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In Defense of the Fuzz

For many years I lived in Singapore, which is right on the equator and has roughly two seasons: slightly more rainy, and slightly less rainy. Otherwise, it was pretty much hot and humid throughout, which always used to freak me out a bit at Christmas. To an American, encountering Santa Claus in 30C heat is unexpected, like finding a live rattlesnake in your refrigerator. It’s always struck me as somewhat unnatural that Australians see Christmas as a summer phenomenon. What else do they do backwards? Maybe on Christmas morning, they randomly steal things and slap people.

One of the things I enjoyed about moving to Beijing, besides being further away from the antipodes, was clearly demarcated seasons. Winter was a genuine novelty. Summer was like Singapore, except with air that could delaminate plywood. Spring and autumn were glorious interludes, as long as you didn’t mind having the Gobi Desert airmailed to you from time to time. Seasons are the demarcations on the great clock of the year, the way you internalize the passage of time. So are television shows, the National People’s Conference and the ebb and flow of denim hot-pants on the teenage girls of Beijing, of course, but seasons are a more poetic way of doing it.

Since moving to Beijing I’ve found myself thinking in terms of how many winters and summers I’ve seen here. How many sandstorm seasons, and piling up of the throngs at Xiangshan. And how many times I’ve experienced the fuzz.

If you have ever been in Beijing in spring, you will know the fuzz. This is the floating shroud of gauzy puffs that blankets the city every April, thanks to Beijing’s large population of poplar and willow trees. It’s not a problem exclusive to Beijing. The offending species of poplars are widespread (you might know them as cottonwoods in the US), and where there are poplars there are poplar catkins and, thus, poplar fuzz.

And poplars are Beijing’s municipal tree, planted in rows along every median strip, bike lane and windbreak in the city, in great shivering ranks. A 1992 paper on the forestry of urban Beijing identifies two species of poplars as accounting for about 25 percent of the surveyed stock of trees, far outstripping the Chinese juniper trees in second place. It’s hard to imagine that their share has dwindled since then. Apparently, Beijing Forestry University even has an institute devoted to the study of Chinese white poplars, which confirms either the importance of the species, or all your worst fears about the treacherous vortex where the navel gazing currents of academia and municipal bureaucracy swirl together.

Willows aren’t as common as poplars, but based on my own observation what they lack in numbers they make up for in sheer fuzzogenic  enthusiasm. In fact, it took me a long time to catch up to the fact that the willows were contributing. Years ago, when I asked a local what he called the trees that made the fuzz, he said “yangshu.” This confused me because I thought he meant willow, and I was pretty sure he was wrong. Fortunately I bit my tongue, or I’d have made an ass of myself on at least two counts. The problem comes from the similar names of the trees in Chinese. The white poplars are baiyang (白杨) or yangshu (杨树), the willows are yangliu ( 杨柳). The trees are not of the same genera, so perhaps in the antiquity of the Chinese language there is some lost etymological connection between 杨 and fuzz.

A further search of the literature reveals that ours are not the first generations to dwell upon the fuzz.  A poem from the Six Dynasties period, in the first millennium AD, invokes the inherent eroticism of the poplar catkin thus:

We break off a branch of poplar catkins.
A hundred birds sing in the tree.
Lying beneath it in the garden,
We talk to each other,
Tongues in each other’s mouths.

Fuzz in their mouths, too, and any other orifices exposed during this little episode, but somehow that doesn’t make it into the poem.

Erotic charms aside notwithstanding, it is easy to hate on the fuzz. Apparently, it can entrap airborne pollen from other species, and become something of a little, allergenic bomb. I don’t have allergies, but I have to admit that, while I find the fuzz pleasant enough while it’s wafting in the air, it tends to collect into stodgy, grey piles the moment it hits ground. In this way it is rather like Beijing’s snow, which can blanket the city in a dreamy, white veil for a vanishingly brief moment before collapsing into verminous, sooty piles that skulk in the shade for weeks while collecting suspicious, yellow pockmarks.

A couple of years ago I took my son to play on the rides at Tuanjiehu Park, which are shaded by a particularly vigorous stand of white poplars. He and I both a good time watching the aunties use cigarette lighters to set great drifts of fuzz alight. It combusts like rocket fuel, so perhaps this wasn’t the best thing to be doing around dozens of toddlers, but it was entertaining. I have heard (though never confirmed) that the fuzz has been implicated in automobile fires after collecting in radiators. It has definitely contributed to yard and household fires, and the Internet has plenty of earnest warnings urging homeowners to diligently police the fuzz.

To address Beijing’s share of these fuzzborne woes, the city government in 2007 hatched a scheme to convert the offending, female poplars into docile, fuzz-free male poplars. Apparently, this has been a semi-regular endeavor. They should have consulted with me first as I have my own experience with quixotic nature-control plans. When I was in college I spent two years as part of my university’s ultra-secret ground squirrel control program. We used air rifles, traps and poison in an attempt to control a ground squirrel population that had exploded because, in a triumph of natural selection, ground squirrels have a much higher tolerance for drunk  college students and acid rock than all of their natural predators. This program was an utter failure and in the end we signed articles of surrender and turned over our weapons. The ground squirrels are still there, 25 years later. We who dared take them on are all long gone. Poplar trees don’t move as fast as ground squirrels, but on the evidence of Beijing’s obvious failure to control the fuzz, they are equally crafty.

Personally, I like the fuzz. True, it catches on my head-stubble, gets all over the house and lurks under the couch, where it collects into dust-bunnies the size of Saint Bernards. But while airborne it’s cheery, and transient and a damn sight more congenial than the other harbinger of spring, the sand storms. It has also become one of the ways I mark time in Beijing. Another April of fuzz, another year gone by. A few more crows-feet around the eyes. Another sweaty, corrosive summer to grit my teeth for.

A few years ago I was driving to the airport for an early morning flight. Just outside the Fourth Ring Road, deep stands of white poplar line both sides of the airport expressway. It was the height of fuzz season, and a breeze was carrying dense flurries of the stuff across the road. The morning sun from the east backlit the fuzz, endowing it with a luminous, warm corona. For a moment I forgot all the anticipated miseries of economy-class domestic travel and just watched the fuzz. The moment it hit the ground it was dirt, but while it was in the air, it was magic. And anything that can bring a touch of magic to that benighted road is worth at least a little appreciation, isn’t it?

See also:

Danwei: Willow fluff and trashy romance novels

Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water

A little bit of magic.

A little bit of magic.

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