In the final episode of her Bedni Bugyal travelogue, Jennifer Nandi crosses a bridge and a river into another consciousness, one that holds the tranquility of the Himalaya and perturbation over its future in delicate balance
|The snow-clad flanks of the hills reflected in Bedni Kund was a vision that sustained us on that trying and redeeming journey|
The locals gather around and we learn their hazardous ways. They complain of diminishing reserves of fuel wood for cooking and heating homes, depleted soils, and overgrazed pastures. This surely suggests worsening conditions for life in the mountains. It brings notice to the linkage between alpine deforestation and lowland floods. The degraded forests hold less soil, catch less runoff and stabilize fewer slopes. Rapid weathering renders the soil fragile. Nature at odds with its environment can’t thrive; and when the depredation is ruthless, no seed can survive in such uncongenial ground.
|Amid the balmy verdant forests are vast monocultures of blue pine|
Yet, the basic life-support systems – soil, water, and biota, the limiting factors in the mountain ecosystems – have failed to restrict this village community of Kanol in their dreams. Half a dozen of its young men have joined the armed forces. However, scarcity and degradation forces them to live frugally. We wander out alongside the terraced hillsides. A little path leads toward the forest. Spring flowers that feed the spirit clutch at the hillsides – wild gerberas, forget-me-nots, geraniums, and daisies like the different colours of the sunlight. Nature surely blunts even the worst excesses of man. It seems our path is strewn with flowers. But our hearts are heavy with the burden of knowledge that we inevitably soil our most precious resource. These sanctuaries of forest and reason on which civilization depends are ultimately made inefficient through degradation.
|Water, clear and clean, appears abundant in the Himalaya but we saw enough to learn that its future is uncertain|
|Without our capricious guide Devidutt, seen here making tea in the hollow of an oak to keep the winds from snuffing the fire, our journey would have been wanting for character or anecdote|
The next day arrives too soon. There is much traffic on the way down. The history of human settlement in the Himalaya is marked by regular mobility for purposes of trade, resources, work, pilgrimage, or social exchanges. Travel has been an ongoing feature of these mountains. The intricate network of walking trails, resting places, and the cultural traditions of inn-keeping and porters, testify to that.
|Wild geraniums poke out of the understorey|
The stony, steep descent to the River Nandakini has all but crippled us. Sunita and I lag behind the men. At last, with the river in sight, I walk to sit on the bridge. Sunita finds her way closer to the river. Clearly, she is in no mood to talk. I give her space.
Soon, we are joined by three German trekkers with their guide. The guide comes up to importune me with questions. After I had explained that we were birders, he asks what ‘equipment’ would one need to engage in bird-watching.
“Just your eyes,” I say lightly.
“No, no, one must have binoculars too.”
“Ok,” I say, “And a field guide.”
“What else,” he asks.
“A basic creative principle,” I say facetiously.
“Where can I buy that?”
“One has to learn to observe – that’s the key. Birders must notice everything in its full, detailed richness.”
“Where can I find such people?” he asks.
“On a hillside, just watching,” I reply.
He dismisses me with a disbelieving look on his face. What a fortunate breed we are with an endless succession of surprises in life, by just engaging in the challenge of identifying.
It is now my turn to probe with questions. I walk up to this alpine leprechaun to ask why his legs were green. In the torrential rain of yesterday, the colour of his pants ran!
I turn toward Sunita to share the joke. She has finished smoking and is now inspecting her nails. She needs more time. The joke will have to wait. Now I wait for some signal of her readiness. She upturns her water bottle to her parched lips. That’s my cue, some physical sign of preparedness.
|The Nandakini, one of the Ganga's little-known tributaries, is one of the most beautiful of Himalayan rivers though our passage across it, over a quivery single-log bridge, was fraught with apprehension|
|Leaving the Himalaya brings on the pangs. What traveler can forget the dark, silent shape of a Plumbeous Water Redstart as it flirts its fiery tail against the stone-grey foam of a rushing river?|
Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” A century later, Wendell Berry proposed this necessary corollary: “In human culture is the preservation of wildness.”
By Jennifer Nandi
Photographs: Sahastrarashmi and Bijoy
Odyssey to Bedni Bugyal, a travelogue in ten parts, is now concluded. Follow these links to read previous episodes:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9