|Photo by Isabella Pezzulo|
Imagine for a moment the alpine garden of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Windswept almost constantly, the few plants crouch between rocks, sneak into crevices, put up tough short flower stalks, make their leaves waxy, grow in clumps, all to protect themselves and each other from the bitter wind and blowing snow. Rock readily meets the eye, no plant is taller than a mouse on tiptoe, and the views of the surrounding mountains of rock are clear and open.
Now imagine this scene as the bottom of a valley. Extending upwards in all directions are great steep slopes, evenly planed slides of rubble, and above them cliffs. The peaks are distant and daunting to climb. This may help you get a sense of this landscape, the place where Ladakhi people farm.
This land is drier, certainly, and the climate is a little warmer, even though the valleys here are about twice the elevation of the alpine garden (we are further south). The plants that grow wild are sparse: rose bushes (now blooming and fragrant throughout the lower valleys), honeysuckle, mints of many kinds in delicious abundance, a wild onion like chives but stronger, many colonies (clumps) of low herbs whose aerial parts dry into persistent thorns.
The sheep and goats are above me, grazing sparse vegetation on a 35-40 degree slope that sweeps down to the flat valley floor, where I sit alone. They are thirty-four in number, one less than two days ago when a sick one stayed home with Azhang (Uncle) Tundup and, wandering the slope just above the house, was taken by the snow leopard.
Up on the slope now. I can see through notches to the northeast distant jagged ridges shaded gray, the closer ones darker, lighter as they recede and blend with the sky. Some snow on the highest farthest ridge. Those are on the other side of the Indus River, lost to sight deep in the valley, which flows from Tibet and through Pakistan to the Ocean. To my right, the sheep and goats are on a blocky, orange-grey, jutting ridge of bedrock that emerges from the sheer, perfectly planed sand slide on which I sit. Above them in my view stands Urtsi, framed by two intervening rocky ridges on each side, its grand pyramidal slopes all laden with snow and dark rock. The sun shines on us, though I can see that across the Indus it is raining. Thistle and wild rhubarb grow from the sand, as well as a primitive low branching plant that reminds me of what in New England is called horsetail.
The rhubarb has huge leaves that lie flat on the slope and sometimes shine in the sun, and tall yellow-green many-branched flower stalks. The flowers are tiny, hundreds to thousands per plant, with five to seven petals the same color as the stems. The seed pods are bright red or magenta, ridged with three sides. Inside the seed is tear-shaped, dark red at the point, fading to white at the fat end. La chu is the local name. The stem tastes wickedly sour, but the base that lives underground is sweet.
Running down these sand slopes is just so much fun. My feet sink deep into sand, cushioning a leaping descent. It reminds me of skiing in Jackson Hole. Now I’ve startled the herd. They gallop and float down, clouds of dust in their wake. I never imagined what we think of as “barnyard” animals being so at home in a mountain landscape.
We reach the valley floor, the sound of rushing water loud in our ears. This valley slowly rises, and it is the main watercourse that feeds town and allows human life and the flush of green that surrounds people in this landscape.
Caitlin has remarked about how different these sheep are from the ones she cared for at Chewonki in Maine. The biggest goats are the size of a collie, and the sheep weigh around 30-40 pounds each. They tolerate us being very physically close to them, while at rest or while walking, which is different from what she’s used to. They are fed far less than American sheep, and they will readily eat peeled willow bark or even dry leaves. They are incredible mountain-climbers and cliff-bounders. And, whether by breeding or training, they don’t stop to eat.
Their regular pattern is to slowly walk and graze – the two actions are inseparable. So when they pass an area, they nibble, grab a few choicest bits, and move on. This means I can walk up and down the same valleys with them day after day, and their impact is light and spread out. The native large herbivores, the skyin or ibex, graze similarly, covering huge areas and searching high slopes and washes for food, always alert for predators.
Small hail comes, followed by light rain. It is not unusual to get a short spell in the afternoon, though this one is a little longer and heavier than normal. Long enough to sit and eat my lunch under a rose bush, the only cover. Long enough to make the sheep shake – the first time in eight days out with them.
I have taken the herd alone now for about ten days, and two days with Nyilza Angmo (Caitlin). This allows Azhang Tundup to rest and do other work, like cut thin willow branches for the cows to eat. He is about 65 and moves over these mountains like they’re a part of his body. He whips a sling like a pro, and spins long goat hair into yarn with his fingers as he walks with the herd in the mornings. I’m glad to be able to help him in this way, and I wonder how long all the young men have gone to school and not tended the herds. Azhang stables and cares for several houses’ animals, and I take Ama (Mother) Tsering Dolkar’s sheep too, so it really is community work. And this work is needed: for meat and rich manure for the gardens and fields. I’m earning meat for the winter. This work feels well suited to me – I love to walk and wander in the mountains.