Part 2: Journeying through Helambu, Gosaikunda and Langtang

After that first rainy night, the days seemed to meld into each other, as if I was in a mental trance, in hindsight. I’d have my meals and walk for most of the day, not lost in thought but aware and observant. What set them apart, though, was the change in landscape.

As the altitude and temperature changed, the flora and fauna followed suit. Sometimes the distant horizon could be seen from kilometers off, other times they were obscured by trees or nearer sets of mountains. Traversing near the roof of the world, it’s no surprise that the mountains never looked the same and changed in altitude, size, contour and habitation. There were impressively steep ones, barren of people; gently sloping terraces with houses and roads pockmarking the hills; thin, tall ones, frozen and devoid of any trees at all; wide massive ones that stretched around and through other lesser mountains, coming together at their ridges in a tight embrace of green or gray.

The Forests that would come and go changed as often as the passing days. From Pine to Rhododendron and Bamboo to many other species unknown to me. I was awestruck and reminded about how well nature does when left alone, without interjection of man’s usual utilitarian design. The ecosystem supported itself; the trees gave birth to more trees, their desiccated leaves mulching the soil from sprouting any competition.

Seeing all the birds perched up on the treetops, I imagined them eating the fruit and propagating the trees’ seeds further afield than the wind or rain could do on their own. Animals, water and wind. It’s been said that “Animals are plants’ greatest invention (sic) for proliferation.”

It was clear to me in that moment that man could play a key role in the proliferation of trees, or in its destruction. How far-out was the idea of planting a forest — the lungs and bellows of the world (not discounting the vast marine life that act in the same way, of course). Scientists, environmentalists and tree-hugging hippies all report that forests are being wiped out at a faster rate than they can grow on their own — to make space for commercial agriculture, largely to feed cows for our beef addiction. With today’s uninhibited digital spread of information, it isn’t hard to verify that fact for oneself.

Every few days, the path would lead me through some crudely deforested areas. Not on a grand scale, mind you. Only the work of some locals, needing the meager amount or utility they could earn from timber or firewood. And why not? At a sensory level, It looked as if the trees were never going to run out. But our well-honed tools of scientific prediction and statistical probability tell us otherwise. If a few pragmatic families cut a tree every week for the rest of their lives, I doubt the landscape would change that much. But then, what if every other family did the same, and all over the world? What’s missing is the knowledge of one’s actions in the bigger picture, the wisdom to make the right decisions, and personal accountability.

Another thing to note is that the further I got from the city and main roads, the less trash there was, carelessly thrown and blown by the wind. The city itself, Kathmandu, is tremendously filthy: full of dust, plastic garbage, animal dung (cows, dogs and cats) and organic waste — all mixed up, rendering whatever good the organic matter would have done to soil, worse than useless. Loaded lumps of putrefied biochemistry.  

Up in the mountains, there was less trash. But it never went away. Every single local I saw holding a used candy wrapper, cigarette butt, potato chip bag, juice carton or soda bottle, threw it on the ground to either side of them, neither caring nor wondering what all that trash would mean for the land and water, themselves and their descendants, 50 years down the line, or 100.

Sure, it’s not an isolated case. There are many such places in the Philippines and every other developing country I’ve set foot on where throwing your trash by your feet wouldn’t cause the bat of an eyelash. But not all towns or cities disrespect the environment in the same way. Nevertheless, the situation can lead to frustration at times.

I’ve seen swaths of forests being burned off of hills in Antique in the Philippines, presumably to make way for crops. I was there for 3 months last year living in a Permaculture farm; the distant fires and their plumes of thick, black smoke happened almost every week, late in the afternoon or under the cover of night, obscuring the age-old starlight many times older than the planet itself. One evening, our very own hill across the hard-packed dirt road was aflame.

The owners of the hill and the farm where we stayed were one and the same, and there were plans to expand the Permaculture field school to the hill in the near future. Waking up shortly past midnight to shouts of “The hill’s on fire! Wake up! Get the shovels!” amid the scuffle of sandals on concrete below me was as alarming as any nightmare and enough to have me sit straight up from my mattress on the bamboo-slatted floor.

It was summertime and everything was brown and dry so the tall, wild grass burst into conflagration like tinder, passing the embers on to their neighbors in the strong westerly winds. There were several gnarly trees on top of the hill the fire threatened to engulf. I can’t claim to have done much to abate the fires, but we tried our best, shoveling dirt into burning bushes and chipping off parts of trees that had begun to ember with increasing brightness. The wind buffeting the hillside made it arduous work.

The shock of waking up to such horrors was only outshadowed by the shock of the arsonist’s lack of remorse. We had approached the lone shack near the fire and asked about it. A sugar farmer had started the fire to wipe his newly harvested field clear, to save him the time and labour of cleaning it himself and to prepare the field for the next cycle. They always did it that way; never mind that it was a waste of mulch or compost, or that it killed the biomass in the topsoil. That’s how their fathers taught them and so forth. It just so happened that this time the wind spread the fire further and beyond his field of sugarcane.

The point is, so many people have destructive behavior and attitudes they learned from their fathers and neighbors, in the name of convenience or profit, without even realizing their detrimental contributions to the world. Either they think it’s harmless, as in the case of simple littering, or/and they feel justified carrying on because of tradition and personal necessity, as in the case of the dump-truck driver that empties loads of plastic rubbish daily from the roadside down a cliff to make a little extra money to take care of his sick wife and kids.

Clearly, the fact that most people behave a certain way doesn’t make it ethically right. Historically, what of burning people alive, crucifying, flogging, stoning or slavery? Our forefathers watched and clamored with approval as their rulers carried these out as punishments to whomever they wished in full belief that they were morally in the right and hence, justified to mete out such sanctions. Today, no doubt this would cause an uproar in the Hague and the rest of the world.

There are still practices today in some extreme Muslim cultures that degrade the woman as a lesser being, a possession, and whose horrible treatment is seen as just and rightly carried out — as seen in the cases of the social acceptance and support of the stoning, physical defacement, whipping, and even murder of a woman by her husband or father, if she had been a victim of rape. As it has happened in the past, as societies, we can fall into states of mass disillusion, with a deluded sense of true justice, universal love, ethical behavior, philosophy or any ideology. 

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell

As B. Russel very well knew, we need to doubt ourselves and what we think we know to have the slightest chance of any cultural, ethical, scientific, existential or spiritual progress. A stagnant and unchanging set of ideologies is bound to be obsolete, there’s nothing but change all around, even at the molecular level. As long as there is anything left unknown to us, there should be room for doubt in everything we think we know. Contemplating the breadth and depth of our general ignorance and resistance to change is overwhelming. And yet, people learn best from observing good example and not by forceful preaching or berating.

Our societies should foster care for the well-being of the entire ecosystem, not just for our own skin and kin. It seems our “selfish genes” have made a terrible mistake, to use Richard Dawkins’ term. They’ve evolved us into ultra-efficient and intelligent gene replicators, but with a great imbalance: our instincts to protect ourselves and our families greatly outweigh our impulses to protect the nature in which we live in.

As popularly mentioned and for whatever reason, humanity has evolved to see itself as separate from and above the world as her conquerors. We carry on placidly at the world’s careening decay, and as a result we find ourselves deformed, amputated and affected in irreversible ways. 

(Photos to follow)

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