Making a Killing

We have just returned from a two-month stint in the relatively free world – UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal – and are now back in the Himalayas. Two long whole months wherein nobody addressed me as if I were a child imbecile servant – how long ago and far away those happy carefree days now seem. Two weeks ago, in Portugal, we got the news that Laser, my dog, had gone missing, presumed eaten by a leopard. The second dog in the last two years to go the same way – leopard food – because they weren’t shut away at night, when leopards hunt.

My days used to start with a pre-breakfast walk with Laser and drew to a close with a pre-dusk ramble, after which I fed him and shut him in. Now I walk alone. I blame no one but myself. Least of all the leopard, a beautiful creature, deprived by years of overhunting and encroachment of its natural prey. Nor the people charged with his care, who work from well before dawn to after sunset and have little time to chase a recalcitrant dog. Laser was my dog and I went off and left him for two months in a hostile environment with inadequate care provision. If I ever get a dog again, a big if, he will be kennelled while I am away.

His brother, Oscar, comes round every day whimpering and wagging his tail submissively. We are the nearest thing he has to a birth family – the two brothers were rescued from the streets of Dehradun as puppies by the remarkable Jodie Underhill, the Waste Warrior – our inspiration in the titanic battle against the proclivity of so many people in India, it seems, to turn their immediate environment into rubbish tips. Oddly. Every month we clean up an area – a couple of months later it is strewn with garbage.

Had we kept the two dogs together they might have both managed to scare off a predator, but we were obliged to give one away to the neighbour; Oscar, the dimmest, turns out to have been the most fortunate.

While we were in Iberia we collected olives, from the tree, with a view to planting the seeds at Himalayan Orchard. Buying olive seedlings in India would involve a 1400 km round trip to Rajasthan. I love olives and olive oil, plus it has been proven beyond scientific doubt that they improve your life expectancy along with the appreciation of the good things in life. Life expectancy in India (no olives) 68 years. In Italy (olives) 83 years. QED. Wine might be added to the equation. Along with a whole load of other things which you could add to the list no doubt – but my point is that I like olives, and wine. Red wine, from grapes. And while we’re in that area, grappa. Nonino.

So, while we were in La Mancha, at Alcazar de San Juan, the very heart of Don Quixote country, we stayed with a lovely old friend whose family owns and runs the second largest wine and alcohol producing company in Spain – 40 million litres a year. That’s 40,000,000 litres. These people seriously know what they are doing. It was such a refreshing pleasure to be in their company and to listen to people who actually know what they are talking about, rather than making things up off the top of their heads. Like BBC Radio 3. And like Radio 3 presenters, amazingly humble – far more interested in the subject than in their own egos.

(We highly recommend their reserve wine, if you can find someone who sells it: Monte Don Lucio Reserva La Mancha.)

In passing, I have been told that if you happen to belong to the small minority who raise objections to being addressed as if you were a child imbecile servant then this means you have an over-inflated ego. Should you fit into this slim demographic, well, we could form some kind of psychotherapy self help group. We could all sit around and take turns in coming up with the most annoying pompous half-witted comments we can think of and try them out on each other. After 30 years or so there’s a chance we might build up some kind of immunity.

Anyhow, we collected fresh olives, and once back at Himalayan Orchard followed the instructions – soaked them for 24 hours in cold water, removed the flesh, scrubbed them, pierced a small hole in the pointier end, and planted them in cocopeat – nutrient free peaty stuff that retains moisture and once the roots start to develop, allows them to freely wander without compacting. Only after the roots have developed do you then need to transfer them to a more fertile substrate so that the leaves get going.  They should then be kept at below 13 C, so I unwittingly put them in my tool shed. The following morning every single olive stone had been taken by a rodent. Not one left. My thoughts immediately turned to killing rodents, regrettably. I’m not keen on the traditional snappy mousetrap as it doesn’t always lead to a clean death. The live traps and a deep bucket of water at least mean it’ll all be over within seconds, but in the end I was persuaded by my mother-in-law’s home-made rat poison balls, which coincidentally resemble olives. The next morning all eleven balls had disappeared from my workbench.

Some neighbouring children (who attended last autumn’s art exhibition) came round to torment the chickens and discovered a dead mouse, which one had to assume had dined on MIL’s fake olives. At the time, we had the two desi chickens that we acquired last autumn, and who were now producing eggs, plus the surviving (gargling) cock. As all three were now a good year or so old, the plan was to allow them to mingle and produce chicks. So we started making a dog and cat-proof fence. We have very occasionally come across desi chickens in the open, and often wondered how they managed to survive with cats and dogs around. Most chickens in India as far as we can tell are reared in huge industrial batteries, where their miserable existence is maintained with processed chemicals and hormones in cages where they can barely turn round. We had dinner a couple of years ago with a chicken farmer in Chandigarh who produces thousands of eggs a day but never eats any of them himself, knowing the crap they are fed with. He keeps half a dozen free range birds for his own use.

Our two hens were moved within their mobile toblerone pen to their new space under the cherry tree while I got on with the dog/cat proof fence. A temporary arrangement, but the hens wasted no time in scratching their new bit of virgin soil away to the extent that one of them (Hunny?) tunnelled her way out, and was immediately enjoyed by Oscar, judging by his sheepish behaviour and blood-stained chops, spelling the end of my sympathy for him.

Tomorrow, inshallah, the new pen will be finished and the cock (Basil?) will finally get to be with the remaining, non-tunnelling hen (Nunny?) and fingers crossed for some good news in the form of the pattering of little chicken feet.

I enjoyed Basil’s former mates very much – I like a gamey bird – and am exceedingly looking forward to a bit of Laikram’s goat. As last year, Laikram gave a goat the chop around mid-January, dissected it into smallish pieces which are hung and dried on a washing line downstairs, where a fair bit is still left. I have been promised a portion imminently.

A couple of nights ago I was served Himalayan Goral, a wild goaty antelope indigenous to these parts, which is on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Near Threatened Red List  – ‘declining significantly’ due to habitat loss and overhunting. My MIL (a strict vegetarian) had somehow managed to get hold of some and gone to some trouble to prepare it. Which presented me with yet another ethical decision regarding other life forms. After some cogitation I came down on the side of not offending MIL.

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Raising Cows

She looked dead to me. Tikki, Laddu’s shed-mate, was stretched out on the ground doing a very convincing imitation of a dead cow, the likes of which we come across by the side of the road, or even in the middle, with unfortunate regularity. Once a cow is no longer of any use, which is immediately it sees the light of day in the case of half of them, the bullocks, they are mostly abandoned. They wander with a seeming preference for roads and towns – perhaps they feel safer there from the carnivorous and predatory beasts of the forest. Eventually they stretch their necks out on the ground and die. Which is how Tikki looked.

The dog and I were just off for our morning walk, but Lakshmi, Laikram and Roshan were standing around the recumbent Tikki in the byre scratching their heads and displaying a general air of concern, confusion, and despair. Fortunately, my mother-in-law had been up early as usual and had dispelled the bad curses and whatnot lingering within the byre by burning chillies in ghee.

Laikram chanted some mantras. Apparently these are very effective against snake bites.

Tikki was force-fed flour and sugar.

Nevertheless, she wasn’t looking so hot. The vet had been called but today is a Sunday, the day of rest, even in India, where holy cows are sacred on weekdays only.

The Handbook of Raising Livestock and Poultry (by Katie Thear et al) was consulted, which pointed to bloat – the rumen, the cow’s fourth stomach, gets blocked, especially if the diet is suddenly changed from lush green stuff to parched dried stuff as has recently happened. Inspect the left flank just behind the ribcage – should be concave and moving. If convex, permanently distended, it’s a good sign that she’s got bloat – constipation plus gas build up. A healthy cow belches and farts almost continuously. Something to bear in mind. And globally speaking a far greater contribution to greenhouse gases than planes. It’s treated by the application of bovine laxatives, and if it’s too far gone, you have to pierce the rumen with a kind of dagger-tube called a trocar and cannula – worth remembering for scrabble if nothing else – and admirably illustrated by Alan Bates in Far from the Madding Crowd, the 1967 version, before computer graphics, or indeed, before computers. When the actor struck the trocar into the flank of a sheep, he was doing exactly that. No doubt it would be illegal these days. But Julie Christie was impressed, as was I.

Thankfully, the Christian orthodox vet on the telephone interrupted his devotional activities long enough to diagnose bloat and prescribed a dose of oil plus laxatives in the form of mustard oil with asafoetida. A drench. Another good woody sort of word.

Laikram and Roshan grabbed Tikki’s horns and pulled her head up and back. In the general hubbub I forget the exact number but at least four or five other people were directly involved in getting her mouth open and keeping it there while the drench was poured down her extremely unwilling gullet. A pipe was introduced, and one couldn’t help thinking of the suffragettes and what we all owe them, and how so many ignorant people take democracy for granted. Nothing is granted. It has to be fought for to get it, and from then on fought to be maintained.

Time for dinner.

Anyhow, Tikki is clearly on the up, literally as well as metaphorically. Lakshmi helped vacate Tikki’s bowels in the most direct method imaginable, the details of which you would probably not welcome should you be thus far enjoying your breakfast.

The cow having lifted herself we then went into the orchard to lift a couple of fallen trees, the biggest of which was beyond our present capabilities.

Can’t do everything.

 

Aries Moon

dogs

“You are a very laborious fellow!”

‘I’m sure my wife would agree with you’ I wanted to reply, but took the comment as a compliment. I was carrying a sack-load of pine cones along the road on my way home as the late autumn evening sun set huge and orange way down the valley towards its solstice point at the bottom – only a month to Christmas!

There were an unusually high number of cars going past in a loose convoy, and one had stopped and the driver proffered his hand, which I returned, still expecting a brisk firm British handshake, but he didn’t let go for the entire conversation in the Indian manner. I assumed he was an uncle but it turned out we had never met. “So you are a Britisher! We Indians owe you a lot – many good things came as a result of colonisation…”

“Well, we can argue about that…”

“Yes – I will visit you and we will have a good discussion!”

Thankfully there were now three cars backed up behind, the first of which honked.

“We are going to a wedding in Kiari – we are the Mamas! See you!”

And off they went.

Mamas are maternal uncles in Hindi.

Pine cones make excellent fire-lighters – rich in turpentine. Also creosote so one wouldn’t want to use too many or the stove pipe would get blocked up sooner than otherwise.

It’s always good to stock up with firewood and kindling for the coming winter. In fact this last couple of days we’ve been looking ahead to the following winter – 6 or 8 old apple trees have reached the end of their productive lives and have been dug up, so I chainsawed them into metre lengths for the chaps to bring up to stockpile in a cord. This morning Laikram and I finished off with some heavy pruning, some of which involved climbing the trees to be lopped. I am even more cautious about such things now than prior to the accident a few years back, when I nearly managed to single-handedly arrange for a tree to knock my head off and then rip off a leg – but ended up with just the five stitches in my forehead rather than a full-on reconstructive surgery job. Still managed to look like Frankenstein’s monster for a couple of weeks though, with stitches like thick fishing line rudely sticking out from my bonce.

These days I wear chainsaw-proof chaps, gloves and helmet with earmuffs and visor. Steel toe-capped boots are on the Christmas shopping list. Can’t seem to get them in India, where most workmen wear cheap plastic flip-flops. Should be fun getting them through security at the airport.

When I got my first chainsaw in around 2001, a friend told me that I should treat it like a woman, which struck me as odd then and has remained lodged in my mind ever since. I certainly treat it with great respect and always bear in mind Mark’s words to the effect that everyone who spends much time using one ends up with scars to prove it. Let’s hope those five stitches were sufficient to appease the fates. A certain amount of my blood was mingled with the earth, so I view it as a rite of passage – giving a token something back to the soil that supports us. Let’s hope they don’t want any more.

I’d like to think I am more careful in general these days, approaching old age. Late middle. But I still retain a strong impulsive streak – my Moon’s in Aries. It’s a simple truth worth repeating but when you’re young you think you’re indestructible, and then you take a few knocks and have one too many near misses, and lose a few people who weren’t so lucky.

On the other hand, one needs a certain amount of impulsive oomph, a willingness to stick one’s neck out, otherwise nothing would ever get done, you’d sit around waffling about what you might do one day and then end up waffling about what you might have done, with more regrets for the things you never did than remorse for those you did.

And with that thought, it’s time to take a look at the latest batch of rose hip wine.

Dogs Bollocks and Bovine Intransigence

A very dear friend of mine has a dog that is so highly trained that one wonders whether it might not be a living creature after all, despite its Labradorean veneer. When a meal is presented it comes, after certain signals, and sits bolt upright, fixed on its master’s face, as if its life and the Crufts Championship Cup depended on a slightly raised eyebrow, the full bowl is placed before it, not a blink, until the Master indicates with a cryptic mutually-understood facial gesture and bang – the food is wolfed down. Can’t remember, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the dog doesn’t then sit back up to attention and fix his master in the eye again, awaiting the next command.

This mode of life – the giving and receiving of barked commands and moronic submission, even if the barked commands make no sense whatsoever – is not one that I understand or appreciate. At all, in any way, on any level. It was interesting to read the other day that it has been scientifically proven that people who think they know it all, and thus consider themselves to be in a position to tell other people what to do, bark orders, are significantly more stupid than open-minded people who doubt. Especially if those people, like you and I, question their own previously-held convictions. In other words, they are capable of rational thought and can remove their own petty egos from the equation.

Science.

Our dog has a certain amount of Labrador in him, but a huge dollop of street mongrel, and he certainly has a mind of his own. Or at least it’s not under the control of anyone else. Generally speaking he follows me wherever I go, however.

Yesterday three east European guests and I chose to try a hike which I had often wondered about but never attempted. I warned them, and they were quite insistent. I gave them safer options, but no, so off we went into the relatively unknown – very steep hillside plunging down to the river below, through Scots Pine and nearer the river, terraces roughly hewn, of French beans and peas. So steep that only a small fraction had been terraced and farmed. Half-way down we came to an abandoned two-room farmstead, clinging to the slope, and could only wonder at how hard their lives must have been, how much effort the generations must have put in to just carving a path up the mountain to access their nearest neighbours, before they finally gave up, and their descendants who knows where – sucked onto the dirty brightly-lit towns of the plains, perhaps.

The dog gaily trotted along until we got to the river, which had to be crossed. There is the choice of a metal footbridge or the gushing cold stream three or four metres across, a foot or so deep. The dog had never seen running water, and never been asked to go across a narrow thing in the air above such a scary phenomenon, and refused. He was clearly more up for the idea of fording the river, if pushed, but after ten minutes of canine prevarication I dragged him by the collar across the metal footbridge, all four paws resisting and twenty claws screeching like fingernails on a blackboard.

All continued reasonably well despite the concept of a formal path – we skirted small fields of peas and beans and ended up in a no man’s zone of tall grasses with the river to re-cross in front of us, almost a stone’s throw. It was all a bit hit and miss, and our Romanian guest disappeared into a theretofore hidden ditch and badly twisted his ankle – just what you don’t need in the middle of god knows where, off the beaten track. After a good pause he bravely made it through the reedy bit, across the river, twice, once over stepping stones, the second over another bridge, and we sat by a ‘road’ outside someone’s house and called a taxi.

The occupant of the house then insisted we come in and have a cup of tea, as is the norm hereabouts, a typical exchange with people you’ve never met going something like ‘Hello. Sit down. Have a cup of tea’ – ‘Well, if you’re twisting my arm…’.

Didn’t take much twisting, especially as it had now started to rain, finally, after a month of dry weather.

The taxi was a micro car like a mini and there were four of us plus the driver plus the dog. The dog decided this was the point where enough trauma for one day was enough – rivers, bridges, strangers, strange places, and now they want me to get into one of those scary metal roaring boxes that speed past the farm every now and then at horrendously high speeds? – no way.

After ten minutes of cajoling, chasing, impleading, commanding, I gave up and decided to walk back the way we had come – the dog would follow. That’s all he wanted – to go home, to somewhere familiar, and to get there the least unfamiliar way – the way we had just come.

Going back, despite the rain and general exhaustion, seemed to take only half the time, which led to the creation of a new proverb – ‘The unknown road takes twice the time’, which at the time seemed quite profound.

A propos, a couple of weeks ago, Lakshmi and Laikram decided to sell a couple of their cows, including Laddu, who has been here all her life. All she has ever known is being taken out of the shed in the morning, tied up to the manger, milked twice a day, and taken back in again at night, a distance of 5 metres. And given 10 or 12 calves. And now, in her dotage, they decide to get her to go up the steps to the road where she has never been, and get onto the back of a small truck to god knows where. No way. She refused. In the end Lakshmi and Laikram gave up, but felt sorry for the people who had come from so far away, from their village in Sirmour, and ended up giving them their newest young cow and her calf instead.

And every morning when I plod up to my workshop past the cowshed, Laddu stares at me with her deep dark eyes and gives me a long bovine moan of solidarity. We know how we feel.

 

Kheen

We were invited to a kheen today, over the hill at an uncle’s orchard overlooking Khaneti Palace down in the valley below. A kheen is a kind of large house party lunch to which all of one’s family are invited, so there were at least a couple of hundred people there, including a dozen or so musicians, and two devtas. There are many kinds of devta, including van devta (forest spirits), but our devta are something akin to saints, in that they were once regular humans but went through a transmogrification into god-like beings during their lifetime and then continue to hang around in the afterlife. They are based in a village temple, where they take the physical form of a wooden effigy, where they can be visited, consulted and worshipped, but sometimes, as today, they are taken out on an ornate palanquin, carried between the shoulders of two men, fore and aft. The Japanese have a similar practice but in their case the palanquin can be much larger and carried by 20 or more palanquinists.

The head of the household where today’s kheen took place is the chap who bought Mark, Andrea and I a cup of tea at Reoghati back in March. People hold a kheen for various reasons – to thank the devta for fulfilling a promise, or ask him (or her?) to sort out some local difficulty, and so on. Sometimes the devta will answer with a simple yes or no by shaking side to side or backwards and forwards on his palanquin, like a pantomime cow. More dramatically, as today, he will enter the body of his oracle and speak through him (or her?), like Patrick Swayze in Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.

As we arrived, all 200 heads were turned to gaze at the Russian-Brazilian-Spanish-Romanian-Bangaldeshi-English brigade coming through the orchard, the likes of whom had quite possibly never been seen in the whole zone. My attention was grabbed by the lunch preparations in the form of a large hairy goat blissfully unaware of his imminent demise, who was lined up by someone holding his tail while the main protagonist raised a large robust sickle above his head and chop! Off went the goat’s head in one fell swoop. Very impressive.

With that image indelibly imprinted, we were then ushered VIP fashion inside the house (everyone else being outside in the grounds), sat on the living room floor and had tea and snacks with uncle, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. It seems that one of the reasons for the kheen was to ask the devta for good health.

The Romanian-Bangladeshi-English contingent then went to check out how the goat was getting on. 90% of it was hanging in an apple tree in one piece, being expertly dealt with by someone who had obviously converted a living beast into mutton biryani many times before. 10% of it was still lying on the ground looking a little surprised. The skin was taken off in one piece, and then the small intestines were gathered and bundled up for sausages, and each innard was carefully extracted and separated for later use. Nothing wasted. It was a bit like medical students watching a dissection, especially as the Bangladeshi is very knowledgeable about such things – both the practical business of surviving off wild animals in the African bush and the physical-psychological-spiritual health benefits of knowing about how the body works.

We were then called to the puja that had started at the other side of the house. The drums and horns had started up, a fire had been lit, and a small group of men were getting ready with their questions for the devta. Apparently there was some longstanding disagreement that needed divine intervention to sort out.

As we were making our way puja-ward, we were again invited, quite forcibly, back into the living room, sat down while two apples were peeled and chopped very deliberately, which we then enjoyed, and thanked the apple peeler for his generosity and kindness, arriving at the puja just as the main event had just finished. However, the Russian-Brazilian-Spanish contingent reported that each devta occupied his own oracle who were asked questions, which they answered at length in an old dialect which unfortunately my wife couldn’t understand a great deal of. One of them was apparently very angry and shouted his reply. Possibly something along the lines of ‘Why the hell do you keep asking me these damn fool questions!? Why can’t you sort things out by yourselves!?’. It was again very impressive.

As we left the puja, five old men sat under a tree and sang the song of the devta’s life. An endlessly repeated melody that went on for about 20 minutes, memorised, and hypnotic.

We then had lunch – sat on the ground in long lines, the men come past with buckets of rice, goat, veg etc and dolloped a scoop on one’s plate. There were three shifts, so plenty of people to stand around admiring the UN’s eating difficulties.

And then we left, having had lots of group photos with the kids. One of the Russian guests was quite overwhelmed; she had never been to such an occasion where everyone is so kind and generous to absolute strangers – ‘Why? I don’t understand!’ – and said she would never forget this wonderful experience for the rest of her life.

 

Transhumance

gujjar hut

We have an interesting group with us at the moment – a Bangladeshi who grew up largely in Africa, two Russians, one from Kyrgyzstan, a Romanian, a Galician and a Brazilian, the latter five of whom live in London. They yoga and meditate twice a day, and go for a hike in between. The first hike was along the road through the forest for a mile or so to the Snake Mother Temple, so called on account of a local woman giving birth to a large snake, which was eventually cut into three hefty pieces, which went off to three nearby places and settled down. The temple used to be traditional stone, wood and mud but relatively recently was ‘improved’ by being covered with bathroom tiles so it now looks like a public toilet, albeit with some glittery additions.

Talking of public toilets, I challenge you to find one worse than the one in the wholesale vegetable market (sabzi mundi) in Chandigarh, where circumstances beyond my control dictated I spent a lonely and deeply bleak quarter of an hour last week. We had gone down to Chandigarh, a six hour drive, for one of our fairly regular 5-day shopping events, and eventually returned with a jeep-load of 50 kg sacks of chicken feed and flour, various bits of plumbing, some artisanal lampshades from the annual art and craft mela (and some artisanal Christmas presents…), and loads of vegetables and fruit from the sabzi mundi. And a re-strung sitar.

The mela is the one where last year we met some of the members of an extended family of Gond artists, whose work we admire very much, and whom we very much hope to host as resident artists next year. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, whose Salvatore Mundi just sold for a ridiculous £400 million, the Gond works go for between £10 and £100 over here. Up until the 80s, their work was only visible on the walls of their mud huts in central India.

Regrettably we couldn’t find them at this year’s mela, but after wandering around and buying the lampshades, one felt a little peckish and was drawn towards the Kashmiri food stand. It all looked very agreeable and it didn’t take a lot of persuading from the friendly well-spoken vendor to overcharge me for a huge plate of chicken biryani plus rogan josh, to boot.

I think it was the chicken that did it. As a rule I never eat chicken in India, unless it’s one of ours (which were excellent – like game). Indian chickens generally are horrendous mangy beasts kept in an overcrowded filthy cage on a pavement up until a few seconds before their decapitation, which must come as a relief, their quivering remains then being wrapped in an old newspaper and thrust in their recipient’s carrier bag.

Quite soon after the overpriced Kashmiri combo, my stomach started rumbling ominously, and the following morning at the vegetable market, well, I inspected a cubicle at the public loo, at some length. Perhaps built 40 or 50 years ago, seriously, they have not been cleaned since. The walls had been tiled but were ingrained with all manner of black filth, while the corner to the left immediately in front of one, crouched over the black hole of god knows where, had a faintly reddish tinge to the black as it was that part of the cubicle where most of the betel leaf chew stuff spit was evidently gobbed. I won’t go on, although I could. Matters were made worse by someone banging on the door every couple of minutes and shouting. When I finally emerged, an ugly mean-looking brute, the door-knocker, demanded money. I was so shocked I just stared at him. Money? For what? Cleaning!?

I digress.

So our multinational bunch of nomads and I went off for a hike along the road to the temple and then up into the forest to the old bridle-path. They carried on while I stopped to do a mini-forest clear-up – some people had obviously camped recently and left a load of rubbish lying around, which I cleared up and burned on their camp-fire. The rubbish included an empty whisky bottle so I knew I wasn’t the Gujjars – and anyway, they had already gone back down to the plains a couple of months ago. The Gujjars are the vegetarian Muslim ‘nomads’ who come past the farm every year with their buffalo, escaping the summer heat to over-summer up at Sararu Pass, a thousand metres above us. Lukinder tells me that the whisky bottle belonged to the Kinnauri ‘nomads’, who passed by this way last week, heading in the same direction as the Gujjars and for a similar reason. They come from Kinnaur, the next district, which we look across to from the pass – 6,000 metre plus peaks, beyond which lies Tibet. The Kinnauri nomads are Buddhist and when the temperature drops too low, which it must have done a couple of weeks ago, they head off down the mountain with their horses and goats, following the same route as the Gujjars, to over-winter in the terai – where the mountains meet the plains.

The Kinnauris lost a goat to the leopard, despite having leopard-resistant dogs.

So we are at the mid-point of the Buddhist nomads coming down to escape the cold and the Muslim nomads coming up to escape the heat.

There is more to learn about these peoples, who quite probably have been living this way for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The term ‘nomad’ suggests an aimless wanderer, whereas these people, certainly the Gujjars, have summer and winter camps and travel between them along time-worn routes, which strikes me as being a very natural way of life. We visited their temporarily abandoned summer camp the other day, about to experience the harsh winter that their occupants never see.

A Balancing Act

A DNA test would settle the matter once and for all, but one suspects one is largely a Wasp. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Parts of me are whitish, those rarely exposed to the sun, if ever; some parts are quite reasonably brown – forearms and nape, for example; and today I had a rather unusually large bonfire resulting in a reddish face, with black ashy bits here and there.

Anglo-Saxon, quite probably, along with Norse, Celt, and whatever the Romans brought along – Syrian DNA has been found at Hadrian’s Wall.

Protestant most definitely – I started protesting almost as soon as I was born and have no intention of giving up the habit.

I was born in Beaconsfield, famous for its model village and the private Catholic nursing home (St. Joseph’s – now a bijou housing development) where I first saw the light of day, just after midnight, March 1st, in a leap year. I was delivered into the black hands of Sister Michael, on a trolley – according to my mother it was the fastest thing I ever did. So, late on February 29th, after the one decent telly channel available had signed off with the National Anthem around 10.30 and my parents watched the small white dot disappear into the centre of the black screen, there was a sudden need to drive very fast the ten or so miles to Beaconsfield from High Wycombe. Why they didn’t drive the half mile down the hill to Wycombe General Hospital will quite probably remain an eternal mystery.

(And there’s another curious thing – right-wing conservatives, on the whole, despite their political convictions, seem to prefer the state-run ‘liberal’ BBC to the free-market capitalist ITV. Or did I miss something?)

The next 18 years or so passed as years pass when you are a child – seemed a long time. The Beatles, Nixon and Hughie Green came and went. The Rolling Stones, Prince Charles and Lulu came and are surprisingly still going.

Pat Fleck and I used to listen to Slade, then graduated to joss sticks, love beads, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and watched Wycombe Wanderers play at Loakes Park, with its 6 degree slope. A few VIPs had seats, the rest of us stood on the terraces with a cup of hot sweet tea bought from a small corrugated iron hut from a WWI veteran, in a polystyrene cup. My favourite player was Bodger.

Some time after I left High Wycombe, in the 80s, Wycombe Wanderers got promoted from the Isthmian League and I believe got as far as Division Two, and moved to a new flat pitch in West Wycombe, which for 15 years or so was rented by the London Wasps – the rugby team. I knew there was a theme here somewhere. For your edification, the London Wasps now play in Coventry, having dropped the London bit, no doubt for a very good reason.

Here at Himalayan Orchard we have our very own wasps, the insect variety – or should I say ‘had’. Earlier on in the summer there were two large paper wasp nests in the orchard – one in the walnut tree, the other in the large pear. Concurrently, we had five Nepalese migrant labourers, working for three months on the minimum wage (300 rupees/£3 a day), who supplement their meagre diet with wasp larva, given the opportunity, which they were. My wife and I were away but I am told that they waited until nightfall when all the wasps were ensconced in their paper lanterns, a Nepalese migrant labourer shinned up the tree, lit the nest, and hey presto, barbecued wasp larva, plus a few shrivelled adults, for dinner.

One instinctively feels that this is not quite right, but one is told that wasps eat bees, and bees are good for the orchard, so destroying wasp nests is ipso facto a good idea. However, if I have learned anything at all in India it is to always get a second or third opinion about everything. Preferably from a reliable source such as Google, to supplement and balance out the information one gets from the GLG. It turns out that wasps do indeed eat bees. Dead bees. And they are also partial to honey. Very rarely will they kill a live bee, and then in such small numbers that it has no effect on the size of the bee colony. They do, though, very actively prey on aphids, caterpillars, weevils and other bugs that attack and destroy one’s fruit trees, and while doing so act as inadvertent pollinators, thus more than making up for the bees they predate. By destroying a wasps’ nest, therefore, you are destroying your local natural free insecticide force, meaning you either need to spray more chemicals more often or you get less sellable fruit – either way, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Wasps can be good for you. It’s all a question of balance.

Shadows and Light

Clouded Yellow

 

You spend your life chasing happiness

Person to person, place to place

These days all spent, this eager wandering

While time stares you right back in your face

 

So easily say the hard years seem gone

That find you here and now, while time unwinds

The roads not taken, the tempting paths not trod

These hands, these eyes, these feet, this fragile mind

 

The hours and weeks slipped slyly through your fingers

Fumbling for the switch to staunch the flow

Not gone – the lost months and years still linger

In dusty rooms where strangers never go

Yellowtails

I have been enjoying this roller coaster world ball ride around the Sun for getting on for six decades now, which in human non-mythological terms means I’m pretty old. Mythologically speaking I am a mere sprickling (just made that word up) compared to Solomon, for example, who according to Louis Armstrong, a source I trust, lived 800 years. Or was it Methusalah? A thousand?

In Hindu mythological terms, Solomon and/or Methusalah were mere spricklings beyond measure. The Hindu gods and goddesses have not only lived for several trillion years, through many avatars, but they are still going, being immortal. Thing is, why did the story dry up 3,000 years ago? Surely they must have been up to something interesting these last million or so days? Apart from watching TV. Perhaps they invented TV 3,000 years ago, along with human flight and cosmetic surgery, etc. and have been glued to the burbly babbly box ever since, having peaked.

That might explain it.

Perhaps our even elders and betters could explain.

There are many benefits to being young, and I’m trying to fish around for some of being old. For one thing, I remember Louis Armstrong, admittedly no longer in his prime, singing It’s a Wonderful World on Top of the Pops, which at that time of his life, he was. What a monumental man.

We were privileged, you people (person?) my age, to live through the 60s and 70s. I have very strong doubts, at least in ‘Western’ terms, whether there will ever be such an enormous generation gap to be blasted through with such dramatic force as took place in the UK in the short ten years from 1966 to 1976 – from mid-Beatles to the early Sex Pistols – our parents having grown up during the War, and their parents born in the late Victorian period.

Marmite.

Marmite is a black sandwich spread thing which has some connection with beer – it’s called Yeast Extract, and for that reason was banned in Kuwait, at least when I was there in the late 80s, for having something vaguely to do with alcohol. They might have banned bottles for the same reason, or drinking water. All goes down the same way.

A Marmite person in British English means someone you either love or hate. Woody Allen for example. I am not a Marmite person – I prefer marmalade. Bit sweet, bit tart, bit of all best possible worlds. I like lots of things about Woody Allen – especially the late 60s early 70s Annie Hall, Sleeper. All you wanted to know about sex… – and on the other hand can see that he has some serious weaknesses. Sex, principally. But one of his more recent films sprung to mind today. When I say ‘recent’, being old, I mean some time in the last ten years, or so.

It was that one when he made a rare sortie out of New York and made a film in Paris. Set whenever it was, a decade ago, he got transported every night back to the 20s, and hobnobbed with Dali, Picasso et al – the golden age – except they were all young, discontent and wishing they had been around 30 years earlier in the 1890s – the Impressionists, Monet, Manet, et al.

They didn’t realise that this is it. These are the days. In those immortally succinct lines from The Deerhunter, ‘This is this’.

Anyhow, this afternoon we had our first Community Film Event. The local kids, and a mother sneaked in, were entertained by the first and greatest Walt Disney movie – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (in Hindi), c. 1937. A young woman telling a whole bunch of guys how to behave. A monthly event, next up is Mary Poppins (powerful woman, suffragettes), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (eccentric man making things from rubbish), Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Malgudi Days, The Sound of Music (singing beats Fascists), and lord knows what next – some of those early classics which were trawled by later derivionists like Harry Potter.

Any suggestions? Bearing in mind that the youngest member of the audience is still knee high to a grasshopper.

Billy Eliot

The Deerhunter

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Dr Zhivago

Fiddler on the Roof

To Kill a Mockingbird

Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources

Etre et Avoir

The pullets have started laying eggs, the fish have had babies, a dozen or so, and the Yellow Swallowtails are still going strong.

Sunday. Poetry Night. Richard III.

 

Chilling

Should you be thinking of planting an apple tree or even an orchard, there are a number of ways of going about it. You could be very fortunate and inherit an existing orchard of course, which is the easiest and least likely, and only applies to an extremely small minority. Supposing you have acquired a piece of land through your own efforts, however, and are toying with the apple orchard idea, the first thing to consider is chilling. There are hundreds of species of apple – we visited Julian Templeton’s place in Dorset, or is it Somerset, on the border, where he has over 40, and apparently there are over 8,000 varieties worldwide, although here in India only a dozen or so have so far caught on. Apples grow from California to Scotland in a wide range of environments, but the crucial thing is the number of hours of chill they get every winter. If they don’t chill enough, they don’t give fruit. Most varieties need 500 – 1000 hours per winter below 7 C, although there are some that get by on as little as 300 hours.

So that’s the first thing. Supposing you have a bit of land on a hillside in Tuscany, north-facing, for example, you might want to do a little research and work out roughly how many hours a winter is below 7 C. This information is probably on the web. On the other hand, yours truly happens to have a mini weather station sitting, so far unused, in a filing cabinet which could work these things out in a jiffy. A fairly long wintery-length jiffy.

Easiest thing is ask an apple-growing local. The positive point is that cold north-facing hillsides are good for apples. They need chill. Forget grapes, think apples. Here in the Himalayas, we are way too far south to grow apples – the bark gets sunburnt and has to be painted with a kind of bovine sun cream to stop it cracking open. But we are at 2000 metres so we have an artificial temperate climate.

Having thought a bit about varieties – here in India, for example, we can’t grow cider apples as they need more chill – you then need to come up with some seedlings or saplings. The cheapest option is to buy a couple of kilos of Granny Smiths from the co-op, remove the seeds, plant them in a fine tilth, keep them damp, and hope a few of them germinate and grow into seedlings. About 8 to 10 years later, you will probably get some crab apples. Seedlings take a long time, and throw back to some earlier incarnation. There is a scientific explanation for this, no doubt.

Seeds also need chill. Don’t put them in a greenhouse over winter. Leave them outside. Chill.

By the way, it is said that apple pips contain cyanide, and I read somewhere that if you ingested the cyanide from whatever it was – let’s say 83 apple pips, from 17 apples – it would kill you. The good news is that if you just swallow them whole, they pass through you without alarm. As the motorcycle fish bone evidently did the other night. Inshallah.

  1. Do as above but a year or two down the line, cut off your seedlings a few inches up their trunk and graft on to your Granny Smith rootstock some 6 to 8 inch grafts from an existing apple tree in a neighbour’s orchard. This will give you A. a known variety (supposing your neighbour knows it) and B. a couple of years earlier.

Work on the assumption that 10% of your apple pips will germinate, 10% of those will get graftable. and 10% of your grafts will take. And 10% of those will grow into mature trees. Which means you need to start off with 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 apple pips, so increase the amount of Granny Smiths from the Co-op several fold. You might also consider some James Grieve or a Kingston Blount. Bramleys – now there’s a thought.

  1. Another option is to take into account that ‘apples’ are part of the ‘rose’ family, and you can graft the former onto the latter, should they happen to be already growing on your bit of hillside. However, like all inter-racial cominglings, some are more likely to have positive outcomes than others. Think of rich Chinese businessmen and what they might at first see as compliant South East Asian wives. Perhaps not. Anyhow, it appears that the most successful comingling in the soft fruit area is pears on hawthorn. Hawthorn have long deep roots and are suited to survival on rocky poor soils. And pears are tasty, and you can make perry from them. Bit like Chardonnay.

The other, sensible but expensive option is to go to a nursery and buy some saplings. These will probably give you the first fruit after 4 or 5 years, and almost certainly be a known variety grafted onto a known rootstock.

And then you can enjoy your orchard for the next few decades, perhaps 40 or 50 years, which will provide you with fruit, cider, wine, and if you’re willing to break the law, brandy, and a useful supplementary income in the shape of the surplus every September/October. Either that or give a box or two to your neighbours, who might reply in kind with a string of sausages or some porcini.

Naturally, you have to work a bit, every now and then. Your saplings will be destroyed by deer, wild boar, and porcupines unless you protect them mechanically. They might also be attacked by fungal diseases and without doubt by insects of one sort or another – organic apples are lovely, and as I remember from the organic apples my parents planted and grew, organic maggots like them too. So an occasional spray will be necessary, regrettably. Unless you like maggots.

Pruning. Pruned trees, like pruned roses, give more fruit. Properly pruned.

Fertiliser – good idea to get a cow, or a friend with one, who likes cider. Apple juice for the Hare Krishnas.

Finally cracked the bottling of apple juice. It seems that apple juice has some kind of intense desire to become cider, full of wild indestructible yeasts. If you just put fresh pressed apple juice in capped beer bottles, they will explode.

If you boil the XXXX out of the juice and bottle it, it will still explode.

You have to boil the bottles and the juice simultaneously and the caps and then arrange things so that the boiling juice gets into the boiled bottles and is capped with boiled caps as quickly as possible, like seconds, and then your efforts may not get blown to pieces all over the cellar.

The best thing is to forget about juice and just let it all ferment, with fermentation locks/safety valves, and Bob’s your uncle. Cider.

You also need a variety of trees – best to check with your nursery. Some varieties are self-pollinating, but most are not, which means you need a pollinator. There’s a scientific explanation to this, no doubt, but basically it means you need a pollinator tree, which might not give you the fruit you want, but without which you won’t get the fruit you want from the other 10 – 20 trees around it, who need it.

Apple varieties, the 8,000 or so, are roughly divided into early, middle and late (August, September, October) – in terms of producing fruit. Your pollinator needs to coincide with your majority trees. If your orchard is big enough, you might want to spread your season out and have three varieties and three pollinators, if necessary.

Bees are the best pollinators, so you might want to keep a hive of the domesticated variety to supplement the wild ones in the forest. Plus you get honey.

Then there’s storage. Some varieties are ready to eat as soon as they are harvested, and rapidly deteriorate. Others, typically the late varieties, don’t actually become ripe until a month or two after they’ve been harvested.