Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wheat Harvest

Wheat harvest began as apricots fell thickly from the trees, golden on the bare soil of the barley fields, among the standing wheat – dark, swollen, piling around rocks in the flowing yuras.  Only six houses – including ours – had crops to bring in.  Most people in the village plant every other year, alternating with field peas.  The others spent their days on rooftops, pitting apricots and laying them in the sun to dry.

A stone had fallen from a terrace wall onto my foot as we moved the threshing machine, and walking was painful for me.  We slept those nights at Ache Tashi’s house, waking to drink hot water with her in the dim light of early dawn, and then going together out to work.

We arrived to Ache Konchok Palmo’s just as she finished harvesting her small, late plot of peas.  She must have started working in the dark.  Abi Dolkar had joined us on our way across the fields; Ama Thinlas came soon after, and then Ama Kunzes.  When the crew was all assembled, working quietly, sleepily, in the glow of rising light, Ache KP’s father Meme Angchuk carried out tea and bread.  Ama Thinlas had brought a tin of fresh, bright butter, flowing those days in incredible abundance from their home, arriving in tea in huge, melting chunks.

We worked all day, laughing, teasing, often singing.  “Nilza Angmo, yangsol sal-le, ju ju,” the amas would say.  “Nilza Angmo, please give the yangsol (the harvest-song call).”

Just before dusk, finished, the others went to move the threshing machine again.  I could hear faint threads of their shouting and laughter as I made a bed and lay down on the roof to sleep.

The next day of harvesting was Ache Tashi’s.  Twelve people came to carry the work, and her three fields were finished by the time the sun went behind the mountains.  Somapi zhing sngaata?”  “Should we harvest Somapa’s field?”  Our field was watered, and ready.  Gratefully, joyfully, I said yes.  Abi Dolkar left to bring back tea and chhang, and the rest of us began the harvest of the wheat that will feed us through this coming winter.

We worked until the dusk, then stopped to eat and drink as if the night were not almost upon us, and half a field still standing.  The grandfathers drank rum, finishing a bottle between them.  “Bring another like that, and I’ll finish your field myself!” Meme Rinchen boasted.  “I don’t have any!” I said.  He threw up his hands in mock fury, and began his unsteady way back across the village. 

Everyone else, undeterred by the growing dark, rose from their recline on the new-fallen wheat and bent to work.  “It will be easy if there is singing,” Ama Thinlas told me quietly.  Ache KP and I held the yangsol then, not letting it fall until the last handfuls were pulled, unseen, in the full-gathered night.

Ama Thinlas, Ache Kunzes, and then the harvest was done.  Heavy days came then, of carrying loads bigger than I knew that I could lift – golden bundles bound with ropes and borne through the precipitous labyrinth of the village.  Threshing felt brief this time, the crop so much smaller than the barley.  From the high path the village recalled spring to the eye – fields all clean, brown earth but for the trees in full leaf at their edges.

The day after Ama Thinlas’ wheat was threshed, Jason and I walked up into the mountains.  A week later, it rained – the first to fall since the flood, nearly fifty days before.  The grain was all stored in giant sacks in the lower rooms of houses – dry, safe, waiting to be ground for winter flour.

This year, no bombs came to Tar, as they did to Iraq.  No tanks, no trucks, no guns.  This year, no dam made waters rise around the houses, as it did in the Narmada valley.  This year has been a good one in this village; the work of living is hard enough when no disaster comes.

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit


Ama Yangzes’ yultak was smaller than ours, shaded by a row of willows to the north and east. The trees were not thick enough to block the wind that blew up through the valley, the motion of their leaves like telltale ribbons on a sail. When we arrived a pile of threshed peas was waiting, neat, a rope laid out on its southwestern side across the yard. 

Ama handed us zar, beautiful rake-like tools made from five split lengths of rosewood on a willow pole. Zar means hand; the five pieces spread like fingers, narrowing at their bases into cut and fitted Vs, bound together with woven strips of hide and a single nail. Following her motion, we stood at the pile and tossed forkfuls of the peas and straw into the air, letting them fall with an upwind twist of the zar. As the wind blew, chaff moved off to the southwest, the heavier peas falling straight back where they came. Ama Yangzes whistled constantly—as you must— calling up the wind, warding off the dust of straw. When the wind dropped we would pause and rest, cheeks turned, waiting, attentive always to the rising of another breath of air. 

Slowly the straw crossed the rope and heaped there, finished. In time Jason began to gather it in sacks, carrying the phug-ma up to be stored for winter feed. The peas remained, our forkfuls growing heavier as we tossed them. Ama and I worked facing each other, her eyes shining playful and wicked, cheeks redder even than common in the morning chill.

After perhaps two hours the pile was finished, reduced to a dense mound of dark, round peas on the earth. Ama brought a huge, four-handed sieve, hundreds of pea-sized holes punched in a sheet of metal, nailed into a carved wooden frame. Jason and I worked this back and forth while she poured, sifting free what stones and chaff we could. The peas rolled out around our bare feet like tiny smooth sea-stones.

A mountain of unthreshed peas stood above the yultak edge; I thought it must be at least four times what we had just winnowed. “The same,” Ama told us. We poured the cleaned peas into sacks and swept the yard again, hands sweet with khampa smell. Only a small part of the crop remaining filled the sunken yultak, a pool of seed and vine for the dzo to trample. Ama Yangzes told us all of it would fit, added slowly as they circled. 

Ama and Jason took turns driving the dzo while I cooked lunch, harvesting vegetables from the garden and kneading dough for skiu. “You’re an ache,” Jason said, laughing. “You’re a woman of this village. Being asked to cook.” It was the first time I’d been trusted in this way.

Quickly the peas shrank, the tangled mass of plants shattering into a dense layer on the ground. I washed and chopped onions and greens outside, beneath the apricot tree, watching the work progress. Ama was right; all the peas fit. The skiu finished as the threshing did. We ate in warm, late August sun, chuli falling around us, golden and startling as we sat. The afternoon was silent, but for water, and for wind.

Threshing with Dzo

Photo by Isabella Pezzulo

The machine cannot reach the upper village. In the gongma the dzo still do the threshing-work, as they did everywhere until ten years ago. Ama Balu (affectionately “little mama,” our—landlord? benefactor?) came up to our home one evening. Some days had passed since we finished harvesting and carrying the barley from their four small fields there, and the chok stood ready and dry behind the house. “Don’t go to the village tomorrow,” she told us. “Stay here and thresh with us.”

The next morning Ama and her son Konchok arrived leading two huge dzo and two smaller, female dzomo. They tied them with long ropes to graze while we prepared the yultak, or threshing ground. The afternoon before they had watered and swept the circular yard, an open space perhaps twenty-five feet in diameter and ringed by stone. Now the mud surface was clean and smooth, hard-packed, ready to receive the grain. Jason and Konchok carried giant loads of laptse the short distance from the field; I helped them make the bundles, and helped them to their feet.

When two thirds of the grain was carried we spread the long stalks to an even thickness, thigh-deep over the surface of the yultak. Ama and Konchok brought the dzo, harnessing them together with a knotted rope, the large animals on the outside, smaller ones between. Then with a rope leading from the nose of the outside dzo in hand, Konchok began to drive them in a circle. They waded, pushing through the stalks of grain, each step breaking the straw, shaking seeds loose from their husks. They ate as they walked, great hungry mouthfuls, an offering of the harvest for their work. 

Konchok, usually so gentle, was harsh with them. It seemed like I could see the tension I had felt that morning between him and Ama expressing in the work. Work with draft animals is relational— every thought, every emotion is present in the space. As with people, every action, every word is deeply felt. I harvested thumbu in the field from where the chok had stood, wanting to make it otherwise, uncertain how.  

When the thumbu was finished I came back to the yultak, and Jason and I took up the lines. I held one rope leading (from behind) the inside dzo, and Jason worked the outside. I began the simple, soaring, repetitive melody the grandmothers had taught me: “Holo holo-a-o--- Baldoon, holo,” the words a precious relic now in the time of the threshing machine, passed to me like an heirloom. His voice rose above mine, fell below it, turning the melody into a rich, complex harmony of tones. 

For a long time then we walked, learning the subtleties of urging and holding that allowed us to move the circling team exactly where we needed them. Ama and Konchok stood at the edges, turning laptse in towards the center of the yard. Twice we stopped the team and stirred the grain in the yultak, pulling unbroken stems up from the bottom of the pile. Slowly, slowly, the bright load condensed and shrunk. The song became the pattern through which our motion and our intention wove, the force that drove the dzo, the rhythm and the pace. The work felt fluid, steady, clear. While we moved, the singing did not cease.

After perhaps two hours the first load was finished. Resting the dzo we ate our lunch, then raked threshed straw to the side and spread the remaining grain over the yultak. The second load went quicker than the first, the dzo unwearied by the easy labor, the singing strong. Konchok is almost deaf; his voice joined ours sometimes in joyful dissonance. 

As the sun moved down we piled the finished grain neatly on the eastern edge of the yultak, preparing it for winnowing. We swept the hard earth clean with bundles of khampa, a fragrant artemisia abundant in the gravel wastes. The scent of it hung in the air with hay dust as the evening light grew long.         

Holo tangspina?” “Did you give holo (the song)?” This question, asked, meant “Did you thresh with dzo?” When I said yes, the grandmothers were delighted. I told them we wanted to do this in America; they laughed, and shook their heads, and clucked their tongues. 

- Caitlin

The water is cold even at the end of August, and its song wraps around all we do here.  A calf’s black hair and white patches are all twisted and spiralled on her back as she dips her nose and then her whole head into the bucket, enjoying a midday meal.  It is zbaghma, the leftover barley mash that has yielded us chhang.  She eats.  

A meadow spreads behind the calf’s face as she lifts her head again, tiny nubs of horns visible amidst tufts of hair, tongue reaching and curling to wipe goo and grains from her wide black nose.  At the edge of the meadow water flows clear, twinkling in the sun.  And in between the meadow and the stream, a sizable gray trunk stands, its bark two bulges between which runs a wide strip of bare wood, exposed to sunlight and air, dry and occasionally pocked with an old twig-mark.  At its top is a sawn-off trunk, the missing piece undoubtedly living now as a thick strong roof support in a home nearby.  

In the foreground, a hand-thick willow has lost its tops, and has died.  Its notch supports a living green branch, which tumbled sideways in the wind perhaps, and remains attached by a thin strip of wood and bark.  Its leafy tops dangle over and along the fence, and I imagine new shoots growing from this one, becoming part of the barrier that keeps the roaming dzo from Ama Yangzes’ fields.
I wrote this having returned to the house.  This is how I feel on a day threshing with dzo – fully alive.

- Jason

Threshing with the Machine

August 26

One or two men work at the gaping metal mouth, feeding grain into the machine, either giving bundles of the right size at the right time (almost continuously) or stuffing as much as they can into it at any given moment, and slowing only when the machine strains and chokes on the excess.  I tend toward sensitivity, believing that the machine will work best and last longest if we listen to it, treat it well, prevent the straining and the black smoke that it belches.  Some of the young men working with us don’t seem to agree.  And I do understand that they want to get it done as fast as possible.  It is not pleasant work, does not make one want to remain by this roaring beast.  

Moving the machine is hilarious, challenging, and somewhat dangerous.  Usually we start with six or eight people, rolling it on shambling wheels across fields, across streams, ropes tied on, poles underneath, sliding it up steps and slopes, and by the time we get halfway where we’re going twelve people have appeared and everyone is hauling on it.  It rocks and shakes and gives delightful metallic noises.  Finally we arrive and dig in the wheels to its new place.  The diesel engine that drives it we carry with poles and ropes and at least eight people.  We carry in bursts, sloshing across the stream, its plank wooden base barely held on by thick bolts.

The men work in shifts up to an hour or so with the thresher, which after two days starts to feel endless, the machine ever hungry, the roar drowning out any conversation or singing, the belt from the engine to the machine whipping by at a frightening rate.  In between we drink tea, drink chhang, eat sngampe and breakfast and lunch.  The women’s work is easier and farther from the roar.  They carry great piles of grain on blankets or tarps to the machine, and pile it up.  This is the first time we’ve seen women’s field work less difficult than the men’s.  A pair of women can easily outpace the machine’s hunger, and provide enough.    They also clear areas of ground where grain has been stacked, picking up the fallen thumbu (seedheads) and gathering them, the long awns sticking to the hands, grains fat and sheathed.  Often there are four or five women working, and four or five men.

The setup: barley stands golden in the fields, thick.  The peas have lost their green and turned yellow and brown, falling over each other, entwining with the weeds (hopefully not too much thistle).  The wheat later turns a bright, almost nasty yellow and green before the plants, their roots still embedded in the soil, turn white as they stand.  We give water a day or two before we harvest by hand.  Wait too long after watering or too late in the season, and the plants will be brittle and lose their thumbu to the earth as we harvest, leaving a carpet of snyemo for us to collect with fast-picking fingers, one hand packing the other, filling sacks with fallen seed and straw.  I spent hours with multiple amas (mothers) of the village doing this work; and some of the amas with lots of fields worked at it for days.  The peas and grains we carry and stack close to the grower’s phugraks (hay shed), usually on a small field.  The sacks of thumbu we store there as well, all waiting for the threshing that will come.  Grain we stack in chok: bundles leaning on each other like tipis for hobbits, so that any rain will run off and dry on the outside.  We haven’t had any rain for thirty days, since the flood.  We gather that this is normal, but after that flooding rain and the three days that followed, we didn’t know what to think.

These crops we all planted with dzo power and hand tools in the month of April, so that means the barley was about four months and a week in the ground, the wheat just about five months.
Back to the machine.  After three days of work with it, I start to feel dead to the world, numb in my senses, and a little wild on my breaks when I get a breath away from it.  My mind wants to escape, and carry the body over the fields or up the trees or into the mountains.  My eyes stray back to the machine even as I wait and drink tea, as if it holds me somehow.  The work itself is demanding and draws you in with an unrelenting pace – not terribly fast, just endless; it never stops to breathe.  Unless the machine clogs or the belt flips off, it goes on.  Imagine cramming plant matter and seed heads down the wide throat of a beast for hours, a beast that does not respond to any human emotion or gesture.  It is numb, without life, and yet if you stick a hand too deep in its mouth it will in less than a second draw in and destroy as much of your body as it can.  Fingers, hands, arms.  It cares nothing for this, and we care for it only as far as it works.

Out of the machine blows a current of phug ma (straw) that piles up slowly, resembling the back of a whale, or a sand dune.  One long, continuous breath, a spray, both an inhale and an exhale.  Seed drops through shaking metal sifters, and funnels into a low wide bowl. We fill sacks and carry them to storage inside the bowels of the great, earthen, castle-like houses.  The straw we will carry as well to the houses in great plastic or burlap sacks, filling underground store rooms through holes in their roofs.

This method of threshing gets it done fast – that is its virtue.  Most of the villagers work together for a short time, instead of families working for their own household for days with the dzo and the wind.  We wanted to thresh our wheat with dzo, but really didn’t get support for it.  “Why do it that way?” people would ask, and none of our responses seem to carry water.  The community has decided to give the grain to the machine, and then the threshing is over fast.  Abi Yangchan says that the machine is bad: the barley comes out dirty, and the peas break.  Yet diesel is cheap, and for now this way emerges on top.