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
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.