Ridges, those points where high starts to become lower, are important markers for the landscapes of mountains and their communities. They provide vantage points for location, what’s coming and what’s already been.
The Rishi Ganga gorge is etched into the history of Nanda Devi and its sanctuary in the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Nanda Devi (7816m) and its sanctuary, massive mountains making access to Nanda Devi complex, is now a National Park and World Heritage area. The Rishi Ganga gorge provides a sense of Nanda Devi’s protective fortress. Nanda Devi is at the top left corner of the image.
I was fortunate to be in the area with a group from Lata village, at the gateway to the area. The village’s connection to the area and to Nanda Devi goes back centuries.
On a personal level, this particular trek for some reason reminded me of reading Howard Newby’s book ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, a book that was so influential in developing my interest in mountains and their people, and a professional life at the intersection of communities and landscapes.
I was in a valley deep within the Himalayas, discussing my list of local endangered animals with a group of herders.
“They’re very difficult to find. But you can if you follow their trails.”
The comment certainly didn’t have all the herders nodding in agreement- there was plenty of animated disagreement and some scoffing laughter. Nevertheless, the herder stood by his question. There was just one problem- I had no idea what a Mirka was. I asked the assembled group to explain the term.
‘Yetis’ one of the other herders replied.
For me, this interaction highlights something that goes well beyond the work that drew me to this valley in the first place. This was the moment I realised the Yeti represents two inherently connected worlds – wild places, and the stories of ‘wildness’ that go with them.
This herder had summed up a very complex relationship in one sentence.
That was twelve years ago. Over my time working in the Himalayas, I’ve heard other stories of Yetis – sometimes told to much laughter, sometimes to serious nodding. Irrespective of the reaction, local people thought it important enough to mention the Yeti in discussions about establishing sustainable futures for their valleys and landscapes.
It was around the time of my discussions with the herders that Reinhold Messner wrote his book My Quest for the Yeti. His mission in part was to prove the existence or otherwise of a strange creature he had encountered in a Tibetan forest.
Trying to answer the question ‘Does it exist’ is nothing new. To my mind though, this is the wrong question. The bigger and more important question? ‘What if the things that gave rise to the possibilities of its existence no longer exist’?
What happens when the biological and ecological wildness that could hide the Yeti – make its existence a perpetual ‘maybe’ – start to disappear? This is a question that in many ways goes to the heart of the protection and conservation of mountain landscapes.
A related question: what if the rich cultural traditions that house Yeti stories are lost, because of social change, modernisation and science ‘proving’ it doesn’t exist? This is a question of the centrality of cultural diversity and cultural traditions to the resilience of mountain communities.
The Yeti is a window into the diverse and rich cultural connections people have with ecosystems and landscapes in the Himalayas. The legend’s gradual disappearance mirrors the gradual disappearance of these connections.
To look through this window, to discover the links and the pressures, you need to follow the Yeti’s trails – the trails that local communities know. This will really provide us with a window to landscapes and our engagements with them. But also it’ll provide a reminder that these engagements are culturally constructed and have important meanings attached to them.
Over the last few years there’s been increasing debates in some quarters about the rights of nature and the feasibility of giving ‘personhood’ to landscapes or parts of landscapes. This is something that has many parts. It can be about legal protections, recognition of the ways First Nations people view landscapes or the natural world or a deeper ethical position on the rights of nature (even though, for some, bestowing personhood seems to contradict the idea of nature’s rights).
They’re interesting debates with some contradictions and limitations. However, they do share a common attempt to strengthen the rights of and protection of nature. You can see an interesting recent piece from The Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham, here.
Small travel in the time of COVID has become incredibly important. Alexander Lobrano has written a beautiful piece published in The New York Times on 21 July 2021 and available here. The piece, ‘Making discovery, not distance, travel’s point’ is a celebration of travel in general, of small travel in particular and of the joy of discovering place. There is one line which sums up so much:
‘This kind of small-brush-stroke travel is intimately valuable, too, because it teaches us where we live and who we are. ‘
Enjoy this wonderful piece. You can also read some more ideas of the essence of local slow travel here and more about people and place here.
There’s recently been a great piece from the Australian edition of The Guardian on travelling the Martuwarra in Western Australia. It’s written by Lorena Allam with production by Carly Earl and photography by Jackson Gallagher.
There has been a lot of action focused on the river’s conservation and protection, as part of the protection of country, by First Nations people. The piece looks at connections to place, country and the river. These actions have in part focused on Martuwarra as a living ancestral being of the First Nations people of the area, and also all living things globally in terms of its protection. Yet there are still pressures on the river stemming from big agriculture and ‘Development’.