I’m reading a book at a nice overlook of Dhunkharka, a farming village in the foothills of the Himalaya. It’s warm out and the flowers are bright orange. I’m surrounded by bees that pollinate the flowers and then return to their nest in the side of the farm house. The valley is vast, yet steep and farms traverse the mountainside. It is tranquil here and I am soaking in the peace after spending five weeks in India. Children run past and see me, yelling “Namaste!” and then asking me what my name is and what my parents names are. They laugh at how strange all of the names to them and then run off. One of the girls is holding her baby brother on her back in traditional Nepalese fashion. In the distance farmers are cutting down the rows of corn they have grown on the terraces or weeding the newly planted fields. This reminds me that I am suppose to be weeding. The sun felt so nice and my book was quite interesting so I lost track of time. Barefoot, I run down to where the others are weeding.
We’re at a home stay and if we help out around the farm we get $4 off each night. Running down the paths on the mountainside I pass an old lady carrying a bundle of sticks. She has them tied up and a strap is placed around her forehead helping her carry the bundle. I yell “Namaste!” and she raises one hand and says “Namaste!”. A sudden stench fills the air as I pas the barn where the buffalos are kept. Trying to avoid the poop on the ground I take big strides and aim for dry spots. Now I’m in the cornfields and the path is quite narrow. Running through these big blades of grass isn’t ideal so I slow down and shield my face. Finally the path opens up and I see the others have already begun working.
Weeding is by no means my favorite task and one of the others keeps saying how funny it is that in order to help something grow you need to kill something else. That is what the majority of farming is. Altering the natural cycle of the environment to fit your needs. Farming has been going on here for so long that the entire geography of the land is altered. The terraces are the most noticeable sign of this as the once steep mountainside has been smoothed out in a step like fashion to aid in the efficiency and productivity of the land.
To build a terrace trees must be removed. Next is the undergrowth. Finally, the land is dug out so that the mountainside resembles a bunch of steps. It’s the removal of a lot of life that then supports other forms of life that eventually support human life. Of course, this happens everywhere and there is not nearly as much life lost in the production of life here as there is in the United States when areas are converted into monocultures and industrial fertilizers and pesticides are used. Actually, farms here are still quite diverse and house a large, happy community of humans and animals.
I’m plucking out weeds and trying to avoid pulling out the onions. It’s quite hard to not pull the occasional onion out and I killed quite a few. However, these would likely have been pulled latter on when the beds are thinned. Another time where some life is given so that other life can flourish.
This place is amazing. There are trees everywhere. Mountainside forests separate farms and mitigate the risk of a land slide. Not all of the land was altered and a huge portion remains in its natural state. The contrast between the human and nonhuman environment is esthetically pleasing and the people are super friendly. Even pulling weeds is slightly enjoyable.
The balance between human and non-human environment is what really amazes me. Unlike the prairies in the U.S. where almost all of the original plant life has been removed for the overproduction of corn, this place has a plot of corn next to an untouched plot of land that is as it was hundreds of years ago, followed by another plot of land with a house on it. And it just keeps going like this across the entire mountain until it gets too steep or far and the forest takes over.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycle of life. This place encourages deep though during the slow weeding or long hours of reading. Maintaining a farm keeps the human mind inside of the life cycle. Living in a city seems to disconnect one from the life cycle. Entertainment on the farm is tending to animals, including birth and slaughter, or planting fields, including killing the existing vegetation so that new vegetation that better suits your stance in the life cycle can exist. Meanwhile people in the city are completely disconnected from this cycle. When a meal is consumed not much thought is put into the death that was required to bring life.
I am vegetarian because I oppose the factory farming of animals that occurs in the U.S.. However, being vegetarian on a farm like this feels different. I know that the animals are not being kept inside tight pens, standing knee deep in their own poop. Instead they are each attended to individually. I am also vegetarian because of environmental reasons. Cows in factory farms in the U.S. are fed corn, even though they evolved to eat grass. This makes them sick and the farmers feed them antibiotics. These antibiotics and other waste then leaches into the waterways causing some major problems downstream and taking life without producing more life. Cows, or buffalos, on this Nepalese farm are part of the farms nutrient cycle. They eat the surplus greens and graze on the grass and then their poop is used as fertilizer. Thus they are assisting in the cycle of life in a positive feedback loop. And this happens in the U.S. too, on small organic farms. But industrial farming is king in the States. It doesn’t exist here.
I ate two small slices of buffalo meat. I think about that as I pull weeds and wonder how this changes my view on the life cycle. Before working on the farm I would have refused, but after seeing the buffalos on the farm and then learning that they are a popular food source I decided to try it. It feels more natural here. Seeing the life cycle in action, day after day, connects emotion to food.
My knee hurts so I lay down to weed and start to relax more. It’s east to get lost in thought when you’re pulling weeds. I pluck a few more and my leg falls asleep. I don’t think that I will eat meat again for a while. Sometimes when you’re traveling its hard to value things that feel so important back home. It must be the different cultural views clashing in my brain.
We’ve finished weeding and hike back in small groups to the house. All of the meals on the farm are vegan and you can see where almost all the food comes from just by looking around the valley as you eat it. I am glad that I came here and eating vegan food all week feels refreshing. Hopefully I can learn some techniques that could take off in the U.S. to ameliorate the environmental impact of farming. It’s hard to say if anything could take off with the huge cultural gap and the difference in technology. But it is refreshing in some way to know that such sustainable farming methods are mainstream on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s time for farms in the U.S. to stop considering the can we, and start thinking about the should we. Of course there is always money in the way, but that’s getting too off topic.