Monday, June 13, 2016

Leaving Tar

Photo by Lobzang Dadul
We left Tar as the apricot blossoms fell, lying in white shadows on the newly greening fields.  The last time we saw this we were more strangers in the village than family, not knowing yet what it would mean to give ourselves to the life of that place through the cycle of the seasons.  One year, and a little more: carrying manure, cleaning yura, preparing the fields to receive the water, plowing, giving the water, herding, planting gardens and alfalfa, weeding, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, cleaning and grinding grain, building a house, gathering earth for stable bedding, woodwork, then celebrating and teaching and resting and holding retreat through the long cold quiet of the winter.  Each day was its own distinct story of labor and hospitality, learning, the strength and exhaustion of the body, mountain-quiet.  A year is brief, especially in those fields, where histories stretch back more than a thousand years.  And yet it was long enough.  There was a whole life contained in those days.  The Tarpa saw us off with a feast of momo and many tears, laden with bags of chuli, pating, starga, tsigu, yos, and tiny rounds of tagi, gifts for our mothers in America.  (sour and sweet apricots, walnuts, apricot nuts, roasted wheat, and bread).

Now the work in Tar continues without us, though the need for help has not lessened.  It is hard, knowing this, and yet knowing also that our work is here in Maine.  It is time for us to start creating a place -- a farm, that grows into a school -- that strives towards the kind of community interdependence and ecological health that we found in Ladakh.

But if you are reading this, and find yourself longing to be of service in this high altitude desert, know that the way is open to you.  Some of our most rewarding times in Tar involved introducing visiting friends of ours to the people and the place, and all working and eating together.  The people of Tar assured us many times that in the future they would love to welcome you (our friends), and could really use your hands, your strong backs, your joy in exploring this mountain place, and your laughter.

If you go:

Please consider carefully the environmental cost of your plane flight.  (If you choose to take this one across the world, consider forgoing several others in the coming years?  Make one trip for several months rather than many for a week at a time?)  With lessening snowfall and shrinking glaciers, the farmers of Ladakh will feel the impact of a changing climate sooner and more directly than many people in the world.

Please consider buying a little yellow book called "Getting Started in Ladakhi" by Rebecca Norman (Becky), and learning as much language as you can.  I can't describe the difference that interacting through the medium of Ladakhi made in our experience and relationships.  You may also be able to meet Becky, a dear friend and an incredible help to us, at SECMOL (contact her before you visit, info at

And please, be in touch with us!  The best thing we feel we can continue to do for folks in Tar is to send our friends and keep building these relationships.  You can reach us by email at and/or  We would love to help you prepare and connect with folks there in a meaningful way.

Thanks for Reading
With Love,
Caitlin and Jason

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Springtime Walk over the Ladakh Range

Photo by Stanzin Norboo

The sun blows a steady cold wind down from high passes this morning.  The people burn dung, a little willow, build stone upon stone, and wires are strung far across the gorge.  Steep sliding sides, pigeons in new-ploughed fields, tea and chang at the start and end of Domkhar Gongma.

We walk up from apricot country, Barma, old white stones of stream bed shining in clear sun, smoothed to giant eggs by time, uncounted.  Their dark specks glisten in a crushed-rock water channel.

Questions about Lhargyap, stories of wives young gone over the pass: a day to the high pasture, another day to the town, so they say.  The old link lives, tough to travel: expect snow and crevasses.  Sun set was long, catching halos aflame around rough-cheeked shepherds -- young ones too -- with an unruly herd at a knoll-top earth house, high valley opening to the west.

A planned 'calm' in Syria, hospital destroyed in Aleppo, sharp critiques and satire of American empire on Russian, French, German news.  Snow peaks glow red, then pink.  Stanzin Norbu (Shara) speaks of a rescue, white out in Zanskar in August, looking for a crevasse-fallen lone Frenchman who cut stairs with his swiss army knife and made it out.  We speak of a farm and school to be, of plans, canoes and rivers, and the possibility of a many-month journey by foot all over Ladakh, criss-crossing the ranges.  Domkhar valley is long, the valley of the palace on a rock.


Paba thukpa (boiled bread and greens soup), intense eyes of an ama, a young bride from Changtang, and stories and directions today on the way to Lhargyap, which just means 'across the pass.'  Tharu, the village is also called.  An azhang pushing a rbat (wooden rake) -- "Don't go!" he and his wife say. "Can't do it.  No oxygen! Lots of snow!"  They've never made the crossing themselves, but the man went most of the way to the pass with a tourist group, one time.  Shara repeats the directions, again and again, drawing in the dirt.

Hiking along the stream, valley grows wide at the sumdo -- meeting of three high valleys.  Turtuk up a big valley left, to the northwest.  Angling right, but crossing to the bank to our left to escape gullies full of drifts of windblown snow.  We hear ribja (Tibetan snowcock), companions for all journeys in these high places.  Meet a grandfather, Shara's friend's brother, and he offers helpful words, guidance.  He has 70 in the herd, mostly goats.  He makes blankets in the winter time.

We are at the first pulu (high pasture summer settlement) and we curl up in a dry short-grass hollow of walls.  We found wood at the second shepherd's hut (which has wooden beams bridged by flat slabs of stone supporting the earth roof), and we stay at the third.  A few songbirds appear, one like a grackel.  Hopping along the snow surface on twiggy legs.  We fell through, socks and shoes wet as we crossed to the dry side.  There is a tale of 150 mountain goats seen all together in these valleys.


A high gentle ridgeline eases into view, its face a shining smooth white-blue belly of snow.  Shadow of a tall man, shoulders furry, walking stick pumping up and down every two steps, leading my way.  Rhythm and vast mountains, a whole world of snow and slopes.

A scramble up boulders and through pits of deep snow; weasel and fox paths crossing ours, or perhaps the small one is a zebra (a pika or mouse-hare).  A phia (marmot) sends out several streams of whistle-squeaks, listening in between, as we approach up the flat ice of the valley floor -- calling in warning to others, no doubt.  He sits on all fours, then stands up straight, then down, up, and slowly into the hole, small tail flips.  We saw his tracks in mud yesterday, metacarpal pad, four toes outstretched in front (like an otter print but toes more forward), claws showing clearly.

A lone white-winged redstart perched in the middle of a snowfield today, watching, then flitting and flying off in the hot sun.


Night of confusion and restlessness -- barely slept.  Where is the pass?

Shara's boots are soaked and frozen solid.  Finally, too late, the topo maps surface on a smart phone, with no battery left to examine them.

We head west in shining sun and snow, a full pot of maple butter sngampe porridge in my belly.  Shara doesn't eat.  I worry.  But we are high now, closer to Tharu than Domkhar, and the weather is crystal clear.

Over a false pass, a second, and up far up a third, I kick steps.  Pole plant, first, second, wait.  Again.  The dance of climbing the Ladakh Range.  A meditation.  Mara taunting at every turn of the mind.  And a steady being, in place, with each crunching step, pressed into the mountain.

We eat butter and bread we have saved.  Still three healthy days of sngampe in the packbasket.  We can camp on this snow.  We have kerosene.  The final push, but the other side of the heights we reach is a huge cornice and below, impossible cliffs.  Not the pass.

The pass we see below.  Back near our campsite.  Along ridgeline then, slow hours baking and windswept, and down a boundless snow slope, ropes tied around waists, zigzag of soft north face.  Down and across a new valley to camp, in the hollow melted out by a huge boulder, and under its roof, sun setting behind that same sharp corniced ridge atop which we stood.

And from the top: a world of icy peaks, kang ri, melting valleys of Nubra winking around corners, above the valleys and the great Nubra river beyond and the mountains rising beyond that are the Sa Ser peaks of Karakorum, heights of the crumpled and uplifted Asian tectonic plate.  The other way, south, lies the Sham Range and, beyond that, the shining mountains of Zanskar, with Nun and Kun at over 7000 meters towering, their great flat face impossible to fathom, coming into shadow as the sun begins its descent.  Looking down, we are head and shoulders above even that high world of snow valleys below.  Banks of cloud rest away east over Changtang, and a few Gangetic Plain thunderheads spew up, far off.

Photo by Stanzin Norboo


Ridgeline fear, sheer drops.  Ice axe, heavy rope.  Shara looks over the cornice edge.  "Just catch me," he says.  Yesterday's visions swim.  It was another cold night but less sleepless.

This walk through a high snow world feels cleansing.  Far from the soft earth of fields.  The superfluous cast aside, or dropping away, unnoticed, on a packed valley of snow.

We melted ice chunks for water and packed the full bottles with my body for the night.  Burned rice and dahl -- too much, we toss it.

Today a descent across rolling packed snow meadows, down sliding the debris of kharut: snow floods.  Balls and sculptures of ice stand on immaculate surfaces, partly melted away into weird shapes by sun, trails sweeping up and around contours to deep rock clefts above.  This was a glacial pond that burst -- how many times?  Its gates are of rubble and soil, great mounds on which lean low walls of snow and ice.

Pass the valley wide on the right, see a high shoulder (does that way lead to Teya? back over passes to the long, straight valley cut down to the Indus?)  Turn the corner, and the guardians of the descent to Nubra arise one a mosaic of hard rock sharp teeth, the other unfathomable, both towering.  We could see the heights of this second kang ri even from our under-boulder camp, an intricate sculpture of orange rock and snow we first glimpsed in one fullness from above.

As we pass, its hidden steps reveal masses of ice, blue cliffs upon cliffs, ready to spill, one sharp snow-tooth above and beyond it all.  An answering ice mountain, its wave high and serene, completes the symmetry.  Under all this ice and snow is wet soil that will bear plants come June.  Two, three doksa (shepherd's huts) and we halt on a spang meadow, thousands of ice steps behind.  There is a house, round stones all tucked in corners, mortared inside, with great slabs beautifully set for shelves, caked with soot, plants hanging from the ceiling with leaves that catch my eye like sooty dried red peppers.  The house is simple and beautifully crafted.  Shara says: 'Looks like the ancients made it.'


Down, down, ice and rock.  Glacier upon glacier towering to each side.  Kang ri means the mountain, and it means the ice.  They are not separate, on the Ladakhi tongue.  Clear clear waters tumble through tight passages, where vast horizontal moiraine cones lay far into the valley, their ends cut and carried and tossed in piles of shining white, gray-blue, and rust-red.  Ice thins in spots, two feet thick next to open water, and steep now, snowy surface crunching underfoot.

A path ascends the right-hand wall of the valley above cliffs, its stones pried into place and leveled by hand, now beginning to fall apart.  There, from a perch, we see two hundred yaks, all spread amongst the fields of the village, Tharu Gongma, in the lee of whose shepherd huts we slept through the night, awaking to grey skies giving way to first drenching rays of sun, and a phantom pyramid peak huge and clear, that vanished as the light rose.

Soon we are sitting inside earth-brick walls by the hearth with an energetic, beautiful old woman with reddened, almost tearful eyes.  She praises the boldness of our crossing and refills our cups with butter tea, then a strong and tangy chang.  The yulpa (villagers) were surprised to see us.

Shara employs a strategy with which I fully concur: talk with everyone you can in these high, pass-access villages.  Learn about them, their families, children and schools, farming and herding practices, and the ways they have passed over the mountains.  It's a way to come to know them, and their place, which provides everything.

No phones here, as we try to send word to our homes that we are safely in Nubra.  A rockslide-blocked jeep road and a stranded Tata pickup are the only connection of this twenty-household village to the outside, that and legs.

As the sun sneaks behind a high dry west ridge two villages down in Patsathang later that day, we meet two small groups of boys and young men, on their way up the two hour walk to their homes, returning from school and work for the ploughing.  Piles of manure on the fields in Tharu, and the tiniest yaks I've ever seen, balls of soft black hair lying curled up in morning sun.  Their phu (high pasture) is melting out, and it will be some weeks yet before it truly greens.


Start date April 29, 2016
Day 1: Domkhar Barma (middle village) ~3700m to Porotsepa household in Kurambek village at 4150m
Day 2: to Kurambek Doksa, 4700m
Day 3: to Camp 1, 5126m, on snow
Day 4: over peak 5747m and over pass to Camp 2, 5290m, on snow under the boulder
Day 5: to Tharu Gongma Doksa, 4550m, off snow
Day 6: to Patsathang, 3611m

I realized on the trip that every piece of clothing I wore is wool.  Down sleeping bag, wool blanket, pack basket.  Three season tent.  Sheep pelt vest/sleeping mat.  Topographic maps and a 'GPS essentials' smart phone app for altitude and mapping.  Lots of talking with villagers and advice about the route beforehand.  An understanding that we may return in failure.  Two stoves, one kerosene, the other a wood-burning homemade rocket stove made from a Chinese thermos shell.  The weather was highly favorable.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Melting Ice and Black Carbon

Photo by Lobzang Dadul

The greatest noticeable effects of global climate change in the Ladakh Himalaya these days are the shrinking of the glaciers and the increasing volatility of the weather.  This volatility we experienced this year in Tar village as below-average snowfall in winter and freak rains during the summer.  These rains would by no means have been unusual in Maine or many other places, but here the houses’ walls and roofs are made of earth, and when it rains they fall apart.  Also, flooding is a serious issue in this high desert landscape that has washed away houses, trees, water-powered grain mills, and even people in recent years.  The Tarpas (“people of Tar”) tell us they never had tarps for their roofs (which must be dumped by hand) until a decade or two ago, and they never needed them.  During a summer like this one, that is hard to imagine.  Without them (sometimes even with them), the earth roof leaks through onto everything and everyone in the rooms inside.

The clear general trend of glaciers throughout the Himalaya is that they are shrinking in area and losing mass in the Karakoram, in Ladakh, in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.  That means they will produce less melt water in the future, if they aren’t already.  The many rivers with important dry-season sources in the Himalaya help support between 1.3 and 2.5 billion people.  For farmers in Ladakh, an additional challenge beyond having less water is that the melt water comes earlier, often too early for the planting, and slacks off while the crops still need weekly watering.  Here, no one counts on rain.  “The air temperature increase varies in different parts of the vast Himalayan region, but in almost every area the rate of warming is dramatically higher than the worldwide average.  Over the northwest Indian Himalaya, for example, temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees C over the past century.” (Jonathon Mingle, Fire and Ice

I’ve just finished reading a book called Fire and Ice by Jonathon Mingle, a fellow from Vermont who has travelled through this region quite a bit as a teacher and writer and aid worker.  The book chronicles changes in a Ladakhi village in Zanskar.  It is mostly about climate change and in particular about something called “black carbon”.

Black carbon is what it sounds like – unburned organic carbon that escapes an inefficient fire as minute floating particles and becomes part of soot and smog.  There are other airborne products of inefficient fires such as brown carbon and other aerosols, but black carbon causes the most warming of them all, mostly because it turns so much of the sun’s light into heat.  It is widely agreed by scientists to be the second most important global climate forcer after carbon dioxide, and it is a much different and faster-acting agent of warming for three reasons.  One, it absorbs sunlight and warms the air directly around it immediately, as does the great cloud of smog that hangs over the Gangetic Plain of northern India, especially in winter with the increased use of biomass heating and cooking fires.  Two, it blows onto glaciers and ice sheets (locally and at greater distances) and reduces the ice’s reflectivity – the ice sheet becomes visibly dirty and melts much faster than it would have otherwise.  Much of Greenland’s ice sheet is suffering from this today.  So are the Arctic and the Himalayas.  And three, even if airborne black carbon isn’t immediately deposited near to its source, it only lasts about one or two weeks in the atmosphere.
The four major sources of black carbon are diesel engines, coal, open burning of biomass (agricultural waste, forest fires), and cooking/heating fires in simple stoves fuelled by wood, dung, waste, and coal.

About three billion people are still cooking and heating using inefficient stoves that smoke up their houses and their lungs, causing more than four million premature deaths in 2010, from pneumonia, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  This is a really major health issue that gets little attention in our world, which is wealthy enough to do something about it.  These stoves also constitute a major source of black carbon.  

So Mingle recommends diesel particulate filters on vehicles, improved efficiency coal-fired brick kilns, funnelling agricultural waste into efficient energy production, and replacing half a billion smoky stoves with efficient, clean-burning ones.  He makes a compelling case for the benefits of targeting and reducing these sources of black carbon right now (while acting also to reduce greenhouse gases), thus reaping immediate benefits.  He paints the picture that targeting black carbon in a major way right now could buy us time over the next couple of decades to get our carbon emissions in order.  Scientists have likened reduction of black carbon emissions as an “emergency brake” for humanity because we produce lots every day right now, to stop doing so is fully within our technological capacity, and black carbon’s warming is significant and occurs mostly within a very short window of time (whereas carbon dioxide warms the earth for hundreds to thousands of years).


At SECMOL we have an hour of English Conversation Class every evening, and once this month we decided to discuss climate change.  Water is at the center of the challenges from climate change that Ladakhis face these days.  The students in one group asked me, piecing it together in English: “Why must we face these problems when they have been caused by people in other far away countries?”  That’s a tough one to answer.  I asked in response: “Do you think people in my country, who became wealthy by burning these fuels, have a responsibility to help people in your country, who did not burn the fuels but still face these problems?”  I expected: “Yes!”  Instead, a bright, mischievous, creative sixteen-year-old man spoke these words: “They can help if they want.  We are satisfied…When we build a new yuracanal, we can put the stone there, and it’s okay.”

I had opened the class by telling the students and volunteers a bit about black carbon, but first I posed a basic question – “What causes climate change?” We received an unexpected, prescient answer that stopped me in my tracks.  Do Americans tend to lack this clarity of thought?  One young man raised his hand and earnestly responded: “Human desire.”

Friday, December 25, 2015


Photo by Mira van Dongen 

Throughout the summer we labored to exhaustion, all waking hours in motion, farming by hand.  We bent our bodies to the earth.  We cut and callused our hands.  Our backs ached.  At the end of some days Caitlin was close to tears.  I went numb and silent some evenings; and it was all we could do to cook a meal and fall asleep beneath the stars.  Usually I would read while Caitlin cooked dinner.  The stories we read (the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Walking with the Comrades and essays by Arundhati Roy, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) were part of a process of reaching outward, searching for a resonance of experience, and locating ourselves in our place and time in relation to other lives.  Reading about the Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl to California, reading about indigenous villages in the Narmada River Valley being flooded by the government of India in this new millennium, reading about war and bombs, atomic and otherwise – it strikes us that this work we are doing of bringing sustenance from the land with care is peace work.  It is work that directly concerns the freedom of people.  If we can bend our backs to this, then maybe there doesn’t need to be war over resources.  Maybe there actually doesn’t need to be slavery (economic or otherwise) anymore in this world.

In August, a sudden bloom of white-winged butterflies filled the air.  One evening, after a long dry day of shepherding and gleaning fallen seed heads from the brown barley fields, Caitlin cooked supper on the outdoor wood stove while we read Walking with the Comrades with our adopted American little brother Ben.  Dubbed by the locals ‘Senge Namgyal’ for Ladakh’s greatest king and builder of palaces, he came with a student group in July and felt drawn to the people and the work of this remote village.  He decided to stay on for the fall.  Walking with the Comrades details the story of Arundhati Roy’s journey to the forests of Dandakaranya in central India in 2011.  There mining interests are moving in, and an indigenous Adivasi population has transformed into an armed Maoist revolution.

Many indigenous populations in India were written out of their land when the new Indian state’s constitution ratified coonial policy and dlared that all undeeded lands (in effect all lands of illiterate people) now belonged to the state.  The people of the Forest Department (in their minds, removing illegal residents) trampled crops with elephants and burned the fields of people who knew only their ways of living from the land.  This violence and oppression went on for years until the newly formed Maoist forces moved in and violently pushed the Forest Department out.  The Maoists had gained some power and trust of the local people by organizing strikes that were effective in moving the wages of gatherers of forest products toward less exploitative rates.  In response to the Maoists, the government sent in police forces whose presence has meant only continuing terror for most Adivasis.  Many regular people saw their livelihoods destroyed, their friends and families jailed, raped, and murdered by state-sponsored police actions.  Enlistments into the Maoist People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army skyrocketed.

How different are our desires and the desires of these Adivasi people, who are forced from their lands and lives without access to literacy, money, or a process of justice?  We want a peaceful life rooted in the land.  And yet how incredibly different are the conditions of our lives?  How different from these Adivasis are the desires of the Ladakhi people with whom we have the privilege to live and work each day?  None of us want any alien force invading our lives, forcing us out, making our lives miserable.  And yet some people receive such treatment, and others do not.  Why?  What would we do if we were born in Dandakaranya, without the privileges of plenty of food, fine education, enough money, access to land and dignified jobs?  Would we also pick up weapons and take to the woods, a final and dangerous choice for some kind of power in the face of forces that are bent on our destruction?  Or would we give up, move to the slums of a city, and scrape a living selling our labor or our bodies, malnourished, without clean water?  We speak together about this.  We don’t know the answers.

Is mining bauxite worth forcing people to make these kinds of choices?

From Roy’s reporting, the Maoist leaders are by no means perfect.  However, they do have a direct understanding of the lives and concerns of the people of the area – they all live in the same woods – and they do represent an alternative position to the dominant one, which places resource extraction before people’s sustainable livelihoods.  I wish the government of India and the states involved would sit down with the Maoist leaders and actually try to figure out a deal that would modestly benefit all parties.  Instead, Indian elites seem to be happy to throw money and lives into a war against their own citizens so that their compatriots’ mining companies can clear the forests, tear resources from the earth, and strike it rich.  The profits they make doing this are absurd, on the order of hundreds of times their capital investments.

My intention in relating this story is not to point blame at India or at certain Indian people.  The U.S. government is guilty of far more crimes and far worse ones than the Indian government.  This story of modern day India echoes throughout the history of the world and particularly through the appalling story of white supremacy and white power that continues today.  The histories most of us learn in school are subtly changed; they acknowledge the endless conquests, wars and genocides, yet leave our people and our past and current ruling elites somehow absolved of wrongdoing.  Also, the direct flow between the miseries of far-off ecosystems and people, and the daily consumption of the global north, remains ignored or dulled down.  Turn on the TV for ten minutes and you will understand the profit motive and the way it plays on our emotions and seeps into our minds.  ‘All is copacetic, and I really could use a new spring style.’ Behind this veil, a global Empire has grown around us.

The atrocities of this Empire are legion.  One example: in the ten years that followed the first U.S.-led bombing and invasion of Iraq (in January 1991), about half a million Iraqi children died as a result of U.S. economic sanctions (Arnove, Iraq Under Siege).  They died because they lacked food, clean water, and medical care.  Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said with regard to this: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.’(1)  Who’s ‘we’?  She didn’t lose her job.  Iraq holds some of the largest oil reserves in the world.  Who earned multi-billion dollar contracts for reconstructing Iraq’s infrastructure after the second U.S. invasion in 2003?  Halliburton and Bechtel, both of which are business partners with the Bush administration.  Who controls that oil now?

The ruthless human quest for economic power is anything but new.  It has led to genocide time and again.  American Indians – that is called ‘colonialism.’  Africans, 30 million kidnapped and transported to the states alone, half of whom died on the way.  And now victims of climate change, dying from the privileged world’s two hundred years of reckless fossil fueled power.  To name a few.  Here’s something our ally Winston Churchill said in 1937 about the Palestinians:

‘I do not agree that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time.  I do not admit that right.  I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia.  I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’(2)

He’s one of those heroes of our civilization, right?  Defeated the Nazis, yes?

In 1945 we dropped atomic bombs on Japanese people (not soldiers) and scared them so much they surrendered.  Every year since then we have bombed and gone to war against poor countries.  Every year.  Can we talk about this?  Did Vietnam (1961-73) and Panama (1989) pose credible threats to the American people?  What force on earth could provoke such behavior?  What are the consequences of affluence?  How much do we love the American Dream?

It’s wonderful that modern peacefulness in the industrialized world supports a rejection of violence and discrimination based on income level, political views, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, and so on.  However, actually defending this kind of justice in the world outside the rich countries would take some major economic transformations, and some sacrifices by us, the privileged few.

Wealth, power, and aggression do seem to inspire a certain kind of respect.  When an Indian engineer visited the village of Tar to plan the first electric grid, soon to be installed, we sat down together and he asked me where I am from.  ‘America,’ I say.  ‘Very nice!  Very nice!’ he responds.  I don’t know where to begin.  What does he know of this legendary place?  What has Hollywood shown him?

This fellow came off as kind and pragmatic, down-to earth.  Then a tall man approached from behind him with bold steps.  The rushing waters muffled his footfalls.  The tall man strode up and tapped the rock behind the engineer loudly with a stick.  The engineer started, whipped his head around to see who it was, and as he turned back to me his voice suddenly doubled in volume.  He began a proud and passionate stream of language about ‘India’ (this word he yelled) and a new great age and how they would bring civilization to all ‘backward’ places, ‘no matter the cost!’  I was alarmed (I usually think the costs are worth considering), and managed to say: ‘You must really want to help these people,’ glancing at the tall man with the cavalier grin standing behind him.  ‘I just get excited sometimes,’ he said with a bashful smile.

In this part of India people are seeing some benefits of ‘development’.  In other parts tens of millions of people who were living from the land and had almost no carbon footprint are no wage laborers in slums or worse, because their villages and forests have been flooded by big dams.  Now their lives are entirely dependent on fossil fuels.  They were ‘backward’ places.  I wonder how they feel about entering civilization.

Tar, this village, now protected from Pakistan by the Indian military (which includes its own sons), is still sane enough and remote enough to be a place where the relationship between the human community and the wild remains intact.  The snow leopards and wolves walk the paths of the people at night.  The ibex are fed by the villagers, by the soil and crops they nurture, as inadvertently and inevitably as are fed the insects and mice who eat the excess seeds, and the lizards and foxes who feed on them in turn.  Villagers occasionally lose a goat, a sheep, or a cow to the big predators, but they do not have a snow leopard ‘problem’.  No one sets out to exterminate anyone else.  The people are in living, knowing relationship with these wild inhabitants of the world as well as with every member of their human community.  There is no such thing as not knowing your neighbor.  

The people here all depend on each other; they know each other intimately, they get along, they share in lots of healthy outdoor work, they listen even when they disagree, and their religion encourages tolerance and placing others’ interests first.  They grow nearly all of their own grains, beans, and vegetables, and eat very little meat.  They know how to build new houses of local materials, and repair the old ones.  They have a firm hold on the basis of their lives, and their deep happiness in that is tangible – impossible to miss.

There are ways to live and work with the earth that produce the abundance we need, that increase the biodiversity and health of land, and that create lifeways that do not require harming other landbases.
India and many other ‘developing’ countries (who did or did not get bombed by us) are following America’s model these days, their populations willing or not, generally to the great detriment of their human and non-human populations.  Foreign ‘aid’, for the most part, enslaves those countries to us.(3)

Some questions arise for me: Can we Americans stop asking so much of other places and other people (in oil, food, clothes, labor, ‘products’, metal, and medicine, to name a few)?  Can we figure out how to produce what we need and take the steps to do so?  Could we one day start offering (not selling) the precious surplus of our lives and land to those in greater need?

That’s a kind of economics I could get behind.

(1): Arundhati Roy, 'Come September' in An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2005. 
(2): Quoted in editorial, 'Scurrying Towards Bethlehem,' New Left Review 10, 2nd series, July/August 2001, p.9, n.5.
(3): John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, 2004.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Photo by Isabella Pezzulo

The village pathways, the fields, the gardens, the open channels are all defined by stone.  Of all shapes and sizes, the stones stack together, wedged with others, packed behind with earth, the walls leaning ever so slightly uphill, or bulging out with the irrepressible weight of a thousand years of soil they hold away from the rushing stream that clears it all toward the distant sea.

After the flood died down in August we gathered stones and blocked the stream completely, as best we could, guiding the flow into long-established side channels that bring cool water to our doorstep and to the fields.  Konchok and I tore apart a vertical stream bank, earth and huge flakes of stone, let them fall, and stacked them into thirty new yards of yura (channel) to bring water to thirsty, sappy, dark-barked apricot trees and a field of dal (lentils).

In the orchard, we walk up flat steps of stone that emerge from a vertical wall.  They are as solid as any staircase, even the step where a crack runs from the end perfectly down its middle to the wall in which it rests.  The steps are special long flat stones that extend deep into the wall, supported by decades of compression.

Guiding the flow and pool of water is an art, imperfect, and inevitably the water escapes its careful bounds, the yura clogs with leaves, and the water pours over a wall at night in a place we did not expect.  The liquid soaks in, finds its way between stones, eats and drinks earth, loosens old holdings, and in the morning we find a V-shaped collapse, a wall of packed soil exposed, a strip several inches wide of field lost above, a pile of stone and earth below.  We dig out the collapse.  We find firm foundations, and build up, stone by stone, backfilling and packing as we go.  The small pick and the shovel (thokse and khem) help our work.

How long have these walls stood?  From across the valley, at just the right angle, the whole slope, planted with trees, looks like a massive, continuous wall of stone.  Within the labrynth, yura plunge down between field edges, and especially in the dark you feel a wondering as to which level of the six to ten terraces between stream bed and homes you're on.  How many times has each wall, of each level, been rebuilt, in the last thousand years?  The very first work we did on arrival in the village was digging and lifting stones from a pile, replacing eight vertical feet of a stretch of twelve foot wall, one level above where the stream flows out of the corner of town and crashes and slips down the gorge to the Indus.  Acho Tsewang directed us a bit, worked with us, then sat and chatted for the rest of the time and let us do it.  This was our training.  A little later we raked earth above this wall into a low mounded ridge to hold the water in the field and away from the stones.  At key locations, this earth wall has an opening that allows water down to a short stone chute that juts out from the wall, water cascading down into the next yura below.

After the flood I helped Meme (grandfather) Angchuk rebuild a yura entrance that had completely ceased to exist.  The yura is cut through the campsite just above town, and beyond the stone wall that borders the campsite the streambed now lay three feet below its level.  Oops.  Upstream the level of the rock bed rose, and we spied a couple of boulders half-blocking the stream at about the same level as our target.  An opportunity!  Over the course of three mornings and two evenings (I took the sheep and goats to the mountains during the days), beginning with giant stones we rolled together with manly grunts end over end from where they had broken off the mountain, we built a new channel. From the boulders, three feet tall and wide, fifteen feet long, it brings water flooding again into the yura and off to the fields and gardens.  We dropped huge stones into the water, we shaped them with hammers, we fit them tightly together.  We brought armfuls of smaller stones and baskets full of smaller ones down to sand, filling and filling the spaces and packing them to resist the water.  A couple of tarps to pad the leakiest sides and string between the boulders, and water surged anew.  I never would have dreamed of such a project, and now, with one of my ring fingernails gone, with the baskets and strong backs of Ama Balu and Ama Yangzes, with the silent work of Meme Angchuk's son Angdus, with the quiet bass cleft urgings and creakings and words of Meme Angchuk, and with the deep confidence of village stonemasons reaching back generations living in his content grinning face, it was done.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

October, waning moon

Photo by Nate Smith

Rising in the northern sky
Joining the dark ridge
With a white river of stars
Then, past midnight, Orion

Dawn, lighting slow, night-
blue still in the upper sky
Bright crescent hanging
Namlangs Garshan, morning star
Its anchoring point of light

Red on western peaks
First sunlight, nyima neartse
Dark shapes flying fast
So that they break the air, air
rushing in after they pass

Wild, white-seeded vines
The low fast sound of water
Yellow willow, stones,
Umbu leaves dusk-colored rose
Or on the dry slope, flaming

Stones falling clatter
Leaving trails of hanging dust
Sight catches motion
Ibex-- first two, then many
Moving high over the scree

Quiet, grazing, then
Sharp whistles from the sentry
The whole herd running
Pale clouds lifting where they step
We watch their passing, then rise.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wheat Harvest

Wheat harvest began as apricots fell thickly from the trees, golden on the bare soil of the barley fields, among the standing wheat – dark, swollen, piling around rocks in the flowing yuras.  Only six houses – including ours – had crops to bring in.  Most people in the village plant every other year, alternating with field peas.  The others spent their days on rooftops, pitting apricots and laying them in the sun to dry.

A stone had fallen from a terrace wall onto my foot as we moved the threshing machine, and walking was painful for me.  We slept those nights at Ache Tashi’s house, waking to drink hot water with her in the dim light of early dawn, and then going together out to work.

We arrived to Ache Konchok Palmo’s just as she finished harvesting her small, late plot of peas.  She must have started working in the dark.  Abi Dolkar had joined us on our way across the fields; Ama Thinlas came soon after, and then Ama Kunzes.  When the crew was all assembled, working quietly, sleepily, in the glow of rising light, Ache KP’s father Meme Angchuk carried out tea and bread.  Ama Thinlas had brought a tin of fresh, bright butter, flowing those days in incredible abundance from their home, arriving in tea in huge, melting chunks.

We worked all day, laughing, teasing, often singing.  “Nilza Angmo, yangsol sal-le, ju ju,” the amas would say.  “Nilza Angmo, please give the yangsol (the harvest-song call).”

Just before dusk, finished, the others went to move the threshing machine again.  I could hear faint threads of their shouting and laughter as I made a bed and lay down on the roof to sleep.

The next day of harvesting was Ache Tashi’s.  Twelve people came to carry the work, and her three fields were finished by the time the sun went behind the mountains.  Somapi zhing sngaata?”  “Should we harvest Somapa’s field?”  Our field was watered, and ready.  Gratefully, joyfully, I said yes.  Abi Dolkar left to bring back tea and chhang, and the rest of us began the harvest of the wheat that will feed us through this coming winter.

We worked until the dusk, then stopped to eat and drink as if the night were not almost upon us, and half a field still standing.  The grandfathers drank rum, finishing a bottle between them.  “Bring another like that, and I’ll finish your field myself!” Meme Rinchen boasted.  “I don’t have any!” I said.  He threw up his hands in mock fury, and began his unsteady way back across the village. 

Everyone else, undeterred by the growing dark, rose from their recline on the new-fallen wheat and bent to work.  “It will be easy if there is singing,” Ama Thinlas told me quietly.  Ache KP and I held the yangsol then, not letting it fall until the last handfuls were pulled, unseen, in the full-gathered night.

Ama Thinlas, Ache Kunzes, and then the harvest was done.  Heavy days came then, of carrying loads bigger than I knew that I could lift – golden bundles bound with ropes and borne through the precipitous labyrinth of the village.  Threshing felt brief this time, the crop so much smaller than the barley.  From the high path the village recalled spring to the eye – fields all clean, brown earth but for the trees in full leaf at their edges.

The day after Ama Thinlas’ wheat was threshed, Jason and I walked up into the mountains.  A week later, it rained – the first to fall since the flood, nearly fifty days before.  The grain was all stored in giant sacks in the lower rooms of houses – dry, safe, waiting to be ground for winter flour.

This year, no bombs came to Tar, as they did to Iraq.  No tanks, no trucks, no guns.  This year, no dam made waters rise around the houses, as it did in the Narmada valley.  This year has been a good one in this village; the work of living is hard enough when no disaster comes.

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit