I took a group of a dozen 14-16-year-old schoolgirls up Wang Tong Cemetery Hill last Saturday to help Paul Melsom with his long-standing project to reforest Lantau’s hills with native trees. We were only helping to clear part of the firebreak, and then we put name tags on some of the trees we’d planted earlier in the year, and measured and photographed them. So, it was a fairly simple task, but one that gave everyone a lot of pleasure. It’s really rather tragic that so many of these girls – all Chinese – have very little contact with nature. The way that some of them tried to negotiate the steeper, slippery parts of the path betrayed their total lack of experience at such manoeuvres as they were completely ignorant of how to balance their body or shift their weight from one foot to another. It could be seen as rather pathetic were it not for the fact that they are largely blameless, and are really the victims of over-protective parents and a society that abhors anything natural, regarding it as dirty, frightening or disgusting.
It used to astonish me to see our students – and, just as often, teachers – reacting with panic whenever a butterfly or bee, or any flying insect, came anywhere near them. Now I’m used to it, but it never fails to annoy and depress me. How can children be so robbed of their sense of beauty that they are terrified of a butterfly? It’s a tragedy for them, but what does it mean for society as a whole? It’s said that we’re causing extinctions to happen at 1000 times the ‘normal’ rate. We’re hoovering up all of the edible fish from the oceans, and slicing off the fins of millions of sharks. We have chosen to treat cows and pigs and chickens as mere commodities, and thus have no concern for the disgusting conditions they have to endure in CAFOs and factory farms. Their massive pools of excrement pollute the waterways, along with all the agricultural chemicals and factory pollutants we likewise dump in the water. We ravage the hills and mountains in our lust for mineral resources; we devastate forests of unimaginable beauty so that we can make a fast buck; what countryside is left we cover in concrete and tarmac so that we can transport ourselves at ever greater speed from one urban hell to another. With such examples of mankind’s relentless trashing of the planet is it any surprise that the younger generation have no connection with nature, and regard it as alien and fearful: something, in fact, that deserves to be trashed?
The good thing is that, even the girls who squeal at the insects and have to be given a helping hand or two to negotiate the gentlest of slopes still seem to come back for more. They actually like it. The scenery from up on the hill is lovely; the air is as clean as they’ll breathe in Hong Kong; the fresh breezes are exhilarating. And that’s all it takes: if you can get them into the countryside, and it doesn’t rain, then Nature will do the rest and win them over. I’m sure that providing these kids with the opportunity to get out into nature is the only thing I do at school that I know for sure is entirely Good. Nobody says ‘wow, this is fantastic’, nobody says ‘thank you’, nobody really smiles much or speaks to me, but they come back next time we go. And that’s very gratifying.