Friday, July 31, 2015

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.  



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