Arbor entrance

photos courtesy of Michael Bush

Modern Farming, Ancient Ghosts

| published January 2, 2016 |

By Michael Bush, Thursday Review contributor

There is an ancient tradition in China of ancestor worship. Many today still practice the old way of honoring those who came in the generations before you. It is often believed that once someone dies they become a ghost, but it is also believed that ghosts aren't helpful. In fact, if provoked the spirits of the ancestors will mess you up, fool. So you best do them honor and pay your respects, but otherwise, leave them the heck alone.

Well, it is my belief that the people who own and operate the Sunqiao Modern Agricultural Development Zone in Shanghai have not followed this advice. I think that maybe they have angered the long dead ancestors and that these spirits now wreak havoc on their farms and the unsuspecting visitors.

Or maybe it's just a regular Chinese business that doesn't pay much attention to details like upkeep and appearance. Who's to say?

You see, back in November of 2011, my eldest son's class went on a field trip to the Sunqiao Farms. Now, their mission is to teach the world, using science, how to grow better produce. They use a variety of sophisticated methods including soilless or hydroponic farming, nutrient solution drip irrigation, assisted pollination, and a bunch of other techniques none of us really understand. It's a beautiful thing to do; teaching people to grow food, and eat fresh. I wholeheartedly support their mission statement and all that they wish to accomplish. But maybe they shouldn't have built their farms over a graveyard? (FYI, that is just a guess; indeed, I have no proof of the existence of said cemetery.)

As the bus filled with three-year-old students, parent chaperones, and teachers arrived at the facility, we are met with a gray and overcast sky. It has rained all night and part of the morning, and the sky threatens to continue if we aren't careful. All of Sunqiao's farms are in automatically controlled greenhouses, so if it did rain, we would be covered most of the time. It's only in traveling between these greenhouses when you are exposed to the elements…and the spirits.

Despite the ominous clouds, the moderate amount of PM 2.5 particulates in the air causing a polluted haze, and the feeling of dread that met us upon arrival—the kids were ecstatic. They were out of school and loving it. HUZZAH!

We began the tour in the first greenhouse, with vegetables growing above us and dangling down between bamboo arches as we walked around. It was incredibly neat to see this. The kids and parents, alike, ran around and pointed out unfamiliar vegetables with unusual shapes. Some looked like snakes dropping from above, and others resembled alien pods.

growing hanging gourds

After reaching the end of this greenhouse, we were presented with baskets full of harvested veggies to hold and examine, since the ones still growing were off limits to touch. The children crowded around the baskets excitedly and picked up all manner of squash and gourds. It was wonderful to see them so animated about fresh produce, and I thought to myself, "Sunqiao has got it all figured out. They're going to save the planet by teaching this new generation how to grow food in the modern world!"

selection of gourds

selection of gourds

And then we all moved on to the next greenhouse. But on our way in-between, while outside and exposed, the students became wary of something lying on the path. The disturbing sight went mysteriously unexplained by our tour guide, who seemed to not even notice that something was…wrong. vandalized plastic statue

Although the feeling of dread was powerful while gazing at what appeared to be a dead mascot, or maybe a vandalized plastic statue, that was quickly replaced as we entered the next greenhouse. This one was even better than the last; it was full of cactuses! (Cacti is the plural form of cactus in Latin.) A cactus is always fascinating to kids because it represents danger. "Don't touch the cactuses, children! You'll get stabbed and bleed!" And so begins the game of who can get the closest without being caught and without being poked. And everyone is happy. All thoughts of spooky happenings outside of the greenhouses have evaporated in the cactus greenhouse heat.

cactus hothouse

Before leaving the cactus house, I stumbled upon a really cool sculpture made of mushrooms. It was a dragon! I've always loved dragons, ever since I was a kid. I love them all; Western ones–you know where medieval knights slay the evil dinosaur-esque serpents, and their Eastern counterparts like this mushroom one—long, slender, and mysterious.
mushroom dragon

Now in Chinese mythology, dragons are often associated with weather control and water, which explains why there is one here in the farm, right? However, I couldn't help but remember that it is also believed in many Chinese folktales that the people of China are descended from dragons. Indeed, some believe that dragons themselves could represent the ancestors. And staring into the eyes of the fungus-dragon, I felt as if it were staring right back at me.

We left the cactus house in search of the final greenhouse of the tour, which would show us some cool techniques in modern farming. But on the way, we noticed something in the canal beside the path; a lonely, half-sunken boat. That's an eerie sight on most days, to be sure, but when combined with the spooky feeling we already had walking in the silent and misty grounds surrounded by innumerable greenhouses, the sight of that boat became ten times as creepy. vandalized plastic statue

In our final greenhouse, we observed many of the methods they had developed for growing flowers, vegetables, and other plants. It was very informative, and so the kids weren't too excited. We did get to pick some hydroponically grown strawberries, which they liked. And we received several lectures in broken English about the slow nutrient drip irrigation and PVC pipe construction that helps soilless farming. The ominous dread was creeping back into all of us by this point. We'd seen some marvelous things at Sunqiao, but we'd also been witness to some sights that still haunted us.

sectioned hothouse
Hothouse garden

The last activity of the day was to pot your own little plant, which the good people of Sunqiao would then let you take home. What a great idea; a souvenir that the kids could care for and keep for years if they were vigilant. Despite the frenzied motions of the children, and the inner excitement of doing all of this work by themselves, I still noticed far fewer smiles than I expected during this fun activity. They seemed… haunted.

boys planting
time to leave

Finally, it was time to return to the bus and head back to school. We took the main path that would be the quickest way to return. As we walked along this main road, we passed the many, many greenhouses available at Sunqiao, including the ones we had already visited. However, we were now passing the main entrances, and not the side ones we had previously used. As we walked by each greenhouse, we were met with terrifying sights. The children were quiet, only whispering in fear as we passed what can only be described as the ancient spirits that haunted the farms here. It's the only explanation I can come up with to explain the eerie feelings and slow change in the children's demeanor.

Vandalized statue

Vandalized statue

Vandalized statue

Of course, thinking back on it…maybe it was just a rainy day at a place that didn't maintain its mascots very well. And maybe the kids were just tired after walking around for so long. Who's to say?

But I'll tell you one thing; you know that potted plant Lucas brought home with him? It was just some random little soft green thing, right? Well, after four years of sitting in the window, receiving sunlight through a polluted fog, and drinking only chlorinated beyond belief tap water…that plant flourished and grew strong.

The only explanation that makes ANY sense is that the ancient spirits imbued the plant with their powers and protection.

son's plant
son's plant

Related Thursday Review articles:

Ice & Beer: The Frozen North; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; December 13, 2015.

Bugging Out: The Value of Trying Creepy Things to Eat; Michael Bush; Thursday Review; November 21, 2015.