Back to my first theme, which I never really left: the end of the world as we know it.
I just started reading another cheerful book, as I can only take a few pages at a time of Uninhabitable Earth. The one I’ve just started has been around a few years, and it actually is cheerful in tone, celebrating the rediscovery of invigorating ideas from a Roman writer during the early Renaissance. It’s The Swerve, from the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt.
The part that just caught my attention, however, captures my fears for us:
“As the empire crumbled, as cities decayed, trade declined, and the increasingly anxious populace scanned the horizon for barbarian armies, the whole Roman system of elementary and higher education fell apart. What began as downsizing went on to wholesale abandonment. Schools closed, libraries and academies shut their doors, professional grammarians and teachers of rhetoric found themselves out of work. There were more important things to worry about than the fate of books.”
Well, I’m not so sure. Here I sit worrying about Shakespeare being lost to the future. Maybe not right away, but in time.
Greenblatt recounts how a man named Poggio rediscovered the visionary Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, which became seminal in Renaissance intellectual development. But one of the clues that inspired him to start looking for Lucretius amidst moldy manuscripts in Germany was a reference to him in another manuscript, a comment by Quintilian, who also listed eight other Roman writers who are utterly lost to us.
How much might have been lost from classical poets and thinkers? How much faster might “progress” toward the modern world have come? Who knows? One can shrug and say that’s how human history goes. Or one can worry about losing Shakespeare and—fill in the blank—your favorite genius.
But we have schools still, thanks to Zoom. And humans are ingenious. Who knows where this will end? Bang, whimper, magnificient innovations and reversed climate crisis?
Still, better to think about these things and read Greenblatt than to listen to another hour of current news.
A couple of days ago I heard one of the wild turkeys that typically roam my neighborhood. Gobble, gobble, gobble. Such an onomatopoeic word. The call was wrong somehow, a repeated gobbling from the same spot. It was monotonous instead of rhythmic—not echoing from various places in a familiar and comforting way. I don’t live in a rural place, but my neighborhood is almost rural, a hill-enclosed edge of the town where deer and turkeys are just part of the scenery, along with gray squirrels and hawks above.
I went out to investigate because I couldn’t see any turkeys out my window. I usually see them ambling and pecking across my yard. At the bottom of the cul de sac I live on here in Roseburg, I saw the caller. A single male, repeating his three-beat call at intervals, spreading his tail feathers from time to time.
He was very alone. I walked down my neighbors’ long driveway, trying to see if his flock was down the slope by the creek or in another neighbor’s yard. A few people have patches of lawn up here—not me—but mostly there are thickets or stretches of ground. He retreated toward the house at the end of driveway. I walked back to my house, worried.
He seemed anxious to me, as if trying without success to summon his flock, his wives and kids. I immediately imagined that someone has culled the flock. Just weeks ago, as best I recall in this indeterminate time we inhabit now, I saw almost a dozen of them jerkily walking down the street, circling the block, crossing behind my house, entertaining me and my cat. I hear gunfire from time to time up here: less than I used to hear in Oakland actually, and I haven’t heard enough lately that could cut down a dozen turkeys, but people do have guns up here.
This morning I heard him again and found he had ventured onto the road in front of my house, having left the apparent safety of my neighbor’s long flat driveway. I watched and worried as I saw him beckoning his ghost flock. His call sounded lost and anxious.
Then I caught a glimpse of a small turkey—a female or a juvenile, a single turkey walking up the hill of the cross street. He must have been calling to her, but she didn’t respond—just kept walking by herself. So then I had another thought. He’s a bully. His gang got away from him, exiled him. They are hanging out up the hill somewhere, safe, feeding on the rich supply of bugs in between the thickets.
I hope I’m right and he’s been sent to chill in the turkey-doghouse for a while. I would feel a little less sorry for him—this mirror image of me in my isolation, this focus for my anxiety about when I might return to normal life.
Here’s something less gloomy than previous comments.
I was once a medievalist as some of you know. I specialized in Chaucer, though I regret to say I haven’t read him in about 40 years, except for reciting the beginning of the Canterbury Tales in freshman English classes in recent years to show students how the sound of the language has changed, though it is recognizably English—unlike Anglo Saxon.
So here’s the cheerful thought I had. I can thank the plague of the 14thcentury for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to some extent. He was highly influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron, those hundred tales written by Italy’s first prose fiction writer; they depicted people telling tales at a villa outside Florence while escaping the bubonic plague that ravaged the city in 1348.
Chaucer may even have met Boccaccio in Italy in 1373. The Black Death also hit London in 1348 and again in 1361; it returned more than once during Chaucer’s relatively long life and career. The Black Death led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. About a third the population of England was wiped out by the recurrent plagues, leaving fewer laborers, and giving peasants more economic power. The feudal system began to crumble.
One of the reasons I admired Chaucer was that he was very engaged with the world; that may be why the 100 Canterbury Tales he envisaged in imitation of his inspiration were never complete: he had demanding day jobs at court. He wrote a couple dozen tales inside the frame of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, many of them funny. But some of the best parts are the human comedy of the scenes that link the tales and bring the tellers alive.
I think this plague year might be a good time for me to haul out the complete works and see if I can still read Middle English. Translations lose a lot.
And note: Here are some good things that came from the London plague of the late 17th century.
And more: a podcast recommended by my colleague Carolyn Trist whose world geography classes at Santa Clara University this spring will focus on epidemiology and pandemics. Classic Tides: The Black Death Revisited. Gives fascinating information showing the widespread social and historical consequences of the plague.
More gloom to offload on you. Thoughts from my scattershot reading these days.
An essay in the current Harper’s by a naturalized citizen puts the idea of American amnesia well:
“Over the past twenty years, I have come to understand that there is nothing more American than forgetting the past. It is through the obliteration of memory, an obliteration perpetrated with great deliberateness by the state, that American identity is fashioned.”
Now I would hazard that people who might be reading this—or for that matter most of my friends whether reading this or not—are memory junkies, the opposite of the Americans the essay author speaks of. A very good friend of mine even memorialized the Irish immigrant tendency to forget in a fine book that tells the history of her clan: Forgetting Ireland.
How else could manifest destiny have manifested or the west been won, the wagon trains made it across the desert, the railroads been built for mile after mile? How else could we and our politicians ignore Indian genocide, slavery, and Japanese incarceration and the long list of horrors that the left keeps pestering the right about? But Americans are maybe only a little worse at this (a little better?) than others: there are denied genocides all around the world.
The tendency to forget, the shortness of the human attention span, seems germane to the climate crisis too. It’s too big. And what are we to do about it anyway? It’s done. That ship has sailed.
Maybe that’s why some pastors can convince their congregations to continue to come to church despite orders to shelter in place during the current pandemic. We’re goin’ down anyway. So let’s pray. Let’s get ourselves saved in the next life. Or, the secular version: it’s already too late, so let’s drink. Let’s buy up a storm.
More from The Uninhabitable Earth:
“We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead.”
From another book I’m reading, some lines that seem related: Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. You might call it dystopian.
“…and in those trees there were now dark bodies too, children who climbed and played among the boughs, like little monkeys, not because to be dark is to be monkey-like, though that has been and was being and will long be slurred, but because people are monkeys who have forgotten that they are monkeys, and so have lost respect for what they are born of, for the natural world around them….
The inability to remember our origins, to know ourselves as animals embedded with other animals in nature, the failure to know all humans as both animal and our kin may be at the center of all our current crises.
A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to a lately released Dylan song, ‘Murder Most Foul.” You can find it on You Tube.
The first of several signal tragedies or crimes for the generation that is still here sheltering in place—my elderly cohort —was the Kennedy assassination (the first Kennedy assassination). Listening to it will lead to ruminations. I’ll leave you to your own and not insert mine here.
The friend who sent the link is almost as old as I am, and like me experienced Berkeley in the late 60s, the Beatles’ last concert at Candlestick, marches down Market street. He went to the human be-in. I didn’t. If I get a chance to teach 18 year olds at Berkeley again this fall, how can I sketch the seriousness of now without infecting even more despair and terror than some of them must feel? Or can they have fun and hope in the midst of horror, as we did in the midst of a triple assassination, the draft, the war, children bombed in the South? Should we trust they will find their own way through this?
Here’s a quote from The Uninhabitable Earth:
“Fifteen percent of all human experience throughout history, it’s been estimated, belongs to people alive right now, each walking the earth with carbon footprints.”
The carbon footprint part is alarming of course. But the other part—the it’s all about us part. I don’t think we as a group of generations are interesting enough to take up so much damn space in history, frankly.
Unless we can do something to deserve it. What on earth might that be?
I meant this page for travel stories. But the strange trip we’re all on is a kind of journey, destination unknown.
I had some thoughts that are a little too rambling for Facebook, then I remembered my blog—unused since I was in India a couple of years ago.
This morning, making my tea here in Oregon on a cloudy spring day when the temperature still dips into the 30s at night, I heard a verse in my head. I turned off the radio (which is on far too many of the hours of the day now) and went to a bookshelf. I found the turquoise clothbound volume of T.S. Eliot I’ve had since graduate school in the 1970s. (That’s not a typo. The nineteen seventies.)
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
They are famous lines. Appended at the end of the poem and not particularly necessary to it, they stick in one’s head like a nursery rhyme, an adult nursery rhyme quite suitable to the adult pessimism of pretty much any part of the twentieth century. The date of the poem is 1925, and some of its pessimism could be Eliot’s response to WWI’s devastation and despair.
For reasons I don’t quite remember, I loved Eliot when I was in my 20s in graduate school. I posted some lines from the Four Quartets around my apartment and even memorized a few. I think I quoted some of those lines during my PhD orals, even though my specialty at that point was medieval English literature, not modern.
Eliot has since been documented as an anti-Semite, and thus become questionable, even distasteful. In any case, I left literature behind years ago and became a journalist; for many years I have read more non-fiction than fiction or poetry.
Coincidentally, however, I had just started reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth before I went to the kitchen to make my second cup of tea. And that’s when the final lines of The Hollow Men tickled and surfaced in those mysterious synapses we call our brains. Now the two books sit here beside me on this chilly morning, atop my down comforter, my cat in her fuzzy little clamshell at the foot of my bed, the sun breaking through behind the clouds. I see the blue and white sky through the bare branches of a mature oak outside my big bedroom window. Through one eye the moss on its branches is khaki colored. Through the other eye that very same fuzz of moss is a quite lovely shade of pale green, a kind of sage but brighter.
My iPhone calendar just reminded me I have an appointment for a check up with my ophthalmologist in Berkeley today. But I don’t. The cataract surgery I was supposed to have yesterday on my left eye—the eye that sees khaki moss—was, of course, cancelled. Surgery on the right eye, the eye that sees bright sage, was done at the end of February, just days before we all started washing our hands with the same assiduity of the hospital techs. But even so it was weeks before we fully realized life was changing, and my surgery was canceled, and I didn’t get into my old Camry to drive down to my other home, the East Bay.
I perch here on a hill above an old lumber town, Roseburg, Oregon. A town that is sadly full of MAGA hats and bumper stickers. But it’s a town with some redeeming features for me in my semi-retirement (good yoga teachers, a meditation group of fellow vipassana practitioners, a gym with a fine Olympic size pool, and a multiplex that surprises me from time to time with the kind of films that I like and watch with only a couple of other patrons). Of course all is closed now. Without them I need to create a new rhythm to my day, one with less radio, more books. More writing. I posted excerpts from Pepys and Defoe on Facebook recently, snippets describing the great plague in London in 1646. I think I was hinting to myself to start my own journal. So here it is.
March 27, 2020
I am devolving. I set out to read this morning about that other ongoing catastrophe, the climate crisis. I again picked up The Uninhabitable Earth, into which I had only gotten a few pages before being distracted first by my own mind, then by the rhythms of the day here: a walk in the park with a friend.
On our way back from what has become an almost daily stroll through Stewart Park down a reach of the South Umpqua River, a guy with a dog yelled at us, something about a phone. I answered from about 25 yards that I couldn’t let him use my phone. He said his phone was dead and just wanted us to make a call for him. A young dog was bounding around his taller, slightly less playful, but interested canine. He needed some help.
He managed to read the number on the collar and I called the animal rescue group here, Saving Grace. We left a couple of messages with phone numbers about the incessantly playful pup, which may or may not have been reunited by now with the person who was fostering him until he could find a permanent home. Saving Grace must be overextended now. They may have to cancel their summer fund raising banquet. The way Cal Shakespeare has cancelled its summer season. The way the Olympics has been postponed.
I said I was devolving. Minor frustrations this morning led me to throwing magazines across the room. My laptop is slow. Can’t download things. That was part of this week’s plan, to have a tech guy in Oakland clean up and update my Macbook Air.
Writing these words makes me a little calmer. But the rage that surfaced this morning is perhaps a symptom of terror, terror not just for my own life and the lives of my friends, but for the entire planet, for natural creation, for the beautiful things created by humanity and by forces other than human. Much is at risk. Every few hundred million years, notes Wallace-Wells, somewhere between 75 and 86 percent of all species on the planet have been wiped out.
The parallels between the climate crisis and the epidemic are pretty clear: we were warned often and in detail by experts; governments and people proceeded heedlessly. So here we are, the only good thing being less carbon dioxide in the air because traffic is decimated in some places.
I don’t have anything smart to add about the parallel. I have done my part in creating and ignoring the twin crises. Brings to mind the twin towers, the emblem that stamped the beginning of this century.
I abandoned my chronicle in the middle of March. I got a flu with a pretty high fever and a lot of coughing during a somewhat misguided trip to northeast India after my stay in Orissa. I made it back to Delhi, to the nice friends that I wrote about in another post (see previous post, “Broken Tooth”). There I was fed and nursed out of the fever, but it took a long time to feel like traveling again, let alone writing about any of it. Finally I decided I was up to an all day journey by train and taxi to a town in the hills of Uttarakhand.
I have circled back to a place I visited early in my acquaintance with India to see what has changed: in me, in other people, in the place.
I had the notion back when I began the project that led to Dirty, Sacred Rivers that I should go to the source of the Ganga, the Gangotri glacier. I don’t know what I expected, maybe something more like what I had experienced when I went to other and equal sources of the Ganga: the Khumbu and Ngozumpa glaciers in Nepal. One difference: no road goes anywhere near the glaciers in Nepal. Another, they are situated where Tibetan Buddhists live, so few Hindu pilgrims come up that far. On the way to Gangotri I saw dozens of pilgrims, maybe hundreds, and it wasn’t even peak pilgrimage season.
But that’s not the place I circled back to after resting in Delhi.
Back in 2007, on my way to Gangotri, I visited Almora, a town in the northern state of Uttarakhand. There I met Lalit Pande who directs an organization called Uttarakhand Environmental Education Center (UEEC). I had heard about him from a fellow Fulbrighter who lived for a time at the center and worked with him and his wife, Anuradha. Their chief aim is to help villagers throughout the Kumaon and Garwhal districts of Uttarakhand establish income-generating projects ranging from horticulture to tailoring, as well as to adapt successfully to the changes brought about by road construction in the region as well as to the shifts in climate. Finding new sources of water is often an attendant concern. They also promote early childhood education centers and work with women to enable them to generate income independent of men, which leads slowly to shifts in family structure.
I was interested in meeting Lalit and Anuradha Pande again, and I also simply wanted out of the Delhi area—to be in the Himalayan hills. I found a somewhat discouraged Lalit on this visit, a little over a decade since our first meeting. Philosophical, curious and questioning—never taking an easy answer for anything—he seemed far less optimistic than when I first met him.
He says he isn’t seeing enough change in people’s lives in rural Uttarakhand, especially women’s. And he feels their hearts are no longer in the small projects that can be pursued in their villages because they offer little opportunity for much beyond a slightly enhanced income. He’s not sure people even know what to want anymore, where not that many years ago he saw them feeling productive as they experimented with new crops, made ponds to capture rainwater, established small snack and vegetables stands along the road.
His mistrust of development—development with a big D—is almost total. The development industry wants quantifiable results, wants to get poor people to do what it says is good for them. And if development experts see something that’s working in one locale, they want to scale it up and spread it around this vast and still impoverished country despite vast differences in terrain, climate and culture.
I wonder if they and Lalit aren’t the same in one respect: impatient for results. But he says when he has questioned or criticized what he sees happening, noting that it doesn’t fit at all with what the people being helped really want to do with their lives, he gets shunned and not invited back to meetings in Delhi.
Lalit said the same thing I heard from others who work in grassroots development efforts, that financial support for organizations like his has shrunk—especially since the BJP/Modi government took power. They are seen as anti-development, subversive, to the extent that their approaches to development don’t favor more big dams, prefer less industrial, green revolution agriculture, don’t want to increase exploitation of coal or groundwater. It seems ironic for them to be marginalized in this way, as they also are trying to promote growth and business, just a less flashy kind.
Smart phones are ubiquitous here in rural Uttarakhand now, which they were not a decade ago. Literacy is virtually 100 percent here, remarkable for rural India. People in these villages north of Delhi now see what people in the city have, and even what people from here who go to the city have, and they want more for themselves: more things that they can buy, and things to do. They don’t want their children to stay here and live the same lives they have lived.
There are “ghost villages” throughout the hills, while people from the choked, hot city want to come here to escape. I saw what looked like condo developments along the winding road on the way up from Kathgodam (the end of the rail line) to Almora. And then on the way back down—when our driver took an alternate mountain route during an intense downpour because he thought the main road might be blocked by a landslide—I saw even more of that sort of construction. Clusters of cottages and hotels are creeping up into the hills above Kathgodam. The future seems to be weekend and summer tourists from the city.
Lalit’s wife Anuradha seems more optimistic, acknowledging that change is slow, and that small shifts in attitude, in peoples’ confidence, in aspiration and awareness —especially for women — can make a difference. She is quieter than her husband, less inclined to big philosophical questions, very focused on the day to day work of training and sharing ideas. She keeps him grounded, he admits. She was educated in Uttarakhand, while Lalit went to boarding schools and then to Purdue for an engineering degree before eventually finding his way back to his father’s ancestral home. His father rose quite high in government service before retiring, living throughout India and in Delhi depending on where he was assigned. Anuradha has even stronger roots in the region; her family has an apple orchard in the hills as well as land in one of the towns.
So what will happen here? Will the population continue to shift, more and more young people migrating to the city for education or for jobs that bring cash? Even if it’s it not much money, it is cash, not just the food a family can grow to feed itself and maybe sell locally.
While I was staying at UEEC’s small, pleasant campus in Almora, I sat in on an all day meeting. About 20 men and women from villages near and far came to talk about their work. I didn’t understand much, of course, as they were all speaking Hindi with dashes of the local Kumaoni. But at least I could look at some photos because several of the men gave lengthy power point presentations, and Anuradha translated for me from time to time. Presenters showed greenhouses being constructed for growing off-season vegetables, and the building of a pipeline to bring water from a stream.
The first presentation was from a man who had come with his wife and son from a village south of Kedarnath—one of the four main Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand. After a severe mountain flood in 2013, which destroyed much of the town and surrounding areas, he decided he wanted to try growing some fruit trees that had not been grown in the area previously. The weather is warmer now, and even at 10,000 feet apple, citrus, and guava can be grown. He reported that he had begun teaching other people in the village how to establish saplings. He also makes drinks to sell locally—made both from rhododendron flowers and from the lemons he grows.
Each day I was in Almora there was an unseasonal rainstorm. This was delicious to me after the dryness of all my other destinations and Delhi’s heat, but it was not a good time for the trees, which were blooming. The area usually gets a winter monsoon, while the drier parts of India typically only have the summer monsoon. But this year, the hills got very little rain in the winter, so it was welcome in one sense but badly timed for the trees.
Tiring of the long presentations that I couldn’t understand, I left the meeting for a while and returned to finally see some of the women’s presentations. Theirs were shorter, without the powerpoints, but still gave them good practice for leadership. One woman who talked longer than the others reported on growing mulberry trees—they provide animal fodder and nice berries as well. I wish I could have understood more, especially about any of the water projects. But I liked seeing that people were responding to each other, talking together.
After lunch, I gave a short presentation at Lalit’s request. He translated. I mainly talked about Kathmandu’s traditional water system and comparable ones I had seen in India—the many ingenious systems that preceded big dams and reservoirs and canals (and in some places are being revived). They all operated on the same principle, which was to harvest as much of the monsoon as possible to keep water supplied year round through springs, ponds and stepwells. People in the group said they have always employed similar methods here.
The people gathered looked neither rich nor poor to me. Some men wore jeans and light fleece jackets, clean and casual. Women had on simple kurtas and sweaters and scarves: nothing elegant, and not carefully matched, but nothing that bespoke great poverty. Yet Lalit says they are poor, and they come to the meetings in their best clothes. In this they seem the same as people everywhere.
Lalit mentioned that one development specialist had told some villagers they ought to come looking more poor and unkempt to meet aid organization representatives, because they were looking too prosperous. I don’t know if this is something common or just an anecdote that Lalit had on hand. I buried my face in my hands and groaned when he told me this. In response to my comment that no one here looked the way so many people in Bihar do, Lalit said that is why all the money is now going to places like Bihar. Uttarakhand could still use help, but aid is going to more desperate places—like the flood-affected region of North Bihar that I wrote about in my book.
And in any case, aid isn’t the answer—at least not in the form of handouts, or giving “the poor” things that their city cousins would disdain and saying “here, this is good enough for you.” People aren’t that dumb. So if handouts aren’t the answer, according to many people whose opinions I think are valid, what is? Lalit wrestles with this. I wish more people in power would wrestle with the subtleties of the problem more, but there’s a tendency to want solutions that will work quickly and change a lot of people’s lives at once. And give credit to the government and NGO people who launch them? That’s pretty much been the approach to toilets. Various iterations of toilet building have been launched in India in recent decades, including the current Swacch Bharat initiative under Modi. He began this one because the earlier efforts did not succeed, largely because no one talked to the people beforehand to see what they wanted and what they might use.
Scale up, build, make a count, move on.
Backing up to my travel challenges—the first challenge about getting myself up to Almora, once I got to feeling better, was simply how to get to the train station in central Delhi for a 6 a.m. train from the isolated place where I was staying with two Nepali women, Snehi and Kanchan (introduced in “Broken Tooth” post). I couldn’t order my own Uber or Ola because I didn’t have a smart phone with an Indian sim card. Kanchan, who had been getting my Uber rides to the airport or the dentist, was up in another part of the hills herself for her job and out of internet reach. Her mother, Snehi, had recently gotten the Ola app (similar to Uber) put on her phone, but her phone had quit working earlier in the week, and sometimes drivers didn’t want to come all the way out to where we were. But we managed somehow, ordering the Ola to come at 4:30 the next morning before we went to bed at 10. We expected it would take at least 45 minutes for me to get to the station and that the driver might be late.
We were both amazed when he actually arrived on time. He drove so fast he got me to the station in half an hour, even through traffic (yes, there is traffic in Delhi at 5 on a Saturday morning.) In the very heavy traffic of the “freeway,” he drove so fast and aggressively, Hindu devotional music playing loudly on his radio, that I was sure he was on some sort of drug. I sat rigid with fear in the back, hoping not to die in India.
The driver dropped me off outside the security barriers of the train station—a station that handles half a million passengers a day—whereupon a handsome young porter in a red shirt with his official armband asked if I needed help. I did. The New Delhi Railway Station is huge. Sixteen platforms. My small duffel and backpack were more than I felt like carrying. He knew which platform my train would leave from and that the assigned platform had changed. He would find the correct car and seat for me. I have done these things on my own in the past but often with confusion. Easier to pay a couple hundred rupees and get help from an expert.
As we waited on the platform for my train to pull in for loading, he told me in English that was fully adequate for the conversation we were having that he was from the nearby state of Rajasthan, from a village of 5000 outside the capital city Jaipur. He comes to Delhi about half the month, goes home to the family farm the other half. He is 25, has a wife and a little girl and a baby boy, parents and buffalos and a water source. I saw photos of all these, including an irrigation canal. He described his day in Delhi. From 3 am to 7 am he worked at the station. Then he went to his room to rest. Then back to the station for another shift. I didn’t quite follow the schedule he was describing, but guessed that he worked during peak times, or maybe the porters traded shifts. He said he had been doing this for about six years. I wondered if he would rather stay at the farm in Rajasthan all the time if he didn’t need the cash to support his family. Or maybe in some ways he likes the stimulation of his time in Delhi.
I thought about him when Lalit was telling me about villagers wanting more, no longer content with their rural lives, that Delhi seemed to offer excitement, things to buy.
A young man who works for Lalit’s organization—he started working at UEEC soon after my first visit in 2007—took me to an old spring that I wrote about in my book. Its gate was open then, now it’s locked, though you can reach in and scoop up some water to drink. The young man is named Kailash, like the mountain in Tibet sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. He said he comes to the spring often. There is small temple next to it.
Kailash is from a village about 100 kilometers from Almora. He said plenty of people who once lived in Almora have now moved to Delhi. And many villagers in the region have moved into Almora, confirming what Lalit told me about “ghost villages” throughout the hills.
The changes I saw and heard about made me feel sad. The restoration of old springs and traditional water management that seemed on the rise ten years ago now seems precarious. The idea of more people flooding into Delhi is kind of terrifying. There are 19 million people there already.
For four days in Almora I could breathe and relax. Delhi makes me anxious a lot of the time, even when I’m not in a taxi with a maniacal driver. I stayed in the same room I stayed in a decade ago at the UEEC campus, which I remembered fondly. Windows on two sides looked out over green hills and I could see the activity in homes staircased down the town’s slopes. The air was especially cool and fresh after the rain. I could cuddle under the covers with a book. I could concentrate enough to read, something I hadn’t been able to do in weeks of traveling, being sick, staying in Delhi. The hill town had its share of honking horns during part of the day. But still, it felt human.
Another of the field visits Ranjan and I had planned was into “coal country.” After lunch with the family as the day was beginning to cool toward late afternoon, we drove to a town about an hour away from Sambalpur called Jharsuguda, in the heart of Odisha’s—and India’s—coal, steel and aluminum industries.
Our first stop was a small hotel where a local lawyer was waiting to meet me at Ranjan’s request. He said he specialized in criminal law. The case he has taken on during the past six months has to do with criminality of another sort: corporate.
Three farmers were also there to meet me. With Ranjan translating I heard their story. Last August an enormous fly ash pond at the Vedanta aluminum plant breached, sending four and a quarter million tons of ash slurry over several hundred acres. The paddy fields were green and full, the rice near harvest. The entire crop was lost to these and other struggling farmers. Their fields, several hundred acres worth, are now covered several feet deep in coal ash. They are unrecoverable.
The men said that now they are doing day labor work to survive, so much of their livelihood having been lost. Immediately after the catastrophe villagers held demonstrations, and the Orissa pollution control board ordered the company to shut down a good part of the coal power plant that supports the aluminum factory, called a “captive power plant.” The company resisted, and from what I heard nothing changed, though an official with the pollution board said they did comply, shutting down one smokestack, and were now taking better care of the coal ash. But Ranjan and others strongly disagree.
After we talked to the lawyer and farmers, another man showed up. Ranjan asked “do you want to go see?” Silly question. Of course I did. The man who showed up had a Toyota all terrain vehicle fortunately, otherwise we could not have made the trip to the village and beyond.
(Short aside: the man was a maniacal driver. Even mild mannered Ranjan called him crazy—after it was all over. He had an enormous potbelly and spent much of the time yelling into his phone while speeding over potholes and weaving through cows, dogs and kids in the village. But we needed him, and fortunately he was there. He seemed to care about what was happening to the farmers. Later he said business should be ethical. He was in commercial real estate—perhaps among other endeavors. When we got back to his office later I saw a photo of him with his father and brother. They kind of looked like mafia to me.)
A short drive beyond the village of Kartikela, the home of the three farmers we met at the restaurant, is the nightmare I mentioned in the previous post. Tons of coal ash were flowing into a stream that eventually finds its way to the Mahanadi river and the reservoir behind the dam. I heard from fishermen that when the monsoon comes, the pollutants from the upstream industries all wash down and kill off the fish—among those pollutants most likely is the ash from the breach. That is just one of the reasons they are having trouble finding enough fish to support themselves.
On the way to the village we saw many trucks speeding away from the plant, apparently filled with ash to be dumped somewhere, as the ash ponds on the Vedanta property are full. Ironically the name on the gate of plant from which the ash came is “Vedanta Meadows.”
The farmers want compensation. What they would like most is for their entire village to be relocated en masse, as is theoretically done when dams are going to inundate a river valley. Given that the children’s school is cheek by jowl with a smokestake and hundreds of acres are covered in toxic ash, that would seem like the best solution. Relocations are not accomplished very successfully in the case of dams, from what I’ve heard, and the chances it will happen for Kartikela are slim.
Ranjan told me the farmers may have gotten some unofficial compensation to keep them quiet. And such payments could in essence amount to an illegal purchase of the land which would leave the farmers with less power to legally claim the whole village should be relocated.
Had the breach happened at a different spot it might have inundated Kartikela and killed villagers. That might have gotten more attention, and more action. But maybe not.
The lawyer is planning to submit the case—which he has been documenting in the months since the breach occurred—to the National Green Tribunal in late March.
I took the train to Sambalpur the day after I flew to Bhubaneswar, Odisha, a state on India’s central east coast. Ranjan Panda met me at the station in his little blue car and took me to a modest hotel that would save me money during my stay. I had dinner at its restaurant — probably where I made the mistake that soon led to stomach problems. I enthusiastically ate the raita, which has raw cucumber and sometimes other vegetables in it. It’s a tangy, cooling, yogurt accompaniment to spicy curries. Having had Surendra’s organic greens in Khajuraho and then fairly safe food in Delhi, I was not vigilant enough.
The next day I joined Ranjan on a field trip for students from the local college. He wants young people to know more about the region where they live, and he works with a group called Patang, which does many outreach programs for young people in the city as well as with rural people. We visited fishermen on the Mahanadi River and heard about their attempts to protect a particular species of fish they value, the mahseer, whose numbers are severely depleted because of a dam, pollution, and overfishing. The traditional fishermen also have to contend with a “fish mafia,” whose members use explosives to kill more fish (sounds crazy but I’ve heard this before in another part of India) to make more money—thus harming the species and robbing the responsible fisherfolk of their livelihood.
Ranjan talked to the students in their local language, though most of them knew English and some spoke it well. There are many local languages in Indian states, and local variations within the states. There is Oriya, the language of Orissa or Odisha. And there’s also Sambalpuri—which Ranjan said is closer to the Hindi spoken in the center of the country than it is to Oriya. I couldn’t understand what he was telling them, but they listened attentively and he made them laugh from time to time, a good teacher.
We stopped at a fishing village where the students talked to fishermen and saw them demonstrate the way they throw their nets. Feeling woozy in the strong sun, I had to retreat to the shade up the hill from the riverside long before the demonstration was over. It’s pretty warm here, but not fully hot. Meaning not over 100 yet! It’s actually not been as bad as I feared, there having been some clouds and haze to hold the temperature down.
It was Sunday and seemed to be a day off for the villagers. Men and women were in the shallow water near the riverside bathing, the women washing clothes, children playing in the water.
The young “sarpanch” – the village leader – had arranged lunch for all of us, which we ate under spreading mango trees on the grounds of some official building a short drive down the road. The temperature dropped dramatically in the shade of all those trees, proving what I hear again and again about the value of trees to protect soil, animals, and people from the strong sun here, and to promote rain and groundwater. The loss of trees in a once widely forested India began in colonial days and is still ongoing, but pockets are protected in some places in the form of community forests. Ranjan told me about his work with some of the tribal people who still live in the forest and manage it well.
After lunch the students wrote their impressions of the day’s field trip, what they had learned and what reflections it prompted. Ranjan was born, raised and educated here—and has been working for years now to publicize wrongs and help people, so the local farmers and fishermen know him as do local business people. He’s clearly well-respected. The students applauded at the end of the program that day and said how proud they were of him.
I met Ranjan’s wife and daughter over tea at his house on the way back. The daughter is 14, tall, pretty, sassy and bored with her provincial town. Her name is Prakriti, which means nature, but her nickname is Kusi, which means happy. She thinks she wants to go to the US, having watched a lot of TV. His wife, Aparajita or Ajita, teaches political science at a local university and is a lovely woman who keeps everything running smoothly and cooks from scratch all three meals each day. She says she loves to cook and likes to be organized. Sleeping in on Sunday means till 7, when she can have tea and read and not get up to cook so early. They also have a 21-year old son who was away at school. I got invited to several meals—breakfast and lunch, as they don’t eat dinner until 10 or even later and they knew that wouldn’t work for me.
The first special breakfast was scheduled for the following morning, when I awoke feeling not so great—exhausted and achy and with diarrhea. But as I wasn’t nauseated and Ajita was making South Indian specialties because I had said how much I liked them, I went for breakfast and ate—just not quite as much as I often do. Then I went back to bed until late afternoon. A few hours into the rest time I took an antibiotic, feeling fairly sure I had a bacterial infection (the raita from Saturday night a likely culprit).
The rest helped some, and as the day cooled we went outside Sambalpur to the university where Ranjan had studied sociology. There we picked up the retired professor who had gotten Ranjan interested in natural resources, water, farmers, fishermen, and tribal customs—and essentially changed the course of his life. He’s been a researcher, writer and activist on these issues ever since. We went together to see the long earthen dam on the Mahanadi River, modeled on our TVA, which is now the source of interstate disputes as well as the cause of multiple damages to the river system.
Back to bed. The next morning the plan was to go with Ranjan at 8 to buy fresh fish, as Ajita had learned I liked fish and was going to make some special dishes for that day’s lunch—a large meal eaten around 2. The local fishermen bring their catch in early in the morning to a spot on the edge of town and apparently they sell out fast. Ranjan selected one—not the mahseer, some other local species—and the fisherman scaled it and then cut it up expertly with some scary sharp instruments.
After the foray to the fish market, I said I thought I had better rest again to save energy for the rest of the day. I ate eggs and toast at the hotel and slept three more hours. That, along with the second dose of antibiotic twelve hours before, seemed to turn the corner.
We had the special fish lunch, which Ajita had somehow prepared before and after going to campus: not just fish (in two different dishes), but dal, and various vegetables.
After lunch we drove to a town about an hour away called Jharsuguda, in the heart of Odisha’s—and India’s—coal and steel industry. There I saw a nightmare that I’ll write about in next post.
In case any of you were waiting to hear about my tooth, it’s fine now. Great dentist. Lots of testimonials from embassy, and she was particularly kind to me because of my friendship with Diana (my Gurgaon hostess in absentia). Very professional, well-run office. She and three helpers had me fixed up in about half an hour. She took a quick look at what felt like a gaping hole in my back molar and said “oh, that’s not so bad.” We decided against Novocain because little drilling was involved. I winced a few times but soon that part was over and they were busy with the new filling. $50. Haven’t had a filling that cheap since – the 1950’s?
Photo of Dr. Poonam Batra and a patient.
Now I am in Bubaneshwar in my hotel room with my laptop passing time until a train this afternoon to Sambalpur where I’ll meet a water/river activist I met at the wonderful Water-Energy-Food conference in Kathmandu three years ago. Thanks to the US State Department, all participants received a copy of my book. Oxford’s best sale of DSR to date probably. See my Facebook page for a photo of us at the conference.
I also met another researcher/practitioner/consultant in land and water last night. He took me to a fancier hotel than the one I’m staying in where we had beers by poolside and talked about the issues in this region. It’s a new watershed for me, one I mentioned in my book because of some parallels between it and what had happened in Bihar (which is part of the greater Ganges watershed), but one I otherwise know nothing about.
As we were talking (me mostly listening, as that’s what I’m here for) I could see the echoes of what I see in other parts of India: the terrible pollution of rivers, the struggle of farmers and fishermen in the face of India’s frantic industrialization, the discounting of what rivers need to thrive. And the disregard for the people who depend on the rivers being healthy and alive—not canals for barges or channels for irrigation water.
The man I met last night, Pranab, says he is optimistic because at least some of these issues have become subjects of conversation where before they were completely ignored. Even if what people are saying and thinking is rubbish (fake news?) it’s better for rivers and pollution to be talked about than not, he thinks. He believes there is a growing movement to use fewer chemicals in agriculture and get pollution out of the rivers. I hope he’s right!
I, frankly, am not an optimist. Partly, no doubt, because of what is going on in my own country in the Trump era. But I wasn’t particularly optimistic when I was working on my book, and I’m even less so now. I believe in the commitment of the Indians and Nepalis and Bangladeshis and others who are working on these problems, however. There is much to admire in their work and their persistence and dedication. I just fear the problems are too big and getting out of control too fast for the antidote to work.
I would, of course, like to be wrong.
My plan for the next few days is: learn about Mahanadi River and Hirakud dam and conflicts between Orissa and Chhattisgarh over the river while I am in Sambalpur.
For those of you who know I wasn’t looking forward to this trip, I have to say I am feeling more cheerful and curious now that I am back on the road and away from Delhi—even though I was having a good time in Delhi with Kanchan and Snehi. And after my tooth was ship-shape again, I sped off to meet Eklavya (whom some of you know of from my book and from last year’s disastrous visit to Bihar) for a long lunch and catching up. We always have great conversations.
My main worry here is the heat. I hope I can manage a week of it. I’m sitting in air conditioning right now. I have no real goal for this trip, but I can’t help but compare what I’m doing to what I did to produce the book over several years. I was quite focused, but loose enough to take in new information and incorporate it. Now I’m pretty unfocused, almost aimless by past standards, but the looseness is bringing me interesting encounters anyway. What I will do with it, who knows!
After the visit to Sambalpur, since I am so close to some very famous sites—Konark and Puri—I’m going to come back to Bubaneshwar and play tourist for a couple of days before going up to Meghalaya.
I make my train and flight plans as I go, so it’s a good thing my time is flexible. By the time this trip is over, I will have seen quite a lot of India over my years of visiting here. Quite enough for one lifetime, I’m thinking.