Many a Nepali has gleefully derided a foreign hill, smug in the possession of the highest mountains in the world. I confess I am one such geo-populist. It took me too long to acknowledge the beauty of less dramatic landscapes elsewhere, and even when I did, every trek in the Himalayas only confirmed to me that there was nowhere in the world quite like Nepal, no place like home. Ideals of the Kathmandu Valley, too, played along – the trinity of city-states fruiting in the black clay of a prehistoric lake, fringed with paddies and ringed by mountains of green.
But the wildest dreams of Kew are no longer the facts of Kathmandu – a visit to the lush grounds and meticulously maintained glasshouses of the former this summer revealed to me just how far the Valley of Temples has strayed. Even without the devastation wrought by the earthquake of April 2015, our capital city has long been reduced to a choking conurbation by the recklessness of developers, the alternating inertia and mania of planners, and the sheer irresponsiblity of its inhabitants old and new. The rest of Nepal has fallen prey to the depredations of big business and small thinking: a cobweb of roads has opened up the interior to uncontrolled resource extraction – of timber, of sand and gravel, of agricultural produce, and of men and women. Change has come too quickly, on too large a scale, and we can only expect more. How then can we respond to the ecological catastrophe unfolding around us, and what is the role of literature and the arts in this regard?
There are Strategies and Action Plans, revealed to us through Declarations at Global Conferences. There are Non-Governmental Organizations and Ministries to Implement our Development, ensuring Projects and Programmes are Sustainable and Accountable to the Community and the Environment. But how do these buzzwords speak to the man at the chautara, the woman by the chulo, the child at play? They do not: they are too far removed from the day to day. The issues at hand are necessarily complex, but the simplifications have become pedantic and tedious, and successive coats of greenwash have insulated us from the raw truth of how insensibly we are living out our time on this Earth.
I have always felt that any endeavour to contribute to a better ecology of living must first reach deep into the individual and interrogate how each one of us relates to the world that sustains us. This would mean stripping away our material and spiritual pretensions in order to recalibrate our expectations for all those beings we share this planet with and all those to come, from the offspring of a great horned rhinoceros in Chitwan to the next season of alpine flowers up in Makalu-Barun to our own children here and now and in the future.
One way of doing this, we decided, was to dedicate a set of La.Lit narratives to Nature – a Green Issue. The aim would be to explore the many ways in which we exist, in our souls, our streets, our streams. As readers, we hope you will feel changed in what we have compiled here, but no matter. The journey will have been made, and that is for the better.
Emerging from this year’s unrelenting monsoon, then, it is fitting that we begin with a school of watery stories swimming in its wake. In Evie Rucker’s tale of homeless people living under a bridge, waiting for the rains, and in Ross Adkin’s inundation of the Kathmandu Valley, yet again, we have visions of The Flood: a deluge that will be our doom and our saving grace. But in the careful delineation of wetlands and rivers that follows, we have a more literal plea to modernity: Savanna Ferguson’s evocation of the asphalt-strewn, wildlife-rich park that disrupts the angular tidiness of her hometown in the US and Arun Rana’s mission to iconize the “tiger of the waters”, the Mahseer, both remind us just how neglected our aquatic environments are.
This may well be due to our terrestrial proclivities. We walk on land and we work the land and, it must be admitted, most of us do like a spot of greenery. But our recreations of nature within our cities speak volumes about how we relate to the wild. Charles Zerner’s exploration of marginal gardens within the Kathmandu Valley raises some disturbing questions in that regard, as do Srestha Rit Premnath’s ruminations on lawns.
Meanwhile, whatever the strange inclinations of city folk, villagers across Nepal have to come to terms with the land they live on, relative to opportunities elsewhere. Dipesh Risal’s fictional account of a farmer’s struggle to eke out a living is as literal as it is devastating, but what do we make of Mustang’s “climate refugees”, profiled by Dylan Harris? How do we understand development in the trans-Himalayan region and in east Nepal – is it being “in place” or is it “moving on”?
One’s relation to space is often intensely personal. In the poems of Barbara Ras, Diana Woodcock, Karuna Chandrashekar and Eleanor Walsh, we have reflections on how our co-species exist in the moment in ways that we, alien humans, have forgotten. And as Eliot Weinberger’s explication of stars proves, even the heavens are seen through earthbound, too-human eyes.
But what does it mean to be human, after all? In searching for a subject to interview for La.Lit’s Green Issue, someone who could explain Nepal’s troubled relationship with its environment, we were confronted by the inescapable fact that there has been a void in the green movement since the 2006 helicopter crash that wiped out a generation of Nepal’s leading environmentalists. Indeed, there is no discernible tradition of writing on the environment in Nepal. This, to us, explained a lot. We responded by delving deeper, interviewing geneticists and ethicists to ask what the future of gene editing holds for our species. If we can “improve” ourselves away from Nature, how does that affect our attenuated relationship with it?
I would like to thank The New School in New York, and in particular Ashok Gurung, for bringing his merry band of collaborators (Kailash Cartographies) to Kathmandu this spring, and for financially supporting the publication of this issue. The Kathmandu Valley may resemble a mandala with Mount Kailash at its centre even less than it does Kew, but your presence here allowed us all to imagine, for a while, what it was meant to be.
The seventh volume of La.Lit is an exploratory anthology of green narratives. To buy a copy, click here.