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Photo: Ronan O’Connell.
Once reserved only for Thailand‘s elite, authentic benjarong porcelain takes highly skilled artisans days to create.

The other day, Princeton University reported that “a tortoise from a Galápagos species long believed extinct has been found alive and now confirmed to be … the first of her species identified in more than a century.” Wow. Good thing there are people working all the time to identify and save species.

Efforts to save dying arts are also important. Here is one practiced in a village in Thailand.

Writing last November at National Geographic, Ronan O’Connell reported, “Few tourists to Bangkok know that the glimmer of the iconic Wat Arun temple is thanks to the same magnificent Thai porcelain that decorates five-star hotel lobbies or serves as dinnerware in high-end Bangkok restaurants.

“Hand painted with intricate Buddhist motifs, benjarong porcelain once was reserved only for Thailand’s elite. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Thai royalty ate from delicate benjarong dishes and plates, wealthy women stored jewelry in benjarong boxes, and Bangkok’s palaces displayed tall benjarong vases.

“In the early 1900s, mosaics made of benjarong shards began embellishing many of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. … But it soon fell out of favor, and porcelain production eventually ceased.

“It would now exist only as an antiquity if not for a village that, in the 1980s, saw an opportunity to revive the art form. Located about 19 miles west of Bangkok, Don Kai Dee has grown to become what Atthasit Sukkham, assistant curator of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University, describes as the sole source of authentic benjarong. …

“As of November 1, vaccinated travelers can visit Thailand quarantine-free, where they can buy benjarong from the artists at Don Kai Dee, learn the history of Thai ceramics at Bangkok’s Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum (reopening in December), and admire the exquisite benjarong decorations in the Thai capital’s Grand Palace. …

“It took the 1982 closure of a ceramics factory near Bangkok to resuscitate this royal craft. Urai Tangaeum was one of dozens of Thai artists made redundant when that workplace closed in Samut Sakhon province, where Don Kai Dee is also located. …

“Instead of wallowing in her misfortune, Tangaeum recounts, she decided to take a risk. After studying benjarong designs, she began painting them on plain ceramics sourced from factories. When it became apparent Thai buyers appreciated this forgotten product, she bought her own kiln. Slowly, Tangaeum created a start-to-finish benjarong studio at Don Kai Dee. Nearly 40 years later, this has become a co-operative where dozens of potters share skills and knowledge.

“During tours of Don Kai Dee led by senior workers, tourists to the village learn that each benjarong item is crafted using a nine-step process involving up to four different artists. It begins with soils from three Thai provinces. When mixed together they provide the perfect blend of plasticity, heat absorption, and white-color finish.

“After being shaped on a pottery wheel, the benjarong item is set in an electric kiln for 10 hours at 1472°F (800°C). Once it cools, the item is coated with a glaze and baked for another 10 hours at an even higher temperature, until it gleams.

“The next step is benjarong’s trademark. Artists paint designs with liquid gold, which costs $5,000 per liter, according to Tangaeum’s daughter, Nippawan. This gilding is executed only by veteran workers, who have 20-plus years’ experience in a profession which some artists can continue well into their 60s.

“Finally, another worker traces around the golden lines with colored paints, then a supervisor inspects the piece. The process finishes with another blast in the oven. It takes three to four days to produce a benjarong cup, dish, or plate, which go for at least $30 each. That time frame extends to two weeks for the largest vases, which can be up to six feet tall and cost as much as $10,000. …

“While shops across Thailand sell mass-produced, cheaper versions of benjarong, Don Kai Dee is the only source of authentic, traditional benjarong, according to ceramics expert Sukkham. At Don Kai Dee, tourists can purchase ready-made items and have them personalized on site, or order custom artworks to be shipped to their homes.

“The village does not have a website, with most of its sales done in person at the village, or via art dealers who facilitate purchases for rich clients, Pongmatha says. Some of these buyers pay up to $30,000 for particularly intricate, gold-laden dining sets.

“The expense of benjarong reflects the painstaking intricacy of its crafting. It requires poise and persistence to scrawl precise benjarong designs for hour after hour. It is those attributes, above all, that decide whether a benjarong student can become a master.

“ ‘We have many young people who come to the village to learn benjarong, but most don’t last,’ [villager Prapasri Pongmatha] says. ‘They have enough skill, but not the patience. Making benjarong can make you crazy if you aren’t patient. But if you are patient enough, it is very soothing, nearly like meditating.’

“The humble incomes earned by Benjarong artists also deter young Thai people from learning this craft, according to her daughter, Supawan Pongmatha. The 39-year-old says she loves making these ceramics. But she does so only in her spare time, having decided to instead become an art teacher, a more stable job with a higher salary.

“ ‘Young people want to make money, to feel they have a safe job with a good future,’ Supawan says. ‘Being a benjarong artist is not as reliable.’

“Without a robust new generation of craftspeople making benjarong, its future is uncertain, the villagers agree. Forty years ago, benjarong was a relic. Having slowly roused this art form out of hibernation, the artists of Don Kai Dee are now fiercely trying to keep it awake.”

More at National Geographic, here. Wonderful pictures. (Four free articles per month.)

Want to watch a short video about another endangered craft? Learn about making toe shoes in the UK, here.

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Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Images.
“There are 17 vine ladders on the 800-metre-high way home, but the most dangerous part is a path on the cliff without a vine ladder.In 2016, the Guardian reported this story on children as young as six going to school from Atuler village in Sichuan.

In one of the online English classes where I volunteer, the teacher likes to provide unusual news stories for our adult students to practice their reading on. Recently she gave the class an article from 2016 that astounded us all. After class, I searched online for a follow-up.

In 2016, Tom Phillips wrote at the Guardian, “To attend class, backpack-carrying pupils from Atuler village in Sichuan province must take on an 800-metre rock face, scrambling down rickety ladders and clawing their way over bare rocks as they go.

“Images of their terrifying and potentially deadly 90-minute descent went viral on the Chinese internet [after] they were published in a Beijing newspaper. The photographs were taken by Chen Jie, an award-winning Beijing News photographer. …

“Chen used his WeChat account to describe the moment he first witnessed the village’s 15 school children, aged between six and 15, scaling the cliff. ‘There is no doubt I was shocked.’ … Chen, who spent three days visiting the impoverished community, said the perilous trek, which he undertook three times, was not for the faint of heart.

‘It is very dangerous. You have to be 100% careful,’ he told the Guardian. ‘If you have any kind of accident, you will fall straight into the abyss.’

“So steep was the climb that Zhang Li, a reporter from China’s state broadcaster CCTV who was also dispatched to the mountain, burst into tears as she attempted to reach Atuler village. ‘Do we have to go this way?’ the journalist said as her team edged its way up the cliff face. ‘I don’t want to go.’

“Api Jiti, the head of the 72-family farming community which produces peppers and walnuts, told Beijing News there had been insufficient room to build a school for local children on the mountaintop.

“But the perils were evident. The villager chief told the Beijing News that ‘seven or eight’ villagers had [died] after losing their grip during the climb while many more had been injured. He had once nearly fallen from the mountain himself.

“The trek to school is now considered so grueling that the children have been forced to board, only returning to their mountaintop homes to see their families twice a month.

“Villager Chen Jigu told reporters the wooden ladders used to move up and down the mountain were, like the village, hundreds of years old. ‘We replace a ladder with a new one when we find one of them is rotten,’ he said.”

In the Insider follow-up story, we learn that the government came to the rescue, although not everyone agreed to move. Michelle Mark wrote, “The Chinese government has resettled 84 households who once lived in a remote village at the top of a 2,624-foot cliff.

“The village made international headlines in 2016, after harrowing photos showed young children climbing down the cliff to go to school, descending rickety ladders made of vines and scaling narrow paths without any guardrails or safety devices.

“The villagers have since been moved into apartment buildings near the town center of Zhaojue County in the province of Sichuan, according to the state-run broadcaster CGTN.

“The broadcaster quoted one villager who said Atule’er residents drew lots for their new homes — [the villager] said he was allowed a 1,076-square-foot dwelling because there are five people in his family, and that he was looking forward to accessing services in the new area that were previously unavailable to him. …

“The resettlement of the Atule’er villagers is reportedly part of a broader campaign to house impoverished families in remote villages. The Zhaojue County site is expected to soon house more than 18,000 residents from 4,057 households, according to CGTN.

“Despite the efforts, not all Atule’er villagers were willing to leave their homes. CNN reported that 30 households intended to stay in their clifftop homes, partly due to a newfound tourist economy. Roughly 100,000 people visited Atule’er in 2019, creating some $140,000 in revenue for the village”!

More at the Guardian, here, and at Insider, here.

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Photo: Low Income Housing Institute
Six tiny houses share a common deck in Lake Union Village, Seattle, Washington.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who spend their time trying to make life better for everyone. I know how easy it is to get distracted by headlines featuring people doing the opposite, but I find that focusing on the helpers is better for my mental health. The following article shows how well things can work when a city tries to make life better for everyone by helping those most in need.

At the community development magazine Shelterforce, Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), reported on a hopeful Seattle initiative.

“In 2017, I wrote a piece for Shelterforce on Seattle’s then-emerging effort to build tiny houses to shelter homeless families, couples, and singles. Over the past three years, Seattle has led the country in piloting this response to the homelessness crisis. …

“Tiny house villages are an effective crisis response to homelessness and have proven to be a rapid, cost-effective response with better outcomes than traditional shelters. …

“When Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in January 2018, she authorized the first tiny house village exclusively for homeless women. The Whittier Heights Village is located on property owned by Seattle public utility City Light and shelters single women, same-sex couples, seniors, pregnant women, and women with pets. The mayor also funded two additional villages: True Hope Village, which is church-sponsored and focuses on people of color including families with children; and Lake Union Village (LUV), for singles and couples, located on a city-owned parking lot. All three villages were planned, constructed, and opened in 2018, and together shelter 155 homeless people.

“How did this happen so quickly? The mayor prioritized the need. … A village requires anywhere from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet of vacant land, depending on the number of tiny houses and common facilities to be placed there. There are suitable urban infill sites zoned for residential and mixed use, as well as larger commercial and industrial sites.

“It takes careful research and help from local government to identify good sites, and we were quite surprised to find a large inventory of publicly owned underutilized and surplus sites held by the city, county, state and even the Port of Seattle. We also found multiple nonprofit, private, and church-owned properties that could be used. Nonprofit housing organizations own land that they hope to develop in the future, and these can be used on an interim basis, from two to four years, for a tiny house village.

“Each village needed only four to six months’ lead time to be constructed. … There are 15 to 34 tiny houses at each village, plus shared community kitchens, community meeting space, counseling offices, storage, donation huts, security huts, and plumbed bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.

“An effective partnership between multiple departments in the city and LIHI was key in setting up the villages. … LIHI staff led the effort to raise funds to construct the tiny houses, reaching out to hundreds of donors and volunteers. We applied for permits, led work parties to build the houses, and developed the management and staffing plans.

“We undertook extensive community outreach to neighbors, businesses, and the public, working alongside city staff, including the Seattle Police Department and the Human Services Department, which funds LIHI for operations and services. While not everyone was supportive, they were all provided detailed information on the management plan and code of conduct, and were invited to submit their names to serve on a community advisory committee. Each village, staffed 24/7, has Village Organizers and dedicated case managers to assist people in obtaining long-term housing, employment and services.”

At Shelterforce, here, you can read more details, including Lee’s assessment of how the tiny house approach compares with other initiatives to address homelessness.

Photo: Andrew Constantino
A row of tiny houses in the Georgetown Village in Seattle. I like how residents show their love for their place.

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Photo: Daniella Cheslow/NPR
Jeff Britten stands in the doorway of the Baptist chapel in Haverfordwest, Wales, where he meets regularly with other members of his group sponsoring a refugee family. The name of the group is Croeso Hwlffordd, or Welcome Haverfordwest in Welsh.

What can I say? There are kind people everywhere. This story is about the efforts of residents of a small village in Wales to welcome refugee families from Syria. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do — there are so many differences in experience and culture. But these people knew it was the right thing to do.

Daniella Cheslow writes at National Public Radio, “Back in February, Jeff Britten sent a description of Haverfordwest, his town of 13,000 people in southwestern Wales, to a family of Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

” ‘I ran around town and took pictures of the castle, the best bits, the River Cleddau,’ Britten says. ‘I produced a map which showed the location of the house, and that everything was in walking distance, supermarkets, schools, a mosque. It was all there for them.’

“He hoped the family, whom he contacted with the help of the Home Office, which controls U.K. immigration, would come live in Wales. At that stage, he knew little about them, only that they were Syrians recognized as refugees by the United Nations.

“Britten is 71 and retired from the pharmaceutical industry. The idea to reach out to Syrian refugees came in late 2016, when he heard that two other Welsh villages had adopted refugees from the country, and he called a meeting in a Baptist chapel in his own town to inspire his neighbors to do the same. …

“The refugees have come to Wales as part of a community sponsorship program that began in the U.K. in 2016. A group of British citizens can commit to providing refugees help with housing, navigating schools and doctors, language and the job search.

“Twenty-five Syrian refugee families have arrived and been settled so far in the U.K. via community sponsorship; of those, six families went to Wales. …

“In Haverfordwest, about 30 residents answered Britten’s call and signed up to sponsor the newcomers. … Jenny Blackmore had worked with Syrian refugees in the nearby town of Narberth and noticed that housing was often a stumbling block to fulfilling the government’s conditions. Landlords had to keep their homes open while the Home Office processed the resettlement application, and the government paid a lower rental rate than the market could offer.

“Blackmore’s mother had recently died and left her an inheritance. She invested it in a three-bedroom, two-story rowhouse in the center of Haverfordwest, with the aim of housing a refugee family.

” ‘I decided it would be a sort of fitting legacy, really, to my mum and dad’s memory, to do something — yeah, it’s an investment for my family, but it’s also a kind of investment in people’s lives,’ she says.”

More here.

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Photo: Bjørn/Book Towns
The book town of Fjærland, Norway. About 30 or 40 villages around the world have a high concentration of booksellers who are drawing visitors and building the local economy.

When I was writing my March post about Hobart, an upstate New York village that boasted five bookstores, I learned that the idea of being a “book town” wasn’t an entirely new concept. In fact, there may be as many as 40 book towns around the world.

Unsurprisingly, someone has written a book about them. Sarah Laskow interviewed Book Towns author Alex Johnson for Atlas Obscura.

“What makes a book town? It can’t be too big — not a city, but a genuine town, usually in a rural setting. It has to have bookshops — not one or two, but a real concentration, where a bibliophile might spend hours, even days, browsing. Usually a book town begins with a couple of secondhand bookstores and later grows to offer new books, too.”

Atlas Obscura: “What makes a good book town?”
Alex Johnson: “Well, they’re all very picturesque. That’s one of the reasons they generally get picked. They’re away from cities, so rents are low. … Often, they’ve been in places where economically things have been a bit slim, or the population’s been decreasing as the younger people move away into the cities. Hay-on-Wye, in Wales, was the first one, and it started in 1977.

“How have book towns changed over the past few decades?
“I think they’re actually quite similar to when [bookseller] Richard Booth came up with the idea. He started Hay as a book town very much to regenerate it — to provide employment, keep people in Hay, and provide an actual tourist destination. … Book towns are tiny little places, and people wouldn’t come to them otherwise. …

What does it take to set up a book town that will survive?
“They’ve got to be sensible about providing a large amount of bookshops. You can’t do it with one or two. You need plenty. You need to cover a range of things. Some of the most successful ones have been where it’s not just bookselling. There are publishers or printers or artists or designers. …

“Nearly all bookstore owners, especially secondhand ones, have their own interests. So they tend to specialize in things anyway. … A few places [have] quite a strong central group, but most of them are quite loose. They nearly all have booksellers associations, but it’s quite like a friendly cooperative. …

“If someone wanted to understand the range of book towns, what four or five would you send them to?
“I would definitely go to Hay. … Paju Book City in South Korea. There’s a huge number of publishers and printers there, as well as books. … Clunes, in Australia, has done a very good job of building themselves up. Originally it was a gold rush town, and they quite often shoot films there. …

“Wigtown, in Scotland, is a good example of a place that’s really regenerated. Twenty years ago, it was having a really tough time — shops and industries closing, people moving out. And they’ve absolutely turned it around.

More here.

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Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
“When you see their desire to learn, it gives you a boost of energy,” says Brigitte Dubosclard, who volunteers with refugees.

I can never get enough of stories about people helping people. A good example is seen in this article on a French village welcoming refugees.

Céline Schmitt wrote for the refugee agency UNHCR, “In November 2015, Pessat-Villeneuve, which has a population of 550, opened the doors of the château as a reception and guidance centre for refugees from Calais and Paris. [As of April 2017], it has hosted 136 refugees. …

“[Mayor] Gerard Dubois strongly believes in solidarity, in mutual support, and while it was an easy decision for him to open a reception centre for refugees in Pessat-Villeneuve, he had to persuade residents that it was the right thing to do. It was not as easy task. At a public meeting, organized in November 2015 when the centre was opened, he says he felt like a ‘bull in the ring.’ In the weeks afterwards, he even received death threats, but solidarity was stronger.

“Hatred is noisy,’ he says. ‘Solidarity is quiet, but inspiring and effective.’ …

“Dubois believes that initial fears stemmed from the fact that locals did not know the new arrivals. Any apprehension, he says, disappeared once they had met them. ‘Meeting and getting to know each other changes everything. It’s as simple as that. I don’t call them refugees, but guests.’ …

“Brigitte Dubosclard is a volunteer at the reception centre in Pessat-Villeneuve. A retired teacher, she gives French lessons to the refugees and also runs a clothing store. She was the first to volunteer to help during the public meeting organized by the mayor when the centre opened.

“ ‘When I realized that there was a general feeling of fear, I immediately said that we are here to help, that France is a country that has always welcomed refugees for many years,’ she says. ‘I asked just one question: What do they need?’

“Brigitte opened the clothing store with help from non-profit organizations Secours Populaire Français and Secours Catholique, as well as donations from the public and local shops. …

“Sandrine Menuge has been the head of Pessat-Villeneuve primary school since 2000 and saw the arrival of refugees as an opportunity to talk about diversity with the children in her class. She tasked them to find faces of 100 children throughout the world in 100 days.

“ ‘We searched for photos to see where they come from, what they look like, how they live,’ says Sandrine. …

“One afternoon, she invited two refugees, Mary from Eritrea and Ali from Sudan, to come to the school. The local children asked them about their journey. ‘We looked on the map to see all the countries they had to go through to come to France. They found them very brave.’

“The children also understood why the refugees had to leave their homes. ‘They realized that in some countries, children are afraid that bombs will fall on their heads. It was a wonderful shared moment.’ …

“[Amir, a 27-year-old from Afghanistan,] travelled on foot, by truck and boat, by any means possible, to reach safety.

“ ‘I feel better now,’ he says, from the reception centre in Pessat-Villeneuve. ‘I have accommodation. I have friends. There are good people here. It is important that people understand why we are here. We are refugees. I don’t want to take benefits from the government. I want to start my life for myself.’ ”

More at UNHCR, here. And thanks to my twitter friend Jane for passing this story along.

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According to Josh Planos at the Atlantic, the forward-looking Dutch are at it again. Not only are they on the cutting edge in matters such as energy use and floating forests, they have anticipated the increase in Alzheimer’s diagnoses, creating a village where patients can feel normal.

“The isolated village of Hogewey lies on the outskirts of Amsterdam in the small town of Wheesp. Dubbed ‘Dementia Village’ by CNN, Hogewey is a cutting-edge elderly-care facility — roughly the size of 10 football fields — where residents are given the chance to live seemingly normal lives.

“With only 152 inhabitants, it’s run like a more benevolent version of The Truman Show, if The Truman Show were about dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Like most small villages, it has its own town square, theater, garden, and post office. Unlike typical villages, however, this one has cameras monitoring residents every hour of every day, caretakers posing in street clothes, and only one door in and out of town, all part of a security system designed to keep the community safe. Friends and family are encouraged to visit. Some come every day.

“Last year, CNN reported that residents at Hogewey require fewer medications, eat better, live longer, and appear more joyful than those in standard elderly-care facilities. …

“Residents are only admitted if they’re categorized as having ‘severe cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.’ Vacancies are rare, given that a spot only opens when a current resident passes away, and the village has operated virtually at full capacity since it opened in 2009.

“Hogewey was primarily funded by the Dutch government and cost slightly more than $25 million to build. The cost of care is nearly $8,000 per month, but the Dutch government subsidizes the residents—all of whom receive private rooms—to varying degrees; the amount each family pays is based on income, but never exceeds $3,600.”

More at the Atlantic.

Where did I just hear about someone with Alzheimer’s? Oh, right. A detective series on TV. So moving. Boy, I hope that detective’s daughter knows about this village.

Photo: Gabriel Rocha/Flickr

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I have another unusual library story — this time from China. It’s about a small village that built a magnificent library, drawing admiring visitors and boosting the local economy.

Jane Perlez writes at the New York Times, “The tiny village of Jiaojiehe suffers from being close to the nation’s capital. The young flee easily to the big city, leaving the elderly behind, lonely and poor.

“In today’s China, villages like this often try to engineer a sense of well-being by opening a new medical clinic, say, or by upgrading the water supply.

“But Li Xiaodong, an award-winning architect who fuses traditional Chinese ideas of design with Western themes, had a different idea for Jiaojiehe. He was captivated by the potential he saw in the village’s most abundant natural resource, the branches of its thousands of trees, which the locals harvest for fuel.

“So he built a library — with a twist. At its base, it is a steel and glass box in the vein of a Philip Johnson open-plan creation from the 1950s, but its exterior walls and roof are clad with fruit-tree twigs.

“The spindly sticks are arranged in vertical rows, and their uneven shapes allow natural light to filter into the library’s reading room, while keeping the building cool in the summer and cozy in the winter. They also act as a kind of camouflage, making the library’s rectangular edges barely noticeable in the landscape as visitors approach the village on a narrow, twisting road. …

“The library has a presence on social media, and many of the visitors on the weekend are university students or young professionals. They wander around the village, snap photos of themselves and order the local delicacy, stewed chicken with chestnuts, at one of the restaurants.

“And some of them actually read. Sun Liyang, 27, an automotive journalist, said a friend in Beijing had donated some books after hearing about the library online, and he decided to come for a look. ‘I am sitting here reading “The Adventures of Tintin,” ‘ he said. ‘It’s taking me back to my childhood.’

“Wang Fuying, 57, who used to grow crops in the area, is now the librarian, even though she can barely read. ‘All the library visitors are from the city,’ she said. ‘We have up to 200 visitors a day over the weekend. They come for fun, take a look, take some pictures and take a walk.’

“There are a few flaws. To preserve the wood floor, patrons must remove their shoes at the front door, but in the summer when there are many visitors, the reading room becomes smelly from all the socks, Ms. Wang said. …

“Mr. Li’s projects in other parts of China where he has built small structures in rural areas — including a school built high over a creek — have won many prizes. But few honors seem to have pleased him more than last year’s Moriyama R.A.I.C. International Prize, named for the Canadian-Japanese architect Raymond Moriyama. …

“On a recent weekend, Mr. Moriyama, 85, was one of the visitors to the library. He liked what he saw. ‘I was so happy this particular project won,’ he said. ‘It was all about picking one that represents service to the people. The sense of humanity of the library is so great.’

“The older architect patted Mr. Li on the back. ‘You did good,’ he said. ‘I was not on the jury, and quite often, I disagree with the jury. But in this case, I believe it was 150 percent right.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
Li Xiaodong, a prize-winning architect, was inspired by the branches of local fruit trees, which he used to cover the Liyuan library’s roof and exterior walls.

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