Biking the Bay

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I’ve recently submitted my dissertation. This is a summer of climbing and biking and hiking.

This post is about a few of the sights of the bay and wildlife refuge I live within biking distance of and visit often. Long summer days ask for long bike rides. I wish I could gather in my phone everything of the generous vault of sky, the rippled blue water, the great and sudden urgencies of yellowthroats and sparrows, and the majestic movements of terns and egrets. But I have only a very small number of scattered images. I hope to have more (using a real camera) soon, but until then, here they are. I hope they make you go out today.

 

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The Kablas Lakes

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This morning, I was travelling in my mind. This is from my bit of what would become ‘Two Walks in the Kishtwar’, eventually co-authored with Harish Kapadia, and first published in The Himalayan Journal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 135-150.

 

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Kishtwar District

(For now, I have only an outline map. I hope to post photographs as soon as I have recovered them from another computer.)

 

Our man in Bhaderwah assured us that all was currently peaceful in their part of Jammu and Kashmir. Even apart from the political unrest, the floods in Kashmir had been terrible in 2014. But Jammu had thankfully been spared. So, there we were one sunny morning in Patnitop. Vikas Manhas sipped his kahwa with relish and addressed the nine plainspeople in front of him. ‘We shall let the horses take the usual trail up from Nalthy. But with three children in the group, we shall try to make a shorter day of walking ourselves. I propose we approach the Kablas Lakes from Chhettra Gala. From that direction, it should be no more than six kilometres from the roadhead to the Lakes.’

This was the first part of a three-week trip to Jammu. We were planning to trek to a high plateau of snowmelt lakes, the Kablas Lakes (3,810 m), to the south of the Bhaderwah valley. And it sounded like a good idea to allow a short day’s walk to ease ourselves into the high terrain. That way, our lungs would have time to adjust to the thinner air. With our three Kumaonis and Vikas, we therefore rattled down by bus from Patnitop to Batote, and up from Batote to Bhaderwah, where we did our groceries for the next several backcountry days. Another hour’s drive brought us to the lovely little village of Nalthy (1,853 m).

Nalthy is the roadhead for what I shall call the regular trail—what Vikas had called the main trail, or usual trail—leading up to the Lakes. This is the trail used by horses and horsemen. It is also the trail for the thousands of pilgrims who in August—for the festivities of Janmashtami—come to this area from neighbouring valleys and towns to visit the Lakes on a spiritual journey. In the space of a day, or two, they ascend 1,800-odd metres using a path that winds through beautiful forests of deodar and rhododendron, and finally, grassy alps dotted with fantastic rocks and boulders, to gain the high country of the Lakes. But right now, we were not going to walk to the Lakes using this trail. We’d only use it on way down from the Lakes to Nalthy. Following Vikas’s proposal, we were headed to Chhettra Gala (2,900 m), the army camp straddling the ridge between the Doda and Kathua districts of Jammu. Chhettra Gala would be our roadhead.

It is a short distance to Chhettra Gala from Nalthy. Only about ten kilometres. But the drive over the winding dirt roads took a good hour. As we got close to Chhettra Gala, a fantastic vista opened up to our north. Below us, the town of Bhaderwah sat nestled in the valley. And somewhere at remote eye-level, but in fact considerably higher, the snow peaks of Kishtwar opened up in effortless majesty. The air was intoxicating. By the time we got off our little bus at the Army Post in Chhettra Gala, the sun had climbed down into the higher reaches of the valley below, and we were enveloped in a gorgeous sunlit autumn morning.

The Kishtwar mountainous region, neighbour to the surrounding kingdoms of Chamba and Kashmir, had enjoyed relative peace and prosperity for almost two centuries leading up to India’s independence in 1947. In independent India, Bhaderwah became part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and thus also part of its strategic geographical and political importance. Matters came to head in the late 1980s when militancy and terrorism threw the state into turmoil. 2008 saw a degree of normalcy return—although it was a few years yet before trekkers and climbers began to trickle in again.

At Chhettra Gala, a gracious young Captain of the Army oversaw the inspection of our papers and stood us steaming glasses of chai as we unloaded our bags from the bus and strapped into our respective rucksacks.

A grassy alpine path from Chhettra Gala climbs up to meet the ridge to its west, then crosses it in a long and gradually climbing traverse—taking in a good number of small ridges on the way—until it comes up, in some eight hours of good walking, against the rim of the bowl of mountains containing the Lakes. From here, a sharp descent on a loose gravelly path tips the walker into the bowl. But we did not know this yet. No maps exist of this area, and we had only Vikas’s and others’ oral directions by which to try and gauge the distance and altitude we were embarking on. As we started out from Chhetra Gala, we were still under the impression that the total walking distance to the Lakes was, indeed, six kilometres.

The prospect was magnificent. The Kishtwar ranges stood resplendent to our distant north. At our feet, the grass was interspersed with tiny flowers, bright rust-coloured shrubs, and gradually, high streams that froze into years-old snow patches. The day passed by in glorious walking. But by afternoon, it was clear that the Lakes were no six kilometres from Chhettra Gala. If pace and time were to be any indication, the Lakes had to be at about twice that distance, if not more. So, as we approached an airy ridge on which was perched a tiny shepherd’s shelter, Harish decided to call a night’s halt. Vikas and a couple of others offered to carry on to the Lakes—another two hours’ walk away, as we found out on the following day—to fetch tents from the party of horses who must by now have reached the Lakes by the regular trail. As dusk fell and Vikas and a couple of horsemen came back with the tents and food for the night, a cheer went up from the three youngest members of our party.

By lunchtime next day, everyone was assembled at Lake Camp (3,675 m). Our tents stood like little patches of colour in a crumpled grey landscape. But from even slightly higher ground, the two lakes lowest in the bowl came into view. One of the horsemen, Irshad Ahmed, pointed west to say that two more lakes, a bit higher, lay in that general direction. A spot of lunch later, therefore, Irshad and I set out from camp for an afternoon’s scramble.

 

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Our ostensible destination for this scramble was a dramatic granite pinnacle directly behind our campsite. But both by way of avoiding a gradient of 60-70 degrees and of exploring wider, we headed left and just a little higher towards what was called Trisul Lake. This nomenclature was by virtue of an iron trident stuck on the ground near the lake, as I would soon find out. From Trisul Lake, we wound our way southeast through grassy slopes until we found ourselves in decided rock country, and had to rely on narrow ramps heading gradually up. The final rise to the pinnacle (4,110 m) consisted of about twenty feet of phenomenal exposure involving delightful fourth class climbing. As we stood waving down to the minuscule dots of colour on the valley floor in the hope that someone in camp might spot us, we could also see directly across the huge bowl to the rim we had crossed yesterday. Four lakes lay like stretches of sky at our feet: two on the valley floor, Trisul Lake on somewhat higher ground, and to the north another, considerably larger, on the banks of which there seemed to be some sort of hut with corrugated aluminum roofs. ‘That is Kablas Lake’, said Irshad. ‘The shelter is for visiting pilgrims.’

‘That many pilgrims?’

‘Thousands, in August, for yatra!’

‘I guess it’s reasonably temperate in August, not particularly cold, even at this elevation. But where do they sleep? What do they eat? What provisions have they?’

‘They bring their blankets, and sleep in the shelter. They carry some food. And they don’t stay for long. Up one day, down the next.’

Indeed, when a few days later we walked down by the main trail to Nalthy, evidence of the yatri was everywhere. It is easy to identify with the mystical and emotional pull towards pilgrimage that the amazing landscape we were in inspires. It is less easy to understand or accept the piles and piles of Styrofoam, remnants of plastic bags, and general debris that one encounters at several places along the trail. The yatris doubtless need their plates and mugs and bags. But as in so many places worldwide, it is incomprehensible why these utilities must be composed of biologically poisonous substances, and why, at any rate, there is no regulation for visitors to the area to carry out their rubbish. In the gorgeous vastness of Himalayan landscapes, the mountains seem limitless and everlasting. But it is important to realise that they belong in exceedingly fragile ecologies, and that if travel in these places is to be sustained, the onus is on all of us to keep these areas clean, to meticulously pack out all non-biodegradable waste, to respect trails and thus avoid undue erosion, and to leave behind only the lightest possible footprints.

From the pinnacle on which we stood this afternoon, a very direct decent brought us back to camp in an hour. Hurtling down on ankles of steel and with astonishing speed and balance, Irshad cried out into the wind: ‘Maza aa gaya! Kal phir chalein?’ (‘That was fantastic! Shall we go again tomorrow?’)

At dusk, a hailstorm pelted the campsite and turned the world white. But as the barometer held from evening to night, it was not unreasonable to imagine that a bit of good sun in the morning would dry the rock enough to enable a venture to the beautiful three-summited peak we could see from our campsite. For behind the Lake stood Chhota Kablas (4,270 m) and further behind, invisible from either Trisul Lake or Kablas Lake but following the same high ridge, Kablas itself, or Bara Kablas (c. 4,400 m).

The next day dawned cold and sparkling. As we waited for the horses and their men to turn up in camp—for by evening the horses went down to Padri (2,430 m), a stop along the main trail and a more reasonable altitude for the animals—we walked to the temple and shelter that had looked so tiny from the vantage of the pinnacle the day before. Up close, Kablas Lake was even more impressive, and some indication of the age and length of pilgrimage to this spot was obtained in the form of a quarter-anna coin from 1939 that we found on the sand and pebbles of the lakeshore. By the time we were back in camp, Irshad had packed a lunch of a few paranthas and a couple of apples for himself and me to take to Chhota Kablas.

 

***

 

This time, instead of going right from Trisul Lake, as we had done yesterday, we branched off left to a near-circumnavigation of the lake as we gained a tiny corridor of tumbled granite between the permanent snow patches lining some of the higher but relatively more gradual slopes of the mountain. Since we were ill-equipped in shoes and waterproof wear to go walking in snow, we stayed on the rocks. This meant some aerobic boulder-navigation. To our left, the sun silvered over the chain of distant Kishtwar mountains we had seen from the shepherd’s hut two nights ago. Our camp in the valley became a coloured dot in the vast expanse of the bowl enclosed by the cirque of mountains. The mountain we were on was the highest in the bowl, and almost as a continuation of the ridge on which its three summits stood, Bara Kablas rose to our right.

Last night’s hail had left pockets of snow in tiny ledges all over Chhota Kablas, but we were glad that the rock, a beautiful Himalayan granite, was already bone dry. The sun beat down on us whenever the flying clouds let it. As an hour, then two, then three, fell away into silence and rhythm and balance and the start of a glorious afternoon, we found ourselves at the upper reaches of this scrambler’s paradise. Near the very top, Irshad went one way, I another. Before long, the two of us were smiling at each other from two of the three summits of the mountain. There was distance and wind enough between us that conversation was impossible. We just sat there, the warm and westering sun on our faces, grinning from the sheer pleasure of the climb.

We completed, technically, a circumnavigation of Trisul Lake by virtue of the route we took on our way down. From the summit of Chhota Kablas, it is possible to look down almost directly at Kablas Lake. But descending that way is not an option without having the means to set up a few full-length abseils. So, we went down again in the general direction of Trisul Lake. But we did not follow our rock-corridor-between-the-snow back. Instead, we scoped out a possible route that would, we hoped, bring us out at Trisul Lake exactly at the point where we had started this morning’s circumnavigation. Thus, as the sun showed and hid and the afternoon grew chillier with wind, we started an intricate series of advancements and retreats as slowly, over consistent fourth class climbing that sometimes verged on fifth, we lost height. It was a relief, finally, to be standing on the banks of Trisul Lake again.

All this while, we had not stopped for lunch. It was tempting to eat at Trisul Lake, but I knew that Mallik had been scouting, that morning, for climbing possibilities. Even as the rest of camp had moved to Shankh Padri (3,500 m) today, he was waiting for us, with ropes and harnesses, at the foot of a magnificent bit of slab a little way down. So we raced on, stopping to eat only at the foot of the slab. But the slab that had this morning looked so warm and welcoming and crisp in the sun was, in the afternoon shade and chill, almost painful to the touch. We didn’t do much more than finish a single short climb. But it is difficult to be dissatisfied with a day of exhilarating route-finding, fantastic scrambling, gorgeous vistas, and even a bit of rock to try our hands on. We walked down to meet the rest of the group at Shankh Padri as the setting sun leached the final light from the sky, and our three summits of Chhota Kablas receded again into distance and mystery.

The Shorter Bibliography for ‘Travel and Mountains’

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I recently wrote an essay on mountain writing as travel writing. Here is the bibliography for it. This is mainly to help me name in a single place the reading that directly informed my writing. The fuller bibliography, which includes works read and savoured and thought about and cherished but not cited in the essay, is, of course, much longer. And for another post.

 

Addison, Joseph, Spectator 489, 20 September 1712

Aitken, Bill, The Nanda Devi Affair (New Delhi: Penguin, 1994)

Armitage, Simon, Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013)

Atkinson, Edwin T., The Himalayan Gazetteer, 3 vols, rpt (1882; Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1973)

Balsavar, Deepa, and Nandini Purandare, ‘The Story of the Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling: First Impressions’, Himalayan Journal 69 (2014)

Barcott, Bruce, ‘Accidents in North American Mountaineering 1995’, Harper’s Magazine (1996)

Benuzzi, Felice, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, (New York: Dutton, 1953)

Berkeley, George, The Works of George Berkeley, Including His Letters to Thomas Prior, Dean Gervais, Mr. Pope, Etc, vol. I (London: Thomas Kegg, 1843)

Bird, Isabella, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893)

le Blond, Elizabeth, The High Alps in Winter; or, Mountaineering in Search of Health (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1883)

Boardman, Peter, and Joe Tasker, The Boardman Tasker Omnibus (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1995)

Bruce, Charles, Twenty Years in the Himalaya (London: Edward Arnold, 1910)

Bryson, Bill, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (New York: Broadway Books, 1998)

Budbill, David, Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse (1975; Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1999)

Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 2nd edn (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1759)

Burrard, Sidney G. and H. H. Hayden, A Sketch of the Geography and Geology of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibet (Calcutta: Government of India, 1907)

Carey, Ken, Flat Rock Journal: A Day in the Ozark Mountains (New York: HarperCollins, 1994)

Chü-I, Po, Selected Poems, trans. Robert Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000)

Connors, Philip, Fire Season: Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)

Cope, Tim, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey through the Land of the Nomads (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Corbett, Jim, The Jim Corbett Omnibus, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Das, Sarat Chandra, Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow, ed. Nobin Chandra Das (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1893)

Diemberger, Kurt, The Kurt Diemberger Omnibus (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1999)

Elwin, Verrier, ed., The Nagas in the Nineteenth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)

Gesner, Konrad, Libellus de lacte, et operibus lactariis, philologus pariter ac medicus; cum Epistola ad Iacobum Auienum de montium admiration (Tiguri: Christopher Froschauer, 1541)

Hansen, Peter, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

Herzog, Maurice, Annapurna, trans. Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith (New York: Dutton, 1953)

Hillary, Edmund, View from the Summit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Honnold, Alex, with David Roberts, Alone on the Wall (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015)

Isserman, Maurice, and Stewart Weaver, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

Ives, Katie, ‘A Wild of One’s Own’, Alpinist 47 (2014)

Ives, Katie, ‘Off the Map’, Alpinist 52 (2015)

Ives, Katie, ‘The Ice-World, Beyond’, Alpinist 53 (2016)

Ives, Katie, ‘The Sharp End’, Alpinist 42 (2013)

Ives, Katie, 13-14, ‘Between the Lines’, Alpinist 51 (2015)

Ives. Katie, ‘A House of Stone and Snow’, Alpinist 49 (2015)

Kapadia, Harish, Across Peaks and Passes in Garhwal Himalaya (New Delhi: Indus, 1999)

Kapadia, Harish, Across Peaks and Passes in Himachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Indus, 1999)

Kawaguchi, Ekai, Three Years in Tibet (Madras: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1909)

Korenjak, Martin, ‘Why Mountains Matter: Early Modern Roots of a Modern Notion’, Renaissance Quarterly 70 (2017)

Krakauer, Jon, Into the Wild (1996; New York: Anchor Books, 1997)

Krakauer, Jon, Into Thin Air (New York: Anchor Books, 1997)

Kukuczka, Jerzy, My Vertical World: Climbing the 8000-Metre Peaks, trans. Andrew Wielochowski (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1992)

Macfarlane, Robert, Mountains of the Mind (New York: Pantheon, 2003)

Maharaj, Sanku, Dhaulir Dharey Dharey (Kolkata: Mitra & Ghosh, 1996)

Matsuo, Bashō The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa (Baltimore: Penguin, 1966)

McDonald, Bernadette, Alpine Warriors (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015).

McDonald, Bernadette, Freedom Climbers (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books, 2011), and Alpine Warriors (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015)

Messner, Reinhold, The Crystal Horizon, trans. Jill Neate and Audrey Salkeld (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1989)

Moffat, Gwen, Space Below My Feet (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961)

Morin, Nea, A Woman’s Reach: Mountaineering Memoirs (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968)

Morris, Jan, Coronation Everest (London: Faber and Faber, 1958)

Mort, Helen, No Map Could Show Them (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016)

Muir, John, The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1992)

Mukherjee, Anindya, 17-part serialized travel reports, Uttar Banga Sambad, 20 August to 6 October 2015; Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Chander Pahar (Kolkata: Mitra & Ghosh, 1937)

Mukherjee, Umaprasad, Bhraman Omnibus, 5 vols (Kolkata: Mitra & Ghosh, 1983-1993)

Mummery, Albert, My Climbs in the Alps and the Caucasus, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1895)

Newby, Eric, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958); Raymond Greene, Moments of Being (London: Heinemann, 1974)

Norgay, Tenzing, with James Ramsey Ullman, Man of Everest (1955; London: The Reprint Society, 1956)

Peck, Annie Smith, In Search for the Apex of America (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1911)

Pilley, Dorothy, Climbing Days (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1935)

Plunket, Frederica, Here and There among the Alps (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875)

Rak, Julie, Social Climbing: Gender in High-Altitude Mountaineering Writing (forthcoming; McGill-Queen’s University Press)

Rawat, Nain Singh, Asia ki Peeth par: Jeevan, Anweshan, tatha Lekhan, eds., Uma Bhatt and Shekhar Pathak (Nainital: Pahar Pothi, 2006)

Sankrityayan, Rahul, Volga se Ganga (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1964).

Sanyal, Prabodh Kumar, Uttar Himalaya Charit (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 1983)

de Saussure, Horace Benedict, Voyages dans les Alpes, précédés d’un essai sur l’Histoire Naturelle des environs de Genève (Neuchâtel: Samuel Fauche, 1779-96)

Savoy, Lauret, Trace (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2015)

Seth, Vikram, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (London: Chatto & Windus, 1983)

Shān, Hán, Cold Mountain Poems: Twenty-four Poems, trans. Gary Snyder, 2nd edn (San Francisco: Press-22, 1972)

Shaw, Robert, Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand, and Kashgar (London: John Murray, 1871)

Shepherd, Nan, In the Cairngorms (Edinburgh: The Moray Press, 1934)

Shepherd, Nan, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, in The Grampian Quartet (1977; Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1996)

Shipton, Diana, The Antique Land (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950)

Shipton, Eric, The Six Mountain-Travel Books (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1985)

Silko, Leslie Marmon, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (New York: Viking, 2010)

Simpson, Joe, Touching the Void (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)

Smythe, Frank, The Six Alpine/Himalayan Climbing Books (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2000)

Snyder, Gary, Danger on Peaks (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004)

Snyder, Gary, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992)

Snyder, Gary, Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1965)

Somervell, Howard, After Everest: The Experiences of a Mountaineer and Medical Missionary, 5th edn (1936; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950)

Stephen, Leslie, The Playground of Europe (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909)

Tharkay, Ang, with Basil P. Norton, Sherpa: The Memoir of Ang Tharkay, trans. Corinne McKay (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2016)

Thoreau, Henry David, Ktaadn in The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972)

Tilman, H. W., The Seven Mountain-Travel Books (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1983)

Tyndall, John, The Glaciers of the Alps (London: John Murray, 1860)

Underhill, Miriam, ‘Manless Alpine Climbing’, National Geographic Magazine 66.2 (1934), 131-170

Underhill, Miriam, Give Me the Hills (Riverside: Chatham Press, 1956)

Venables, Stephen, Everest: Kangshung Face (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989)

Waddell, Lawrence, Lhasa and Its Mysteries: With a Record of the Expedition of 1903-1904 (London: John Murray, 1905)

Waller, Derek, The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990)

Wessels, C., Early Jesuit Travellers in Central Asia, 1603-1721 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1924)

Weston, Walter, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps (London: John Murray, 1896)

Whymper, Edward, Scrambles amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 (London: John Murray, 1871)

Wood, John, A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, 2nd edn (1841; London: John Murray, 1872)

Workman, Fanny Bullock and William Hunter Workman, In the Ice World of Himalaya: Among the Peaks and Passes of Ladakh, Nubra, Suru, and Baltistan (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1900)

Younghusband, Francis, The Heart of a Continent: A Narrative of Travels in Manchuria, Across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalayas, the Pamirs, and Chitral (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896)

Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature

british museum m dictating to daughters

(Milton seated with his arms folded, books on the floor at his feet, and his daughter writing at a pulpit, with a quill, to the left, another woman sitting sewing behind her; after Fuseli (Schiff 922). 1806 Stipple. Image taken from the online collection of the British Museum.)

This comes back because I keep thinking about this stuff.

Last spring, a few of us early modernists were engaged in putting together an academic panel on “Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature.” We were putting this panel together as friends, colleagues, scholars, and teachers sharing an excitement in the power of centuries-old literature to open up and invigorate the present and the lived for our students. And we did so with a shared commitment to the scholarly practice of robust and constructive discussion, and a firm belief in:

-access and inclusion for our students (that is, making sure that our students, irrespective of class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, nationality, etc. should not suffer barriers to their learning), and

as themselves real and consequential pedagogic goals for our students to take away from the classroom (that is, inculcating a sense of the importance of inclusivity and dynamic belonging in the world as means towards a richer life for each of them, as also means towards a better world for us to collectively inhabit).

As I contemplated this panel, I wanted to talk, in the few minutes allotted to me, about some of my most generative teaching moments of the last few years. For instance, I would talk about when I had a group of students read Milton’s sonnet “On his Blindness” followed by Book III of Paradise Lost, and saw them begin to ask questions about seventeenth-century realities of literacy, class, access to help and support, and practices of memory and composition. Or when my class read a selection of seventeenth-century newsbooks (mainly Mercurius Politicus and its Monday counterpart Publick Intelligencer), and wrote imagined letters home from London after having been witness to a public punishment or execution. My students debated at length the matter and manner of revolution, treason, justice, punishment, and pardon. Or when I brought photographs of some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century parish records to class,[1] and my students dabbled in a bit of early modern palaeography and deciphered together and aloud how one of the coffins mentioned in the records only needed one bearer, because it carried a child. The initial challenge of the handwriting, and the ownership that came from reading it together only accentuated this single detail’s triggering of an immediate historical empathy that opened into a discussion of grief, a consideration of the medical contingencies of premodern communities, and methods of support and consolation.

Apart from talking about these instances of what I had seen work well, I would also think aloud and learn about pedagogic methods I knew of from fellow teachers and scholars, and wanted to bring to my own classroom: such as asking students to learn their favourite Shakespearean monologue, but in another language (including American Sign Language). Or asking students to make casting decisions for their favourite early modern play. How would they cast their actors in terms of race, gender, nationality/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.? Or asking them to read, as evidence of a way of life, the still music we now encounter as broadside ballads. And I’d love to think more about this, for this is probably my favourite landing place for teaching inclusivity through early modern literature—I can imagine nothing better than these ubiquitous, rude, absurd, bawdy, mundane, and marvellous creations to talk both about a nameless and marginalized authorship, and about a universe of variety and difference that it today takes us a serious imaginative leap to countenance.

But something happened to overturn those plans and to compel me to ask myself with renewed emphasis what it was that we meant when we said inclusivity. What were our rights and duties to ourselves and the world in which we lived, and the world in which we wanted to live—and how did early modern literature contribute towards a pedagogic goal of inclusivity?

A week before the conference, I went to an opera production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the School of Theatre, Music and Dance in my university.[2] I had heard much about the talented musicians at the School, and I was excited at the thought of a production in which all the actors and musicians were students. But I am still talking about it because I can’t very well explain the sadness of what happened. As someone who enjoys theatre and film and Shakespeare, I have seen many kinds of performances/adaptations—in three countries, now, and put on by the most amazingly well-studied and well-funded people, and put on by people armed with nothing except their adaptation or improvisation of the text. But this one stands out.

This production brought on stage a statue of Nataraj (the cosmic dancer of Hindu mythology) for the changeling/Indian boy. I have tried hard over the last few days to figure out what they might have wanted out of such a choice, but I am now compelled to conclude that the decision came from a non- or immature understanding of at least three things: first, Elizabethan faerie; second, the “global” energies or conjectures of Shakespeare’s England or our own world; and third, all cultural valences, past or present, of Nataraj or those who emulate that dance. But I barely had time to whirl this around in my head before Helena came on stage: a Helena whose “humour” appeared, incredibly, to have been constructed around the actress’s plumpness. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on stage, and couldn’t believe the laughter around me in the audience. Helena’s beseechings of Demetrius (whose “spaniel” she is, as she says) and Demetrius’s spurning of her were made a farce to reinforce our society’s all too readily available ideas of female desire, beauty, agency, and desirability. This was when I left.

I realised then, that in my own enthusiasm to see in the early modern all kinds of wonderful subversions of power, and exciting voices raised against oppression and marginalisation, I have sometimes forgotten that any canon or archive or record only ever gives us what we either already have, or wish to have. I realised too the importance of what Peter Erickson and Kim Hall wrote in a recent Shakespeare Quarterly article on race: “Even if the arc of our moral universe bends towards justice,”—or hopefully it does, although in this moment we might wonder—“it may be that Shakespeare’s moral universe does not bend far enough to go the distance needed now.”[3] I couldn’t help feeling that this was not just about Shakespeare, but his world. I was made deeply aware too, as I watched these talented and dedicated young people on the stage and in the orchestra, that erasure and obliviousness succeed precisely because they proceed from what seems to be neutral, natural, even necessary.[4] It was similarly reinforced to me that exclusion always appears to be apolitical. It is the demand for inclusion that is seen to be narrow, self-interested, and political. Marginalisation of people, and marginalisation of their lives from domains of knowledge or consideration go hand in hand. And I realised, walking home, that if I sought to teach inclusivity as a goal and an ethic, I sought to teach it as both a capacity and an incapacity. That is, as much as I wanted to teach my students—my fellow citizens in the world I inhabit—to be capable of certain things—like empathy, critical thinking, compassion, and imagination—I also wanted to teach them to be incapable of other things—like a deep and hard critical obliviousness. I did not want to teach a “humanity” that is as broad as it is complacent about and complicit in the disappearance of those who fall through the cracks. I wanted to teach an incapacity for not taking measure of and responsibility for our part in a complex and interlocked world. And I wanted to teach a refusal of complacency and self-congratulation until the time when it makes no sense any more to talk about “inclusivity.”

I continue to believe that the early modern can and will facilitate this. But as I recently learnt while at a home-grown and meticulously produced Shakespeare adaptation in a large research university in this country, it will take vigilance, care, and even a kind of critical stubbornness to unpack the early modern in a way that is adequate to our moment.

 

[1] Parish records from 1571-1673; this is with many thanks to Bill Ingram and Alan Nelson, and their work on the token books of St Saviour in Southwark.

[2] Music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976); libretto by Britten & Peter Pears; adapted from William Shakespeare; University Opera Theatre; University Philharmonia Orchestra; sung in English with projected surtitles. See http://www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/productions/2016-2017/midsummer.htm.

[3] Shakespeare Quarterly 67. 1 (2016), p. 10.

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (Harvard 1998); Tobin Siebers, conversation.

On a Turquoise Ledge

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A few months ago, I was engaged in thinking about Leslie Marmon Silko as a mountain travel author. Primarily through The Turquoise Ledge. Here are some notes from that time.

 

Seeing good places

for my hands

I grab the warm parts of the cliff

and feel the mountain as I climb.

 

Somewhere around here

yellow spotted snake is sleeping on his rock

in the sun.

 

So

please, I tell them

watch out,

don’t step on the spotted yellow snake

he lives here.

The mountain is his.[1]

 

The landscape of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico emerges with aching loveliness in the photographs of Lee Marmon. Cliffs, canyons, tabletops, and lavabeds; rain, sand, snow, and clouds; ruins, mission churches, doorways and cliff-dwellings. A changing land, the coming of the railroads, and a human presence in symbiosis with the land: horsemen and sheepherders, Laguna elders, girls at a clothesline, Eagle Dancers, Deer Dancers, Buffalo Dancers.[2] The photographs by her father give us something of the faces and geography of Leslie Marmon Silko’s intellectual and emotional inheritance. A long life of making the desert and sandstone mountains home comes together in this remarkable novelist, poet, and indigenous-rights activist’s lyrical memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. ‘My friend Bill Orzen taught me to speed walk on flat ground in town’, she opens, ‘but I prefer the hills to the city, so I adapted the speed walk to the steep rough terrain.’[3]

Over time, she walks into the knowledge of how the desert supported an entire population ‘The footpaths through the Tucson Mountains are ancient. Humans have lived in these hills and arroyos for thousands of years. The palo verde and mesquite trees give great quantities of beans in June and the saguaro fruit and prickly pear ripened at the same time; the small game and birds were easy to hunt. For the ancient people, these hills and arroyos held everything they might need for survival.’[4] She reclaims and rewrites the history of the land and its ancient people with an assured  wave aside of the European narrative. ‘The Pueblo people lived in the Laguna-Acoma area for thousands of years before the Europeans invaded, but the Spanish record-keepers made no mention of Laguna Pueblo, only Acoma. It was at Acoma that the Spaniards chopped off one hand and one foot of every captured Acoma man or boy over the age of seven, in retaliation for an Acoma victory over the Spanish troops in 1598. […] [T]he Kawaikameh, the Laguna people, had been living there by the lake on the Rio San José for thousands of years already when the rebels from the northern pueblos were brought there. Thus the Spaniards erroneously stated Laguna Pueblo wasn’t established until 1698. The error about the date of the founding of Laguna Pueblo was repeated in later histories. The Laguna Pueblo people didn’t bother to correct the error because it made no difference to their reckoning of the world.’[5] Silko argues for the connectedness of land with language as she argues for firm inheritance of Nahuatl and related Uto-Aztecan languages. ‘Linguistic diversity is integral to the cultural diversity that ensures some humans will survive in the event of one of the periodic global catastrophes. Local indigenous languages hold the keys to survival because they contain the nouns, the names of the plants, insects, birds and mammals important locally to human survival.’[6] She learns the names of flowers and plants, and gives snakes a home. And she continues to collect bits of turquoise pebble and to write about them as these flashes of compacted blue planet arrest her eyes and her thoughts.

The book is an ode to and entreaty for pacific and responsible survival as a species and as a people. In the desert, this is about dark peaks stopping and entertaining clouds to the point of rain. ‘Turquoise is the ritual colour of Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain.’ Her story about a group of Hopi traditionalists who decided, at the start of the eleventh year of a severe drought (2006), to undertake a sacred run from northern Arizona to Mexico City to the carved stone monolith of Tlaloc, is emblematic of her layered understanding of human place on our planet. ‘They’d been educated, as we all have,’ she says of the Hopi traditionalists with gentle irony, ‘to expect no miracles from Tlaloc. But in the Americas, the sacred surrounds us, no matter how damaged or changed a place may appear to be.’ Three months later, the rain clouds gathered, and broke, and pulled a writer away from her desk. ‘In Tucson where the drought had lasted so long even the desert vegetation was beginning to die, the rain smell was intoxicating—I couldn’t work on this manuscript.’[7]

 

Notes:

[1] ‘The Time We Climbed Snake Mountain’, Storyteller (New York: Seaver Books, 1981), pp. 76-77.

[2] See The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), and Lee Marmon and Tom Corbett, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

[3], Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 5.

[4] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 11.

[5] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 20-21.

[6] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 46. In this breath, see also Robert Macfarlane’s magnificent word-hoarding in Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015). Long interested in the links between language and landscape, Macfarlane is spurred on by a collection of peat-land-specific place words to begin an ongoing project of ‘assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary–and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.’ This rewilding is a project of joy and discovery and sadness and possibility, undertaken at a time when, as we learn, a junior dictionary makes place for ‘broadband’, but has no room for ‘bluebell’. ‘The Word-Hoard’, The Guardian, 27 February 2015.

[7] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 144-146.

Of the Place Now Called Victoria

I shall write about the stimulating experience of my first DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) in a bit, but today’s post, in inadequate phone pictures, is about the loveliness of the southern part of Vancouver Island. There is also a sadness to it that I cannot find words for. You too might see, if you visit, what this land was to the peoples who lived here long before European arrival. (And most of us, we must understand, are visitors. Whether or not we live there now, our power to do so is a separate matter from our right to do so.) It is important to understand, too, that the magnificent curatorial achievements of something like the First Nations Collections are markers as much of voice and resilience as of silencing and continued violence. On the eve of #Canada150, the question mark in #Canada150? is more important than ever.

(My thanks to Ashley Morford, through whom I came to know Christi Belcourt’s poem.)

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Prayer for Travelling People

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If it is evening when they set out,

collect them into the last light

and make it dawn for them.

If someone kissed them

goodbye, let them both remember.

Give them fewer waits at airports

or train stations or bus stops

or rickshaw-stands. Mostly,

give them breath to walk

far and wide and with

clouds catching their eyes.

Keep them warm.

Give them silence if they

are happy. Give them

conversation if they are

in themselves alone

and thinking not just of

passing from place to place

but of passing the world by.

Bring to them the

kindness of strangers.

Fill their eyes.

Let there be someone,

when they arrive, to

bring them home.

By Rabindranath

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Indweller,

In my midnight doze I think of

how I shall at dawn open my eyes

and see you.

Awake in the white light of day

I tell myself how I may joyously

bring the day’s work to you.

I think of you while at work–

and tell myself that at day’s end

I shall sit at your side.

And in the evening, I sit in

your sea of infinite rest, knowing

that my tired soul is home.