WWOOFing to Nepalese Bean Time

 Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

When I first read about WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I thought it sounded like a fun way to volunteer

When I read that the program was operating in Nepal, I was hooked.  Dale, my daughter, was joining me on my travels and she loved getting her hands into the earth and I'd peel a few vegetables... or so I thought. The farm we chose was near Lion's Choke, not far from Chitwan National Park.

Our host farmer, Barun, greeted us at the bus stop. Before he started using WWOOFers his children had to skip school to help him plant and harvest.

I could see he was disconcerted

He sized us up. Dale, young and lithe, passed at first muster, but he wasn’t at all sure about me. I wondered if I should snort, stamp my foot or maybe show my teeth?

Eventually he said it, “You are very old. I have never had anyone as old as you.”

 Dale and I in Nepal   

Dale and I in Nepal

 

Barun walked us out through the village. We talked on the way and he confided that the farm was organic simply because he couldn’t afford pesticides - Barun was knee-deep in debt.

The pressure was etched on his face as he spoke, but when we turned into a grove of bamboo, Barun’s daughters burst through the greenery, dancing with excitement and he broke into a wide grin. In the small clearing was their mud house.  A lean-to where we would sleep had a bed of wooden slats resting on an earth floor.  

I find a friend

Barun’s wife greeted us.  Mama was sturdy and cheerful, the perfect foil for Barun, the thinker and worrier. But for me, the warmest welcome came unexpectedly.

I could see that Grandma was surprised when she saw me. Her eyes lit up.  She was tiny; all superfluous flesh had vanished leaving sinew and features, big eyes, big nose and mouth and one solitary big tooth.  She wore gold earrings, but had lost her gold nose-ring working in the fields. She kept the hole open with a splinter of bamboo in the hope that one day she’d find it.

An early start

It was chilly and just light enough to see how thick the mist was when we turned out the next morning. Through the gloom loomed Barun’s oxen trailing a wooden plough. Barun halted the great beasts to drill us in bean-planting 101. With a sack under one arm, we were to scoop handfuls of slippery beans and drop them one-by-one into the fresh furrows.  Too close and we would run out of beans, too far and we’d have beans left over. Each bean was precious and the bloody things bounced.

By lunchtime, Dale and I were beat and we passed out briefly in our stifling lean-to before Barun roused us to get back to work.

 Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Dale was infuriatingly proficient and I was not

The afternoon shift was worse; the heat made me dizzy and I wanted to throttle Barun who tailed me, muttering as he remedied my irregular spacing, hunting my errant bouncing beans.

Planting needed a lop-sided sway which made my body ache; even my ankles balked from walking barefoot on uneven ground. Dale fared much better; up ahead she sashayed, a gilded nymph sowing to the beat of an ancient rhythm, her beans perfectly spaced.

When school finished, Barun’s daughters joined us, giggling with infectious good-humour, joining Dale in making the job look effortless. At last, every bean was bedded. 

 Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Relief at the day's end followed by magic...

We left Barun to finish painstaking watering row-by-row and joined the village women walking a humpy narrow path between the fields.  An ancient stone cistern, fed by a gurgling stream, was a place to bathe. The soft water soothed our tired muscles in the day’s warm afterglow.

As we strolled back, Dale stopped and grabbed my arm, “Look Mum,” and I turned to see in the distance the snow-capped massif of the Annapurnas tinged with molten gold. “It was all worth today just for this moment,” she whispered.

It got easier

Over the next week, we spread smelly chicken shit on the fields, cleared old crops and planted out vegetable seedlings. The work got easier as we fell into a rhythm with the family.

At the end of each day, we'd eat curry and rice for supper, sometimes followed by honeyed pancakes and a jug of warm buffalo milk brought straight in from the byre. We sat together on the earthen floor and ate from a communal bowl with our fingers.

Afterwards, we’d pull chairs into the little clearing in front of the house and relax. Everyone had daily tasks, but once done, each one stopped. So while it bothered me when one of them was still working and the others relaxing, I realised that while their lives were hard labour, yet down-time was well demarcated too.

Laughter rang out easily, transcending the lack of material possessions and Barun’s anxiety.

Time out ...

And then there was Grandma...

The first time I went to fetch water from the outside stand-pipe the handle was so stiff I could scarcely move it.  I put the bucket down and tried two hands and my body weight - then to my chagrin, out flew grandma who whacked it with one hand, water flooding out in a torrent along with her laughter.   

Grandma talked to me non-stop. It mattered not that I didn’t understand a word. She showed me her herb patch, her room and her shrine. She tried to teach me how to separate husks from beans; tilting and pitching her round wicker tray with the skill of a juggler, the speckled ovals gathering together at her command.

 Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

We learned so much and admired so much

Barun had excellent English and he explained the beans were first harvested with their stalks and sun-dried before being spread on the ground so his buffalo could trample them bursting open the thick, hard pods. Any pods that had not opened were collected by Grandma and she opened them by hand.  Once separated, the husks were kept for kindling - nothing was wasted.

The family was almost self-sufficient; only flour and sugar were missing. They couldn’t grow wheat because it attracted rampaging rhino from the National Park. Near the house they planted mustard-seed, turmeric, ginger, chili and basil for seasoning, marigolds for festivals and neem to make insect repellent.  In the monsoon they grew enough rice for themselves. 

At the end of the week...

Barun said if Dale and I finished everything, we’d have a day off at the end of our week. He kept his word. Dale rode his son’s bike and I perched on the pannier rack of Barun’s, bouncing over the ruts, through grassland and thick bamboo.

When Dale shouted for joy, Barun joined in and I hung on for dear life.

He showed us his bee-hives - he was the first in the district to sell honey - and we walked through woods alive with butterflies.

But when we reached the river, Barun was suddenly sombre and pointed to an island. Some years before, his sister had gone across to cut bales of long grass for fodder, but wading back she’d stumbled under the heavy load and been swept away. “Drownings happen every year like that,” he said.

Dale took these pictures when we were making our way up river to Lion's Choke - so we knew immediately how Barun's sister had died.

We watched the sunset over the river that turned all to gold before we cycled home in the dark.

And too soon...  it was time to go

We had a grand send-off the next evening: Grandma wrapped us in saris, Mama marked our foreheads with red tikkas and the girls garlanded us with lais of marigold. Barun performed a traditional Nepalese stick dance, leaping high while twirling stout bamboo poles.

Dale said it was collective amazement when I took the poles from Barun, crossed them on the ground, and did a Scottish sword dance – once my father’s forte.

I don’t know if I still hold the record for being Barun’s oldest WWOOFer, but I do know Grandma was sad to see me go. She was ten years my senior yet had eclipsed me in every task – except perhaps, the Highland Fling!

 OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

And Barun?  “Goodbye big sister. Goodbye daughter Dale. Safe journey home to Australia. I want you both to come again.”

 

Days of Freakish Luck and Preposterous Happiness

 Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

I've been digging out my poetry books this week.  I used to read it in the bath, but now I take a shower!

No one reads poetry anymore, too busy reading tweets

Is this true?  What a terrible bargain we've made in the 21C.  Can't we tweet poetry?  Or is tweeting
the new poetry?

I am neither poet nor philosopher, but when a poem really resonates, I stop breathing.  

A finger on my pulse stays time and the lines take residence, stirring only when there is a crack
in the right moment.

Do you have days with a white mark?

I first read The Day with a White Mark by C S Lewis, when I was in my thirties.  The years gone by have amplified the pleasure, for now when I awake to a day with a white mark, I greet it like an old friend. 

Do you know what Lewis means?  Days when you are whirled in a preposterous happinessDays when you could kiss the very scullery taps

They arrive unbidden and, as Lewis says, arrive even on days when in the dark ahead only the
breakers are white.

Reading the poem will make you smile, and maybe, like me, ever after you’ll have an elf in the blood or the bird in the brain.

The Day with the White Mark

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel's transit roaring over and through my heart?

My garden's spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann'd and unplann'd miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers are only white.

Yet I--I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock's chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.

As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one's feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,

Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children's tale.

Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.


~C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper, (1964)

                       

 More recently I discovered Jan Zwicky

The second piece is a fragment of a poem that I came across only a couple of years ago.  It’s very different, but again time paused and I read it without a breath.

  

From Transparence

Only in fairy tales,
or given freakish luck, does the wind
rise suddenly and set you down where everything
is safe and loved and in its place. The mind
does not expect it. But the heart,
                                                        the heart -
the heart keeps looking for itself.
It knows and does not know
where it belongs.

~Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, (1996)
 

I'm writing memoir

It's like squeezing a whole harvest of citrus, sweet and sour, into a liqueur glass.  So I find the economy of
Jan Zwicky’s lines exquisite. 

In that first reading I was pitched headlong into the Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham illustrations of my enchanted childhood days before I was swept up with the Wizard of Oz, which is a short synopsis of my life.  I know I am not unique!  

I felt tears prick when I read the words, the heart keeps looking for itself.  It knows and does not know where it belongs.  And then I read again and felt found, not lost,  as if suddenly I understood what I had known all along.

 Jan Zwicky

Jan Zwicky is a Canadian philosopher, poet and musician and she originally published these lines in 1996 in a book called Songs for Relinquishing the Earth that she hand-made for each customer.  At first each book was individually sewn for its reader between plain covers, harnessing an extra dimension of intimacy between the reader and creator.  Although the book is now published by Brick Books and available on Amazon, that idea of a gift from the hand of the author remains in my head and connects us all.

http://www.brickbooks.ca/shop/songs-for-relinquishing-the-earth/

 Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream .....       the heart keeps looking for itself

Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream
.....      the heart keeps looking for itself

Late Bloomers dare to go it alone

I'm told that, as a writer, I'm a late bloomer 

Full blown pale roses or full blown pale pantaloons; take your pick.   I’ll be a rose thanks.  At least that way I am between a bud and a dead-head.  Better than pantaloons – between a pair of speedos and a Vinnies bin.

I found a website.  It said that late bloomers are NOT FAILURES and gave this encouragement:

  • Van Gogh was a late bloomer and didn't start painting until his late twenties.  My God, he so nearly missed the boat. 
  • It’s OK if you don’t hit your peak in High School because it’s often downhill all the way from there.  Good, I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet.  Now I’ll know when I do because it’ll be WOOOOOSH after that.
  • Diving in too early to a relationship and set-in-stone life plans can keep you from determining what really
    matters to you.  Well I got engaged in six weeks but a set-in-stone life-plan eluded me, so I guess I’m well-balanced.  I know what matters first, it’s what comes second that confounds me.
  • Let go of the pressure to be perfect ...   I don’t think I was ever that deluded.
  • Going through an awkward stage can build character ...  Can?  Oh, God why else? 
  • If it hasn’t happened yet, one day, you’ll feel truly comfortable in your own skin ...  Really?  I think that might be just before WOOOOOSH and the secateurs chop off the dead-head.

Go John Updike!

Then I found another website with a quote by John Updike, Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone”.

Updike was considered one of the greatest American writers of his generation.  

So that’s it.  I'm a ramblin’ rose. 

Late to bloom and, I hope, incorrigible but not too disreputable - it would upset my mother.  I did go it alone.  I declared UDO.  My Unilateral Declaration of Ownership.

Own the situation.  Own the solution.

Remember how much fun that was? 

No? 

Oh, pass the rosé.