Friday, January 30, 2015

To Be of Use

Thin crescent moon rising just south of the scorpion on the horizon; 5:30 am, black sky, desert cold. We went to the kitchen to begin to help with breakfast preparation. Several students were there already, working with Binoy. The fire underneath the mass-heater barrel stoves in the corner gave smoke, hanging in a rolling layer above our heads. Jason and I shelled peas, my fingers frozen, working just well enough over cold-water washed pods. “You would like to drink thukpa?” One of the young women served out bowls of hot, hot broth, some dark, rich pulse and dried yak cheese at the bottom of each. I held it in both hands, grateful. Two others began rolling pieces of dough from a central mound into snakes, cutting these into palm-sized lumps, to roll out into tagi, Ladakhi flatbread. The tiny orange cat roamed freely among the pots beneath the central wooden table where we worked. “You have seen the moon? The stars this morning?” Binoy asked as I rose, peas shelled.
There were many small, thick rolling pins, and I joined in making tagi—I felt surprised and pleased by how round and regular they were. This is a Ladakhi art in which I wish for mastery by the time we leave.
We worked until the sun rose, light coming into the small, shadowed kitchen from the window and double doors on the southern wall. Binoy sat by a wide, saucer-shaped griddle, cooking the rounds dry on the iron surface. The girls rolling dough across the table sang or laughed gently and constantly as they worked; students began to fill the common room, drinking tea, strumming open chords on the out-of-tune community guitars, filing in and out of the kitchen yet somehow never in the way. The kitchen is the warm, live heart, hearthfire giving the community a center. Like all communities, maybe.
At nine the first bell rang, calling half of the students to hockey practice and the other half to work, exchanging after an hour. Moving in pairs we carried dry, light brown compost on old grain sacks into the garden. One girl stood at the mound with a shovel and pickaxe, loading the sacks as we returned with them. They dig the toilets out in the summertime, after the chamber is full and walled for at least one year. As dry as it is here, it is hard to see the difference between dust and the richness of the toilet waste, the garden (and all of the fields’) sole input.
After tea at eleven the groups divided again, for English class or English conversation. Jason and I have taken on the class, beginning by teaching Levon Helm’s “This Mountain’s My Home.” I feel humbled, in sight of such mountains as these, to tell the story of the southern Appalachians, of strip mining and mountaintop removal. We work though each verse, line by line, talking about words and concepts before singing all together. There is not a good translation in Ladakhi—there are words for harvesting, but no verb that means anything like “to extract without returning”. “Why do people in America do this?” one young woman asked.

(If you have not read Marge Piercy’s poem by the same title as this entry, by all means, find it and do so!)

A Beginning

Nyima sharches

We walked to the Indus on our first morning here in rising light, light pink on high clouds above lower, thick banks and grey ridges. The mountains on the southern edge of the river—also to the west, to the north, to the northeast, almost a full bowl around us—rose high and intensely steep, thin snow showing the sharp banding of the rocks, as I’ve seen it in pictures on the face of Kailash. La-dags, the place of high passes: to be in this place begs a constant attention to the form of the land.

Early on the 15th of January we boarded our last plane, traveling up from Delhi and over the Himalaya. From the impossible vantage of flight I saw peaks running out in every direction, parallel and square lines of rock and valley, all densely white with the winter’s snowpack. Snow cracked in some of the high places, the seeds of avalanches that only stones would feel. Then we were descending, just an hour after leaving the intensely human landscape of Delhi, to the broad, brown gravel field of the Leh valley.
We walked down from the plane and onto the tarmac, into the clear, bright air of the desert, sharp and dry in the lungs as the surface of ice. Past unsmiling army guards at the doors holding silver semi-automatic weapons, we came through the airport, many people laughing and admiring our baskets and vests. An old Ladakhi woman in a maroon goncha rubbed my skirt between her fingers, patting my shoulder approvingly. “Where you are coming from?” we were asked, many times. And then, for the first time: “This is your traditional dress?”

Squeezed into a tiny, bus-shaped taxi we travelled the river road down from Leh, through the army encampments that dominate the outskirts of the city-- compounds of storehouses and barracks all lined with rolls of barbed wire and backed by the mountains’ immediate grace. “Phey village,” the driver told us after perhaps twenty minutes: between the road and the river gorge I could see a small plain of houses and brown, walled fields. Whitewashed, mud-brick architecture with carved wooden trim was suddenly more prevalent than new concrete construction, prayer flags flying over heaps of alfalfa fodder on the flat roofs. A little more than a mile outside of the village the straight walls and glass windows of SECMOL’s buildings became visible, around a sharp bend in the canyon.

The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh began as an initiative of five college students in 1988, primarily as a hostel for young people from villages studying in Leh. Now most of the students are part of a “Foundation Year” program, offered to students who have failed their 10th class examinations. (1998, 95%  of Ladakhis failed these tests, which determine eligibility to continue in any kind of schooling. Taught in non-native languages with culturally foreign textbooks, failure has been more the rule than the exception. In addition to supporting individual students, SECMOL is centrally concerned with systemic educational reform.) Currently about thirty foundation students, a group of college students, and several staff members live, work, and study in this beautiful, eclectic community. The schools in Leh have closed for the winter, and it is skating season; a large group of former foundation students have also returned to stay for a month or two and play (eat, sleep, and breathe) ice hockey.

Arriving at SECMOL we were welcomed, and taken inside to put down our baskets and drink tea. The common room adjoins the kitchen, with low tables and benches arranged in a square for casual eating and gathering. We met Ache Becky and many, many smiling people passing in and out, at that time only a sea of beautiful faces and names. When we had rested we were given a room, then taken on a tour of the buildings and systems on campus.

I will be drinking this place for the next two months, I think: so many thoughtful, simple processes moving water and energy, making life feel easy and possible, wasting as little as might be. SECMOL is a halfway house, ground where traditional modes of community and sustenance join with modern technology and local innovation. We saw gardens with low plastic tunnels supported by yellow willow hoops and watered by greywater flows, and solar cookers boiling water with fragmented mirrors reflecting the sun. Floors are insulated with crumpled paper, cloth, and discarded plastic; walls are mud and straw bricks, perhaps two feet thick. Black bands trimming windows absorb heat; everything in this cold desert orients to the sun. In the stairwells succulents and geraniums grow robustly.

Our first room (we’ve since moved to a bigger one in the main building, in which Jason can actually stand without hitting his head on the ceiling) was off of the hallway leading to the kitchen and commons and fronted, as most buildings here, by a greenhouse. Small chard and mustards grow in the beds on the other side of the hall; if doors and windows are left open, by noon it is nearly too warm to sit inside. I would love to write more—and if you’re interested, please ask! But otherwise, their website ( is really very good, and speaks well to the practical systems supporting the community.

We ate supper all together that night in the upper hall, sitting cross-legged on the floor, long runners of cloth laid out for tablemats. Everyone served themselves from a giant pot of skiu, a traditional stew with thumb-pressed lumps of barley dough. The passes are still open, which is unprecedented in Ladakh; the world is changing. It is January, and vegetables from the Kashmir valley continue to come up over the roads to market in Leh, adding fresh carrots and peas to our meal.  

Dinner ritual began with listening to the Ladakhi news on the radio; when the report finished, several students were called at random to report on the events in English. Two students gave brief talks, one about polio, and another about her village. And then we sang, the whole room in full voice. Lyrics were passed out in Ladakhi and an English transliteration for Nilza Wangmo’s song, the tragic ballad of an ancient Ladakhi queen. Angmo, sitting across from me, told me that the keep the same song for a week, until everyone knows it without the paper.

A group of students from Domkhar village were visiting, and so for the evening activity we played an introduction game. Norful, standing next to me, said “You are staying in Ladakh for two years? You need a Ladakhi name.” I asked him to give me one—“You are Nilza Angmo now,” he told me. And so I have become—this much easier to remember than the strange syllables that make “Caitlin”.
The stars as we left the hall were as bright as I have ever seen them—air fully clear, Orion blazing in the south. One student told me that Ladakhis do not name constellations.     

Thursday, January 8, 2015

San Juan Islands

A forest coastal landscape, moss-thick, familiar fir and red-barked madrone whose tea tastes like cinnamon, all of it living, seething with bird life: juncos, gold-crown kinglets, a brownish creeper, larger raptors above.  Peripheral vision counts dozens in the trees' limbs, up high silhouetted, on the earth, all pecking for seeds and insects as clouds thin and sunlight slowly melts through.

Morning in streamside woods at the edge of the Tetons, in Idaho

Last night we slept by water's edge
its rushing, crashing voice soothed
to a simmer, carrying us into dreams.
Ice cold.  Toothbrush in hand
she balances, crossing one of countless
tall trunks that lay, bridging.
A squirrel follows, hands and mouth
twitch in a blink, all business.

Daybreak at Lake Marion in the Tetons, whose forming ice spoke like a flock of sandpipers in the night

Morning in Alaska Basin breaks
in moonlight, before night is through.
Sun glows on cliff bands snowy
topped with an icicle of purple
grey cloud.  I flicked a mouse
surveying in the night with the back
of my fingers.  Night fell, tossing
and turning, all mind's stories empty.

Living in Ladakh Crowdfunding Video

Our good friend Charlie Hudson helped us make a video, with us talking about the impulse for this journey.  See his other work at

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

St. Paul, Minnesota

Kindness and stories at the bus terminal.  During a spare ten minutes at the end of the route while we wait to return, the driver gets out of his chair, comes back, sits across from us and says "I gotta ask about the baskets."  We're the only ones on the bus.  The conversation moves to journeying, and then to mental illness and empathic sensitivity and how they often go together.  He says: "The people I know who are considered mentally ill, they're regular people, they are just unusually sensitive to what is."  We know some people like that.

In downtown St. Paul a small Asian woman with few words tries on my sheepskin vest.  She offers Caitlin an onion and in a tiny voice she says "I love you" by way of explanation, then gives us all her lettuce.  We laugh and smile and thank her many times.  The farmer's market is closing.

Later, Jim of Grunden's Deli, as we talk about passion in life, he says: "People get stuck!  Even the young ones.  It helps them to see people moving outward."  He introduced us to folks as we sat outside his deli by the farmer's market, Caitlin was sewing a skirt.  Now he's graciously driving us where we need to go, it's on his way.  We are glad we can embody doing something different.

North Carolina to Chicago, singing with our angelic driver

Our driver is taking her last trip in this car.  The car will stay with her sister in Chicago, and she will begin a life by foot and bike in Durham.

Through the great Smoky Mountains, late October, gold and red and orange in full color, and across and out into Tennessee, with a few hills, the land all tan and gold, and occasional trees...up to the big flats, with only a tree line here or there in Indiana...up into Chicago, the great tight batman city, buildings tall and sharp and black clustered by the water, runners moving across eight lanes, an inland sea of tropical blue-green...the next day, the park -- handstands under gorgeous citrus-colored sugar maples -- the mass of people in the park crowded under a huge mirror, bent somehow into a giant reflective kidney bean.

Corn, part one

Grinding hominy into masa harina, in Cailen and Chloe's kitchen near Asheville, North Carolina.  The corn kernels, fat and white and blue, occasionally leap from the grinder and skitter across the floor, the scarce timid ones running under a table to escape.  We will make one hundred delicious tomales.

We arrived just after the corn harvest, and as we entered the home our eyes feasted, the entire harvest stacked up on the table, bare ears resting on top, kernels shining, pure white ears, pure red with a few white kernels, tiny rainbow ears with greens and pinks and blues, and ears of wildly varied maroon and yellow.

We gathered and spoke to the corn later that evening, white mothers on the flanks, plants whose leaves shaded our faces from our father, striped red ones, journeyers, who left in the spring, we did not know if we'd ever see you again, if you would grow and bear fruit.  Passing through another cycle as the old ones do to come around again.  We want to learn and remember your stories.  We kneel at your feet.

Stories like sweet faint aromas on sun-warmed air.

Train through New York City

The train, full of beautiful black faces.  Long ride through the belt of industrial eastern seaboard.  Factories, huge warehouses, apartment buildings, parking garages, and neighborhoods with some trees and basketball courts and churches.  New York City: an industrial army was drawn to this place and its legacy is still present.  Sun blazing orange behind the Manhattan skyline, slipping in between the buildings.

These words go with Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil, Elfstone, Isildur's Heir

All that is gold does not glitter;
   Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither;
   Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
   A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
   The crownless again shall be king.

- J.R.R. Tolkien


Slicing rosehips and scooping seeds and hairs out after this bright salt air August day when our bodies found welcome and stillness among the sharp thorns of the Rugosa Rose.
Speaking dreams of gardens, community buildings, an experimental homesteading school seeking deep contact with the rhythms of the earth.  With the boldness to save seeds and collude with others who do.  To bring our life forth with sweat and joy from this earth, and welcome others to learn with us and celebrate this life.

The apricot, its leaves rustling in a desert breeze.  The fields of barley and clunking tractors and men and women with scythes sweeping.  The dzo upon the slopes, grazing and shaggy and dropping fuel out their behinds.

August to January: Questions, Readings, Songs

These books and speeches we have read in the past few months, most of them aloud to each other, on buses, trains, in friends' homes, while working with the hands on clothing and shoes and wooden spoons.  We have found this to be a wonderful form of storytelling.  It feels right for discussion to be an inseparable part of the reading process.

English and Ladakhi: Easy Self Study by Sonam Dorje
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Endgame by Derrick Jensen
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
"Beyond Vietnam" and "I Have a Dream" speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.
"What to the slave is the fourth of July?" speech by Frederick Douglass
Iron John by Robert Bly
1854 Oration by Chief Seattle
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

And recently, turning to the history of modern India, Jammu and Kashmir
Walking with the Comrades by Arundhati Roy
Until My Freedom Has Come by Sanjay Kak

One of the greatest joys of this journey so far has been singing.  Old songs, new ones, sharing music with friends and family along the way.  Some new favorites:

Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
Cornbread and Butterbeans  Traditional, we heard it from the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Blue Nose by Stan Rogers
The Mountain by Levon Helm
Mairi's Wedding by John Roderick Bannerman
How Can I Keep From Singing by Robert Wadsworth Lowry

Rivers of heart and mind on a journey across the land of America

What strikes us so clearly on this journey -- in the mind as well as the guts -- is that we cannot truly separate ourselves and our lives and the peace of this privileged life from war and exploitation.

Privilege of physical safety, of food, of comfort, of sensory excitement, of magical wagons that take us wherever we want to go.

Wars we are familiar with: against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, against the people of Palestine.  Against their governments and military forces, yes, but so much suffering is likewise visited upon the people.  Stories trickle in around the mainstream media hype about the true on-the-ground situation for people in these places.  In studying India, we have come across author and social activist Arundhati Roy's story of government police forces in central India, in the forests of Dandakaranya.  The police are forcing villagers out, bringing them under armed guard to make way for absurdly profitable mining operations that ravage the land and destroy the lives of its people.  The people are offered no alternative.  When they resist, they are raped and killed.  Now, a protracted war of destruction is raging.  Harvesting crops for these forest people requires a prior patrol to look for police.  They sleep hidden in the forest.  Going to market becomes a military operation.  These people in Dandakaranya are fighting back, and are holding onto an alternative life.  Barely.  Roy writes:
We're moving in single file now. Myself, and one hundred 'senslessly violent,' bloodthirsty insurgents. I looked around at the camp before we left. There are no signs that almost a hundred people had camped here, except for some ash where the fires had been. I cannot believe this army. As far as consumption goes, it's more Gandhian than any Gandhian, andhas a lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.
For Caitlin and I, our dream is to become farmers and teachers who nourish life and land in place in Maine with next to no fossil fuels or products based on exploitation supporting our daily lives.  If "democratic" institutions in this world are killing people and forcibly removing them from land, are we next?  I will go further and say that these oppressed people are us.  We are not separate from them.  How long until the minerals under our land, or the waters we drink and bathe in with the egret and the muskrat, are needed in the name of progress?

Were native New World people given more of a chance than the people in Dandakaranya, by Pizarro, by Columbus, by Andrew Jackson?  What happened to the Seminoles in what is now Florida, and to the Cherokee of the Deep South?  What happened to the treaties that white men signed?  This legacy of white supremacy, rooted deeply in violence, continues today, and we cannot ignore the unbroken chains of exploitation that reach into the fields and cities of the global South, and into the ghettos of these United States.  Our government's "War on Drugs" is a war against the poor here in this country, predominantly against our black and brown brothers and sisters.  And our species' inability to reorganize and curb our own population and consumption amounts to a war against nature, while corporations vie for the lion's share of the profits.  Most of our politicians, with good intentions, respond to power and end up selling their votes to the reigning ideology that has greed as its nature.  Turn on the TV, and see it.  Climate change is a wake up call, but only a symptom, one piece of this puzzle.

There are rays of hope.  New York State bans fracking in December of 2014, the result of a movement driven by people who lobbied government, armed with the science by people like Sandra Steingraber and Tony Ingraffea.  Everyday people stand and give voice together under the banner #BlackLivesMatter.  Noam Chomsky speaks to the U.N. about opportunities for peaceful progress between Israel and Palestine, revealing that Israel and the U.S. are directly blocking the peace process. and others organize the greatest acts of global solidarity ever and civil disobedience since the 1960s.  Organic, small scale farmers are working, hard.

But we cannot pretend that this peace we enjoy is not war.  Or that our virtue somehow negates the daily rape and destruction carried out here and around the world in the name of America, in the name of capitalism, in the name of "progress."  The Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
In the West you have been struggling for many years with the problem of evil.  How is it possible that evil should be there?  It seems that it is difficult for the Western mind tounderstand.  But in the light of non-duality, there is no problem: As soon as the idea of good is there, the idea of evil is there.  Buddha needs Mara in order to reveal himself, and vice versa. When you perceive reality in this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage for the sake of the rose.  You will cherish both.
The feeling that has been growing in me for years is that there is no good life while we are still at war.  We cannot be good while our lives are supported by war, buoyed at this peak of human wealth and poverty and civilization.  But, we also cannot change it all in a day.  So what are the ways we can change our support structures most effectively?  This question is central to our search in this trip to Ladakh, and to our return.

Let us cherish the beauty of this time, the unprecedented power and opportunity and choice we are offered.  And let us look deeply and understand the direct impacts of our consumption.  The impacts are direct because they are today, right now.  If not here, then there.  Let us ask what we need, what we truly need, for life.

Citations, resources, stories drawn into these rivers of thought:

Walking with the Comrades, by Arundhati Roy
The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh
For information on the conquering of native New World populations and the economic and ideological drivers of these conquests, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a start.