Mountain People. Michael Tobias, editor. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1986. 219 pages, black-and-white and color photographs, maps. $29.95.
For the past several years I have been looking forward to the Christmas season. Just about that time I have been receiving, annually, an offensive book to review for the American Alpine Journal. Into the gloom that usually descends onto the Holidays, there has, until this year, arrived from the club, a carefully wrapped festive package containing that year’s bad book. It had become sort of a tradition and I had gotten to depend on it.
This year, the usual package arrived but, mirabile dictu, it turned out to contain an incredibly good book. Not only is Mountain People a good book, but I think especially interesting for the readers of this journal, a very important one. It consists of 24 essays, one written by Michael Tobias, who edited the collection, about the status of mountain people all over the world. There is nothing sterile or academic about these essays. They are an extraordinarily moving testimony to the fact that the mountain communities of the world are disappearing—or at least altering beyond recognition—like melting snow. Furthermore, we, the mountain-traveling readers of this journal, bear much of the responsibility for this. It is all too easy, as we trek through Nepal or Ladakh, or even the Alps, to lose sight of the local mountain people as people and to think of them at best as another aspect of the scenery.
It is all too easy as we trek through Nepal or Ladakh, or even the Alps, to lose sight of the local mountain people, as people, and to think of them, at best, as another aspect of the scenery. I will never forget, a few years after the tunnel under Mont Blanc opened, watching the annual parade, which takes place on August 15, of the Chamonix guides to the local cemetery where a service is held for any of the guides who has died that year. The guides are dressed folklorically and parade in a small knot, a hundred, or so, through the center of town. I watched that year as the tourists in cars honked at the parade, since it was impeding their route to the tunnel. The guides looked as if they didn’t belong there.
Some of the essays in this book are unforgetable. I do not think it is possible to think of the Nepalese hill people in quite the same way having once read Broughton Coburn’s magnificent essay entitled “Gurung Shepherds of the Nepal Himalaya.” The shepherds are the social outcasts of the community.
They live a life that would kill most of us in short order. But they take a crazy pride in it. The Gurungs, the tribe that produced most of the Gurkhas, are moving south out of the hills to take up subsistence agriculture. How much longer will the shepherds be willing to put up with the life they are required to lead and if they disappear, what should be our feelings about that? This is one of the deep questions this book raises. One cannot have the kind of “progress” that, say, modern medicine has brought to a country like Nepal, something with which many readers of this journal have had a hand in, without the rest of the infrastructure of a modern society. Who would wish the ten-year reduction in life span that would result if modern medicine were to disappear from Nepal and the situation returned to what it was prior to 1960? But part of the price is having former Gurung shepherds working as bellhops and bartenders at the Hotel Everest Sheraton.
I have had, as it happens, the opportunity to watch the evolution of a Sherpa family. When I first went trekking in Nepal in 1967, climbing had been stopped, largely due to the irresponsible border crossings of people like Woodrow Wilson Sayre. If it had not been for trekking, the Sherpa communities would have been in serious difficulty. Since there was no climbing, the likes of us could have as sirdar a Sherpa like Ila Tsering, who had distinguished himself on the Everest West Ridge expedition. Ila was extraordinarily intelligent, but illiterate. He was never able, for example, to read the brief profile I wrote of him in the New Yorker. We lost touch. This past year, to my great surprise, I received a letter from one of his sons who was studying medicine in the Middle West. He later told me he was planning to return to Nepal to practice medicine in Namche. When I went to Nepal last spring, I ran into a second son who was in the trekking business. (A third son is becoming a monk.) He told me both of the family’s new opportunities and regrets. His children, who live in Kathmandu, do not want to speak Sherpa and he goes back to Namche only in the summer, when there are no tourists, to recapture his own tradition. Is this evolution a triumph or a tragedy?
Reading these essays, this question keeps asserting itself. What is one to feel, for example, towards the wonderful Bimin-Kuskumin people of Papua, New Guinea? They are described in a heart-breaking essay by FitzJohn Porter Poole. These forest people worshipped oil—the semen of their god Afek— which was seeping out of the ground. It does not take much imagination to divine what happened to them once the news of the oil got out.
Each of the essays is marvelous in its own way. The book has been beautifully constructed with splendid photographs. It might well be a coffee- table item from the way it looks. The issues it raises do not have any easy resolution.