NEPAL THE SUBLIME

Florita Botts

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It took us seven hours to trek from Pokhara to Naudanda. It was climbing all the way. Naudanda was our halfway point. We still had another day of the same to reach Lumle.

A Tibetan porter carried my photographic equipment and bags. But I was in no shape for trekking. When I limped into Naudanda I was desperately weary, feet screaming. Accompanying me was B.P. Shresthra (I never did find out what B.P. stood for--he was always Mr. Shresthra for me). In Pokhara he’d presented his printed card , B.P. Shresthra, Forest Conservation Officer. He was jaunty and cheerful in his jeans and tennis shoes, with swinging strides up the stony trail, thoroughly detached from me, satisfied to accompany a woman who wouldn't be a challenge to his limited knowledge of forestry. Cheerful because he’d be getting extra pay for every day out of his office.

Blue Heaven Lodge, a shack with a tin roof, my inn for the night. I sat on a dilapidated bench in a dismal room drinking tea to warm up in the semi-dark. What is there about cold grime that is more intolerable than tropical grime? Mr. Shresthra said that this was the best lodge, the cleanest, in Naudanda. The candlelight in this cold room only made it seem colder. The candle's hesitant flickering matched my mood. I tried to square my shoulders while I felt the cold seeping inside my warm jacket. I was taken up some rickety stairs to my room-- a five-bed dormitory. My feeble flashlight darted over the cots; I hated to spread my sleeping bag over filthy blankets which were sure to be infested with bedbugs.

Our supper was rice and lentils on tin plates and more tea, while a battery radio gave us Radio Tashkent. A small boy lay on a filthy mat on the floor. His mother covered him tenderly with a thin rag and he slept. After our supper I watched her take plates and glasses to the yard, set them on the ground by a kerosene lantern. Her bangles glinted by the lamp, and jingled as she scooped water from a jug with her hand, swishing it over the plates, leaving them to dry on the wet ground. I had my flashlight to find my way down some slippery steps to the outhouse, past an immense pig trapped in a cage. A gunny sack for the outhouse curtain, a pit in the ground and a hideous stench.

No one else shared the five-cot dormitory with me that night. Mr. Shresthra and the Tibetan had disappeared, probably to a lower-priced inn. I took Mogadon but sleep evaded while rats twittered and scratched in the ceiling. The bedbugs were gleeful for my blood.
In the cold dawn I was already ill with a high fever and griping stomach pains. The Bug. I knew the cause: those plates rinsed and left in the dirt. Why why hadn't I taken my own plastic plates and cups?
I was oppressed by the vision of another all-day trek to Lumle. I didn't want Mr. Shresthra to know that I was ill already after the first day of our expedition, just as we were on our way to our work place. I stuffed myself with pills and we started off, the slow climb out of Naudanda, the rocky trail to Lumle.

Oh Nepal the sublime, the dream of nature lovers, hikers of the world.

On my first days in Nepal I was taken to Nagarkot to photograph landslides. I stood on the edge of the road, and as far as my eye could see brown terraces zigzagged down the steep mountainsides.


Thousands of terraces from the top all the way to the river that cut through the wedges far below us. Terraces for wheat. This was the dry season, so there wasn't a blade of anything on them.

You could estimate that each terrace was probably a couple of meters in width, these jagged edges the only land there was for growing grain for those clusters of villages we could see clinging to the 90-degree slopes.

"You should see this in the monsoons. There's nothing--not a tree or shrub left anywhere-- to hold those terraces from sliding down the mountain in rainstorms," my forester-colleague told me. "They take villages with them. Look over there..." A gigantic gash interrupted the ripple of terraces, part of it flanking a few houses. "A landslide during the last monsoons took most of the village with it. What's left are those few houses."


This view from Nagarkot gave you the essence of Nepal's deforestation, and of the problem of land-hunger. The crops on those terraces would be mere handfuls of grain. What could they possibly yield?

A few years ago those steep slopes were covered with forests. Bit by bit the trees were cut uphill, terraces for crops were shaped, until the entire mountainsides were tree-bare and scarred. It was one of the most desolate scenes, terrible in its immensity, echoing doom across the chasm.

A figure could be seen slowly clambering up the terraces, with a basket strapped to his back. Through the telephoto lens I saw that it contained dark matter, manure to fertilize a few meters of terrace. I photographed several landslides with the long lens. These enormous gouges were becoming deep gullies.


The low afternoon sun shadowed the cuts in the mountainside, highlighting the narrow width of each terrace, the deep cracks in the gullies.

Two tourist buses parked nearby, passengers spilling out, high-pitched exclamation marks in English. Americans, on a day trip out of Katmandu, rushing to the rim where we stood, readying cameras before they even reached the edge. Gasping in wonderment.

Fabulous… Golly what a sight!.. It's as grand as the Grand Canyon!… Wow, awesome!… My god it's marvelous, clicking cameras.

This view of doom was a tour stop, labeled one of the marvels of Nepal!

1981.

I was in Nepal to document the deforestation, erosion, overgrazing-- the destruction of the Himalayan watershed.
I was also there to document solutions. Ways being proposed by Forestry development projects to halt the landslides, new ways to construct terraces to keep the soil in place during the monsoons. New species of fast-growing trees to reforest; shrubs and wide-spreading grasses to grow on the sides of these naked slopes and consolidate the terraces. Two projects requested my assistance in producing educational films to be shown in the villages.
I believed in these solutions, but I didn't believe in their reality in Nepal. Too much had already been written about the indifference of the government to the ecological collapse of the densely populated and highly vulnerable rural areas. Its blatant interest was in grabbing foreign aid and using it to expand government offices and fatten salaries, fatten pockets in the cities.

On the rocky climb to Lumle I didn't see solutions. My trained eye after years of focusing on man's abuse of the soil, water, vegetation, animals, saw this interplay of identical particles everywhere.

I could not be that person hiking happily in communion with nature and man, beneath the world's most exalted mountains, as the guidebook I bought in Katmandu proclaimed. "To trek in Nepal is to undergo an almost spiritual experience... Climb the precipitous staircase to the frozen heights of the roof of the world."


Why couldn't I lift my eyes, transfuse myself into the sublime?

I was a naked eye, every glance at this dissonant landscape taking in eroded terraces, stumps of chopped trees, roving emaciated cows in search of a blade of grass where there was none.


Women bent with stacks of firewood on their backs,


with loads of tree leaves and branches, crashing down the path as we climbed up. These huge bundles of leaves were buffalo fodder, lopped from every tree in sight.


High up in the lopped trees I saw women clinging, cutting, chopping at the last remaining headdress of leaves.


Stripped trees held up amputated stumps of fingers, naked trunks brooding in dark contorted shapes against the parched hillsides. It wasn't picturesque, it wasn't spiritual.


We passed a skeletal cow dragging a broken hind leg, taking pained three-legged hops along a dusty terrace. I called to my companion ahead of me: "Mr. Shresthra, how can a wretched animal be left like that to suffer? She's in terrible stress."
"Nothing can be done," he answered, without turning his head.
"She should be slaughtered. She's suffering. It’s excruciating."
"She must die a natural death. She cannot be killed." Mr. Shresthra still did not turn his head, kept up his buoyant step, feet flexing on tiptoe as if he perceived our goal over the top of the rise ahead.
I wouldn't let go. "Animals are slaughtered before the altar, I've seen it at Dakshinkali." (I'd been taken just to see that gruesome blood-spattered rite--another stop in guided tours from Katmandu.)
"Only male animals, and never cattle. The cow is sacred in our country. She is Laxmi, goddess of wealth. She is worshiped. She is Nepal's national animal, protected by law." His volume increased, in trumpet tones: "Anyone killing a cow or bull is sentenced to twenty years in prison."
Silence.

I became accustomed to the sounds--or lack of sounds. No motor noises, no sirens, no brakes screeching, gears shifting, no anti-thief devices rhythmically squealing, car doors slamming. Only the sounds of my heavy breathing, rattle from loose rocks on the path that I stumbled on, the creak of leather being adjusted against the curved back of my porter. The thunk of an axe. Bells tinkling, and then I would hear a fierce crunching and the bells getting louder and suddenly a caravan appeared around a curve, Thakali traders descending the trail with their donkeys, horses, mules loaded with Tibetan salt and barley. A yak-tail headdress flicked like a bird between the ears of the lead horse.
Sometimes we were overtaken by sounds of rasping panting groups of porters, climbing faster than us, each bent over with 100- pound sacks of cement on their backs. Cement for Jomosom, they said to Mr. Shresthra.

He spoke to everyone who passed us on the trail. "Where are you going?" was always his greeting. And then he would tell me what they said, if I asked. "Jomosom is another eight days on this trail." Sacks of cement carried for 10 days from Pokhara!

The rattle of cans and panting behind us, and we would stop to let porters pass carrying stacks of cases of Coca-cola and Fanta, also climbing to Jomosom. "Many villages and monasteries up there. Many Hindu pilgrims go there."

As though to prove Mr. Shresthra's facts, just then we heard a drumming, and a pinched rhythmic wail. Descending toward us a pale young woman, a wraith-- definitely not a Nepalese-- a foreigner. She wore a shapeless sack. Her lank hair was blond. She was chanting a mantra, and beat a small drum hanging from a string around her thin shoulders. Her eyes looked inward; she passed us unseeing, exalted. On a chain around her neck hung a portrait of her guru. A thin girl-child, matted dust-colored hair in replica, stumbled behind her, slapping loose leather sandals on the rocky path. We all turned to watch the evolution of their descent. "She's on a high," I said.

"Maybe she was at Jomosom." Mr. Shresthra said. "Maybe she's an American. Many like her come to Nepal, crazy young people."
"Her pathetic little child!" I said. "She looks undernourished."

Oh great Vishnu the One Being of All. Preserver of life and of the world, bang bang bang on the drum.
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Every day from our lodgings in Lumle it was another two-and-a-half-hour climb to reach the Gurung village of Tonchok.


Part of the way we were accompanied by the Naudanda postman, cheerful and friendly. His route involved trekking for eight hours every day--four going and four back to his headquarters. He even told us his government salary, the equivalent of $18 a month.

Word had reached the village leaders that we were coming, and we were greeted by a crowd of smiling people, welcomed with garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. We were served tea and cold fried eggs.

Gurungs are an ethnic group of mountain people, farmers and herders, noted for a strong sense of community. Many Gurung men have served in Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies. To be a Gurkha soldier is to have great prestige.

I planned to select a young woman and her family, and go through one ordinary day in her life. It would reveal how she--and practically all Nepalese women-- dedicates most of the day to the great distances she has to climb to find fuelwood for cooking, leaves for buffalo fodder, and water for the household. Her hard life due to the deforestation and erosion of the land. I would show how her village reaches a decision to reforest, and to establish plantations of fodder trees and pasture grasses. I would show how they plant and manage their own forest nursery. All of this would be innovations, since replanting and reforesting were never done before. It would have to be staged, faked.

It was easy to work with the Gurungs of Tonchok. Bundishuba, chairwoman of the women's group,


one of the kindest, most noble faces with her high forehead cleared by her hair pulled back into a bun, a generous smile that sent crow's feet from her eyes to her ears. She moved with natural elegance and ease.
Aibadahur, her handsome husband, the village chairman. He was a photographer's dream. White hair under a green knitted mountaineer's cap, youthful merry green eyes but with the observant gleam of a wise man, small nose, full generous mouth. Gary Cooper. This couple had no children. "The whole village is their children," I was told in chorus.

Hospitality, enthusiasm. There was no problem at all. These beautiful Gurungs were dream people. We spent the day picking the sites, organizing the group scenes, choosing the main actors.


The young woman--the star--was located: Balkauri, with a baby. No husband, however---he was in India, serving in a Gurkha regiment. But no problem. A handsome bachelor was produced who agreed to pose as husband.


Their understanding that this was fiction, that Balkhauri's real husband wouldn't object, was immediate. How did they know what I was doing? What contact had these mountain people ever had with cinema or television? None. With story-telling; radio, certainly.

The next day was dedicated to Balkhauri's typical day. Morning food preparation, the pot boiling.


Firewood. Long climb number 1 to a piece of forest and return to the village with a load of firewood on her bent back.


Her long climb number 2 to gather leaves to feed the buffalo, up endless stairs. On her return she looked like a giant walking bush with two legs.


I filmed her feeding these leaves to her buffalo she kept tied up behind her stone house.


The experts say a buffalo requires 80 pounds [40 kilos] of fodder every day. No Nepali buffalo ever gets more than one-fifth of that.


Climb 3 of the day was with a metal can in a basket on Balkhauri's back to the nearest water supply, a rivulet high up in the forest. Springs near the village which had always been flowing had dried up. That's part of the deforestation story to be told.


We faked the rest of the sequences: village meetings with the forester,


village committee visiting the Forest Department tree nursery at Lumle to pick up seedlings,


the work brigade organized, the planting of a community forest,


faked the planting of fodder-tree seedlings and fast-spreading grasses on the edges of terraces.


Faked the harvesting of the trees as if they were already grown up in time, walking back to Lumle with Balkhauri and Bundishuba to the Forestry station for that sequence.

It was easy to work it out with these hospitable merry people. My hope was that while they were acting out the story they were learning to really make it happen.


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In Dumre, a hideous town on the highway, bound by the laws of dilapidation. Trekkers of the world and their Sherpas and baggage gather here to leave the highway and begin their ecstatic trek to Annapurna.

I sat on a bench in front of a grubby food shop, waiting for my companions to finish eating their dalbat. My appetite had closed up permanently. My bleak reverie was the townscape before me-- a garbage-strewn dirt road, an endless stream of tattered people wandering along it, a cow chewing a wadded newspaper, a pile of battered oil cans. A broken-down stripped-down truck without wheels. A woman sat on its running board. She had a fire going under a frying pan, was selling chapatis. Her small child crawled in the dirt, heading for the oil cans. A group of men were playing cards on upended crates. Dogs wove in and around the mounds of trash, noses to the ground, licking empty sardine tins. An old woman sat on the curb, selling minute piles of colored candy squares spread on newspaper in front of her bare feet. I raised my head, seeking the Himalayas but they were covered by clouds. I watched a cloud with feathers but the wind soon transformed it into a fish with the extended jaw of a cruel pike. Even the cloud's movement was aquatic, like a pike in waiting to attack--immobile--but the current moved it along. The contour of every detail was darkened by my pessimism. I wondered how long ago it was that I had lost my burning desire to experience everything.

A woman in rags sat by me. She was trying to get an old lighter with a string wick to light a cigarette butt. She blew on it and click-clicked. Her child clung between her knees, girl-child in greasy rags, eyes rimmed with crust, nose-ring dripping with drying snot, her tangled uncombed hair in whorls. I gave her mother my lighter and a cigarette. The boy dishwasher of the food shop, wearing an undershirt more holes than shirt, went back and forth from the shop to a water tank on the street. He spilled out on the ground uneaten potatoes and curry from the plates he carried, and rinsed the plates in the mud. Took a handful of mud and scrubbed a blackened aluminum pot with it. There was a sudden screech and yipe from a kicked dog.

The woman next to me, now smoking, said to me what sounded like "Poverty." "What?" I asked. Grinning full mouth of yellow teeth, she repeated "PAR-vati," pointing to the grimy daughter who was throwing herself at her mother's knees. "Ah, Parvati," I said, managing a smile at her child, and gave her an orange. It's a common name in Nepal, Parvati-- Shiva's consort, goddess of abundance. With the accent on the first "a" it really did sound like "Poverty."

An old barefoot blacksmith crept out of his shop, cleaned his nose out on the sidewalk, crept back into his black hole. The woman and Parvati left, and two peasants were already crouching in their place. One wore a threadbare Nepali cap that looked dipped in used sump oil.

How would I ever be able to blot from memory that raised pole, violently battering the back of that black dog, his screams, his back broken, the pole raised again and I shut my eyes shut ears but saw and heard the incessant battering and screams until the dog was dead. Before I shut my eyes I saw the distressed face of a woman as she grabbed her terrified child. When I opened them the man was dragging away the dog by one foot, its tongue hanging out, and I looked away, shuddering. Why why? Why was that done?

I felt..… What did I feel?

A staggering unhinging sickness unto death.

Oh Nepal the sublime.

We left Dumre to begin our walk to Porkot. We were on a trail to Annapurna, but it wasn't yet much of an upward climb, exhausting all the same. The road turned to sticky clay in the rain that caught us unprepared. My companions were Joshi and Pradhan, "headquarters boys," I called them. They were upper-class and snooty and humorless. They had cushy jobs at the Forestry Ministry in Katmandu, probably did nothing most of the time but their titles were Afforestation Officer, Community Forestry Officer. They were clear-as-glass representatives of the privileged stratum that skims the cream of development opportunities and benefits. They had to accompany me whether they liked it or not, and I was made to feel the not as we clumped and slid on the slick clay and they made minimum effort to slow to my pace.

Our baggage was carried by Sundar, a shabby and sweet-smiling Forest guard who met us at Dumre. It was clear right away that he was at the bottom of the pecking order. He was piled high with our sleeping bags, my cameras and equipment, my overnight bag. The two headquarters boys had only light backpacks.

We were heading for the Newari village of Porkot because a forest had been planted by the community and was considered a showplace, good for a photo story.

We made it to Porkot in five hours, with one stop for tea, and a terrifying crossing of a wavering suspension bridge with some planks broken and others missing, high over a roaring river which would have been certain death to slip and fall.

Tropical damp heat, we were still in the low foothills, village surrounded by rice fields-- dry in this season-- and banana trees. The smell of shit everywhere brewed by the unexpected rain.

Shanti's two-room teashop under panoplies of mango trees was to be our hotel for two nights: thatched roof, no windows, open doorway in the front and the back. The rice fields in the back were our latrine.

Our shoes removed, we sat cross-legged on mats spread over the earth floor in the front room. One pot for tea and one for milk boiled on a fireplace on the floor. An old man lay face up on a wooden bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. Was he ill? A green leaf was wadded in his ear. At intervals he sighed as he exhaled, his pale goat eyes searching among the smoke-blackened cobwebs in the thatched ceiling. Perhaps searching for Krishna, like Born-again Christians crying Come down, O Lord, come down among us now. Come down through the roof...

Shanti, a pro innkeeper with gold rings in her ears and her shawl wound around her head like a turban prepared tea right away, and her seventeen-year-old daughter Sita served it to us. I extracted my plastic cup for the tea, determined not to drink nor eat from teashop ware, no matter how insulting it was to my hosts. I'd had my lesson that to be ill in Nepal while trekking and working was torture. At least I remembered to hold out my cup with both hands. Nothing must be accepted nor offered with only one hand.

Dusk. In the back room another cooking fire was going for our supper in brass pots. We stayed in the front room on the mats. A broody hen with her chicks kept under her wing roosted peacefully in the entrance to the teashop, tame and trusting. I lit a candle, got out my notebook. Pradhan was deep in a magazine of crime stories and lurid photos, lighting the pages with a pocket flashlight.

Sundar entertained me with Nepalese customs and beliefs. The broody hen reminded him of a Newar custom: "When a chicken is killed for a festival, the head is given to the oldest man in the family. The right wing goes to the second oldest man, and the left wing to the third."

"Tell me more about other animals," I said.

"During the festival of Tihar the dog is sacred. It is fed and garlanded. "

The black dog in Dumre

"And cats?"

"They are not sacred. If a cat crosses your path when you are going on a journey it is bad luck." Joshi added: "The death of a cat in the house is very bad. A ceremony for the dead has to be performed. As if it were the death of a person."

"I know that cows are sacred and protected by law. Are bulls also?"

Joshi answered. "Of course they are. The bull is Mahadeva's steed. We have many temples dedicated to Mahadeva. He is one of the forms Shiva takes. He is lord of fecundity. In Katmandu Valley the farmers don't use the plow with oxen. They believe that Mahadeva would be displeased that his steed is put to work. They only use the hoe to dig their fields."

"But I've photographed oxen plowing terraces. Bulls are castrated."

"Some yes, in the foothills and the mountains, but not in Katmandu Valley."

"In a family, after the eleventh day of death of the father, a heifer and a bull calf are decorated and sent off to fend for themselves in the world," Sundar said.

"That is why bulls are even in the middle of the city," Joshi added. "They erupt in the markets. Even though they’re a danger no one can do anything to control them."

Fend for themselves, but sacred

"The cows are badly undernourished," I said. "Their udders are shriveled. They produce practically nothing. They roam everywhere looking for fodder. The pastures are overgrazed, erosion is tremendous. I've already taken many photos of starving cows in overgrazed, denuded land."

Joshi didn’t answer, the other two didn’t answer.

I flipped pages in my notebook, came to my notes on forest destruction: "In Nepal more than 50% of the total feed for livestock is supplied by fodder trees from the forests," I read.

I read more statistics. "Adding tree fodder to the dramatic hunt for fuelwood, over 200,000 hectares of Nepal's forests are destroyed every year. But only 2,000 hectares are replanted. That's one percent reforestation."

I looked up from these notes at the three men cross-legged on the mat beside me. We were in the dark, the only light coming from my candle and Pradhan's pocket light. "Do you foresters agree with those statistics?"

Pradhan had raised his head from soft-porn murders when I read from my notebook. All three foresters looked at one another. " I don't know whether those statistics are correct or not," Joshi muttered. "It's true that replanting is minimal."

"There are many problems," Pradhan added.

He began to list them: the main one is that animals graze everywhere, and there is no fencing. Newly planted trees and grasses have to be protected. It's much too costly to build fences. Watchmen have to be on guard for the first three years of a plantation to protect the saplings from being chewed up or lopped.

I asked why it's a problem to have watchmen on guard. The answer is that peasants are uneducated, and don't understand yet that the forests have to be replanted, protected. Forests are there to be cut, free for everybody. They still can't accept that forests must be treated like crops. The peasants are fully occupied guarding their grain crops from grazing animals.

The sacred cow, roaming everywhere, chewing up every new blade in sight.

I thought, I'm going to say it. "You foresters have had a scientific education. You're graduates of the Forestry College at Dera Doon in India. You studied biology, chemistry. Ecology. I ask you: how can you accept that a cow is a goddess? This starving roving unproductive animal that’s destroying the environment, destroying everything you've studied scientifically. That no matter how diseased or old or suffering or starving she is, she can't be slaughtered. Goddess? She's an enemy, if anything."

They were embarrassed, mute. I tried to smooth it over by saying that I personally had no religious faith of any kind, and therefore was skeptical, empirical. I restricted myself to the paradigms of everyday realism. Therefore, for me, that a cow is a goddess made no sense. Particularly one that has such great responsibility in the ecological collapse of Nepal.

Sundar would not have said anything. His two superiors in class and rank were there. Joshi finally took the lead. "Yes, it's true about the cow destroying the environment. We know that. But we are Hindus. Ever since we were born we've worshipped the cow. The cow has been sacred in the Hindu religion for centuries."

"And your country was covered in forests for centuries," I said. "There was a balance between people, animals, vegetation. But now everything has changed in a very short time. Experts are predicting that Nepal and the whole Himalayan watershed are on the verge of a catastrophe. Just because of erosion, forest destruction, vegetation destruction, the population explosion. You can't go on with your old beliefs any more. You must accept what science tells you now."

"Even if we didn't believe... Even if the government were to declare that the cow is not sacred, that it has to be controlled, killed, or whatever, the people would never accept this. There would be a revolution in the entire country. It's impossible."

Say no more, the candle flickering by my knees whispered to me. Words are bricks. I sighed, closing my notebook. "What a tragedy that trees are not worshipped,” I said. “If there are any gods, I would like to think they reside in trees. When you consider--and you foresters have taught me--how vital they are in saving the earth, the climate. "

Shiva--a fascinating god. Both the destroyer and the creator. The end of things and the beginning of new ones. All things come to an end, and from that end will come a new beginning. That's the comfort in the Hindu religion, I thought, and therefore it makes no difference that the whole Himalayan watershed is collapsing.

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The old man had been moved to the floor of the back room. My companions ate rice and lentils with their fingers, slurping, not talking, I with my own fork and plastic plate. After supper the usual scene of village dogs licking the unwashed plates on the ground in front of the tea shop, and Sita giving the plates a rinse and laying them on the mud to dry. She scrubbed the cooking pots using the mud as an abrasive.
Our sleeping arrangements were in the tearoom. I was given the old man's bed, and the three men laid out their sleeping bags on the mats around my bed, "to protect" me, they said. We all went to bed in our clothing. We had two roommates: Sherpas on their way to Namche Bazar. They slept curled up on mats near the front doorway. I couldn't sleep; fleas were inside the sleeping bag--or were they lice?--infernal crawling and itching on my belly, back, neck. Dogs barked, one howled all night. A dog howling in the night is a sign that someone in the neighborhood is going to die, told to me by Sundar.

At five the two Sherpas rose, each helped the other strap his pack onto his back and forehead. Each had five-gallon tins of cooking-oil plus a gunny sack full of something at the top, a towering load. They struggled to stand, then to stoop low in order to pass through the doorway. The muscles in their legs bulged as they stooped with those gigantic, cumbersome packs strapped to their foreheads. Namche Bazar: days and days of trekking--climbing-- ahead of them.

The morning started with a meeting with some of the Newari people of the village, to state our intentions.


Then we climbed to their community forest in boiling heat. It was high up on top of a hill.
Faithless and sour, I stumbled upward, every leaden step I took expressed my scorn.

I’d been given the information on this young forest before I saw it. It was only eight hectares [l6 acres] for the 9,000 inhabitants of Porkot. That piece of information alone was enough to make my legs reluctant. After ten years' growth these eight hectares of fodder trees would be able to feed forty cows or buffaloes. Forty. But 9,000 human beings were there right now. How many head of cattle?
Anyway, it was a beginning, I told myself, to put some glow in my veins. The saplings were two years old and they were introduced to me by their names, wonderful names like Fraxinus floribunda, Albizia, Artocarpus lakoocha, Ficus roxburghii, and they already had put out their pretty leaves to be photographed.


We also planted a few seedlings, to show that the eight hectares will one day become eighty.


A guard was on duty at all times to keep the roving cattle away from the plantation. (Paid peanuts by the Ministry of Forests.) I photographed a watchman shooing a cow away. The new mini-forest would have to be guarded until the leaves were too high to be ripped by cattle teeth. I took photos of women cutting tall grass with sickles between the rows and making bundles. They were allowed to take away this grass to feed their animals in their pens.

I placed the villagers who accompanied us around these happy trees, and the scene could have been a forest covering all the hills of Nepal. It's my paid job to make those eight hectares look like eight thousand hectares.

And why can't it be like that? For all the years I've had to stick my lenses in the ulcers of this planet, or tell lies with them, telling of successes when they weren't, I've asked Why. Why is humanity the looter, why not the planter, the nurturer, the preserver? Why can't these trees and grasses be planted everywhere, and be nurtured, protected, so the forests will return to cover the mountains, to stop the rain where it falls, to take it underground to bring back the springs that have dried up, to produce wood when it's needed?

I learned the answer. Because the generals and the colonels don't care, the kings and their court don't care, the politicians and the ministers, department chiefs, the high priests, the corporation presidents, don't care. And as long as they don't, let's just forget it. We'll never make them care.


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