09 December 2006

The idea of mountains

I've parked up for a day or two while I recover from the inevitable illness; I'll spare you the details. So, this post is going up sooner than I'd intended — it's as good a way as any of resting.

Sunday 19 November 2006
They’re dynamiting down in the valley again. A sudden boom, the
reverberating echo, then a second or two later the sound of a tremendous fall of rock. What orogenesis and erosion create, we humans seem compelled to modify.

Driving to Badrinath three days ago, we looked down to the river, the flow of water substantially subordinate to the size of its bed. Much of the flow, apparently, has been diverted for the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric power project. It’s a familiar story, and I’m reminded strongly of the Whanganui River in New Zealand’s North Island. Both rivers beheaded to provide power. Where does it end? When will the demand for more power cease? When these rivers have all been maimed, will the windmills and solar plants move in? What will limit their spread? I imagine the ridgeline of
Elephant Peak lined with churning mills instead of old pines, the Himalayan sun shining not from a turbulent river pouring over washed-clean boulders but from an array of focused mirrors.

I write these words by candlelight because the electrical supply has failed again. As I waited for
the agonizingly slow internet connection this afternoon I felt my impatience and frustration as a physical sensation, like anxiety, and had to remind myself to relax; that if I couldn’t achieve as much as I wanted in that half hour, what was the real loss? Perhaps this is a too-common mistake: to think the solution to an unmet need is to supply the demand rather than remove the want.


Monday 20 November 2006
What makes a life better? What enables a life to be lived with a better sense of accomplishment — “satisfaction” has too much smugness to be a satisfactory word — or delight in the living of that life? Ask anyone here in Joshimath or the nearby villages and the answer’s almost certain to be pragmatic: more reliable electricity, be
tter roads, a safer, more effective supply of clean water. Perhaps more appliances and labour-saving devices, although there seems to be no shortage of small shops selling TVs, DVD players, radios and so on. Perhaps a functional internet? I’m guessing.

Others might take a longer view — better education and easier access to it; some form of minimum wage or other social welfare.
What all these sorts of answers have in common is that they assume life will consequently be easier, that there will be less hardship. Does that make life better? Perhaps, if “better” means, as I’ve implied, a greater sense of achievement, these things do not make life better. I think this was one of Nietzsche’s main arguments — that adversity enables us to improve: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”. But there are different kinds of hardship, and I wonder whether there’s much sense of achievement from simply managing to survive another day. My guess is that the feeling is one of relief rather than accomplishment; moreover, I suspect the relationship between adversity and improvement is not only non-linear, it’s not even monotonic; in plain language, beyond a certain level, hardship wears you down and weakens you.

I wondered about these things as I lay awake this morning. I wondered because the way life’s lived in the little of India I’ve seen so far seems so hard. Borderline, in fact, for many people. I wondered what would make it better; what, if anything, I could do — or anyone could do. But I also realized that the ramifications of well-intentioned actions can be unexpected and undesirable, especially when based on little knowledge and even less understanding. And, also, that one person’s good intention is another person’s meddling.


Wednesday 22 November 2006
When I step outside into the dawn, the world has changed. I’ve become accustomed to the brilliant, cloudless Himalayan sky, sun touching the summits, but this morning dark cloud and misty rain hang about the peaks and drift into ravines; the whole sky’s heavily overcast. It should seem oppressive and ominous but it’s magnificent, a vision from the mind of William Blake. Crows wheel and caw in the cold air; behind them, nothing but s
pace and height and then mountains swirling with mist, precipices edged with old pines, deep ravines disappearing into the gloom. Do you get used to these things; how long, if ever, does it take before you stop seeing these things — before they stop you in your tracks? How much conscious attention does it take to continue noticing and appreciating them? Surely this depends on the person, on who you are — if your attention focuses on cutting another load of hay, or drying the laundry, or trying to stay warm, you might notice birds flying in drizzle but fail to appreciate the immanence in the slow, strong grace of crows circling against that vast landscape. On the other hand, perhaps I don’t truly appreciate the difficulty of weather like this — Mr S tells me it’s 4°C and the barometer’s falling — for those cutting hay, doing laundry, or facing a hard, bitter winter. I do have some inkling, though, as I write with slow, cold, mittened hands, sip hot water with biscuits, and huddle in a blanket in an unheated room, trying to keep warm.


Thursday 23 November 2006
At Mirag, kids play cricket in a small courtyard and laugh after I’ve passed by. An elderly woman gives us tea in bone china cups, with bi
scuits, and like so many people I’ve met here, responds warmly to my “namaste”, my hands pressed together in front of my chest. It’s the same with the elderly man we meet as we leave — his eyes sparkle as he beams at me, leaning on his stick. And Mirag’s gardens are neat and fertile; cauliflowers carefully weeded, a plot of marigolds, things indicating knowledge and attention — and a great deal of hard work. A simple life, but hard — or a hard life, but simple? Given the choice, which would you choose: hardship or ease, simplicity or complexity?


Saturday 25 November 2006
A common road sign here says, "Life is journey Complete it." At Nandprayag I look down from the bus window to the ghats at the confluence — the prayag — where a small cluster of people watches a massive fire among the boulders by the water's edge.
Nearby, on a raised structure, another figure, shrouded in black, waits for the fire. These lives have been completed, or, according to the prevalent belief system here, are undergoing transformation.

If I were to be reborn as an animal, I think I'd like to be reincarnated as a bird. Closer to Joshimath, what I
think are white-backed vultures soar high around the precipitous bluffs; I have to lean closer to the window and look up to see the birds circling. One flies close to the mountainside, its shadow distinct, following close beneath and slightly behind the bird in the strong morning sun. We're like the shadows of birds, trapped on the ground, but even more constrained — to go where that bird's shadow traversed so easily would require enormous skill, artificial aids like ropes and climbing protection, and the mental ability to deal with terrifying exposure. My years of climbing have accustomed me to some degree of exposure, but even so I feel a few rushes of adrenaline when I look down and see not road but a sheer drop to the gorge far below. I tell myself the driver does this everyday; the wheels aren't as close to the edge as they seem; and I remind myself to think like a bird — to soar out over the abyss and enjoy the freedom, the ability to cross in minutes by wing what would take us half a day on foot, and probably using hands much of the time.


Down in the river at Karanprayag, men have been breaking rocks by hand, pounding boulders with sledgehammers. Another man sits on a huge mound of fractured pieces, breaking them down with a hammer into smaller fragments. This happens everywhere I've been in India. At the end of each day, what sense of accomplishment might you feel from such a job, knowing it will be the same tomorrow and perhaps for the rest of your life; that there will always be more need for broken rock and there will always be more rock to break? Is it enough to say, "This is what I do," the way others say, "I write," or, "I photograph," knowing there will always be more to write, always more to photograph?

If your life is a journey, where is the breaking of rock taking you, and what will you look back on when you're about to complete it?


Sunday 26 November 2006
Mid morning, the early winter sun lighting the valley of the Ata Gad, a swift, powerful river flowing to its confluence
with the Alaknanda at Karanprayag. Steep, high mountainsides drop to the river; they're sparsely forested with conifers, and, amazingly, here and there I see villages perched near the ridgetops. How do you live in such a landscape? A visit to the valley bottom must be a major undertaking. This is country for wild animals: birds like the lammergeier I see patrolling near the ridgetop; once again its shadow follows as if unwilling to separate from the bird.

I look down from the summit to the river, wondering about the fish living there. The mahseer has a reputation for being a fierce fighter when hooked, and this seems appropriate for this fierce river. The mahseer, the river, the landscape — the word "uncompromising" springs to mind.

And the people? I don't know them well enough — I hardly know them at all — yet from what I've seen, there must be a toughness there, a will to survive.
In Karanprayag I saw two porters carrying a lounge suite; one carried two stacked, upholstered armchairs, the other an enormous sofa, and they walked along the road with these immense loads on their backs, with no aids other than a tump line around the forehead. I've seen others carrying staggering loads of bricks or broken stone, two bags of cement, enormous sacks of potatoes or onions — there seems to be nothing they can't carry. Yet they're only small, these porters; if I stood face to face with one, he'd look directly at my chest, possibly not even that high. The women, too: small like the men, and like the men they carry enormous loads. Up ahead, two haystacks move slowly along the road with a slight side to side, rocking motion; as we draw closer, I see the legs beneath the stacks, a slow plodding; the women bent over under their loads. Day after day they do this; they've carried these loads for centuries, perhaps millennia. Again, the question — what have you accomplished at the end of your days?

Perhaps, if they knew me and knew my life, they might ask me the same question. If I had an answer for them, it would probably mention the creation of something new, and something that shares a life. What I'm doing now, I trust, will be part of that accomplishment.


At Baijnath an old man wanders back and forth beside the bus, an air of nervousness about him. Anxiety. He wears a pale, roughly knitted woollen jersey,
grubby about the hem and cuffs, dun coloured loose trousers, old sneakers, a pale grey, well worn pundit's cap. Back and forth, carrying a woven plastic sack one third full of something heavy over his shoulder. He's slightly taller and noticeably thinner than most, so his clothes hang on him. Finally he sits on some steps leading to a small, second story house, but he's only there for a few minutes before an old woman comes down the steps, wanting to get past. She shoos him away and he gets quickly to his feet and goes and sits in front of a stall. He puts his hands to his cheeks, rubs his palms over his face, hides behind them. He is a man stripped of all self-assurance, as if this is an alien environment. He looks about, this way and that, unwilling to let his gaze settle — perhaps because, if he did, he would be noticed.


Kumaon's lower than Garhwal, the landscape more hilly than mountainous, the forest denser and more extensive. Presumably because of the gentler topography, the terraced areas are larger and more abundant; another consequence is that it's possible to see much further — as the bus gains height, the views open up: huge vistas over valleys and hills. Then, behind the furthermost, forested hills, the summits of the Himalaya, white with brilliant snow. At first, just one or two peaks, then a few more, and connecting ridges, then, as we move deeper into Kumaon, a great expanse of the Indian Himalaya comes into view. In Garhwal, at Joshimath, Badrinath, and Auli, although much closer to the big peaks, I only on a few occasions felt as if I truly saw the Himalaya; ironically, although I'm so much further away here in Kumaon among the gentler hills, forests, and cultivated lands, I see the Himalaya better. But, in the evening at Kausani, I scan the distant peaks through binoculars, look at the rock, snow, and ice slopes of Trishul, and realise how far I am from being part of that environment — that here I am among my own kind, but also, that I am not.


Monday 27 November 2006
Now, in the middle of a bright overcast day, those distant mountains appear, at a cursory glance, dull and flat; most would find them uninspiring.
snow leopard, Naini Tal zooBut look closer, particularly if you have binoculars; let your eyes wander the slopes and ridges and summits, some of which disappear into misty cloud. It's easy to believe there's no one there, that the whole range is silent except for the sounds of things not human — wind, water, rockfall, birds; that it's the home of the tahr and the snow leopard, the lammergeier and flocks of choughs, their red legs and yellow bills bright and new in the old light. It's easy to believe there, among those mountains, you might understand things that can't be articulated; that language would fail to flesh out the bones of Orphic knowledge; that there you might find not the answers, but the right questions.

You might go further in, always a little further. Beyond that last blue mountain. What do you seek? Do you even know — and does it matter?

A faded blue flag fluttering in the breeze, a red plastic chair by a grey plastic table on a dull concrete patio. Beyond, past the smoky hills below, past the densely packed towns and villages and the ubiquitous scattered houses, beyond the smouldering rubbish fires and human lives — the veiled Himalaya, and the idea of mountains.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Indian Himalaya from Kausani.
2. One of Mr S's friends.
3. Not sure of the identification of this, but it's the most common conifer high on the slopes above Tapovan.
4. At Rishikesh. Not all who look like this are genuine.
5. Also at Rishikesh. This spider would have been about the size of my open hand. All are genuine.
6. The lower part of Trishul (7120 metres) at sunrise from Kausani.
7. Porter at Naini Tal.
8. Kausani evening.
9. Female snow leopard at Naini Tal zoo. Note: this photo is of a CAPTIVE ANIMAL. I was the only person around; when she noticed me, she stalked and charged me, then played hide and seek. I would far rather have had this privilege in the wild, but it's unlikely I'd be telling you about it now.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

Oh, P.
Thank you. You ask all the philosopher's questions, that have no answers.

I believe that human natural environment is the city. Not that it creates health or happiness, but that it wrings out of us what we do best, be complex and creative. Our hive, our dam.

I miss mountains.

Will said...

Hi Pete,
I hope you are still doing well. It looks like, but sometimes it is not as it looks.
The picture of the female snow leopard, well, I really like it and my first thought was of course: “Wow, this shot was taken close”.
I was probably remembering the picture of the hare and the stoat that you took at D’s last year.
I am really looking forward to read about your first adventures in the wilderness.
Take care.

MB said...

Gorgeous photos. The word journey is a shimmering word, it changes in the light. It may signify beginnings, or process, or being in the middle of something, or destination, or transformation. So many ways to think of it and your thoughtful questions connect to all of them. Sometimes I wonder if the questions are the answer. I hope you are feeling better by now, or soon.

Peregrina said...

Pete: A third post before I'd got around to saying thank you for the first two, for the glimpse you're giving into a part of the world I will never see and know nothing about. Now we've got another with philosophical questions to think about as well! And all three with superb photographs. I enjoy your descriptions, your insights, and the questions that make me consider things I take for granted. I hope you are fully recovered soon. You're philosophical about your illness, too, but your life will be more comfortable when you don't need that particular bit of philosophy!

PS. The verification characters I've had to type include the group "fev". You've had a fever??

Anonymous said...

Hi there Pete - I do hope you are feeling a lot better, and ready to flesh out that "idea" of mountains...stunning phrase and as always - breathtaking photography. I can't stop examining that leopard - so beautiful and terrifying...!

Thanks so much for all of it, and the questions...I have always preferred them to answers. A little perhaps like the journey being more important than the arrival...? Too simplistic as an analogy, I think....

I wish you well for your continued travels - and good health also.
Every time I read another post from you it feels like a blessing. :-)
kindest regards from KSG

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, yes, the questions might be ends in themselves, like journeys. Answers usually only raise more questions. And that's a provocative assertion about cities, for me at least. Thanks — something more to mull over! (BTW, NZ has marvellous mountains, and I haven't forgotten the promise about rappeling...)

Will, that time at D's was brilliant, and the hare and stoat photos were like additional blessings. I, too, am looking forward to finding some real wildness; here I've found it only momentarily. I'm also looking forward to meeting up with you; keep in touch.

MB, that's an excellent way of describing "journey". Shimmering. Thankyou, and yes, I'm recovering, resting up for the next few days before returning to Delhi.

Peregrina, thanks for the thoughts and good wishes. No, it wasn't a fever! The other end, of course, this being India (no offence intended; I'd resigned myself to this before I left!) I value your assessment of the photos, particularly with your background. I'm keen to process them properly, but that will have to wait until next year, I'm afraid.

KSG, good to hear from you :^) The snow leopard moved me more than I can describe; even if she was confined, captive, in a place she shouldn't have been, the interaction left me close to tears. I'm comforted by the thought that I provided some brief interest for her; also because it's clear her natural instincts weren't wiped out by her confinement. Hope all's well with you :^)

Avus said...

Sorry you have had the "Dehli Belly", Pete. However your "loss" (!) has definately been our gain as it has given you time to think and write this great post. As usual you pose the questions, as usual you spark meditation on the answers. Your thought,
"Perhaps this is a too-common mistake: to think the solution to an unmet need is to supply the demand rather than remove the want."
got to me, particularly.

Another quote,
"You might go further in, always a little further. Beyond that last blue mountain. What do you seek? Do you even know — and does it matter?"
brought back Kipling's poem "The Explorer" to me:
"Something hidden. Go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges.
Something lost behind the Ranges.
Lost and waiting for you. Go."
When me email tells me there is another post from you my heart lifts.
Thank you, Pete. Get well soon - continue to enjoy, observe and meditate.

Will said...

...I know. I am really going to miss the fantastic christmas dinner this year.

polona said...

what a pleasure to come by and find your wonderful photos and equally wonderful and thought-provoking words. thank you for sharing, hope you're well.

butuki said...

Pete, when I first saw the photo of the snow leopard I almost dropped my cup of tea! I thought, "Really?! He managed to get a shot of a wild snow leopard? God, he has got the most unbelievable luck!" Then I read your caption- and it made more sense. What I wouldn't give for a view of a wild snow leopard... or even a cloud leopard. Never mind a photo!

Zhoen, my first reaction to your statement that the city is the natural human environment made me shake my head... but upon further reflection, I think perhaps you are right. But, I would qualitfy that with "small city"... I think when the city becomes too big people tend to lose a sense of themselves and become lost in the crowds far beyond what does them good. While Tokyo where I love is very vibrant, I have never heard anyone say they love the city; every comment I've heard about why they like the city is simply that it's convenient. Everyone wants to get out. So many people together is and feels quite unnatural. But then I know people who absolutely love New York or Paris or London, so... maybe my theory needs some work.

butuki said...

"Tokyo where I live" that is...

Anonymous said...

Hey Pete! Thanks for sharing travel (and food thoughts).
"When will the demand for more power cease? When these rivers have all been maimed, will the windmills and solar plants move in? What will limit their spread?"
Well, I guess that will be us (and the US), the limiting factor!

The Kausani evening pictures left me disturbed. That is because of those terrible plastic chairs. I am a city person, and have a lot of plastic around (especially those chairs, exactly those one everywhere in the world) and it doesn't bother me too much (actually those chairs do, when I think about it). But plastic chairs at the foot of the Himalaya just don't seem right. I had this fantasy people there are still in touch with Nature so there furniture, clothes are made out of regrowing-longlasting-handmade-natural things. But even they (treat their chickens bad and) have mass produced furniture out of oil and "Made in China". How funny..."Free Tibet"
Enjoy your travel and keep us informed!

Avus said...

Funny that - now I think about it, the chairs grated with me too. However, we live amongst plastic junk and long for "ethnic" objects. Maybe the "ethnic" world goes for plastic junk because they are too busy existing to be able to spend time on "crafty bits"?

J. said...

Your writing has become magnificent on this journey, and perhaps that's part of what you were looking for? The last few paragraphs were almost poetry and made my heart sing, for rising up from the rubbish is always the earth with all its gifts and even a few mysteries, and at least one with the heart to see them.

Thank you, and I hope wherever you find yourself, you will have a good Christmas.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks for the support and encouragement, everyone. I spoke too soon: the bug returned with a vengance, and after trying to ride it out I finally realised it's giardia. For that, there's only one response — Shit! I've taken my Tiberal this morning, so here's fingers (and legs) crossed ;^P

Avus: Thanks. I'd heard Kipling's poem but would never have remembered it if you hadn't pointed it out. Yes, I think he really was moved by the same feeling. As for the plastic chairs thing, I have been struck by how much seems to meet only the basic requirement that it's functional — e.g., if the frame's not square it doesn't matter as long as the door closes.

Will: Me too!

Polona: Thanks. I experimented with some haiku a little while ago, but they didn't work. I'll have to come and get further inspiration from your site.

Butuki: Ha! Yes, I'm lucky, but not thatlucky. As for Zhoen's city theory, I think you're on to something there — size does matter. Although, beyond a certain size, many cities start to develop areas with a particular feel, so perhaps when someone refers to "New York" or "Tokyo", it needs qualification — which part of the city does the person refer to? And cities can be thought of in many different ways; I wrote about that a while ago and have no doubt that my time in cities here will give me plenty more to consider in relation to Zhoen's and your ideas. Thanks :^)

Schwelmo: Plastic chairs are an abomination — true. But for me the real value of those chairs was exactly that; they forced me to confront the extreme difference, the totally different worlds they and the Himalaya represent, and try to find a way to understand them as part of something greater, as not different in some deeper respect. Quite a challenge. As for the idea that most of the people there are "in touch with nature"... well... I've seen little evidence of it. It's easy to conclude that most lives seem to be a battle to circumvent the adversities of nature. (Have you tried the paneer tikka recipe yet?)

J: Thankyou :^) A few others have also suggested maybe I was looking for something to move my writing along. Maybe you're right, although I suspect I'll never really understand clearly what motivated me. Many things, I think. Whatever the reason, thanks for the encouragement.

herhimnbryn said...

Thankyou Pete, thankyou.
What the hell HAVE I accomplished at the end of my day? I wonder. I wonder.

Avus said...

Sorry about the giardia , Pete. Looked it up and see that
"This can last from 2 - 4 weeks but for a lactose intolerant individual, it can last up to six months." God! I do hope you are not "lactose intolerant" !

Will said...

Nitroimidazoles are imidazole heterocycles with a nitro group that have been used to combat anaerobic bacterial and parasitic infections. Perhaps the most common example is metronidazole (Flagyl ®). Other heterocycles such as nitrothiazoles (thiazole) are also used for this purpose. Nitroheterocycles may be reductively activated in hypoxic cells, and then undergo redox recycling or decompose to toxic products.
Try to find Metronidazole, chemical: 2-Methyl-5-Nitro-Imidazol-1-Ethanol, C6H9N3O3
this will help you; for sure.

Avus said...

I am sure that Will is right, but his remedy, in chemical terms, sounds more frightening that the complaint! Such a pretty word, "giardia" - it could almost be a woman's name (but then so could "syphilis"!)

pohanginapete said...

Will, thanks for the info. I had a single dose of tiberal (3 tabs), an alternative to tinidazole, so when I was sure it was giardia I took the tabs and it cleared it up. Just like that! I was impressed — and relieved. All's well now (touch wood).

Avus, I already had a fair idea that giardia's usually easy to fix, but I wasn't looking forward to having to put up with it for weeks (4 weeks is actually quick for it to clear up by itself, even if you're not lactose intolerant — I'm not, BTW). If the tiberal hadn't worked so effectively I'd have been looking for a doctor.

Thanks for the concern, everyone. I'm back in Delhi now, and will head for Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan next week. I'll probably stay there for several days at least; it sounds like as nice a place as any to enjoy Christmas :^)

Patry Francis said...

I love the things you see with your camera, and the questions you ask of the world and of yourself. I love that there are no easy answers.

Be well, Pete; and keep opening our minds and hearts to the seen and the unseen.

bev said...

Just found my way here tonight and have read through all of your travel posts. Wonderful writing, Pete -- as are the photos! Good to hear that you're well again. Spending Christmas around the bird sanctuary sounds like an ideal plan to me. Take care.

Suzanne said...

What an extraordinary trip. (I have a soft spot for the snow leppard.)Take care of yourself and get well. I'll continue reading and reflect along with you.

herhimnbryn said...

Hope your Christma s was good Pete.
Wishing you a happy, peaceful and adventuresom new year.

c'est moi said...

Very nice pictures Pete and an awesome adventures too. I hope someday to get over to India for a bit of exploration myself. Until then, I will content myself to living my own adventures and daydreaming vicariously through others adventures in different locales.