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TideWriters Tales
Go Fishing…and Take A Big Black Bird
By Ann Sale

    There they sit, useless-indolently stretching shiny black wings toward the sun’s warm comfort. Cormorants on the Chesapeake Bay have it made. They have only themselves to think of and man certainly asks nothing of these torpedo like, fish eating birds. Not so in China. Cormorants on the Li River are highly trained workers, bringing home the ‘bacon’ for their owners while simultaneously performing enchantingly for tourists. They’ve been doing this for quite a long time too. 

     In about 1321, a missionary from Italy visited China. He was the first Westerner after Marco Polo and eagerly described his adventures. Friar Odoric, wearing, as always, his hair shirt but no shoes followed a man who said to him, “Sir, if you would see any fish being caught, go with me

     “Then he led me to the bridge, carrying in his arms certain dive-doppers or water fowls (cormorants) bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them…He loosened the dive-doppers from the pole, which presently went into the water and within less than the space of one hour caught as many fish as filled his three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish and being satisfied they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches as they were before.”

     Sometime in the past 660 years the owners replaced the thread with a ring. This allows the birds to eat small fish but hold in their throats the big ones. When convenient, the fisherman picks up his engorged cormorant and holding him over a large and lovely woven basket, squeezes from his neck the fish. It pops right out into the basket-ready for the morning market. Night fishing is preferred now with lanterns glowing on the front of each raft like boat. Made of six or seven big curved bamboo trunks lashed together, they glide gracefully over the swift moving water and provide an easily accessible platform for the birds.

     The cormorants seem happy. They’re tethered when not working but appear content in their leisure. Brought in from a distant coastal province, Shandong, each bird costs about one thousand yuan which is about $125.00 of our dollars at the current rate of exchange. With most boats bearing eight to 15 birds they represent quite an investment so are well cared for and protected. An emphatic splash from the poling oar keeps them moving but later their handlers may be seen playing with them affectionately.

     The Li River, famous for its haunting, fog shrouded limestone peaks and deep mysterious caves flows through the town of Guilin. Back lit by moonlight, the stacked mountains and silvery water bearing silhouettes of men bending to their poles are jeweled by dots of radiance from the lanterns. Understandably this intriguing scene is frequently reproduced on the screens and art works of China. By day, racing, horn blowing tourist boats ferry passengers down the river past odd shaped hills seeming to rise straight out of their watery reflections. Very occasionally the boat will slide slowly around a mountain offering a panning shot of a small stone village on a low bluff of the river. At other spots bamboo grows to water’s edge sheltering flocks of feeding ducks. In quiet coves children are splashing, men throwing nets and water buffalo contentedly wading up to their noses.

     Guilin has a less ethereal claim to fame. Its widely reported that citizens of Guilin will eat everything on four legs except tables and chairs. Indeed, this is the place to go for exotic taste sensations. Along with the usual assortment of seaweeds, grasses, leaves, flowers and lichen, denizens of Guilin like the occasional crane, pigeon, turtle and frog served up with a good snake soup, some eels and a few nicely turned chicken feet. One would want a fine wine to complete the feast as well as the pleasure of seeing it poured from a bottle containing an impressively large snake.

     There aren’t many animals in China-people must eat and there are many people. Bird songs are arresting they’re so rare and pets a very expensive luxury. To discourage the keeping of pet dogs the government applies a very high annual tax-approximately $600.00 U.S. Every morning just as the sun comes up, people leading small dogs appear in the alleyways. These are the ones who can’t bear to live without a canine companion and can’t pay the freight! You’re wondering about the dogs as food thing aren’t you? Our guide said indeed they quite enjoy dog meat but those dogs are called “yellow dogs” and are raised on dog farms. We enjoyed our food in China but honesty compels me to confess we passed up a lot of opportunities in Guilin.

     Leaving aside the strange and weird, Guilin extends one more enchantment-the night market. Not so much as a bit of ribbon or torn paper exists the morning after, but as night falls, booths upon booths open up along the boulevard walkway above the river. Glittering and glitzy the market is in fascinating contrast to the sight seeing boats at rest on the river below. Their day just a memory, the boats expose now the families living at the back end of them. Women bend over stoves cooking on the small open deck, men in sleeveless undershirts squat in a circle gambling. It’s life on the river and tied on behind each craft is a raft of tethered cormorants awaiting the duties of the night.

     I like this ancient form of fish catching; the mutual dependency of bird and man, the working pet relationship, the night music on the river-so much pleasure tied to a purpose. I wouldn’t mind seeing something like this on the Chesapeake Bay. 

© 2001 Ann Sale. All rights reserved.

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