|Photo by Isabella Pezzulo|
The village pathways, the fields, the gardens, the open channels are all defined by stone. Of all shapes and sizes, the stones stack together, wedged with others, packed behind with earth, the walls leaning ever so slightly uphill, or bulging out with the irrepressible weight of a thousand years of soil they hold away from the rushing stream that clears it all toward the distant sea.
After the flood died down in August we gathered stones and blocked the stream completely, as best we could, guiding the flow into long-established side channels that bring cool water to our doorstep and to the fields. Konchok and I tore apart a vertical stream bank, earth and huge flakes of stone, let them fall, and stacked them into thirty new yards of yura (channel) to bring water to thirsty, sappy, dark-barked apricot trees and a field of dal (lentils).
In the orchard, we walk up flat steps of stone that emerge from a vertical wall. They are as solid as any staircase, even the step where a crack runs from the end perfectly down its middle to the wall in which it rests. The steps are special long flat stones that extend deep into the wall, supported by decades of compression.
Guiding the flow and pool of water is an art, imperfect, and inevitably the water escapes its careful bounds, the yura clogs with leaves, and the water pours over a wall at night in a place we did not expect. The liquid soaks in, finds its way between stones, eats and drinks earth, loosens old holdings, and in the morning we find a V-shaped collapse, a wall of packed soil exposed, a strip several inches wide of field lost above, a pile of stone and earth below. We dig out the collapse. We find firm foundations, and build up, stone by stone, backfilling and packing as we go. The small pick and the shovel (thokse and khem) help our work.
How long have these walls stood? From across the valley, at just the right angle, the whole slope, planted with trees, looks like a massive, continuous wall of stone. Within the labrynth, yura plunge down between field edges, and especially in the dark you feel a wondering as to which level of the six to ten terraces between stream bed and homes you're on. How many times has each wall, of each level, been rebuilt, in the last thousand years? The very first work we did on arrival in the village was digging and lifting stones from a pile, replacing eight vertical feet of a stretch of twelve foot wall, one level above where the stream flows out of the corner of town and crashes and slips down the gorge to the Indus. Acho Tsewang directed us a bit, worked with us, then sat and chatted for the rest of the time and let us do it. This was our training. A little later we raked earth above this wall into a low mounded ridge to hold the water in the field and away from the stones. At key locations, this earth wall has an opening that allows water down to a short stone chute that juts out from the wall, water cascading down into the next yura below.
After the flood I helped Meme (grandfather) Angchuk rebuild a yura entrance that had completely ceased to exist. The yura is cut through the campsite just above town, and beyond the stone wall that borders the campsite the streambed now lay three feet below its level. Oops. Upstream the level of the rock bed rose, and we spied a couple of boulders half-blocking the stream at about the same level as our target. An opportunity! Over the course of three mornings and two evenings (I took the sheep and goats to the mountains during the days), beginning with giant stones we rolled together with manly grunts end over end from where they had broken off the mountain, we built a new channel. From the boulders, three feet tall and wide, fifteen feet long, it brings water flooding again into the yura and off to the fields and gardens. We dropped huge stones into the water, we shaped them with hammers, we fit them tightly together. We brought armfuls of smaller stones and baskets full of smaller ones down to sand, filling and filling the spaces and packing them to resist the water. A couple of tarps to pad the leakiest sides and string between the boulders, and water surged anew. I never would have dreamed of such a project, and now, with one of my ring fingernails gone, with the baskets and strong backs of Ama Balu and Ama Yangzes, with the silent work of Meme Angchuk's son Angdus, with the quiet bass cleft urgings and creakings and words of Meme Angchuk, and with the deep confidence of village stonemasons reaching back generations living in his content grinning face, it was done.