|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.
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.