(drawing by Martin)
The distinguished naturalist and author Meng Tung-li, who passed away last September, once fulsomely praised Ah-pao's talent, then couldn't resist adding: "You always feel that she's not romantic, that she doesn't have any passion."
In reality, Ah-pao may be too much of a romantic, filled with a boundless love that hasn't flagged in 16 years.
Ah-pao met her Swiss boyfriend, a geography PhD named Martin, on the 4,800-meter-high Tibetan Plateau. Ah-pao was traveling solo at the time, and was carrying both her luggage and a bundle of watercolor paper weighing seven or eight kilograms. Rather than "pillage" with a camera, she was quietly observing and depicting Nature, giving herself bit by bit to the natural world. Martin, himself a Nature lover, was deeply moved by the sincerity of her gesture and her greatness of spirit.
After five years together, Ah-pao made a unilateral decision to "invade the mountains" on her own, tactfully declining both his invitation to live with him in Switzerland and his offer of financial support.
"I didn't know how deep his anxiety was," she recalls. "I just knew that I had to cut through the quandaries that were entangling me, or end up exhausted, unsettled, and unable to please anyone.... I think the way things have turned out proves that the decision to maintain our own lives was a smart one."
Like the Cowherd visiting the Weaver Maid, Martin would fly in to see her every year and never missed out on any of her big, labor-intensive projects. He surveyed the entire orchard (the only task that drew on his geographic expertise), carried chicken manure, helped build her bamboo hut, laid the stones for her stove, carried fruit and ran her fruit stall, and even brought in an Alpine-style scythe-with a two-foot blade and five-foot handle-to mow weeds....
To thank him, Ah-pao dedicated A Female Farmer's Notes on Life in the Mountains to him as a 10th anniversary gift. Unfortunately, the gift came with a pretty heartless condition attached: to better focus on getting the book written, Ah-pao banned visits for an entire year.
My interview with Ah-pao was fortuitously timed: she was catching a flight out the next day to see Martin. Ah-pao says that Martin had in recent years been thrust into the role of "footman" on his visits to Taiwan. To give herself a change of scene and a chance to settle her thoughts, and to ensure that the two retain their autonomy, they met in Myanmar this time.
When I speak to Ah-pao the day after her return, I refrain from asking about her trip even though I am curious. Instead, she brings it up herself, telling me that they were fortunate to be able to spend "three whole days" working with locals thatching a roof. She found their custom of locally sourcing materials and building homes by hand incredibly inspiring. "When I'm old and retire from farming, I want to establish a 'whole person' school that teaches land ethics and earth-friendly farming techniques," she says. "And I also want to teach people how to build houses...."
This amazing woman's life is clear proof that the supposed distinction between love and sustenance is as false as that between life and work.