After what I thought was enough preparation, I set out to sample wild plants at my field site in Patarasi, Jumla. Upon arrival, the prospect of me hiring assistants set out ripples across the village and I was quickly embroiled in local politics surrounding the selection process. Feeling guilty about sowing discord and uncertain about my three assistants, we set out from the village into the 8500ha community forest to sample plants in its alpine meadows, above the tree-line.
I did not see settlement nor did I have access to any cellular network for the next twenty-four days. For some meadows, we walked five hours a day just to get to and return from the site. We spent the day running from one edge of the meadow to another, trying to beat the rain which was sure to cause fatal illness at that altitude of above 4000m. Over four people had already died in the forest, whether by disrespecting its deities, by choice or because of the altitude and cold. In fact, I was made to sacrifice two chickens to the forest for my journey. A geomancer, weaving baskets in the forest, told me I would get quite sick one day in the process but find everything I am looking for. I got the cold pretty early on but my friends ran out to forage some Katuki (Neopicrorhiza scrophulariflora), one of my plants of interest – high in potency and market value. Since then, I myself have cured about five individuals using this precious plant elsewhere in Nepal. I did get seriously sick one day – by eating a packet of cashew nuts right after making a pilgrimage stop on an empty stomach.
My field site was along a route that hundreds took in order to climb into meadows further up in altitude, to collect a fungus called Jivanbuti (Ophiocordyseps sinensis). This season too much snow had fallen and the returning harvesters complained that they found only 50 or 30 individuals, whereas in the past even amateurs collected in the hundreds. My assistants turned into close friends pretty quickly, we sang together by the fire and slept side-by-side under massive leaning rocks. They foraged for beautiful edible aroids and other greens, somehow managed firewood where there were no trees, and made fun of my general incompetency – including not being able walk downhill as fast as them. I wrote letters to the de facto village head, asking him to tell my parents that I am alive and suggesting tactics to push the village’s harvesting of Ban Lasun (Fritillaria cirrhosa) after the completion of my sampling. The fear of the incoming peak of monsoon and the villagers’ ascent forced to truncate my effort before I would have liked. On the last day, I climbed with one companion across a mountain range to see a alpine lake, where I was met by a herd of insolent yaks that chased us away, having not registered as humans. We pushed them back and I planted a prayer flag on the shrine in the lake. On the way down, it rained the hardest it had since I had arrived. The rains would continue for a few months like that.
The picture was taken by me from inside a massive rock that tilts such that it forms a cave like structure where one can sleep and cook. This rock housed 16 people one night when I was out in the field. This is one of the 6 rocks we slept under during the project. The man in the picture was one of my assistants. He is cooking dinner in the fire. He is a 57 year old man who has been hunting and foraging in the forest his whole life.
Shrabya Timsina, FES 2020
Recipient of the Rustgi Fellowship 2019