Rosary: Gap Year Week 38

Note: you might be more confused than usual if you haven’t read last week’s post.

My flips and rotations, all mid-air, reached a complexity far beyond my two months of gymnastics in second grade. Simone Biles would be jealous of the contortions I tried. With the greatest precision, I executed one final twist; breathing hard, I waited for the sound of success.

My phone screen remained stubbornly black. The iPhone charger unravelled once more.

Its exposed threadbare wires had struggled past the last few months of travel connected with little more than hope. Now, the night before we climbed to where we’d make camp for the next eleven days, it had finally relinquished that as well. I hit a few times for good measure and banged the phone power switch a few more, trying to ignore the rising panic inside me.

Deepshikha put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to accept that it’s gone.”

I had read an article some years ago describing the evolution of smartphones in popular culture. While I’d dismissed most of it, its concluding statement had stayed with me. “Smartphones,” it had said, “have become our modern rosaries.”

It’s not like my phone was any use up here at all. Internet was a punchline; the meagre phone service refused anything more advanced than a 2G Nokia; I had finished most of the books I had downloaded. The value of the phone was its presence—something to bead open and take testimony, in apps and downloads, that I had connections to something beyond me. I knew I could access the world and I knew the world would never grow larger than my screen. All disorder would be compressed into neatly rounded rectangles. The phone provided me with a faith that everything fell into an order. Even if, for the next three weeks or so, that order wouldn’t have the connectivity to load.

I realized, with a shudder, that I had to admit my mother was right. I had been on my phone way too much.

***

The next day, halfway panting up the hill to the pasture where our camp was, I turned around and suppressed a laugh. Below us Kibber clustered on the hilltop, ringed by green pea fields. Beyond it the wide peaks gleamed in the sunlight, bright and sharp. It had rained the night before and their flanks were powdered in a light spray of snow.  How could the small gods of technology mean anything here?

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I hefted my backpack and continued upwards. I could feel my breath rattling in my chest, the want of oxygen drawn tight in my throat. We were nearing the top of the ridge; there wasn’t any point taking another break now. As I climbed, the glistening dome of Kanamo—the nearest peak, 5961 meters high—rose above the slope’s horizon. The sunlight bled it of shadow and uncertainty. I kept my eyes fixed on it as we crested the ridge, the smooth white shape of it messianic, beckoning.

The camp was half set up when we descended to the pasture that lay beyond the top.  Students were scheduled to start coming in batches from the next morning. This education program was now over a decade old and brought students from all over Spiti and surrounding valleys to engage with the landscape’s flora and fauna. Many staff members had participated in the program’s first batches themselves as 9th or 10th graders, and returned now every year as volunteers.

Deepshikha and I found our tent on a raised hill above the pasture. We unpacked carefully by dumping everything on the ground, laid out sleeping bags, and arranged our backpacks: for the first time in what more than a week we were staying put for the next while. In the evening we sat outside the kitchen tent and sipped sweet milky tea, the first of countless cups.

Later Deepshikha beckoned me. “Come quickly,” she called. “I saw blue sheep.” I grabbed my camera and ran after her to the hill’s edge. We scanned the distant rocks for signs of movement, raking the shadows for a bovid shape. When a rock ten meters from me betrayed two eyes I started. One by one a flock emerged from behind the boulder and trotted out down the slope, so near we could see the thin blinder of their pupils. We followed them as they tugged at the tough shrubs, ready to retreat if we seemed too close, but they barely turned us a baleful glance. In the evening light, the sun sunk below the nearest mountains, the wind picking up, their coats had greyed—almost, with a healthy dose of romanticism, the blue of their names. Deepshikha and I exchanged excited glances.

We couldn’t see Kibber from the slope, or, indeed, any sign of permanent human habitation. Instead there was Kanamo stretching up—we could very nearly draw a path to its peak from where we were, just a few kilometers from its base camp—and now the slopes below it visible as well, they too pristine and snowbound. Only the hills closest to us had their rocky faces bared. In every direction something loomed; it was easy to think us pioneers, completely alone in a landscape nearly ethereal. Just us, and the blue sheep, and all they meant: the legacy of exploration and research they heralded—Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller tramping the Himalayas—and the wider ecology they hinted at.

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***

I called my parents a few days after we arrived, climbing up to a nearby stupa where you could, with difficulty, find two bars of mobile service. Over the tiny phone I borrowed from Norzum, another staff member, I tried to describe the pasture to my mother. “It’s empty—well, not empty. But there’s basically only mountains here.”

“What do you do when the camps aren’t on? Do you miss your phone?” she asked teasingly.

“No,” I said with a start. “We drink tea. I read, I write my journal. I watch the mountains. There’s enough to do—there’s more than enough to do.” That destabilizing panic I’d felt when my charger didn’t work had faded entirely. I hadn’t thought about opening my phone in days. More often than not, sitting in my tent, I ended up putting my pen or book down and just looking outside at the nearest mountain. Every time of day bathed it in a different light. Why do anything else when there were new crags and valleys to memorize in fresh shadow?

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As the days passed into weeks, I tried sketching our view to send in postcards to friends and family. Every time I failed miserably. This horizon was alien to recognizable, replicable shapes—just capturing the paths of snowmelt took ages and always ended up looking stilted and awkward. The mountains had, by their nature, a solidity of presence that resisted any compression to a tiny rectangle, a rocky immensity that seemed to scoff at my attempts to fill the paper. It was too vast to grasp properly. Instead I could only live in it, and try and piece, day by day, how things came together here.

One of the first activities we did with students was constructing a food web based on the region’s animals. Most groups, when asked about food chains, began calling out grass—zebra—lion, foreign examples from foreign lands, known only in blurry cartoons in their textbooks. Instead we asked them to name what they knew here. Snow leopard, they would always begin, and someone would be handed the end of a rope. What did snow leopards eat? The rope would be drawn taut between the leopard and a representative of the sheep: okay, then what did blue sheep eat? What else ate grass? Bit by bit, drawing out their knowledge of relationships, we drew a spiderweb of rope held between them. In the end we would test the stability of the web, pressing hard down on the ropes, and demonstrating how, no matter the pressure, it bounced back up. Then we deconstructed it: what happened if you removed the snow leopard from the web? Or the grass? Or the birds?

Over the two or three days of the camp, we highlighted for the students where the food web was illustrated around them. The blue sheep herd turned out to be daily visitors. In the evenings you could see them from the bathroom tent on the ridgeline, glowing against the sunset. Later, at twilight, a red fox stalked past the mess tent, no more than a hazy shadow in the burgeoning night. In the mornings, if you woke up early enough, a flock of Tibetan sandgrouse spiralled down to feed just out of sight of the tents. When a long day of dark-browed clouds cumulated in snowfall, flurries of Tibetan snowfinches emerged too, flying in drifts in companion with the flakes. From the mess tent, all activities suspended, we could watch them navigate the camp transformed in the white. As soon as the sun emerged the flocks would melt away and lone individuals would come to perch on the bushes at the camp edges. Alpine choughs returned in dark, sleek clouds then, landing gracelessly to hop among the lunch scraps.

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The final question we asked the students was who was missing from the food web. Who had the ability to both hunt the blue sheep and harvest the grass? Who could kill the snow leopard? After some trial and error, someone would call out humlogh—us. “This food web isn’t separate from humans—we’re also a part of it, and the ones with the most power over it. It’s our responsibility to keep it going,” we concluded dramatically, and then began the long and laborious process of winding up all the rope.

***

The more times we repeated that activity, the more I saw human presence in the web expanding around us. We weren’t alone up here at all. Every morning and evening, before the blue sheep came, a herder passed by from Kibber. Though most households had lucrative green pea fields or homestays now, families still kept yaks, goats, and donkeys; villagers would be selected on rotation to take all the livestock out to graze for the day. Blue sheep and livestock inhabited and depended on the same landscape—the same plants—to survive. The only difference was that one was owned, and the other was not. Interactions between the two groups had become the basis for many of NCF’s studies in recent years—the proximity of domestic and wild animals meant that infectious diseases bred in cramped corrals could be easily transmitted from one to the other.

The evening the third camp began, Kullu and Ajay, returned from their other work, climbed up to meet us. Both of them burst out laughing seeing our faces: a week now in under the alpine sun, outside for most of the day, had charred our skin and made mincemeat of our lips. They took us for a walk past the pasture, and pointed out where one of their most successful camera traps was located. Nearby we found a juice box, an incongruous cuboid on the ragged slope. In the winter hopeful photographers made this climb to wait for hours for a snow leopard sighting, and didn’t always clean up after themselves.

Ajay pointed out a far slope. “That’s where the grazing-free reserve begins.” One of NCF’s first projects here had been establishing an area free of livestock grazing to revive grass populations for wild herbivores, and so revive herbivore populations for snow leopards. Two decades on, blue sheep populations had nearly tripled in density. As we walked back they mapped their memories over the landscape: this was where Kullu had met a snow leopard face to face, here a weasel hunting a skink, up there a lake perfect for reading quietly of an evening.

“Do you know about the original philosophy behind these camps?” Kullu said suddenly, as we approached the tents. “A decade or so ago, when they first began—essentially, we wanted the minimum of materials, no lessons, no names. To let them learn through seeing and feeling, rather than a lecture from a whiteboard. What we want here isn’t to promote preservation—this area for wildlife, this for people, and you don’t cross over. We want these communities to take responsibility for these areas, for co-existence. Not one or the other.”

Singapore came to my mind out of nowhere—the rigid shapes of each road, the boundaries of the parks clear, an assigned place for everything. I shuddered, and pulled my coat tighter against me. The wind had picked up now as evening fell. I squinted in the distance: it was nearing 8 pm and the fox should be passing by the mess tent soon, but I couldn’t see it yet. Instead the blue sheep had emerged over the ridgeline, and were observing the students’ cricket game with calculated indifference. This wasn’t wilderness in the sense I’d imagined it at first—untouched, pristine; that was a human myth. The boundaries grayed. They would evolve with time and with the values of these children, now pausing their game to admire the male blue sheep’s horns.

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As they packed their bags to leave, I remembered to ask Ajay. “Did you manage to find a phone charger?”

He shrugged. “No luck. Do you want us to check next time we go down?”

I thought for a moment. “Nah, it’s okay. Whenever. I don’t really need it.” I meant it. My mind buzzed with the possibilities—of landscapes, of leopards—that lay over the hills Kullu had pointed to; the day after we would have a few spare hours when the students left. I felt no need to compress the world to order. There were new things to see.

They began walking back down to Kibber when Kullu called back after us. “If you go exploring, just be careful. Everything here is always bigger than you think it’ll be.”

That night we held a bonfire for the students. At its edges, I searched the sky and finally located Jupiter. Three students came to me and I showed them its two moons in my camera, pale ghostly dots at its edges. “It seems so close!” a young girl said, and I laughed. “It isn’t.” We all looked up in amazement. I sent my mind upwards: past the atmosphere, into space, thousands upon thousands of kilometers; how did one explain a light-year? For that matter, how did one explain the Himalayas? How did one live by the colossal size of these things and remain grounded, not feel the smallness of your own body, not feel, knowing yourself a part of it, a little uplifted too?

Some more students congregated around me. “Show, show,” someone said, and I flicked back to the photograph. We looked down at the camera and then up at the sky. All our faces were glowing.

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