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.

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