Fear 1: Moments of danger, times of fear

As fear engulfs the world right now I think of the moments of fear I’ve experienced in my lifetime – usually tangible fears felt or seen, unlike this almost intangible virus bringing the world to a stop. I think of people with whom I’ve shared those moments and of another being with whom I shared fear of each other.

I was just a bold twenty-something backpacking when I carelessly stepped into a very dangerous and fear provoking experience.

The mother bear and her cubs had left footprints in all the muddy patches along the trail. From the size, we knew that she was a grizzly bear – large, solitary, and as a mother, defensive of her cubs. We knew that she was in the valley bottom so when the trail went up onto the mountainside to skirt a gorge, we assumed that we had left the bears behind. Precautions fell away and I let my longer legs take me ahead of my friend.

On the trail traversing the mountainside, I stepped into a clearing in the forest. A loud grunt shattered the stillness and down the slope, I saw a large brown animal. At first, I spread my arms not sure what it was… moose, bear. Then, two little bear cubs ran off into the forest. The mother stood on her hind legs. More snorting as she dropped to all fours and ran uphill towards me. She was about 30 feet away.

It was like a switch clicking on in the back of my mind with all the precautions that I’d ever learned first from my parents, hiking partners, and more experienced friends and official warnings.

Stand still.

Those moments as she came up leaping over the fallen log her paws slashing out sideways. Her gaze pierced me. I closed my eyes to break the glower between us, not knowing what would happen. As I opened my eyes, she was sideways having turned within 2 feet of me. Off she rushed after her cubs.

I realized that we had shared a moment of intense mutual fear, that she was perhaps more afraid of me than I was of her.

My feet shook so hard they bruised from hitting the sides of my boots. My thoughts raced to the friend behind me on the trail. She soon arrived and immediately asked what happened from the look on my face.

Those moments of fear replayed through the night as I tried to sleep. By dawn I came back to the realisation of the shared fear with the mother bear. She was defending her cubs and I have had intruded have on their peaceful feeding in the forest meadow.

My intangible fear of ‘what if’ had materialised as a tangible danger of sights and sounds and presence. The fear returned as ‘what ifs’ but in the moment of most danger my inner brain had taken control of my reactions. My mind was blank, still, my inner mind knew what to do.

Grizzly mother and cubs Colleen

Grizzly mother with young cubs of the year.  Courtesy of and (c) Colleen Campbell 2001

Images courtesy of Colleen Campbell and Noel Rogers https://www.facebook.com/noelrogersphotography/

Spectacle of Flowers

Here in ‘loose down’ Kathmandu in the spring of 2020, I wonder when spring plans for a trip back to Khumbu might materialize.

The monsoon has arrived lush and humid with the spring rush of flowers fading into numerous shades of green.

The monsoon rains create a sudden rush of plant growth in Nepal’s Himalaya, with different species coming into flower each week. Spring and summer in the mountains offer glorious floral displays.

Spring in the Everest area brings out purple irises and primroses in open sunny places. The large solitary flower of the iris appears first, days before the leaves come out of the soil. New leaves on the birch trees give the forests a faint sheen of green.

Nepal is of course famous for the spring blooming of its rhododendrons, the national flower. Whole forests may be in flower at this time. These trees that are usually only waist-high in other parts of the world, may grow ten metres high in the forests of Nepal.

Starting in March, rhododendrons at the relatively lower elevations bring forth bright red clusters of flowers covering the tree. Through April and May, trees at higher elevations come into bloom. The colour of the rhododendron blooms varies depending on which of the thirty species of rhododendron trees is growing at each location.

On the higher ridge tops at about 3200 meters, the flowers are pink, or white edged with red. Higher still, the trees are shorter and in June, loaded with soft yellow blossoms.

It’s not until July that the short, shrubby rhododendrons in the high meadows flower. Their pale purples color the dwarf, knee high forests of rhododendron, juniper, willow and cotoneaster at 4500 meters.

Sheltered beneath these miniature forests are species of geraniums, anemones, forget-me-nots and more primroses. Tall, yellow Sikkimese Primroses abound in wet areas beside streams.

   Higher up on the ridge are dwarfed versions of familiar flowers such as gentians, vetches and saxifrages. The saxifrages specialize in filling in the rocky niches that are uninhabitable for other plants. The name comes from the Greek “sax” for rock and “frage”, to break; saxifrages are rock-breakers despite their delicate appearance in this harsh environment.

Many plants flourish in these demanding conditions through adaptations such as leathery leaves, hairiness, compact mat or cushion shapes, and an ability to blossom and form seeds quickly in the short growing season.

Some fleabanes grow tall and are cut for hay in the yak pastures but 800 m higher, at the edge of glaciers, closely related plants grow as tight, compact cushions.

The harshness of dry winds and temperature extremes is softened by the fuzz covering the edelweiss and pussy-toes that lay low among the rocks. Several kinds of edelweiss thrive in the Everest area, from the villages at 3500 meters right up to the edge of the Khumbu Glacier.

The bright blue of one of the most beautiful Himalayan plants is only found up high, close to the blue ice of the glaciers. The Blue Poppy is armed on its leaves and stems with stiff spikes that would discourage any hungry yak from devouring it.

From the hills vibrant with color to the mountains sparkling with fresh snow, the monsoon months offer a spectacle for those braving the mists and the rain.

Getting out of the ‘now’

For four years since the earthquake in Nepal, I have had writer’s block like a noose halting the connection from mind to paper or computer. I would start and almost immediately stop. It has been a struggle to keep work deadlines, to get writing done without a deadline.

While writer’s block is a common challenge for most writers, it seemed to have had deeper roots within. something had shifted with the earthquake and its hundreds of aftershocks.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as it there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’ It was a moment of being glad that right then I was alive. Thoughts crossed through my mind that there must be horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

It has hung with me until tonight when I realized that to write, I needed to step outside of the now, to look at past and future and still appreciate the present.

MUSTANG – trees to temples

Dust and blowing sand

Standing in the middle of the sandy trail with the wind howling, the sun blazing, no shade and not a tree or shrub in sight.

“From right here, 700 years ago, the Lo kings cut trees for the gompas in Lo,” says Chimi, our guide.

The only trees we’ve seen in four days of walking are those planted near irrigated fields in villages, oases of green in this rocky, barren, desolate landscape. Eroded bones of the  earth. Canyons out through the layers of rocks lay down over the millennia as sediments on the floor of an ancient sea. Rocks in reds, rocks of beige, a few striped rocks with  green argallite. Rocks, sand, canyons, and sky.

“For those huge pillars? ”

“Yeah, this all used to be a forest of big trees. It’s in Khampo Tashi’s book.”

Those pillars, those huge pillars at least 3-4 feet in diameter and 25ft high are so magnificent. Many came from a single piece of wood …  That would have come from this desolate place. Huge timbers that must have been cut from even larger trees.

Larger trees that grew until 700 years ago in this now barren high desert.

A forest where it is now high altitude desert. What happened?

Mustang is an old place for the Nepal Himalaya. People have perhaps lived here for 6,000 years – at first in caves  cut into the sandstone cliffs. Gradually, Lo became the walled capital of the Lo kings.

A walked city like none other in the Himalaya. More and more building with growing affluence from the salt trade, more gompas and monasteries. At the pinnacle of the Lo dynasty and culture, three huge gompas were built of stone, rammed earth and wooden windows, doors, and pillars. Huge pillars to hold the heavy building. And they came from a forested valley that is now this desert place.

The speed of the change both intrigues and depresses me. I no longer find Mustang a fascinating desert landscape but a denuded land.

A traumatized land where demons and saviours (Guru Rinpoche) fought over bringing Buddhism to Tibet and the Himalaya. Where the slain demons blood is believed to colour the red rocks of the region.

Later talking to the forestry professor stranded in Jomsom, I learn that when trees are cut, their roots no longer have the capacity to hold up the water table so the water drops deeper. Only those trees and shrubs close to irrigation canals or streams can survive.

Why do we keep cutting so many trees?

Connection and Reflection

Being blessed with communities of friends and family on two sides of the world, it seems a good time to organize my photographs and all the bits and pieces of writing into one place. Another book has not yet gelled. After asking various writers, it seems that a blog is the best way to start taking some steps forward.

This is a blog for connection and reflection to connect these two worlds on opposite sides of the earth.

So, on a sunny monsoon morning in Kathmandu, here goes.

Some posts will be of old photographs, some journal musings at the time,and re-musings after time and reflection.Other posts might be very immediate after a field visit or encounter.

I might bring in passages from my book, Gaiety of Spirit, and embellish them with some of the thoughts that were deleted in the process of cutting down the manuscript from 700 pages.

It has been almost thirty-three years since I first came to Nepal. Not all of that time has been spent here, so I am still strongly connected to my roots in Canada, all along the Bow River from its source in the mountains to its gorge through the southern Alberta ranchlands.

The posts might often reflect my dual existence and all that I keep on learning in these years in Nepal. As I wrote in Gaiety:

Living in another culture forced me to think about how it works, to confront the ironies and inconsistencies of a different way of being. Soon, I realized that one layer of meaning reveals more queries within. The more one starts to understand, the more one realizes all there is to question and explore.

Looking at other cultures as different from our own, we split the whole into parts. We analyze what we see happening and ask why. For people of the other culture, it is their way of life. We examine the oddity of different traditions and customs rather than the inner purposes that might bring us into an understanding of the culture. We end up looking at how the “other” culture is different from our culture rather than at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.

Living in Nepal and doing documentation work for development projects in more recent years has offered opportunities to talk with so many people in difficult circumstances — former bonded labourers, so-called “untouchables”, Hindu widows, and farmers without enough fields to feed their families. I came to realize how the systems of hierarchy went beyond discrimination to actually keep some people poor.

Just as working with the Sherpas opened my eyes to another way of perceiving the world, the conversations with these people helped me to understand the more difficult side of Nepal. They helped me to see both the sacred and the profane and start to understand and question world events in this era of intense politics and crisis.

Ultimately, we can build bridges of understanding between cultures in the world if we are not afraid just because they are different.

I hope that this blog for connection and reflection can help to serve as a small bridge.

Be well, frances

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