Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Photo by Izzy Pezzulo

An old man spreads seeds on the bare field in handfuls.  The earth is dark; it was watered two days ago, and it is covered with a thin layer of manure.  He tosses barley, a spray of seeds, and they lie thickly, pale against the darkness of rich watered desert soil.  A cry goes up "Norbu nyis ka!" (You two golden ones) from the young man holding the plow handle, and he steps on the plow blade, sinking its upside-down spade head into the earth on one edge of the field.  The head, about five inches wide by nine inches long, points below horizontal at a slight angle, and it willingly enters the soil, raising up a wave of clumped earth and small stones and countless seeds.  Locked into the vertical shaft between handle and plow is a three inch thick, seven foot long poplar shaft that leads forward to the yoke and the team of two dzo who pull it.  They pant and grind their teeth at times, hundreds of pounds of black-hair-clad muscle and smooth, upward-curving horns.  A young man walks just before them, holding a rope tied between their two nose rings, guiding and sometimes dragging them where they need to go to line up these furrows, back and forth.  The horns of the dzo are oiled each morning of plowing, and their foreheads anointed with barley paste and a handful of tossed flour as a blessing. 

The song of the plowman is urgent, and kind, and full of thanks.  It carries the harshness and angst and madness or desperation of masculine energy.  Voice cracking and wavering, soft now, loud before the lash, whip in hand.  In trying this art my sense is that when they are tired, the dzo must believe you will hurt them to keep moving.  The voice lifting in mock anger convinces them and they quicken their steps.  The whip lashes through the air to remind them to pull hard.  The whip lands on their backs to assure them of the pain that comes from the man behind them when they don't move.  Most of the time the memory of pain, their training, and the plowman's reminders are enough to keep them going.  But there is a continual vying of wills that the plowman and the dzo must rise to.  These animals live quite a good life.  They have enough to eat, freedom to roam much of the time.  And yet I wonder if there is a way to work with draught animals that does not rely on what, if it were used on humans, we would call a device of torture.  I want my relationship with animals to be different from this.

Women work their way across the field, bent low at the waist, short-handled picks (thokse) in their hands, bashing clumps and raised furrows of earth, plucking out balls of roots and ferociously digging out tough ones.  (An abi [grandma] standing resting next to Caitlin as she digs at an alfalfa root, saying "shante rag, nomo le" [feels tough, little sister]).  I tried this tool for as long as they would let me (about ten minutes: it is not a tool for men) and I felt it, hard and sore in my lower back.  These women are tough beyond belief, some are working this way at fifty, sixty, and they have the hardest work in plowing time.

The thokse wielders flatten the soil surface somewhat, and they stack the large stones in piles.  These are used to block and direct water during irrigation.  Then a group of lighter workers moves in with long-handled all-wooden rakes called rbat, and with these they flatten the soil as best they can, preparing for later, dryer work with earth-flattening tools to make the surface truly beautiful and flat and form the low walls that surround each small (3 to 6 feet to a side) section of the field.  These sections have special canals, built also when the soil is a bit dryer and the crops' shoots are emerging, that feed and flood each section at the right time.

Little kids are there on the field, toddling around, getting pulled out of the way of the dzo by the women who shriek but understand that the men are paying attention too.  Elders have their roles, easier on their bodies yet essential to the work.  Men have their work, women have theirs.  There is a little crossover, but very little.  We break for rest and tea and chang and snacks many many times a day, tossing spoonfuls of roasted barley flour (sngampe) into our mouths.  The people tell each other to sit down and rest, while they work tirelessly.  The scene is quiet: birds sing, the plowman's melodic song rings out, people talk easily and sit drinking tea within feet of where the dzo pass.  The dzo easily navigate huge boulders in the fields and the edges of sheer rock walls that fall often six feet to the next terrace below.  They can place their front feet on a stone terrace three feet high and jump their huge bulk and their back legs up.  There is no way machines could replace this way of plowing.  It is a living practice.  Our first morning of plowing I was close to tears with the beauty of it.

1 comment:

Nancy Chandler said...

Thank you, Jason, for this detailed and loving description of the planting farm work in Tar.I feel I am there preparing the soil and working with your community. How wonderful that people sing to one another while working,and to hear of the strength, training and accuracy of the dzo.I am glad you have lots of breaks for fluids, and food, and that the community can accomodate extra feeding of you and Caitlin.