The primary tension of the experience— between rigid policy and unruly landscapes—
was concentrated at the border to Langtang National Park. The perimeter of the park is heavily guarded as it lies so close to the Tibetan border. In the opposition between freedom and economic growth, tensions are elaborated alongside the natural features of the land: Rhododendron forests and red pandas. In the vertical slopes and gradients of the Himalayas, we witnessed a refusal to elevate one way of life above another and glimpsed the activity of the terrain and its downward pull of the earth in the distance.
We headed out of Syabru Besi the following morning, and crossed Langtang Kola at a small town via a shaky bridge at Rimche. I felt vulnerable on the bridge, but this feeling of exposure was soon to be- come a trusted companion. I was so glad to be walking, hearing new sounds everywhere, bundled up in layers and grateful that Babu and his cousin were helping us to carry our heavy packs. Mostly I was happily finding plants at each rising, but I did not properly see the flora of western Nepal until I emerged from my unexpected sickness. Some days after this first, bright, energetic pass I began to spin. Too sick to count days or worry about writing this book, I passed into a timeless state. My hosts covered me in blankets and darkened the room, but this obscuring effect really didn’t matter. I didn’t notice where I was staying. When I could finally sit up, I was so glad not to be lying down, shivering, or spinning with fierce nausea that each step was transformed. It turned out I was at the foot of a large stand of Populus sp., in a small, sunny valley. The air seemed thinner, the sounds louder, the sky bluer, and the walk easier. If I was to learn anything from my walk it was that I was used to living with protection; any vulnerability was internal. In Nepal, I wore my vulnerability on the outside.
Landscape begins when humans start to manipulate their envi- ronment. And this is what we witnessed years following the 2015 earthquake that buried Langtang Village. First, we noticed that we were not simply looking across a homogenous rockfall, but there was a main path, supported by a low stone wall. Stone by stone, a way across this uncharted surface was found, harmonious to slope, anchored in cadence. We began to walk the path; it was the only way. There are yaks everywhere in the upper valley of Langtang. Or more accurately, there are dzo everywhere. Dzo are a cow-yak hybrids and the primary livestock that graze many of the settle- ments. The female dzo (dzomo) are the primary dairy animal. Their dark figures cast a silhouette against pastures, steep horizons, and rocky cliffs. But there are large numbers of other grazing livestock, including cattle, sheep, and goats. I could not read the land as before because I had none of the cues from the rest of our journey: no yaks, no towering trees, cascading groundcover, or muddy slopes. It was windy and exposed; it was rough and unsettling, until I stopped and looked across the rocky terrain.
Landscape is slowly building walls, redirecting meltwater, and
cutting paths in a rockfall. Landscape is moving rocks, one by one to find your way. Landscape is also deciding which rock to move, and why. These acts of repair between culture and nature reflect necessity and beauty, the kindness of villagers, and the needs of herdsmen.
The materials of reconstruction were underfoot. Perhaps this was due in part to the difficulty of getting building materials to 3,400 meters, since everything is carried from Syabru Besi; bags of fly
ash to mix concrete to metal roofing, nails, and hinges. But maybe it is also a ritual of design outside capital interests, maybe it is a nascent landscape.
In 2018, the political theorist and philosopher Bruno Latour published a small, enticing book that proposed “getting down” to Earth, a plea for a more grounded theory that was also the title of the book.
21The question of landing seemed novel. It is a work that takes on the political question of climate change and forces it to find meaning in experience—in landed, grounded, first-hand experience: “If the key to the current situation cannot be found in a lack of cognitive abilities, it has to be sought in the form of the world to which those very abilities are applied.”
Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in
the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity
22Still, these words are penned from the keyboard, written in the envelopes of conditioned air, without reference to all of the incredible listening, walking, doing, and making that is actually unfolding at the same time as indignant climate denial and greedy globalization.
Latour, Down to Earth, 25.
This kind of work just barely makes it into the popular press, and certainly not the presses read by Latour. Still, Latour makes great the need for physicality from the terrestrial. It is work that demands a more careful consideration of landscape:
As long as the earth seemed stable, we could speak of space and locate ourselves within that space and on a portion of territory that we claimed to occupy. But how are we to act if the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us-how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us?23
Latour, Down to Earth,
It seems in Langtang there is a more supple, sensual kind of work that is, in its own concrete, experiential way, even more down to earth. I kept thinking, “the land is loud” in Nepal because it is an active participant; each wall, step, and slope is saturated by stories, beliefs, and traditions that animate the passage, as if collaborating with each step. Glaciers swell, slides shift, and elements persuade. The landscape is made and remade in the process free of human regulation.
The last and only building to survive the earthquake and the rockfall was this home nestled under a bluff. It sits at the eastern-most edge of what I am referring to as Langtang Park. The rockfall is a park, a park within a National Park because it is not being built upon, it is respected as sacred. According to the Department
of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Langtang Park was established in 1976 to conserve the unique flora and fauna of the region. In 1998 an area of
420 square kilometers in and around the park was declared as a buffer zone. In 2015, when bould↬ers were flung into the valley, new land wa created again.