Friday, July 31, 2015

Signs of the Season

Shakmasgogh's furry leaves have grown slowly and given flowers, so that now hillsides of rock that seemed bare are a blooming haze of purple stalks no more than a foot high.

Our boulder porch garden is aflame with poppies and flowers of many colors, and full with usu (cilantro) and dill.

The slopes to the West and North of Tar are revealed to be truly bare, as many unexpected high slopes turn green.  The great slide to the east of the village is flushed with green and purple, and its wall gives way in one valley where the walls of the peaks open.  Up this valley, the other day, a pair of wolves came straight for the herd I was minding, sitting quietly on the slope.  I heard rocks tumbling, dislodged by their descent from the mountain, then saw them, large canines, sleek and swift, reddish and gray, the one of them dark, with long muzzles.  I stood and shouted at them, and they stopped instantly.  One gave up immediately and headed across slope to the south.  The other waited, until I called again and then he too followed, leaving the herd in peace.

The umbu has given a second round of flowers from its continually growing, long leafy stalks.  It grows in the lowest areas of the rubble of the streams, and dominates where it takes hold, growing as a shrub to a height of ten feet.  The leaves smell rank, but the flowers are a delicate and lovely scent.  Its little green fruits have opened in some places, revealing seeds that are born on the wind.

Yellow, gold, or karpo "white" has come to the barley of Tar, as the plants slowly turn.

The rain, and the fear of the rain.  Flooding has hit villages, knocking out irrigation channels and even roads, weakening the foundations of houses.  The Indus has swelled nearly to the footbridge, at least six feet, and it tears by the gorge that leads up to Tar, brown and thick and strong.  Everyone agrees that this weather is strange, and didn't use to happen.  Barely and wheat are laying in the fields, still growing, still connected.  First in patches, now all of it, knocked down by wind and rain.  Roofs are dripping through, made of timbers, plant matter, and earth.  "We didn't have plastic tarps before," the villagers say.  That is unimaginable now -- everyone has them and needs them.  We're bringing a new one back from Leh today.  Everything inside would be dripped upon with water and the mud of the roofs.  "Ladakhi buildings are made of earth -- they fall down when it rains," says Sonam Tashi.  There is real fear around the rain here, and the sky continues to fill with darkened clouds and lightning.

We gave manure a third time to our gardens.  Potatoes are large and flowering.  Women give water every 3-5 days, fully flooding the fields.  The July sun is hot.

We had visitors: a young Swiss student, an English teacher working at a monastery for two months, who visited once before, met Caitlin, and came back to stay with us for a night just before she left the country.  A middle-aged college professor from LA now from Oakland, with whom we rebuilt a wall and had a lovely evening of singing, inside at our house, protected from a light rain.  A group of teenage travelers and their leaders, with whom we picnicked and pulled weeds for Ane Chomo in the morning.

And another group of young people around the age of twenty with three leaders, who stayed three nights in homestays in the village and worked with us.  Beautiful space opened with them for reflection on our experience here, and we both felt deeply heard and appreciated, as well as deeply listening to them and where they are in their lives' journeys.  One young man longs to stay in this place and says he will return for three or four months to work and learn Ladakhi here in Tar.  He should be back in a week or so, when his program ends, and I wouldn't count on it except his heart seems really strongly set.  We are so joyful to welcome such a hard-working and eloquent young person into the community.  He was concerned about being a burden, another mouth to feed, and his host mother's response to our question "He wants to stay and work" was utter nonchalance: "Tig rag," she said ("sounds good"), and went back to listening to the radio program.  "Las mangpo yod," she added, after a moment, "there's a lot of work."  He was overjoyed.  Harvest of alfalfa has begun, and we spent a day and a half harvesting barley already in Khaltse, which is lower elevation, with a daughter of the village and her family.  Harvest of Barley will start in about ten days, and the season will be full on plus many hired workers for a month and a half or two months, we figure.  If he does return his work will be much appreciated.  And we look forward so much to all we will learn in harvesting, curing, threshing, and winnowing in the next months.

This from Caitlin:

The valley changes, and changes again, every time I journey through it.  The aromatics send forth flowers, white, pink, mustard-golden.  Iskilling like lavender but more vivid in its color, tiny flowers on long stalks making a haze of indigo.  The apricots ripen; in Nurla they are ripe, and boxes line the streets in Leh.  Sun comes, hot and intense, and rain: five nights ago lightning as frequent and intense as I have ever seen it lit over the mountains for more than an hour before it opened into rain.  We had laid a bed in our garden near Abi Dolkar's house, camping in the village while the students were with us.  Returning from a late dinner, Abi met us outside.  She was distraught, fragile-looking without her goncha, head bare as I have rarely seen it.  "Where have you been?  I woke up and felt afraid," she told us.  "I've been saying prayers, made can't sleep out there!" she said to Jason.  "What if the stream rises?"  "Could it really come all the way up, into your garden?" he asked her.  "Of course it could, it takes fields, it takes people!" she insisted.  We slept inside that night, hearing the rain, the tenor of it changed by all it means in this place.

Harvest: Cutting Hay

     In the last week of July Ache Tsering called her parents in Tar from Khaltse, a short way west down the Indus valley. "We will harvest barley today-- please, come." Ama Dolkar had already gone to the mountain for wild onions, and Aba Stanzin was left looking after the animals. But we had told her at plowing-time that we would help and so, waking early to this message, we walked down the gorge and arrived mid-morning to the work.

     "The three months of autumn are yellower than gold," one of the folk songs promises.  We watched the green of summer come-- greener than turquoise, it had said-- and now, slowly, this next change arrives. The grain, ripening, was in the fields of Khaltse, fields become a patchwork of this bright barley and the wheat, still deep green. Off of the road as we arrived in town a large field was in process, many Nepali workers harvesting with great speed, bundling, carrying huge loads with ropes. A man with a rototiller came behind them, turning the soil again. The bazaar was busy, trucks and buses arriving and departing, fruit and vegetable stalls full, rich with things we had not seen yet: carrots, new potatoes. I felt longing to be home, safe in the high valley.

     A man in the bazaar closed his shop for a moment to lead us to Ache Tsering's house. She and her husband Phuntsok had just finished eating-- they set food for us again, quickly, apologizing that it was bought bread and not home-made. "Tus ma tob," Ache said. "I couldn't find time." There is more gasoline in Khaltse, and I think that things move faster because of it. She made tea to carry, filled a cloth bag with sngampe, and we went together to the field. They told us that the barley had dried by mid-afternoon the day before, after hard rain in the night. They two of them together had been harvesting since then-- hard work with few hands. I felt intensely glad that we had come.

    All day then we knelt among the tall stalks, pulling them up by the roots, laying them in neat rows on the ground behind to dry. Acho Phuntsok cast seeds ahead of us, buckwheat on half the field and a fodder crop on the other. Khaltse is warm enough for two harvests, the second coming near the end of September. Pulling the barley turned the soil and integrated the seed perfectly, an elegant union of works. I asked about the rototiller I had seen in the other fields, and they were surprised, telling me they didn't know why it would be used. They never used to plow with dzo before the buckwheat. Their young son, on summer holiday from school, played by himself, spinning in circles, pretending to be a bird, throwing himself at times onto his father's back. Ache Tsering left to bring water to the cow and make lunch; she carried back delicious paba and thukpa which we at with peas from the garden, popping them from their shells. The remnants of tea and food stood as markers, showing our progress through the rows.

     We left for their home before it was too dark to see, gathering things into a basket in the fading light. I carried vegetables for dinner and an armful of bolted greens for the cow, washing and chopping things while Ache Tsering milked and finished rinsing clothes. We made skiu together, pinching thumbprints of dough in the light of a hissing gas lamp, Jason and their son both sleeping hard. It was past ten when we ate, leaving dishes for the morning, laying a bed in the fullness of body exhaustion.

     We woke with first light and returned to the field after cups of tea and sngampe, finishing the last of the work that stood waiting for us there. By the time that heat had risen into the day we were nearly finished, and four young Nepali men came to join us. They had been hired for the day's carrying work, but harvested abreast with us through the last rows. When the whole field lay flat we stopped to rest and drink tea, then began over the crops again, beating soil from the roots of the plants and laying them in heaping bundles. All of the barley would be carried up to dry in the threshing yard near the house, standing leaned together in the sun. As the harvest was brought in in Europe, also, some many years ago.  

     After breakfast we bought eggs for Azhang Tundup and butter in the bazaar, and began the journey home. A group of American students was arriving that afternoon, and we needed to be there to receive them. Ache Tsering filled our basket with vegetables, apologizing that the apricots weren't ripe yet, making us promise to return to eat of them when they were. We left as the young men carried the first loads through the market and up the hill, shining bundles dangling fat, square seed heads like falling water, twice or three times as wide as the men's thin bodies.

     Descending to the lower valley is like travelling forward through time, anticipating what will be in the weeks to come. The students were with us for three rich, sweet days, in which I remembered the particular magic and nourishment of teaching-work. In that time heavy rains fell twice in the night; in the morning, the first-plowed fields began to shift unmistakably towards yellow. But it will be some time, yet, before the grains are fully ripe; the time has come in Tar for cutting hay.

     We arrived to Ama Yangzes' fields as the sun came above the ridge. She fed us tea and warm rounds of fried bread, and then the three of us began work. Ama and Jason worked ahead with sickles, cutting and laying alfalfa and mixed grasses and weeds in heaps along the slope. It was mine to make chumpo, neat bundles wrapped and tied in two places with long stems of alfalfa. Yellow flowers stood bright against dark green leaves, curling seed pods just beginning to form. Most people wait to harvest until the seeds are full-set, but Ama Yangzes will always move against the grain of village wisdom, and her cows seem not to mind the fodder. I stood the chumpos in pyramids on the fields to dry, with prayers against the rain.

     After eight we were joined by Nobin, the Nepali man who moved to Tar six years ago. His friend, the carpenter, came with him-- an incredibly beautiful young man, silent, smiling, called "the mystery" by everyone in town (this means housebuilder in Hindi, but it seems appropriate). With five of us the work went apace, Jason and I both bundling as the others cut under changeful skies. This work is different than haying in America, but similarly intense, and coming in the heat of the season. Beforetimes, there was no fear for the weather, sun shining strong and reliable through the summer, drying everything easily to be stored on rooftops. But we worked under an impending thunderstorm, with no dry barn to which to bring the alfalfa in the end. Ama Yangzes shrugged, placing what chumpos she could under the scant protection of rosebushes in the fields. Some of it will rot, maybe, she said. But what else can we do? We finished in the late-stretching evening light, drinking chang from round silver vessels beneath the apricot trees.

    Days, and days: long-stretching sun, work from light to light's end. Down in the lower village I harvested with Abi Tsewang and her two beautiful daughters-in-law, learning the sickle-work into my body. Three-year-old Padma Itses was with us, tiny child-play making work half-play by necessity. The young women, Abi, Meme, all took a turn at cooking food and carrying tea. I have loved their small compound since the first day of plowing: the bower of cut willow branches shading a place for eating and sleeping out of doors, the ancient apricot trunk built into the corner of the kitchen, supporting a shelf for water offerings, the prayer wheel spun by water just above the dishwashing trough. We slept all together on the ground outside, bed made soft by many piles of blankets.

     The next day Ache Kunzes and hers came down to cut their lower field. They were our first family and hosts in Tar, and it was all sweet reunion to be among them again. Their young son doted on Padma Itses as their two families worked, picking through fields at least half high-standing thistle to cut the alfalfa among it there. The long, hot morning was full of singing, and the high thin strains of Ladakhi folk and pop songs channeled in on Palmo's telephone. We ate lunch in the cool shade by the river, little brother wading, crying out with cold, tea boiling on a fire built between three rocks. By three the sun was behind the ridge, and the evening watch felt easy, cool and sweet. "Nyochs," Acho Phuntsok had told Jason in Khaltse. This is the feeling that comes when you have worked so hard, so long, it doesn't feel like effort anymore.

The Dalai Lama came to Ladakh to offer prayers, and so we've come to Leh, this last brief inhalation before the fullness of the harvest is upon us. Our hands will be full, these next months, and I'm not sure when we'll next look up from the labor of the fields. But we are thinking of you, as we're in this place. In love.  



Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Giving the Water

Photo by Isabella Pezzulo

The first water was given two days before the plowing, carving a lacework of rivulets in bare soil as it flowed over the surface of each field.  Women with the skirts of their gonchas tucked up in their sashes worked to direct the water's course, opening and closing gates made of stones and torn clothing, spilling water from the canals over dry earth.  Downslope, light and precise with tiny shovels they would draw a ridge, a channel, guiding the flow with the barest movement of soil.  The patterning of the water echoed the branching of roots, echoed the branching of veins through the body.  It echoed the spreading of water through the village, from the vital artery of glacial melt to the stone canals that fed each tier of terraces, to the furrows plowed into the fields.  Tokpo to yura to rimo and then over the gentle, intentional slope of the land, gravity and human hands working in concert to bring life.
I gave water first to Abi Rinchen's fields, working with two other grandmothers and two younger women, watching the skill alive in their hands, learning.  Abi Tsewang sang softly to the water as she worked, constantly, a half-tuneless hum: "Skyot, chhu skyot," "Come water, come," using the respectful form.
Plowing transformed the village, fields turning from pale grey-brown to rich black.  Just as the first small shoots began to rise, the landscape transformed again, a subtle artwork spreading over the terraces.  "Shau tapches," they called it, planting shau into the ground.  Working with elegant wooden tools we made spaces for the water to fill, soft ridges of soil tracing or crossing the contour of the land.  From the yura that ran one long edge of the field, rimo swept out in bowing arcs, carved there by the plowmen and the dzo.  We dug them deeper, piling earth into a ridge along the lower edge, then shaping another shallow channel that ran beside.  The women's tool, the panka, is made of apricot or walnut wood, handled with a short rod of willow.  Men worked ahead of us, smoothing the surface of the soil.  The held rbat, long willow y-sticks headed with narrow crosspieces.
Finished, the men would leave, and we would take up the rbat.  One woman moving in each of the strips between the rimo, we pushed small lines of earth into place so that the water might flow against them, and be held.  I had never seen the summer water and so worked in blind mystery, following the lines of the woman above me instead of reading the imperative of the slope.
Before the shau were finished in the later fields, the first watering began.  We used khembo now, long-handled like a shovel, the narrow wooden spade fixed onto its shaft with a strip of willow bark.  Six women working together could water one house's fields between the sunrise over the mountains and the dark.  As with the shau-making we worked descending the field, each of us in one of the bands between the rimo.  But now the water came.  I learned the art of opening the rock gates just enough, shifting stones into the yura to turn the water aside.  At each shau square we would build a gate of four stones in the rimo, using the khembo to open a passage and close the way down the field.  One by one the shau flooded, women easing the water's way as it flowed among the barley.
My hands and feet dried and cracked, and I rubbed apricot oil into them each night.  Sun came, and cold, passing over us, reflected in the water on the fields.  In the wind that blew as we worked the last days, the apricot blossoms fell and scattered.  The water ran white with them, catching and clinging among green shoots of grain.
The second watering was easier, needing only two or three women together to reopen all of the rock gates halfway, pulling the water then where it was hesitant to go. The barley and wheat had grown to six inches high in some places, icy water sweet on the body under hot sun. By the third watering each woman worked alone. Abi Dolkar came to help me water Somapi zhing, our wheat field that she had gifted. “It’s a difficult one,” she said, kindly. I watched her, amazed, fast and fluid with her shovel, making water seem to run uphill. We pulled thistle from the edges and flooded the thirsty alfalfa, spilling water over the bank with a shredded winter jacket to block the yura.
Now the fourth watering has passed and I, too, work alone. By the art of the first work, now when the gates are opened the water flows easily and evenly over the whole of each field. I have learned the paths to bring the water from the glacier stream to our barley and our wheat. The mustards flower yellow among the grains, and the women harvest them into bouquets for the cows as we wait for the flood to complete.  
The light is as long as we will ever see it in this place, lingering orange on the mountains for more than an hour after it goes behind the ridge. Apricots swell and blush, and the barley has begun to set seed, awns thin and shining green. Vegetables grow, and weeds; in some ways, at least, this land is not so different from the one that we come from. And the waters run. This year-- for one more year, at least-- the glaciers live, and the waters run down from the mountains.