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Thin Places

Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Thin Places
    Book Description:

    Thin Places is an eloquent meditation on what it means to move between cultures and how one might finally come home, a particular paradox in a culture that lacks deep ties to the natural world. During the 1990s, Ann Armbrecht, an American anthropologist, made several trips to northeastern Nepal to research how the Yamphu Rai acquired, farmed, and held onto their land; how they perceived their area's recent designation as a national park and conservation area; and whether-as she believed-they held a wisdom about living on the earth that the industrialized West had forgotten.

    What Armbrecht found instead were men and women who shared her restlessness, people also driven by the feeling that there must be more to life than they could find in their village. "We each blamed our dissatisfaction on something in the world," she writes, "not something in ourselves or in the stories we told ourselves about that world. If only we lived elsewhere, then we would be at home."

    Charting Armbrecht's travels in the mountains of Nepal and in the United States and her disintegrating marriage back home, Thin Places is ultimately an exploration not of the sacred far-off but of the sacredness of places that are between-between the internal and external landscape, the self and others, and the self and the land. She finds that home is not a place where we arrive but a way of being in place, wherever that place may be. Along the way, Armbrecht explores the disconnections in our most intimate relationships, how they stem from the same disconnections that create our destruction of the land, and how one cannot be healed without attending to the other.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51829-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

      (pp. 3-12)

      I stood ankle deep in mud, bent at the waist, and pressed pale green rice seedlings into the gritty mud. The mud was thick and brown and felt cool around my feet. My damp lungi clung to my thighs, and my shawl was draped over my head to keep out the morning rain. I finished planting the seedlings I held in my hand and waded across the terraced field to get another handful from a bamboo basket on the edge of the terrace. I waded back to my place, stubbing my bare toes on small rocks as I went; bent...

    • 2 SEEDS
      (pp. 13-18)

      When I first arrived in Hedangna, I stayed in a tiny room on the porch above the office of the Small Farmer’s Development Bank in Gadi. Gadi is the Chetri village on the southern side of what is broadly called Hedangna where the bank, the post office, the police post, and a few shops that sell tea, biscuits, kerosene, Indian-made cloth, cigarettes, matches, and other sundries are located. I hoped to live with a Yamphu Rai family, but it would take time to find someone with enough rice to feed an extra person. I stayed in Hedangna-Gadi while I waited....

      (pp. 19-24)

      The summer after my second year in graduate school, I had gone to Nepal to examine indigenous systems of forest management in the Makalu-Barun region, to the east of Mount Everest, Nepal’s most recent national park and conservation area. At a time when other national parks were excluding villagers, the Makalu-Barun Conservation Project promised to work with them; while personnel at many international development projects believed that encouraging development and conserving the environment were mutually exclusive, staff at the Makalu-Barun project believed that one could not be considered without the other. Nepalese researchers had been hired to conduct research for...

    • 4 THE BOOKS
      (pp. 25-28)

      Before I went to Nepal to begin eighteen months of fieldwork, Brian and I hosted a party at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge to celebrate his thirtieth birthday and to bid me farewell. Brian and I had met in college at an outing club meeting. He asked me to marry him at Kala Patar, at 18,000 feet looking across to Mount Everest, and we went mountaineering in Bolivia for our honeymoon. A party at Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire, where we visited again and again to hike and backcountry ski, seemed the perfect way to honor and renew our commitment to...

      (pp. 29-32)

      When Lok Bahadur and I were chased from the village with the so-called indigenous conservation project, I learned that it was not enough to call land sacred or to declare that it was to be protected. What mattered was who held the rights to that land and whether others accepted that claim. More than a statement about the sanctity of the land, the lama’s claim to the forest that others felt was theirs had been an attempt to manipulate the fascination of scholars and development workers, particularly those involved in conservation projects, with sacred lands. Peel back the layers of...

      (pp. 33-42)

      Brian was wearing long underwear when he got off the Twin Otter at the grass airstrip in Tumlingtar. It was January, and he had come from New England, where long underwear made sense. It was 60 degrees in Tumlingtar. I had not told him what to expect, he said after we hugged, briefly, surrounded by villagers and porters watching to see how we would greet each other. He had had to guess as best he could.

      We had not seen each other for four months. We had had no contact since I left Kathmandu for Hedangna a month earlier. Mail...

      (pp. 43-56)

      The only thing I ever “cooked” on my own in the eighteen months I lived in Hedangna was water for tea. I boiled the water on my camp stove in a corner of my room. While the black Nepali tea leaves steeped, I dipped the corner of my towel into the leftover water and then pressed the towel to my face, drawing in every last bit of heat, imagining my whole body steeping in the moist warmth.

      More than a year later, I was on an airplane flying home, my research complete. The flight attendant passed out a steaming white...


      (pp. 59-70)

      Brian returned to the United States at the end of February. After he left, I turned my attention more fully to my research. Although seasons continued to structure the rhythm of my days, some part of which I spent helping in the fields or hauling firewood and water, my thoughts became shaped more by my concepts about research than by types of work. In organizing my ideas about what I had to know to understand the villagers’ relationship to the land, I made a diagram of three overlapping circles that I labeled sociocultural, political, and economic. Information on land use,...

      (pp. 71-82)

      A single brass kerosene lamp burned on a shelf carved out of the mud wall. The flame lit the immediate area; the rest of the room was dark. I had come to Devimaya’s home for dinner and had asked Dilli Prasad, her father, some questions about kipat and about land disputes. I felt more comfortable with Devimaya than with anyone else in the village, so as the year went on, I began to spend more and more time with her family. Dhanmaya, Devimaya’s mother, sat in the shadows by the dying coals. The dishes were cleaned. The three youngest children...

    • 10 THIN PLACES
      (pp. 83-92)

      My skin was like wet tissue paper. It peeled off with my socks, pulled off under the damp bandage. It came off from between my toes, from the soles of my feet, and from the edges of my heels. The exposed new skin was raw and tender. There was too much of it to cover and nothing solid or dry to hold down a new bandage. I had never seen anything like it and had no idea what to do. I glanced up with despair and saw the women already lifting their bamboo baskets and filing barefoot into the early-morning...

      (pp. 93-100)

      One afternoon in early autumn, after the pilgrimage to Khembalung, I stopped by Baiseti Thuma’s home. She was on her porch, holding a leaf cup filled with jad, when I walked up. She told me that she was going to the millet fields by her house to leave offerings for Chaketangma, the wrinkled old ancestor who was said to wander through corn and millet fields and who, I imagined, looked a lot like Baiseti Thuma. Chaketangma had been making her eyes itch, Baiseti Thuma explained. She had forgotten all week to make an offering, and today she was finally going...

      (pp. 101-112)

      Once, so the stories go, there was no division between humans and the ancestors or between those who could speak with the ancestors and those who could not. At that time, the ancestors did everything humans could do, I was told, but they did it better, longer, more easily. Humans had to climb steep mountains, but the ancestors could fly over the land like birds, soaring from the summit of Makalu all the way to Hedangna in the time it took to finish one long whistle. Humans aged, grew weak, and eventually died. The ancestors never died. Those who were...

      (pp. 113-120)

      A gray-haired Brahman sat at the edge of the darkened room, as far from the fire as he could and still feel its warmth. He lived in a village up the ridge; he was on his way south and had stopped for the night to speak with Devimaya’s father, Dilli Prasad. Dhanmaya served plates of steaming rice and greens to her children, who were gathered around the fire. Dilli sat cross-legged on a straw mat beside the shrine for the ancestors, sipping jad and listening to the Brahman, who was talking about a meeting that Khagendra, a community-development officer for...

    • 14 LOST SOULS
      (pp. 121-132)

      I walked quickly up the ridge so I would arrive while it was still light enough to see the trail. When I reached the house, Amrit, who was sitting outside on the porch, immediately asked if I had come over the top of the ridge and repeated what I had been told before: never walk alone near the ridge at dawn or at dusk because that was when Matlung Thuba wandered the hills looking for souls to snatch. If Matlung Thuba got hold of my lawa, he said, I was likely to die.

      This was what people suspected had happened...


    • 15 LEAVING
      (pp. 135-144)

      A few weeks after his mother’s death, just before I left Hedangna after eighteen months of research, Amrit announced that he was moving his family to Khandbari to start a tea shop. Amrit did not have enough land to support his family, and the illness and death of his mother forced him even further into debt with Ganesh, his cousin. He was going to try something new, he said. Amrit had an almost insatiable curiosity about the world beyond the village, and I was not surprised when he decided to move. But curiosity was not enough to survive in this...

      (pp. 145-154)

      I stared at the list of the six kinds of coffee on the blackboard; the four kinds of muffins on the counter; the blueberry scones and oat scones; the chocolate chunk, molasses, and peanut butter cookies. People waited impatiently behind me, some even cut in front because I took so long to decide, and even then I was not sure, hoping the person behind the counter would assure me that I had made the right choice.

      I walked to Green Lake, past one-story houses with short clipped lawns and cement sidewalks leading to screened doors. Someone drove up in a...

    • 17 A FAR-OFF PLACE
      (pp. 155-166)

      There was now an international telephone line in Tumlingtar and fifty-eight national phone lines in Khandbari, a walk of two and a half hours up the hill. There had not been any when I had been here before. At least seven foreigners lived in Khandbari; two years earlier, there had been only one, a Peace Corps volunteer who was rarely in the village. The Makalu-Barun Conservation Project had finally opened its field office in a three-story building above the dusty site of the weekly outdoor market.

      I went to find Amrit the morning after my arrival. He was wearing the...

    • 18 ABSENCE
      (pp. 167-180)

      My last trip to Hedangna was in February 1997. Raj Kumar was still in Khandbari, and I visited him in his office at the headquarters of the Makalu-Barun Conservation Project. He talked about his work, his wife and sons, and his family back in Hedangna. He filled me in on Deuman, his brother, still studying in Kathmandu. And just before I left, he told me about Dev Kumar, whom I knew had been in love with Devimaya since I had first lived in Hedangna six years earlier. Dev Kumar and Devimaya had planned to get married later that month, Raj...

    • 19 MANGUHANG
      (pp. 181-198)

      I had just ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and a salad; then I would eat fruit and yogurt; in an hour, I was going to have sag paneer and chicken tikka and a nan or two for dinner. I was wearing clean clothes and earrings, and was very, very tired. I had not landed yet in Kathmandu, was still with Devimaya in Khandbari, wondering about her day and where she would stay the night and whether she, too, felt lonesome and lost, still worn out from the long walk the day before. I thought of the idleness of...

  8. PART 4. BIRTH

    • 20 BIRTH
      (pp. 201-216)

      In “The Bear,” the rest of Ike’s life is an unraveling from the moment in which he encountered Old Ben in the clearing in the Mississippi wilderness. The first time I read the story, I thought that was the only option, that having encountered the sacred, Ike had no other choice but to renounce the history of exploitation—of the land and of the people from whom he descended—and his farm and family, living the rest of his life alone in a one-room apartment. But was that really true? Was it also possible to open deeply enough to encounter...

      (pp. 217-224)

      The summer I became pregnant with Avery, I attended a women’s medicinal-herb conference in southern New Hampshire. Three hundred women gathered for the weekend to learn to make tinctures, teas, and salves; to study the medicinal uses of common weeds; and to identify those plants in the wild. I had been intrigued by what I had learned about medicinal plants from an herbalist friend, and I wanted to learn more. I went to as many classes as I could, taking pages of notes about which herb to take for stomach ailments or dry coughs or wet coughs. But what I...

      (pp. 225-230)

      One sunny morning at the beginning of September, we loaded our new green Volkswagen van with stacks of books on land and people, camera bags, two laptop computers, shorts, long pants, warm sweaters, and sleeping bags—everything we could possibly need on our journey across the country. Kate, a student in a class I had taught on culture and the environment the previous summer, had arrived a few days earlier; she was coming with us to help watch Avery and to learn from the communities we visited. Now that we were on the verge of leaving, the trip seemed daunting....

    • 23 LISTENING
      (pp. 231-238)

      After leaving Scott and Helen Nearings’ Forest Farm, we headed west, stopping for the night at Kate’s parents’ house outside Madison, Wisconsin. We had been in the van all day, driving past shopping malls and 10,000-square-foot houses eating up the Wisconsin farmland. We were feeling grumpy. At the house, we took turns watching Avery so each of us could go for a run.

      I ran down a dirt road and then turned up a trail that flanked fields of alfalfa and corn, running more to escape my despair than for exercise. I did not pay attention to where I was...

      (pp. 239-248)

      After visiting Red Lake, Brian, Avery, Kate, and I headed west across the vast landscape of the Midwest, past fields stretching for miles and huge irrigation machines spraying rows of crops with water. After eating at a diner in a dying downtown in western Kansas and driving through a snow squall as we entered Colorado, we were greeted by a spectacular sunset over the Rocky Mountains.

      We were heading to Colorado Springs, notorious for its unregulated development. A small group of dedicated individuals—lawyers and architects, suburban housewives and businessmen—had managed to turn around popular opinion in one of...

    • 25 THE BLACK BAG
      (pp. 249-256)

      I arrived from Wyoming in the dark, late on a Friday night. It was rainy and cold; the leaves had fallen to the ground; and I felt a part of myself relax, as if I were finally exhaling all the air I had been carrying inside. In part, it was simply the contrast of being away from the tension in the van and the effort of being part of a project and a marriage that I was beginning to realize, especially when I was at Sage Mountain, I no longer believed in. But it was also the way I felt...

      (pp. 257-260)

      After the weekend at Sage Mountain, I met Brian, Avery, and Kate in Spokane, and we drove to the Nez Perce reservation. With the help of a national conservation organization, the tribe had reclaimed some of Chief Joseph’s wintering land. We had come to tell the story of that reclamation and what it meant for the tribe.

      Avery, always hard to get to sleep, had been especially difficult lately. Often, it took more than an hour for her to fall asleep, and she would wake several times, needing to be comforted and wanting to nurse. It took so long in...

      (pp. 261-264)

      I was in the Volkswagen van driving through Oklahoma. It was dark. The moon, a full December moon, huge and yellow, rose through the darkening sky. We were heading east after four months on the road. Brian and I had just reunited after three weeks apart. Kate had gone home. Avery slept in the back. Brian was at the wheel. I could not stop staring at the moon. It was so big. It gave me hope, so I talked about Caroline. I told Brian about the very first day I had seen her, how I lay on her table, and,...

    • 28 BARE FEET
      (pp. 265-272)

      Make a list. A rock altar in the woods, a garden, a glass vase, photographs of Hedangna, long forks, wooden spoons, a wineglass or two or three—enough to have guests—chairs for them to sit on, someone to make the coffee, to wash the dishes, to walk with to the lake, to sit with on the stoop, to call me in the middle of the day. Someone to remember with: the smoky smell of Hedangna, the taste of warm jad in Dhanmaya’s house

      What brings two lives together? What holds them there? What happens when the sounds, smells, and...

    (pp. 273-274)