowhere and he can’t do any excise really.’ The Zookeeper nods his head. He knows the problem well, but he doesn’t think they can change Knat’s living space.



‘We can’t return our Knat to nature, because he was born in captivity and never lived outside of the zoo. He won’t even have the ability to secure his own food. He will just die if we let him out’. The zookeeper explains to Tekk.

Tekk has no more words to offer. Before he leaves the zoo, he suggests: ‘Knat needs a friend, his own kind of friend to live with.’

‘Yes, that’s the right thought.’ The zookeeper says. ‘We have decided to raise 500,000 euros to buy another polar bear – a female one from Norway, to be the mate of Knat and to conceive future baby bears. We have already secured some money and we are confident that we can raise the rest of fees to host our new Mrs Knat.” Says the zoo keeper.

But only our young Nanook knows that his friend inside the fence is reaching the end of his life. The bear is short of breath, and he hasn’t eaten half of what he is supposed to eat in the last few days. He has no more strength, not even bringing himself out of the cave to meet the public.

Next day, when Tekk is accompanied by Hans to the airport along with his orange suitcase, they find hundreds and thousands of people gathering in front of the television news in the departure hall. Everyone is watching the direct live broadcast from Berlin Zoo: Knat is dead! He died from a mysterious disease, apparently a tumour in his heart. Both Tekk and Hans freeze in front of the news report. It said Knut’s sudden death caused an international outpouring of grief. Hundreds of fans are visiting the zoo, leaving flowers and mementos near the enclosure. The mayor of Berlin, Mr. Herzorg is speaking on the television now: ‘we all held him so dearly. He was the star of our city. But he will live on in our hearts. We will create a monument for coming generations to preserve the memory of this unique animal.’ The report also says that Knat’s remains may also be stuffed and put on display in the Museum of Natural History. The news ends with a song performed by children: ‘Knat – The Dreamer, we love you forever’.

Alone on the plane, Tekk contemplates the floating clouds outside his cabin. The scenes from the last few days are like a film playing before his mind’s eye. He falls asleep as the plane makes its way north. In sleep, he returns to the dream he had a week ago, on the night after he arrived in Germany. He is swimming with a young polar bear in the arctic sea. But the bear is such a good swimmer, he soon leaves Tekk far behind. In no time the bear is nothing but a small, bobbing head on the swell far ahead, and then, slowly it fades, becoming indistinguishable from the grey sea surface and the dull sky. Tekk scans the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse. But there is nothing. He is alone, far out in the ocean. Then, suddenly, the sky to the north, begins to change its form. The light and clouds merge to form a smile – a smiling bear head hovers before him in the fading day’s rays, and the grey waves are touched by a shimmering whiteness.




A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story continues from within their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking. Her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food. Their father is dead long ago. He died in a snow storm while out hunting. And now their youngest son, Smart Tekk, is telling his family of the adventure from which he has just returned:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput – the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipor drifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered in your life. You only remember some of the snow. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow I will never forget…’



A Thousand Words for Snow – Part Two

Continued from part one, which you can read here.


The press conference is held in the morning. When the general delegates arrive, a line of important speakers are already on the stage. Tekk is on the stage too with a nametag on his chest. He is given a place at the side of the table, next to Hans.

The chairman makes a welcoming speech and emphasizes the deep importance of research into climate change. His speech is long. Tekk starts to doze, slumping in his seat. Then the chair begins to introduce the delegates on the stage: scientists, professors, activists, and so on. When he gets to Tekk, he announces Tekk as the ‘last Nanook from Greenland: the ice melting community.’ The audience applauds with excitement, while cameras click frantically. Hans hints to Tekk that he should stand up for photos.

Then the chairman continues: ‘Tekkeit Qaasuitsup, one of the last Nanook from northern Greenland will be making a speech in the next few days about his family’s traditional way of life, and what we can learn about the Inuit culture. Now, without further ado, let’s begin the conference…’

A few hours later, a huge close-up of Tekk’s face under his walrus fur hat has appeared everywhere in Berlin’s media. The headlines above the photo say things like: ‘LAST NANOOK IN TOWN!’ or ‘WHAT ESKIMOS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT OUR MODERN WORLD’.

The conference moves along smoothly, and soon all the delegates are having their lunch break. They are in the dinning room next to a very lush garden, enjoying a buffet. A number of people come to shake hands with Tekk, asking him about his family and his trip. Tekk’s attention is drawn by something in the garden.

His eyes are following a young woman in a red dress passing through the garden. Hans follows Tekk’s line of sight, and sees the black haired young woman, carrying a caged raven across the flower bed.

‘Did you see that? Hans? That black bird?’

‘Yes. A raven, actually,’ Hans answers, curiously. ‘A raven in a cage. It’s the first time I’ve seen a raven as a pet.’

As they watch the woman, she seems to sense their gazes and looks back. She smiles to them mysteriously. Just when Tekk runs into the garden, she disappears.

‘Sedna! I found my Sedna!’ Tekk cries.

‘What is Sedna?’ Hans follows him out.

‘Sedna! Our Inuit sea goddess!’

‘You mean the raven or the young woman?’ Hans asks.

‘The young woman! Her name is Sedna!’

‘Okay, calm down, Tekk.’ Hans says: ‘Do you want to tell me who she is?’

‘Yes. She was a very beautiful Inuit girl with long black hair, just like that woman.’ Tekk is still walking around restlessly in the garden, hoping to encounter the scene again. ‘Everyone in our region knows the story. Because Sedna was so beautiful, she was always turning down the hunters who came to her house wishing to marry her. But Sedna’s family was very poor, so her father wanted to marry her off. Her father said to her: “Sedna, we have no food and we will go hungry soon. You need a husband to take care of you, so the next hunter who comes to ask for your hand in marriage, you must marry him!” One day a hunter covered in smooth black fur arrived before their igloo, and asked Sedna’s father if he could marry his daughter. Sedna said yes, though she didn’t even see the man’s face. She was then placed aboard the hunter’s kayak and journeyed to her new home. You know what a kayak is?’

‘Yes, I know what a kayak is. So what happened to her and her strange husband?’

‘It was a long way on the sea. It was snowy and windy. They covered themselves in their heavy robes. For the whole tripe, Sedna never saw her new husband’s face. At last they arrived at an island. Sedna looked around. She could see nothing. No hut, no tent, no cooking pots, just bare rocks and a cliff. Her new home was a few tufts of animal hair and feathers strewn about on the hard, cold rocks. As they stepped onto the rocks, the hunter stood before Sedna and pulled down his hood. He let out an evil laugh. Guess what?’

‘Sedna’s husband was not a man but a raven! Is that the story?’ Hans smiles.

‘Yes, you Germans are clever people! He is a big ugly black crow!’

‘So then what? Did she live with that evil bird for the rest of her life?’ Hans asks impatiently, aware that everyone around them is finishing lunch. Yet Tekk and Hans have not started eating yet.

‘Of course Sedna didn’t want to live with that ugly black bird. But it was a long way home. She couldn’t just go back by herself… ’

At this point the conference organizer comes to them and interrupts Tekk’s story. ‘Hello Tekk, hello Hans, I hope you are enjoying the press conference this morning?’

Tekk shakes hands with the organizer. He then realizes how hungry he is. He rushes to the food table, grabs a plate and serves himself some food.

‘Indeed. I just hope our friend from Greenland can take a whole week of conferencing!’ Hans greets the organizer, heaping salad onto his plate at the same time.

‘Don’t worry. If our Inuit friend gets bored with all the talks, you can take him sightseeing. There is lots to do in Berlin – the Holocaust Museum, the Checkpoint and so on. What do you think, Tekk?’

Tekk’s face cracks into a dry smile. He is busy with his deep fried schnitzel.

‘How did you find Berlin, Tekk? Have you seen our famous bear yet?’ the organizer asks.

‘Bear?’ Tekk swallows some schnitzel, startled. ‘You have bears in Germany?’

‘Yes,’ the organizer answers, ‘we have our own famous polar bear. His name is Knat.’

‘You are teasing me!’ Tekk stops eating, and is exasperated. ‘Where is he? Can we go to see him now?’ He turns imploringly to Hans.

Hans laughs. ‘Not now,’ he says, ‘but maybe later if you are not too tired.’

Journalists crowd around them, urging Tekk to pose in his fur hat and to smile at the camera. Tekk poses with the hat, but he cannot summon a smile.



Tekk and Hans are queuing in front of Berlin Zoo. Like them, there are lots of people waiting to enter. Eventually, Hans gets hold of two tickets.

As they pass the entrance, Tekk is already impressed by the scale of the zoo, with its lush plantations and artificial hills. He asks lots of questions.

‘So people find all sorts of animals and then put them here, not killing them?’

‘No. That’s why we can see them, I mean, to be able to see a live tiger eating and running before our eyes.’

‘A tiger!’ Tekk exclaims: ‘I saw them on TV. Very scary animals! I don’t want to see them. Please don’t take me to meet one.’

‘Okay, no tigers then.’ Hans smiles, leading him further into the zoo. ‘I will make sure you don’t meet any animal you don’t want to meet. But you haven’t finished your story yet. About Sedna! What happened after that beautiful girl married the ugly raven?’

‘Yes… Sedna discovered her husband was only a black crow. Frightened and saddened, she tried to escape, but the big bird would drag her to the edge of a cliff, threatening to push her off. The bird also begged her to be his companion, as his life was too lonely to endure. So she became the raven’s wife, living on bare rocks. Everyday, the raven would fly out and bring back home raw fish. And that was the only food she could eat. She cried and cried and called her father’s name. The howling arctic winds carried the sound of Sedna’s weeping cries all the way to her father’s ears. Sedna’s father recognized the call in the air and knew it came from his daughter’s weeping. One day—’

Tekk stops narrating the tale. He is distracted by some big animals in front of him. His face is anguished and frightened. They are in front of some gorillas. Apparently Tekk has never seen a gorilla in his life. He is crying and laughing at the sight of such large, dark, human-like animals.

‘Maybe they are also men, don’t you think, Hans?’ Tekk asks with a trembling voice.

When a gorilla comes towards them, Tekk becomes very still. Then suddenly he drops to his knees, facing the fence and praying to the gorilla.

Hans observes Tekk’s strange behaviour, raising an eyebrow but saying nothing.

They move towards the enclosure where the giraffes live. Tekk carefully observes the towering animals, impressed by their long necks.

‘I wish I had such a long neck, so I could see the enemy coming from a far distance.’ Then he kneels down again: ‘Hans, we must pray. Otherwise they will revenge us one day.’

Hans shrugs his shoulders, watching Tekk pray to the animals while murmuring a string of inaudible words.

Finally they walk towards the zoo’s most famous tourist attraction: the polar bear. The area is surrounded by tourists. Everybody is waiting by the fence with their cameras and smart phones. According to the news report, the famous bear has made no appearance for a few days.

But as soon as Tekk gets close to the fence, things change. From behind some large rocks, a huge white body gradually appears. All the visitors hold up their cameras with anticipation. Tekk stares at the great bear, the famous Knat, who is now sitting on a rock by the water, looking bored and lonely. Paying no attention to the tourists and constant clicking cameras, the polar bear surveys the shallow water around him.

‘Oh Tekk, you are lucky to have a chance to meet our city’s super star. He has created about 2 million euros annual income for us.’ Hans says with some excitement.

‘How?’ Tekk asks.

‘How? You see all these people here? They bought tickets just want to see the polar bear.’

‘Knat…’ Tekk murmurs. ‘In Greenland we don’t wish to see bears face to face. We would wish them the best of luck, but don’t want to invite them any closer.’

A team of school kids arrive. They push Tekk to the side and jump around, trying to catch a glimpse of the super star animal.

‘Well, Knat has not been very happy in the last few months. Some animal experts say he is missing his native land, or he needs some companion. He does look a little sad. Sometimes he refuses to come out to bathe in the sun. He just hides in his caves, so no one can see him.’

Tekk seems to understand this situation very well. He says; ‘I would be the same, if I were put in a big cage. I would die, I think, probably in three days. ’

The more Tekk watches the bear, the more he is affected. As if caught by some magic power, Tekk is rooted to the ground. His hands grip the fence. His eyes follow every movement the bear makes. And he speaks as if in a dream: ‘I think he knows me…’

Under Tekk’s gaze, Knat finally seems to respond to Tekk. The animal’s eyes shine with sadness and hope. Tekk is in trance, and keeps murmuring. ‘Oh Hans,’ he says, ‘he is watching me. I think he knows me…’



A gust of wind blows above the zoo, carrying the sound of sirens and city traffic. Knat suddenly makes a sorrowful and angry cry. Slowly, he walks back to his cave, and decides to hide himself away for a little while. He shakes himself as if from a swoon, rubbing his eyes. Hans asks if he’s alright. Tekk says nothing, pulling at the fence, his head down. Then, suddenly, as if snapping out of a dream, Tekk resumes his black raven story.

‘So I was telling you that Sedna had to become the raven’s wife, and cries her eyes out on the cliff every day. Then one day, Sedna’s father heard his daughter’s cries through the snowy wind. He felt very guilty for what he had done to his daughter. So he decided it was time to rescue her. He killed a big walrus, preparing food to eat for the next several days. He loaded up his kayak with food and water, and followed the sound of the crying. He paddled for three days through the icy arctic waters to Sedna’s home. As soon as he approached the island of Sedna’s husband, he saw a red figure standing on a cliff. He recognized his daughter, wearing the same red dress she had had on when she left home. She was so happy and surprised to see her father, she ran towards him and quickly climbed into his kayak. They paddled away without hesitation. After many hours of travel, Sedna and the father turned and saw a black speck far off into the distance. They knew it was Sedna’s angry husband flying to chase her.’

At this point the polar bear inside the cave howls twice, as if he can hear the story and understands it well. The bear then emerges from his cave. Tekk stops speaking: he cannot help but be drawn in by the bear. The bear seems to meet Tekk’s gaze.

‘Maybe we should walk around the fence, in between the tourists,’ Tekk suggests. ‘So I can see if the bear really recognizes me.’

As they walk around the enclosure, at first the polar bear loses sight of Tekk. But after a few moments, the animal finds Tekk again amongst the crowd. It’s like some electric current passes between their eyes. But then suddenly two zoo keepers distract the bear by throwing a large rubber seal into the enclosure, their hope being to get the depressed bear to do some exercise. Knat seems to be roused into an angry state, leaping from his rock, and starts to tear the rubber seal apart.

Tekk turns away in disgust. He drags Hans away from the enclosure to a bench near a tree. With a sigh, he continues the story: ‘So the big black raven chased after his wife, steadily gaining on her, riding on the wind. Finally he swooped down on the kayak. Sedna’s father took his paddle and struck at the raven, but missed it. The huge bird continued to harass them. Finally the raven swooped down near the kayak and flapped his wing upon the ocean. A vicious storm began to brew. The calm ocean soon became a raging torrent, tossing the tiny kayak to and fro. Sedna’s father became very frightened. He grabbed Sedna and threw her over the side of the kayak into the ocean. “Here”, he screamed: “here is your precious wife. Please do not hurt me. Take her!” Sedna screamed and struggled as her body began to go numb in the icy arctic waters. She swam to the kayak and reached up, her fingers grasping the side of the boat. Her father, terrified by the raging storm, thought only of himself, as he had always done. He grabbed the paddle and began to pound against Sedna’s fingers. Sedna screamed for her father to stop but to no avail. Her frozen fingers cracked and fell off into the ocean. Gradually, all her fingers turned into seals and swam away under the water. She tried again to swim and cling to her father’s kayak, but again he grabbed the paddle and began beating at her hands. Sedna’s hands froze and cracked off. The stumps slowly drifted to the bottom of the sea, this time turning into whales and walruses. Sedna could fight no more and began to sink.’

‘What a sad story,’ Hans gasps. ‘The father is as bad as the raven.’

‘In Sedna’s desperation,’ Tekk went on, ‘she turned her body parts into sea creatures – her hair became millions of shrimps and little fish, her intestines became lobsters and octopuses, her sorrow became seaweed and her longing became a sand dune on the beach. Finally her red dress became the Mara Mountain towards the North Pole, protecting people from the icy wind. Now all the hungry Inuit families could get their food from the rich sea which had become filled with sea animals. They could now build their huts at the foot of the mountain. It is for this reason in our region that after a hunter catches a seal he will kneel towards the direction of the Mara Mountain and drops water into the mouth of the mammal before he kills it, a gesture to thank Sedna. Sedna is our sea goddess.’

‘But what happened to that horrible father and the evil bird?’ Hans asks.

‘Both the father and the evil bird were taken by a polar bear. Actually the polar bear was the master bear of that region and he knew all this was going on. So he punished the raven and the father.’

Tekk has finished his story. They both grow silent, as they gaze back into the distance. Inside the fence, the bear has already retreated into his cave. Hans sees this as an opportunity to leave. He promises Tekk that they will come back to see Knat tomorrow.


Read part three of this story

Flower of Solitude


A short story by Xiaolu Guo

1. Houyi

At that time, the universe had two different worlds – the Earth, where the Mortals lived, and the Heaven where the Immortals reigned. At that time, the mountain was scarlet red and the sea flowed with the colour of blood. At that time, the animals crowded the land so much so that the humans had to fight for their space. At that time, the greatest quality a man could have was to be the best archer. And at that time in those long ago days, on the red earth, there was a great archer named Houyi.

With a large bow on his shoulder, Houyi walks rapidly on the wild grass like a leopard streaking through the forest. He heads towards the village of White Elephant to help the locals shoot the wolves – the carnivorous wolves who have recently stolen several babies and left a bloody trail on the path to the woods. No animal, wolf, bull or lion can outrun Houyi’s arrows. Houyi is indeed the master of all archers within the kingdom.

The sun burns above the pine trees, and beneath them Houyi sweats like a young bull. He washes his face in a stream at the foot of the hills, drinking in the clear and sweet water from the mountain. He bites into the sour fruit from a wild pear tree, spitting the hard skin onto his grass shoes. He is a man with wild temper; his young beard is thick and strong, always flying in the wind. And with his great silver bow against the arrows on his back, even tigers fear him and slink from his path.
One autumn afternoon, when the heat subsides, Houyi manages to shoot three wolves in the forest. The first two are killed instantly, the third one is wounded and saved for the autumn sacrifice. The villagers cerebrate their hero. Some thank Houyi with gifts of corn and fish, others offer smoked pork. Loaded with food, carrying his great bow, Houyi leaves the village.

Houyi’s young wife, Chang’e, is alone at home. Gathering silk from cocoons, she prepares to weave winter clothes for Houyi. She feels lonely and wilted after marrying her husband, yet she is only fifteen years old. Houyi is just three years older than her, but he is never at home, he is a wild man who loves to make war with nature. And now Chang’e has been chased and won by him, there is nothing left to be done. With love absent from his mind, he spends his days hunting the forest animals. His young wife has no one to accompany her through each passing day. In front of their house is an old magnolia tree. Chang’e often contemplates its thick leaves and huge white flowers. She feels like a silent and weak petal of a magnolia flower, waiting for the seasons to bring her back to the earth, yet she herself has no weight and no power.

Every night, Houyi the archer falls asleep straight after supper. His breath is solid and deep, yet as she lies beside her husband Chang’e feels her motionless life wending its way towards a slow death. She sees the shape of her own death as she takes her place beside Houyi’s earthy body. The shape of death, like an ink blot, expands and seeps into the clear area, and eventually swallows the whole visible space, leaving only blackness.

2. Chang’e

Before marrying Houyi, Chang’e was a flower picker in the king’s palace. The king was very old. His kingdom was in the southern part of Han China, a land whose tribes ceaselessly fought each other. When Chang’e turned twelve years old she became a servant for one of the king’s wives, and had to look after a garden where three jasmine trees grew. Her job was to pick the white flowers of the jasmine trees before they bloomed, then soak them with iced sugar in a jade jar. After a few days the king’s wife would drink the sugared jasmine tea to cure her weak lungs.

Each jasmine flower in that garden grew only one single petal, a white petal in the shape of a heart. They were very fragile. As soon as the slightest wind blew, the petals would fall from the trees like snow. Chang’e had to pick the flowers before the wind came. Day after day Chang’e’s young heart endured the monotony of her dull life.

One day, as Chang’e left the king’s palace to go to the market to buy sugar, she bumped into a strong handsome man with a great silver bow. Chang’e and Houyi fell in love at first sight. Before long she left the king’s jasmine garden, and became the wife of the great archer. Being a young wife, Chang’e raises silkworms under the mulberry trees, cooks rice and soup on top of a pile of chopped tree trunks, washes clothes in a nearby river. She knows the archer loves her, but her lonely heart drifts inside her empty chest. She feels love for him, but somehow it fades away, little by little, each night while Houyi sleeps. She doesn’t know what she lives for any more. She feels again that she is back in the old king’s jasmine garden, under the same burning sun, raising her tired arms, picking each delicate flower, for no purpose from one day to the next.

3. Wu Gang

At that time, above the great Chinese sky, there was a Heaven, where all the Immortals live. The Emperor of Heaven had the power to decide who could live there, and who could not.

Yet for Wu Gang, the impulsive Emperor of Heaven made a different decision. Wu Gang’s fate was to abide forever in the limbo between the Immortal and Mortal worlds. He became the gatekeeper of the South Heaven Gate – the only passage from Earth to Heaven.

Motionless and empty, Wu Gang leans against the South Heaven Gate, reminiscing over moments of his past life on Earth. He was once a woodcutter in a bamboo forest, happy with his life. Somehow the Emperor of Heaven judged Wu Gang to be no ordinary man, but rather the most trustful person on earth. So the Greatest Mind chose Wu Gang to guard the heavenly gate, and ever since then Wu Gang has been living in this void. He misses his homeland and using his solid axe on solid bamboo, better than this heavenly axe he is forced to wield. He misses the smell of the earth after thunderstorms and the sound of the river flowing behind his grass shed. Now he is in limbo, an interim space, and a lifeless zone where the earth ends and the unreachable Heaven begins. He is in a world where there is no sound, no colour and no weight. Only Wu Gang’s axe has a firm shape, and, perhaps, his own body as well. He can see but can’t feel his own weight. The people chosen by the Emperor of Heaven to become Immortals merely pass through Wu Gang’s gate. No one has ever stayed with him to talk or reminisce, and besides, there is no concrete space by that gate where one could rest. Wu Gang lives in a flow of air, from which he can only contemplate the Earth through the ethereal clouds. He is the loneliest being in the universe.

One day, through deep layers of clouds, Wu Gang’s eyes catch sight of the beautiful Chang’e while she is standing under a jasmine tree in the king’s garden, the jasmine blossoms raining down like snow in the wind. Chang’e leans by the tree, gazing at those petals falling all around her. Rays of light caress her hair and neck. The gatekeeper is stunned by her delicate beauty. He starts to mutter to himself, wishing he could become her companion, to comfort and embrace her through life. But how? He is no longer a man of flesh, he is only half- man half-spirit, without weight or gravity.

Every passing day Wu Gang watches the jasmine garden from the high and distant South Heaven Gate. The lonely man rests against the gate with his humble axe, his half-life seeming a little less empty, until one day Chang’e disappears from the jasmine garden. He looks for her with his half- human eyes, but his sight has lost its power in the overly crowded human world. He cannot see even a trace of her among the smog, rain and smoke, among the shoulders in the market, the feet on the bridges, the hats in the fields. Heavy- hearted, he thinks that in her earthly life, she must have become someone’s wife, now living under a roof, cooking for a family. Thinking of such a life, his heart grows even colder as his vision of the earth becomes blurred. From solitude his heart grows as hard as a granite stone, he can no longer feel the tender emotion that once possessed him. The day goes on, the night slips away. Wu Gang senses something sorrowful in the world beneath him, yet this sorrow is lost in the thin air and he no longer recognises human emotion.

4.The Hottest Day

Then one day the earth becomes unbearably hot. It’s so hot that the hills of the Gobi Desert burn like a volcano. The bamboo forests in the southern hemisphere are dry and dead from lack of rain, the pinewoods in the north are burnt into black ashes. Even the old king breathes his last on that day. When the people learn that the old king has died, the whole kingdom cries out in desperation.

But Houyi the archer raises his dark eyes towards the sky. His eyes are as sharp as the arrow on his bow. Through the floating clouds and formless wind, he sees seven suns hanging in the sky. In ancient time of legend, the Heaven Bird was transformed into a blazing sun, created to shine upon the earthly world. At that time, there were seven Heaven Birds living in the sky and they were the playthings of the greatest Heaven Emperor. At that time, each sun bird was only allowed to come out from the Heavenly Empire once every seven days. But on this hottest day, the suns disobey their master and appear in the sky together, unaware of the great damage they are doing to the earth. The great archer Houyi cannot restrain his anger any longer, furiously he draws six silver arrows out of his leopardskin sack and places one on his bow. Whizz, whizz, whizz…one after another, he shoots down six suns with his gleaming silver arrows, each in one strike!

The hills of the Gobi Desert suddenly stop burning, the bamboo forests in the south are immediately awash with rain and the pinewood fire gradually abates. Men and women in the fields recover from their terror; tigers and lions emerge from their deep caves and roam again on the plains.

The following day, the people unanimously agree to elect the great archer Houyi the new king of their country. With Chang’e he moves into the old king’s palace. And now Chang’e is back in her one-petal jasmine-tree garden where now all trees belong to her and all the servants have become her servants. She doesn’t make jasmine sugar tea for another woman any more, and instead King Houyi orders magicians and herbalists from throughout the land to hunt down rare herbs with which to make the elixir of longevity. For many centuries experts have tried to find the secret recipe for this potion, but with no success. Nevertheless each new king orders his people to continue to make this magic powder. The great archer wants to be immortal, as all previous kings of the land.

But the Heaven Emperor is in rage. Not only has this new king killed six of his pet birds but he also has the audacity to want to be immortal! How dare he! The Heaven Emperor considers how best to punish Houyi. In Heaven, there are four levels of punishment. The lightest one is Sorrow, then comes Fear. The third level is the absolute Loneliness. And the most cruel punishment of all is absolute Despair. With an impulsive temper and a thoughtless mind, the Heaven Emperor decides that the new King Houyi deserves the highest punishment. So Houyi becomes the most despairing man on Earth. He sees no future in life, he distrusts everyone in the kingdom, he has no belief in love, and he thinks of death in every quiet moment.

Every night, lying beside Houyi, Chang’e inhales the new king’s despairing breath and, as before, she perceives in each of her husband’s sighs their flesh rotten in an airless tomb, bones dissolving in the vegetable roots. The death ink is seeping into the night, darkening their life with total obscurity. She is fearful – fearful of a future doomed by fate. One night, Chang’e gets up, steals the key from Houyi’s robe and enters the castle where the specialists make the elixir of longevity. She finds a huge jade jar and, tentatively lifting the lid, she smells bitter roots. She takes the glowing liquid back to her quarters. Then the next night she leaves her bed and does the same again, collecting as much as she can. After three hundred and sixty-six days and nights, her task is complete. She holds in her hand the essence of immortality. She stands under the one- petal jasmine tree and drains all the precious medicine while Houyi lies in a depressed sleep. Before the rooster breaks the dawn, she finds herself starting to float – she is flying, flying, and flying. She passes the South Heaven Gate, where Wu Gang is still asleep, and enters into the realm of the shining moon.

5. Moon

The Emperor of Heaven is angry again. He wants to punish Wu Gang for not paying attention to his job, and letting a human being enter the world of the Immortals. So the Great Impulsive Mind decides to expel Wu Gang from his job and impose upon him the greatest Sorrow. He sends Wu Gang to the moon to chop a cinnamon tree. This is how the Sorrow is inflicted upon him: as soon as Wu Gang stops chopping the tree, it grows back again even stronger and thicker. His punishment never ends.

All Wu Gang wants is to be mortal again, to return to the Earth and be a real man. But when he raises his axe on the lonely cinnamon tree in the space of silver, he discovers another human being – Chang’e, the most beautiful girl, the one he saw in the jasmine-tree garden all those years ago. The sight of Chang’e reanimates his heart with a vague emotion, as her face is the loneliest he has ever encountered. The sight of her face clutches at his heart, but it is too withered from the long absence of love. He strains to remember how he felt towards people when he was on the Earth. He tries to recognise Chang’e, her human emotion – her fragile flesh which envelops her heart. During shadowless days and nights on the moon Wu Gang tries to recover the feeling of his heart, while ceaselessly chopping down the stubborn tree. Perhaps Wu Gang is no longer the most sorrowful man in the universe. He is with Chang’e, who reflects the only recognisable human emotion still inside him. But while the cinnamon leaves keep falling on Chang’e’s hair, she transforms into a being of absolute solitude. Her soul dwells nowhere. In her formlessness, she understands that a chasm of separation exists between her and the earth, and that she must accept this absolute solitude, for death is no longer her destiny.

As the image of the Earth subsides in Wu Gang’s mind, all he can do is to chop the cinnamon tree, day after day. He sweats, sweats, and sweats from exhaustion. And on Earth it rains, drenching the warm soil from time to time, rain that is the sweat of a man’s labour. King Houyi stands under his jasmine tree and looks up into the dark sky above; he sees two human shadows on the moon with his great archer’s eyes. He senses that these rains on the Earth are born from that place of silver.
Each moonlit night, in the absence of Chang’e, the despairing King Houyi steps silently on the withered, one-petalled flowers deeply buried in his soil. He contemplates the moon, yearning for his long-lost companion, in the abyss of absolute solitude.

The Sound of the Climate March – 3/3

climate march3Last week in New York City, the U.N. led the Global Warming Summit, which has become a rather big topic around the world.  Leaders from 125 nations were be represented. It was the first time in five years that world leaders have gathered to discuss climate change. The U.N. summit aims to get world leaders to pledge emission cuts that could become part of a global agreement to be approved at the U.N. climate talks next year in Paris. We should all watch out for that.

Just before I came to New York, I attended the Climate Change debate in Berlin during the Berlin Literature Festival. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research made a very elegant presentation with our writers on the stage. Professor Schellnhuber presented us a detailed chart of Global Temperature that showed the rise and fall of temperature over the last 20,000 years of the climate on our planet. It is clear from reading the chart that the hottest moment in such a long history is the last 200 years. And the steepest rise in temperature is here too. What does the future hold for humanity, we ask ourselves? It feels like ‘future’ is beyond our imagination. Professor Schellnhuber has been working in this Potsdam Institute for decades, which is the same place where Albert Einstein worked. I think it is really fitting that he quoted Einstein’s words in his wonderful speech:

‘Only two things are infinite,

the universe and human stupidity,

and I’m not sure about the former. ’

Albert Einstein

The Sound of the Climate March – 2/3

Climate March 2

Just before noon, the People’s Climate March begins. It is a beautiful Sunday in September. More than 300,000 people march through the Manhattan streets of New York City, crying and singing for the future of the planet, and the future of our children. With banners, flags, and drums, protesters demand action ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit this week. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, former U.S. vice president Al Gore, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and actors Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio joined thousands of protesters at the march. Of course, wherever DiCarprio shows himself, the crowd is out of order with screaming and dancing. Thousands of cameras are shooting towards the Hollywood superstar. This is because last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that DiCaprio was named U.N. Messenger of Peace for his commitment to environmental causes. Okay, why not? We do need some famous people to promote certain green activities, even though they didn’t do the right thing before. But then, who did do the right thing before? We are all on the same boat in the face of this issue.

The Sound of the Climate March – 1/3

Apple Store

We are in Central Park, New York, on the 21st of September 2014. Throughout the morning, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in the west gate, ready to march through Manhattan. It will surely be, to date, the biggest Climate March against global warming, the result of industrial development without ecological concern.

Yet only 100 metres away from Central Park, in front of the Manhattan Apple Store, one of the biggest Apple stores in the world, there is also a swarming crowd. Ha! Same time, same place, but with the opposite intentions. The crowds in front of the Apple Store are mostly Chinese looking. They seem to be weary and nervous, as if they have been queuing there since last night. Well, they are buying the newest iPhone model, which has just been released by the Apple Store this month! This crowd is certainly not aware of the crowd in front of Central Park. What are we fighting for? I suddenly hear John Lennon’s song ringing in my ears. ‘As soon as your born they make you feel small, by giving you no time instead of it all. Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all. Working Class Hero is something to be.’

Yes, what are we fighting for? Are we the working class heroes that must have material equality first – even despite ecological disaster?

Memories of an Island


1. North Sentinel Island

In the film, there is an island. Since I saw it fifteen years ago, this faded colour documentary has haunted me. It was shot from a small boat, off the coast of the island. The occupants of the boat were there to record the behaviour of the island’s inhabitants. In the gaze of camera’s long lens, naked tribal men are frantically running along the beach. And our civilized modern documentary makers watch them from the sea – afraid to set foot on shore. When I think about these images, they remind me of the early anthropological films of Robert J. Flaherty or Jean Rouch. The violent dance of the islanders remains forever a symbol of innocence in my memory.

They are members of the Sentinelese People, and they lived on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean’s Andaman archipelago. With thousands of years of isolation from the world, their hostile attitude towards outsiders was famous. Stark, black, African-looking, lean with strong legs, they ran like leopards across grassland. You can tell this even from the blurred images shot from a distant camera on a boat. As well as the cameraman, there were three other men in the boat, including a thoughtful-looking Indian anthropologist. The trip was intended to be a ‘Contact Expedition’ with the tribe on the island. But it didn’t work out like that. In the documentary, you can see the tribal people growing more and more angry as the boat gets closer to the island. They raise their spears and scream at the approaching filmmakers. It looks as if they are going to launch their weapons at the invaders. The camera keeps filming these gesticulating natives. Occasionally, the islanders fire a shower of arrows at the boat people. The boat stays on the wavy, windy sea, in deep, treacherous water, which can’t easily be accessed by any swimming natives. The thoughtful-looking anthropologist says something to his colleague, then the colleague begins to shout incomprehensible language to the islanders, whilst, in a vain gesture of friendliness, he raises two coconuts and a few bananas. We modern audiences understand this sort of body language easily, but it doesn’t work for the Sentinelese people. They continue to jump in rage along the shore with their spears and bows pointing towards the boat.

The film has an old-fashioned BBC voiceover telling the story. It explains that, earlier in the day, the boat had got close enough to the beach for one of the crew to jump out with a live pig in his arms. He was able to tie the pig to a tree on the beach as fast as he could and then rush back to the boat. They then waited on board, scanning the jungle beyond for a reaction. At first, no one came, the pig from the civilized world being the sole creature in view. Then, gradually, a few dark bodies emerged from the tree shadows. They seemed to be frightened by the strangers on the sea and by the pig. Then more and more tribal men arrived, carrying spears and arrows. After producing some threatening body language, the men slaughtered the pig, but didn’t take it with them. They buried it instead. Then they left, disappearing whence they had come.

I’m not sure exactly when this documentary was made, but it was easily three or four decades ago. Probably in the 70s. The voiceover tells me that the Sentinelese were one of the last hunter-gather people on this planet. Because of their violent attitude towards outsiders, people have left the island alone. The last census undertaken by the Indian government in 2001 counted 39 people living on the island. But this number was arrived at from a distance, observing and counting roughly from a boat, or a helicopter. Some people were probably hiding in caves while this was being done. It was estimated there could be 200 people in total. It wasn’t known what kind of language they spoke. Their religion remained unknown too, and their ethnicity was also unclear. But anthropologists believed that they were the direct descendants of hunter-gatherer people out of Africa. They probably arrived on their island 50,000 years ago and continued their lifestyle until today. Well, not actually today – the last news about the island was in 2006, when the inhabitants killed two fishermen from India who ventured too close. And now it is believed the Sentinelese people have all died out. But still, the Indian government won’t allow any foreigners access to this place of violent mystery. So no verification of the extinction has occurred.

2. Island Mentality

Is there really an Island Mentality as opposed to a Mainland Mentality?

An island with life is a blessing of nature, but also a curse. To live on an island even teeming with life is to face limits of resources. Islanders either have to venture out into dangerous, unknown waters to find sustenance, or remain on land dealing with an essentially limited supply of nutrients. This is not the predicament of mainlanders. The mainland has no clear borders, and what borders there are can be crossed. In the old days, there were always pack animals with which to transport goods over mountains, and in modern times there are guns to force doors open. The Chinese had to build the Great Wall of China through centuries to defend themselves. Even so, man-made borders are always shattered in the end. The Mongols conquered China on horseback without even needing to cross the Great Wall. The Palestinians have managed to dig tunnels out of the Gaza strip to transport goods and human beings back and forth. In an ideal world, people should never try to live within borders, but rather learn to live with openness. Openness allows people to adapt and to change with all sorts of influences, even sometimes violent ones. The ceaseless transformations of maps is a demonstration of cultural overlap and integration, even though, in the course of this flux of conquest and settlement, some cultures are overridden by others.

The island of Britain, where I have made my home, is the largest island in Europe. More than 60 million people live on this rainy and windy landmass, vying for jobs, for opportunities, and for the so-called democracy and liberty that lots of Third-World immigrants came here for – at least in the first place. It is definitely the most crowded island in the western world, whether Scotland leaves it or not. Still, it is perhaps not the best place to search for examples of Island Mentality.

There are two reasons why at least parts of Britain have shaken off any Island Mentality. Britain has always been invaded, by the Romans, by the Vikings, by the Normans. Its culture has been mixed and its politics reshaped all the time through history. Secondly, Britain had an empire. The island of Britain expanded spectacularly beyond its shores to swallow a third of the world. Britain, by overcoming its Island Mentality, produced some of the best thinkers of our modern world.

Since coming to Britain, I have become fascinated by travellers and explorers who have left the confines of this island. People like Captain James Cook or Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was a perfect example of the romantic adventurer – he first journeyed out to America because of his lover. Then he was on a perpetual mission to find an ideal home to live in. Later in his life, he decided to reside on the island of Samoa in Polynesia, which for him was a perfect abode. He made a strong friendship with the islanders. And he died there. In his last years he wrote, ‘Sick and well, I have had a splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little … take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time.’ I believe in the sincerity of his words, as far as it’s possible to believe a fabulist.

James Cook conquered islands, and was killed by islanders. Robert Louis Stevenson made peace with them. In the course of history, races have mixed, ethnicities have diversified. Still, humans are all Homo Sapiens. And to be Homo sapiens means to have an island mentality – we are unable to perceive what’s beyond our human life, let alone understand this Universe. As a species we have developed a narrow vision, an aggressive attitude towards other species. We think human goals on this planet are the first and foremost goals. As a result we have shaped our landscape as it is now, but at the cost of the extinction of many other species. We have overpopulated, heavily polluted this planet Earth. And of course we don’t give much of a damn for the next millennium since we can’t even be bothered to think beyond the life of our grandchildren. If we were to die out in the future, then our narrative in history would be like that of the Sentinelese people on their isolated little strip of jungle ringed by yellow sand. The people of the tribe disappear, and the island remains.

3. Coochiemudlo Island

Not long ago, I went to another island in the South Pacific Ocean. It is a much smaller island than North Sentinel Island, only 5 square kilometres in size. It is Coochiemudlo Island, just off the Queensland coast of Australia. Coochiemudlo is an aboriginal word meaning red earth. One can clearly see the deep red soil in which the gum tree bush is rooted. The sand on the beach is also brown red, even after being repeatedly washed by the sea. The soil is from an ancient volcano, which explains the lush vegetation on the island. But the mad sprawl of mangroves is the most impressive thing. Mangroves thrive where there is salt water and a tropical, or semi-tropical, climate. They shoot their roots deep in the sea water, then release salt on the surface of their leaves. A magical process! Unlike us! But it is said that the increase in growth of mangroves indicates climate change – seawater has been swallowing more land, and the temperature has been rising each year.

In any case, Coochiemudlo is nearly perfect as an island in a romantic sense. It is compact, blue and sunny during the day. And at night it has the most beautiful clean and clear starry sky. The houses are in typical Queensland style – timber construction, high-set, one or two storeys, with a rusty but rather charming veranda space. Each is attached to a little patch of land, and there are always one or two old gum trees standing in the front like guards protecting the house. I was told there are about 500 houses on the island, and 700 people living there. The average age is around 52, and of course most of the inhabitants are retired people. A ferry is the only public means to take the islanders back and forth to the mainland.

I went to Coochiemudlo to visit my friend and his family. They used to live in Brisbane and Sydney, but have now retired to the island. Life becomes much simpler with only two streets, one library and one shop. Wherever you walk you hear only hear the waves and the sound of birds hidden amongst the foliage of trees and shrubs.

The first time my island friends and I heard a bird on a gum tree chirping like a mobile phone, I burst out laughing. The mobile phone sound was so strange coming from high up in the sky. Anyone would be momentarily puzzled to hear such a noise whilst walking in a quiet tropical island. As we went further, another bird on a tree made another mobile phone ringtone. We stopped and stared at the bird as it cleverly imitated a piece of indispensable human technology. I felt sad and subdued that the pure tones of the birds, their pristine mating cries, had now been reprogrammed. There were three of us – I mean, three humans – each of us carrying a phone with a different ring tone. The birds were already picking up on these differences!

I stayed on the island for a few days, every morning walking on the beach and then in the afternoons creeping through the hidden tracks of the Wetland areas, where the mangroves dip their toes in the salty water. No supermarket, no cars, no urban scenes. One evening, those faded images filmed from a boat in the Indian Ocean returned to me. I remembered the Sentinelese people running like wild leopards along their beach. I missed them, as if I was one of them, as if I too belonged to that mysterious land. As I was taking the ferry, leaving Coochiemudlo for Victoria Point on the mainland, I looked back at the island I had stayed on, and wondered about its history, before the British arrived, before Captain James Cook’s boat ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. It is said that the English explorer Matthew Flinders was the first western man to set foot on this little island, at the end of eighteenth century, while he was searching for a river in the southern part of Moreton Bay. This was twenty years after James Cook ‘discovered’ the east coast of Australia. But before James Cook, before Matthew Flinders, obviously there had been the aboriginals living on that land for 60,000 years, at least.

I took a flight to Melbourne and prepared for my trip back to England. I was not looking forward to returning to London. What would be waiting for me there? Electricity bills or balance sheets from Thames Water? Probably another overdue council tax demand? And surely many more glossy posters and ads from Estate Agents. Property renting and buying, that’s the current passion in our urban world.

Before flying to London, in the airport, I read more about the Andaman archipelago and North Sentinel Island. I discovered that the anthropologist from India in the documentary was called T. N. Pandit. And finally I found a paragraph of writing by Dr Pandit himself about one of his last ‘Contact Expeditions’. After 20 years of trying, he and his team finally managed to make contact with the Sentinelese in the 90s. Well, at least they got to the shore of the island. He wrote:

‘After 20 years, the islanders voluntarily came forward to meet us – it was unbelievable. They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. But there was this feeling of sadness also – I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield.’

Sadness, Dr T. N. Pandit. You mean this sadness was born from the islanders’ final surrender – which they manifested in the way in which they greeted the modern intruders on their beach? Sadness. What an acute and sorrowful description. But I still wonder, why were the Sentinelese people sad if they had never been to the outside world? They had never been able to compare the two worlds. Perhaps the face to face confrontation already convinced them of their disadvantage. Somehow, the tribe members knew that the intruders wanted something from them, and indeed, would change them for ever.

I read in Dr T. N. Pandit’s report that the last 200 inhabitants of North Sentinel Island had died. How had they gone, exactly? Too little food on the island? All the animals were killed by the tribe and became extinct? Sharks attacked them while they were fishing by the shore? Women died during labour, or from infections after child birth? A tsunami or an earthquake decimated the population? Perhaps all of this. Only the island knows what happened to its inhabitants. Yet on the sub-continent, on the mainland of India, the population has reached more than 1.2 billion. Everywhere you go, there are people. And people only. Children live in the streets without homes, people die in the streets without being cared for, but the economy is growing according to the government. The GDP is catching up proudly with China and the US. This is our very ordinary human story: the dying-out and the ever-expanding pattern, the two poles of this planet Earth. Whether we look back into history or forward to the future, we all aware that we humans have only one island to live upon and that is the island of our planet Earth. So, we must be careful.