Snowy Egret, Vol. 66, No. 2, pp 42-48. 2003.
I've lived in the small Taiwanese town of Wufeng only a few months. I came from New York because my wife Shuyuan got a job teaching here and because she wanted to come back home to be near her family. Every morning after I finish writing, I bike down to the outdoor pool at the edge of town to do some laps, then come home to read. The swimming pool is on a quiet road that runs along the river. The river looks like every other river I've seen in this part of Taiwan. The forests that must have originally lined its snaking course were long ago cut and the river was channeled into a straight line. The channel gouged out for the river is about 20 ft. deep and flanked by high concrete walls or earth embankments. Apparently much of the water upstream has been diverted for agricultural use. What remains is a shallow, often murky stream meandering along the river bottom. Along its banks there are no bushes, no trees, nothing planted, nothing left -- just grasses and weeds. In places, gutter water from the town drains from concrete culverts directly into the stream -- a soapy blue-white.
One day I noticed a long-legged brown waterbird standing in the stream. "There must be fish," I thought. I studied the murky water closely and was rewarded with a sudden surface turbulence that looked to be a fish. Downriver a ways I saw the same again, and then again. I reached a place where the shallow water was clear. There were lots of large fish. The biggest were a little over a foot long. "How could there be so many big fish in such a little river?" I wondered. Clusters of them fought their way upstream.
Just downstream of a sandbar, I found that some had built concave circular nests in the sand. Each nest owner guarded its spot aggressively and fought off intruders. These "battles" were the cause of the occasional surface turbulence I'd spotted in the muddier water upstream. I figured the fish swam up from the sea like salmon to lay their eggs in these headwaters at the base of the foothills. It touched me deeply to find such a teeming manifestation of indigenous life in a landscape so mercilessly overdeveloped. In the lush green foothills above town, I'd found every incline, even a slope that seemed too steep to climb, cultivated with longan, lychee, pineapple, betel nut or banana. In the flat plain below town, I'd found a jumble of factories, rice paddies, vegetable gardens, big homes and orchards of mango, guava and papaya. The genius of the farmers amazed me, especially the way they used water and sculpted the landscape to do so to maximum advantage. What unsettled me, though, was that, by their success in using every tiny scrap of land for crops, they'd entirely eliminated nature. The fish were the only sign I'd found that the indigenous hadn't been entirely eradicated here.
When I got home, I mentioned to Shuyuan about the fish. She didn't say much. She didn't seem interested. Come the weekend though, when we set out on a bike ride, her first words were: "Show me the fish."
I led her to the stretch of the river where I'd seen them. "There," I pointed. "See." There were only a few and the sun on the water made it hard to see them clearly. I rode on ahead a ways to find a better spot.
I found a place where the water was perfectly clear and had lots of fish and fish nests. I looked up to see if she'd followed. She hadn't moved.
I waved for her to come. She didn't.
I rode back. She turned to face me with wide eyes. "I can't believe it!" she said. "I never thought there were fish like this in any river in Taiwan." She was from an area about an hour's drive south of here. I was touched by her reaction. It made me feel I'd really found something important. In my youth I'd discovered several new species of orchids in Puerto Rico, which was, botanically, the best explored island in the Caribbean. Could it be possible I'd now discovered some remarkable variety of fish that nobody knew was here?
"There are more up ahead," I said. "Come see."
"It's so amazing!" she kept saying excitedly. She kept saying that over and over, all morning -- which only made me feel all the stronger my discovery might be of consequence.
Every time she came swimming now, she wanted to see the fish. When a vehicle came down the road, I said, "Pretend you're looking at the flowers." I'd been treated by Shuyuan's mother to a Taiwanese delicacy made from fish eggs and was afraid if anyone from these parts discovered the fish were swimming up this river to nest, they'd come and clear them out to harvest the roe.
Whenever we went to look at the fish, as soon as a car or motorbike came down the road, we'd start staring up at the clouds, or pointing at the nearby green hills -- do anything but seem like we were looking at the fish.
"I told the other faculty members in my department about the fish," Shuyuan confessed one day, "None of them believed me that there were fish like that in a river here in Taiwan, so I said, 'I'll take you and show you!'"
"Don't take them," I warned. "They'll tell other people and the word will get around." It didn't seem to me the people here respected wild things, just cultivated ones. At the street's edge out in front of just about every residence and place of business in town, even on the busiest street, stood a collection of potted ornamental plants -- including valued bonsai trees, sometimes, and flashy hybrid orchids. Yet I'd seen a graceful little tree growing alongside the barren street right out in front of the building where we live summarily sawed down and cut into pieces by the building's doorman. Using Shuyuan to translate, I'd begged to know why he did it. It was a wild variety, he explained, not a planted one.
The wild fish, to me, were the still-beating heart of this place. Day after day, on my way to the swimming pool, I stopped by the river to regard them teeming in the stream. I still had no idea what kind of fish they were. I wanted to get down to the water's edge to have a closer look.
Shuyuan and I biked further downstream along the river in search of a place where we could climb down the embankment. What we wanted to do was grab a fish up in our hands just for a moment, to examine it. We came to a spot where the road along the river continued inside private property. We pedaled cautiously on. A dog snarled at us viciously but he was caged and couldn't get at us. A little further on we found a path down the embankment into the riverbed and across the grass to the water's edge. We followed it and came upon a sandy river bottom honeycombed with circular fish nests. Every single nest was empty. There wasn't a fish in sight. In the wet mud I spotted a fresh human footprint and the fresh tracks of dogs. We went back to our bikes and rode on down the road to investigate further, but came to a dead end at a factory. Before we could turn around and get out, we were attacked by dogs. One of them bit my leg while I was on the bicycle. Shuyuan rushed me to a clinic for a tetanus shot and to have the wound wrapped. For a week I took antibiotics and was grounded.
When I got back to the river, I set out to see if I could find any place upstream where I could get close to the fish. I had no luck. All along the stream in the riverbed, the conditions seemed right for nature to make a comeback. I pictured the scene in my mind with a narrow ribbon of wild forest extending across the cultivated landscape down in the riverbed -- a wildlife corridor and refuge for endemic species. That only grasses and weeds grew there presently suggested somebody was doing something to keep it cleared, maybe due to a limitation of vision or because they thought it necessary for flood control.
The ethos here seemed to be that anything that grew up by itself should be gotten rid of. I came upon a remnant grove of what seemed it might be native bamboo in one small spot up on the bank above the concrete wall bordering the riverbed. A man operating a backhoe busily uprooted the entire grove, clump by clump, and dumped each into the riverbed below. I sat on my bike watching, horrified how easily something that took so long to grow could be decimated.
I turned away and headed much further downstream. I found a veritable army of bulldozers and heavy trucks at work down in the riverbed of a larger river that this one fed into. They were excavating rock, moving earth around, and building concrete embankments. As a drainage ditch for flood control, the river system here was attracting ample government funding. As a precious natural ecosystem, valuable in its own right, and in need of protection and restoration, I didn't see that it was getting any attention at all. This sad little river was alive but, as far as I could see, nobody but me wanted it to be, cared if it was, or was doing anything to keep it that way. In places, the water was so thick with mud from all the bulldozing that I wondered how the fish could have made it as far upstream as they had. But there they were. When the water cleared a bit, I saw them again.
Shuyuan mentioned a week or so later that her whole department at the university had come into town for lunch. Afterwards they'd all wanted to see the fish, so she'd taken them. "They were amazed to see fish like that nesting in a river in Taiwan," she said.
"I just hope none of them say anything to anybody," I said.
"I doubt they will," she assured me.
The following week, I found a man standing in the river bent over a line. I stopped to watch. He was picking out fish. At first I thought he was unhooking them from a line he'd placed in the water but then saw that he'd strung a nylon net clear across the stream. One by one, he disentangled the fish caught by their gills in his net. Each he tossed into a plastic sack filled with his catch.
For some time I watched him work. He didn't look up. He was very thorough and very industrious. He was taking all the fish. He wasn't leaving any.
On my way home, I thought of the tracks I'd seen in the mud and the empty fish nests downstream and wondered how many more men like him there were, all up and down the river, doing the same. In the marketplace, who would think to ask whether these fish came from a clean or a polluted river like this one? Little children could get sick or be exposed to carcinogens.
I stopped at an intersection to wait for the traffic to pass. An old man walked by pushing a bicycle piled high with recyclable materials he'd scrounged from the street and was taking somewhere to sell. I'd always been touched to see such sights here. But, against the picture of the greedy fisherman, all I thought was, "They save every tiny scrap for themselves but give nature back nothing." I couldn't imagine a single person in this town would care if no fish eggs hatched this season and no baby fish made it to the sea.
When I got home, I phoned Shuyuan at the college. She phoned the police and then a government agency. They told her there were no protected fish in that river and no law against fishing it.
A few days later I was back to see if any nesting fish remained. Down in the riverbed a man seated atop a backhoe was scooping out a perfectly straight drainage ditch of uniform width and depth that stretched down the exact middle of the grassy river bottom. The artificial waterway he was creating ran with sterile, lifeless, muddy water. The meandering stream itself, its sandbars, whatever surviving fish still guarded their precious nests -- he summarily buried under a wide bank of mud and gravel several feet deep that he dumped to the left and right of his gully. I stood there only a few moments watching him proceed methodically upriver with a blindered singleness of purpose. Then, not having the heart to see more, I got on my bike and rode away.
On the internet, I found a Taiwanese icthyologist at the prestigious Academica Sinica in Taipei and shot off an urgent e-mail to him. Then I stumbled by chance upon the Orion website and its amazing networking page. I sent out an alarm to conservation organizations around the world. A short stretch of the river still had the fish and fish nests. I was determined to save it.
The next morning the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Oregon responded to my e-mail. They sent me some literature and referred me to a biologist who had worked with salmon in Taiwan. I fired off an e-mail to the biologist and looked through the literature. There indeed was an endangered salmon in Taiwan -- Oncorhynchus masou formosanus - the Taiwanese landlocked masu salmon. It had become restricted to a five-mile stretch of a single tributary but that was somewhere on the other side of the island. I found a picture of that fish on the internet. It definitely wasn't the one in this river.
At the swimming pool a few days later, there was a gala opening. The pool had come under new management. To be polite I sat and ate some of the cakes and was courteous to the man next to me. He turned out to be the owner. He spoke some English and was a retired water engineer. He had worked for the governmental agency responsible for all the construction on the river. "They're killing the river," I accused.
"It isn't a real river," he explained. I could see he was trying to be friendly and was a nice person.
"It is," I argued. I'd followed the river up to its tributaries. It had real sources in the streams that came down from the foothills. "There has always been a river here," I declared.
"Yes," he agreed, "But it had a completely different course. It flowed somewhere else. That river was destroyed over a hundred years ago, in the Ching Dynasty and this waterway dug in its place."
"Even if the river's artificial, it's alive," I argued. "There are big fish in it."
"Those are just Wu-Kuo Yu," he said; then, as an afterthought added, "You can't eat them because the water's polluted."
"I saw a man netting them," I said.
"Maybe some farmers catch them to feed to their chickens," he suggested.
"If people eat those chickens or their eggs, they'll still be poisoned," I argued.
He shrugged his shoulders.
When I got home, Shuyuan did a search on Google for the Chinese characters, Wu-Kuo Yu. She found pictures of the fish Oreochromis mossambica . I couldn't tell if it was the same fish or not.
The next morning I received a courteous e-mail from the icthyologist at the Academica Sinica. He informed me that most mid- to downstream rivers in Taiwan had suffered the same fate as the river I'd described in Wufeng. As a consequence of this, and the over-fishing, there were not many species or individuals of native fish left compared to what had been here in the past. He went on to say that the fish I'd described to him, that built such circular nests, was Tilapia and its common name in Chinese was Wu-Kuo Yu. It was a very common and invasive species, not even native to Taiwan. It was introduced in 1946 for aquaculture purposes. Since then at least four related species have been introduced and they've now spread throughout the island. The reason they're so successful is because they're "hardy" and can tolerate polluted water.
The picture of a threatened indigenous species migrating up from the sea to lay its eggs that I'd sent out to conservation organizations around the world had been way off the mark. I felt embarrassed.
Biking much further upstream with Shuyuan the following Saturday, we came upon two boys with fishing rods down in the riverbed at the stream's edge. The bulldozers hadn't gotten up that far yet and there was still a stream there. "What kind of fish are you catching?" Shuyuan called down to them in Chinese.
"Wu-Kuo Yu," the younger boy answered.
"Do you eat them?" she asked.
"We just throw them back," the older boy said. "You can't eat them because the water's polluted."
"How do you know?" she pressed.
"Our grandmother told us," the boy replied.
"You see," Shuyuan said as we rode on, "The local people here know." After spotting that fisherman, I'd said disparaging things about her people.
The next day was Sunday. Shuyuan came swimming with me. Afterwards, we went to look in the river, as always. The bulldozers and fishermen had so far spared that stretch and there was still a stream there with fish. I saw three young men and a young woman walking down in the stream with their pant legs rolled up. The woman carried a plastic sack filled with fish. The young men had a big circular fishing net with metal sinkers sewn along the edges. With the net they were bringing up lots of fish, which they carefully picked out and put in the bag the young woman carried.
Shuyuan called down to them in Chinese. They looked up, but didn't answer. Then the young woman pulled one of the fish out of her sack and held it up so Shuyuan could see. It was the first time I'd seen one of the fish in profile and it looked every bit like the picture of the Wu-Kuo Yu on the internet.
Shuyuan tried to engage them in conversation, then turned to me, "Those are not our people. They don't speak our language."
She tried English. It didn't work either. Eventually, she found they were Thai. "Lots of unskilled laborers from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines come to Taiwan to work in factories or be domestics," Shuyuan explained. She managed to convey to them that the river was polluted and the fish shouldn't be eaten. "Thankyou," one of the young men called up to her in what seemed to be the only word he knew in English. They let one or two fish swim free from the net. It seemed we'd spoiled their Sunday outing, but then I noticed the woman hadn't thrown out the fish in the bag. I wondered if, when we got out of sight, they'd start up netting fish again.
It didn't matter. I didn't feel it was any of my business anymore. Nothing anybody did could threaten the Wu-Kuo Yu. We got back on our bikes and headed home. Every inch of the lush green landscape all around was planted or maintained by man. What looked to be a river was a man-made ditch. What I'd mistaken for a living stream just has in it fish that thrive in dead water. There was no nature left anywhere in this place for me to concern myself with -- except that within me. I felt free to draw further inward with the morning writing, the swimming, and the afternoon reading -- not so much to cultivate myself, as to find and bring back alive every little place in me that was still even a little bit wild, free and real.