There is a common phrase in Nepali that essentially means, “what can you do?” It is spelled ke garne, but sounds like kay garnay. If a shrug had an equivalent expression it would be ke garne. It is the perfect way to summarise the responsibility of uncertainty. Entrusted with this vertical piece of the planet, there is not much to do about all the shifting rocks and movement underfoot. This, too, is getting down to earth, to the land.

As we made our way along the path we crossed a rockfall, taking in a scattering of sprouts and twigs. Upon closer inspection, we found more evidence of a landscape being made. Each twig was actually a small transplant surrounded by some brown soil that looked foreign in this context: a woody plant introduced from lower altitudes and surrounded by a ring of rocks to demarcate its location. This was an act of care, of gardening and cultivation with no direct benefit—and yet there was effort involved in walking downhill, finding a suitable plant, digging it up and transporting it carefully to a different location. We were witnessing the ordinary practice of planting, a deliberate act of design meant to bring beauty and attention to place. This is landscape.

There was also another kind of sprout taking root in the rockfall, one more spontaneous and unplanned. Because most people in the region are subsistence farmers there are a number of grazing animals, mainly dzo, goat, sheep, and yak. But altitude is tough on animals, and only yaks thrive at Langtang Village. Some hours past the rockfall lies Kyanjin Gompa (3,800 meters) where high latitude yak herders graze, which means they pass by, through, and across the rockfall where Langtang Village once stood. Yaks are everywhere. And they too must cross the rockfall, leaving behind rich manure where wind-borne seeds land and sprout. This too is landscape, as built elements mingle with a cascade of natural elements, and deliberate planting overlaps with spontaneous life. And throughout meltwater meanders, processes cultural and natural are brought together again. In Nepal, the landscape of retreat is not easy to excavate, initiated in the choice not to rebuild the village across
the rockfall, but to respect earthly change, and invite slow processes of growth and care over time.

“As a landscape designer rather than an ethnographer, my perspective is skewed towards an interest in the making of landscape. This includes landscape-making practices that emerge at the intersections of continuity and change—often falling outside the limited modern definition of indigenous knowledge—and their possible role in making futures.”  

— Dane Carlson, "Agencies of the Present"

Change is omnipresent in the Himalayan present. The layering of uncertainties lies at the heart of current policy-making, the ongoing peripheralization of youth, the future of medicinal knowledge, and the memory of the past in Langtang. Particularly, the very recent history reorients each threaded moment, as villagers shifted from hotels and tea houses back toward herding dzo during the height of the pandemic. Across a changeable terrain, new uncertainties exist concurrently with memories of the Langtang rockfall, even as the landslide subsides over time. Even the newest land continues to settle, melt, and slide. Uncertainty is a mingled state that situates the future and past alongside the slow movement of earth, the growth of plant life sprouting from yak and dzo poop, and whatever else lies latent underfoot.

When I first started walking in Nepal, I was in a state of satura- tion from the regularity of academic scholarship and reference. I was trying to contend with piles of literature that warn, admonish, and speculate without emotion. Moreover, I am always trying to decide which references to share with my students. I’ve paid a great deal of attention to how I feel when I read scholarship that is grounded in the academy, the praxis of referential scholarship that is reserved for specialists. I have piles of these books, although they no longer concern me, diverted as I am by learning more about what I have not been taught by the muscled language of peer-review, grant submis- sions, and the weighted signs of higher learning. They lack what Maggie Nelson calls freedom. They also lack what I understand as sentiment. As a teacher, I had to ask myself what kind of stories I wanted to share and discuss to learn about land. Only after I figured that out was I able to talk about retreat. In Nepal, I was surprised that retreat brought me back to gardening.

Traditionally, people of the high-Himalaya consider forests as a source of life and a symbol of creation, giving due respect to the preservation of plants. According to Manandhar, the forest is an integral part of rural life in Nepal, but in this context cosmology is linked to altitude—from middle hills to plains and high valleys—the engagement with the land frames very different lifeworlds. Near Lama hotel, our hosts described that they were not willing to destroy all the forest, only the branches that fall from weathering and age are burned.

The story of retreat in Langtang is steeped in a kind of saga and mysticism that animates the world around us. Which is why I turn to stories. Stories do not break the world into units. Stories are inclusive by nature. It is as though stories liberate conventional history by helping to reorient authority towards genuine familiarity grounded in living and being, rather than the abstractions of ideology. Voices emerge through storytelling that take great strides towards a more truthful representation of reality, a more spacious setting from which to consider how stories influence practices. I am suggesting that there are insights in storytelling that might be revived for scholars approaching the changes we are all experiencing in the environment, insights that oblige a negotiation first with the seen, felt, tangible world.

Whatever perceived disciplinary divisions endure in learning, research, and policy making, there is general agreement that the dynamics of the social and the physical worlds overlap and correspond in ways that individuals understand, and institutions miscalculate. For those new to the context of academic pursuits, I will only point out that the support mechanisms for funding and cross-departmental collaboration rarely, if ever, exist. Fieldwork is tough to fund, especially in professional fields like landscape, design, and architecture. In the context of climate change, the separation of subjects and those committed to education are consistently divided for the sake of “clarity” or as a means to isolate personal goalkeeping along the tenure-track. Reduction is a strategic intervention grounded in normativity. I will borrow again from Nelson to assert that the citadels of received wisdom compel unfreedom. Arguing about how to best do this is futile because it plays the same game: it creates sides, binaries, division, winners, and losers, without looking more closely at structures of inheritance that are fed and nurtured by the stories we value. It is a confusing time, a time of revision and reassessment, a time of care and repair, and that is notable only for how reconciliation might drive retreat by embracing the overlap with colonial systems that create dispossession and distance scholarship from the origins of story-telling. In the end, I’m less concerned with designing a new method than I am with acknowledging that the vocabulary of retreat lies in a readable narrative. Maybe storytelling can start to answer my question. And Langtang was a first step.

When mute roads cannot be forced into place, the silent donkey prevails. From the air, outlines of donkeys (Equis asinus) trace the contours of each high pass. Carrying anything from in- stant noodles and dish soap, to tarps, windows panes and medicine, the work of donkeys helps donor societies in their approach to distributing aid. Donkeys are reliable transport, which means that when more “relief” is provided, it lands heavily on the donkey population. The failure to recognize a donkey’s quiet propensity towards companionship means that generally their behavior is also misinterpreted by remote instruction. On the ground, donkeys are reliable associates adorned by their humans with their own voice: layers of different sized bells secured by elaborate and colourful knits. Their sounds echo in unanswered calls between beloved companions.
1 Jamaica Kincaid, Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (London: Picador, 2020), 23. Notably, the author traveled to Nepal to collect seeds for her garden in Vermont.

2 J. Besse, V. Courtillot, J.P. Pozzi, M. Westphal, Y.X. Zhou, “Paleomagnetic estimates of crustal shortening in the Himalayan thrusts and Zangbo Suture,” Nature 311/5987 (18 October 1984): 621–26.

3 Dane Carlson, who supported my research, works on landscape in Nepal with a focus on pastoralism. See Dane Carlson, “Agencies of the Present: Landscape-Making and the Herders of Lower Mustang, Nepal,” Landscape Research 47.3 (2022): 300–15.

4 For an excellent summary of geopolitics and state-formation see Lok Raj Baral, “Nepal: Nation-State in the Wilderness,” in Nepal, Nation-State in the Wilderness: Managing State, Democracy, and Geopolitics (New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt, Ltd, 2012), xvii–xvii.

5 Laxmi Prasad Kharel, Socio-Economic History of Nepal (Kathmandu: Pairavi Prakashan, 2019).

6 George Varughese, Senior Strategic Advisor at Niti Foundation, Nepal, from G. Varughese et al., “Coping with Changes in Population and Forest Resources: Institutional Mediation in the Middle Hills of Nepal,” in Forest Resources and Institutions (Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 1998), 196–99;

7 For example, E.H. Wilson introduced over 1,000 plants into cultivation. See the three volume Plantae Wilsonianae: An Enumeration of the Woody Plants Collected in Western China for the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University During the Years 1907, 1908, and 1910, accessed through the Biodiversity Heritage Library;

8 H.W. Tilman, “Nepal Himalaya,” in House of Snow, eds. Ranulph Fiennes and Ed Douglas (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), 1–13.

9 Narayan P. Manandhar, The Plants and People of Nepal (Portland: Timber Press, 2002), 13.

10 “The Tamang Epicentre,” The Nepali Times 776 (July 2015), 10–16; archive

11 Gyalbu Tamang, “The Story of Langtang Cheese,” Nepali Times (18 July 2020);

12  Kincaid, Among Flowers, 123.

13 Alex Copping et al., “Understanding Material and Supplier Networks in the Construction of Disaster-Relief Shelters: The Feasibility of Using Social Network Analysis as a Decision-Making Tool,” Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management 12.1 (2022): 78–105.

14 Shradha Ghale, “The Deeper Catastrophe,” in House of Snow, eds. Ranulph Fiennes and Ed Douglas (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), 542–43.

15 The expression was first used by the Swiss geographer, mountaineer, and explorer Marcel Kurz in 1933. See Günter Oskar Dyhrenfurth, To the Third Pole: The History of the High Himalaya (London: W. Laurie, 1955).

16 Kincaid, Among Flowers, 12.

17 Roy Lancaster, Plant Hunting in Nepal (London: Croom Helm, 1981), 16.

18 Manandhar, Plants and People of Nepal, 12–13.

19 Manandhar, Plants and People of
, 12.

20 Ibid.

21 Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

22 Latour, Down to Earth, 25.

23 Latour, Down to Earth, 43.

24 Carlson, “Agencies of the Present,” 302.

25 In On Freedom, the poet and author Maggie Nelson reclaims the word freedom from what she calls its “capture by the right-wing,” contending that freedom is actually an unending present practice, something already going on rather than something to elevate as a prize or reward. See Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021).