My friend slipped a blade of grass between his teeth, chewed on it, then turned to me nodding slowly and said, “It’s just the way leather turns into frogs.”
His companion agreed, “Just like that. You know,” he shrugged, “you leave leather in a corner for a long time and it becomes damp, mushy and turns into frogs. Just like that.”
I began to laugh but then stopped. They really meant it; it was just the way leather turned into frogs. No argument.
We were talking about caterpillar fungus. My friend’s companion was a nomad in his forties, a cousin of my husband. We were visiting him in the pasture, at his summer camp, where he, his wife, son and daughter-in-law graze over a hundred yaks and two hundred sheep for five months of the year. My friend drove us out to the camp in his small SUV. From the backseat I watched as the landscape bounced by like footage from a handheld camera. The plateau was hardly living up to its magnificence today. I felt let down by the sky, dark and pregnant with clouds. It was a gloomy day. Even the flowers bobbed half-heartedly in the breeze, dull without the brilliance of the sun. Crude fencing sliced up the smooth roll of the plateau. “The beginning of the end,” she had said and the words draped heavily around us. Moving camp, the animals could no longer crisscross the grasslands freely but were flushed out onto the road, their hooves slapping the tar, their expressions bewildered, another beginning to the same end.
As the winter grazing area turned to summer pasture, the grass got shorter and specks of black and white dotted the hills; herds of yak and sheep. Nomads were camped along the roadside. Most families no longer use yak wool tents. The new tents are canvas, in white or army green. They are lighter, warmer, waterproof and more practical. We’re living in an age of convenience and nomads are no exception. They’re walking the path of least resistance, easing their way toward extinction.
“It’s all about fast money these days,” my husband’s cousin complained. He was sitting cross-legged outside his tent. The rest of us were sprawled around him, chewing on blades of grass, the air heavy with unbroken clouds. Our host was wearing a sleeveless white undershirt bursting at the seams from his substantial roll of belly fat. Around his neck was an amulet, ragged and messy. His feet were bare but for socks, the grass was his carpet. The rest of us layered in jackets and bundled in scarves didn’t make it any less summer for him.
“I remember the first time I saw someone dig for caterpillar fungus,” my cousin-in-law continued. “I was fourteen or fifteen.” He looked around as if searching for the exact spot and then pointed to a far off hill. “There were two Chinese men crouched at the top of hill over there. It was the good old days, when we were still allowed to have weapons.” He grinned nostalgically at this and then continued, “My father and I picked up our rifles and set off to see what they were up to. Imagine that! We had no idea then what a source of income caterpillar fungus would later become! There were so many back then you didn’t even have to strain to find one, you just kind of plucked them out of the ground like flowers. The men showed us what they were doing, and we just shrugged and watched them before leaving them alone. The next year a couple of nomad families caught on and starting picking fungus to sell to the Chinese. Now look,” he waved around him. “People are dumping their grazing areas, renting them out, ruining them with all the digging for caterpillar fungus! And now, the price is going down!”
I sit up, pluck another blade and wait for him to continue.
“A clan in the area lent out their summer grazing lands for 1.7million yuan to dig for caterpillar fungus,” he told me waving his blade of grass. “That was last year. This year, it went for only 0.7 m. The price of caterpillar fungus is going down.”
“Is there less, or is the price going down?” I ask coughing, choking a little on my blade of grass. I never have caught on to chewing grass.
“Both,” my two friends answer in unison.
“So, is it an animal when you pick the caterpillar fungus? Are you killing something?” I ask. I think I know the answer. The caterpillar is already dead, killed by the fungus, but I roll the conversation over to knead out their thoughts.
“It’s definitely a life,” they answer.
“But if we keep plucking them, how do they reproduce?” I ask.
“It’s the same way leather turns into frogs.”
Leather turning into frogs . . . I find comfort in the words. For a moment I allow myself to leave my world of logic and reason, and join my two companions in their world of magic and mystery, a world where leather turns into frogs. Questions remain unanswered, hope still exists, and the impossible is possible. Here it’s even possible to dream that maybe it isn’t the beginning of the end.