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At Fourteen Thousand Feet

Written by Bonnie Veblen '09, Art Major

At fourteen thousand feet, every step takes effort, takes awareness. At fourteen thousand feet, your body has to work, even when it’s standing still. At fourteen thousand feet, looking up at white peaks twenty thousand feet high and looking out at huge gaps of blue sky, I become miniscule, a tiny breathing body on the surface of the world. No wonder Indians make treks into the Himalayas each year, for what wonders you encounter when you’re in air like that. To be at once floating and grounded—thrust up into the sky while precipitously balanced on the side of a mountain that falls away before you, yet your feet are on the earth, steadied by rocks and soil beneath you—that experience filled me with a wonderment that was rejuvenating; I needed it.

natureI don’t know why I wanted to go to India. I hadn’t taken a class on it or even knew much about Hinduism, but for some reason I just needed to go.  So when the opportunity arose, I decided to go on the Himalayan study tour last summer, a trekking trip to visit Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites and temples.  It wasn’t until I arrived, until I was in those temples, in those mountains, talking with people, and being immersed in India, that I began to understand why I needed India.

You’ll laugh if I simply say that India is different, but it is.  On some treks it was as though a whole city was moving up the mountain at once. All I could do was surrender to the massive flow of bodies going up, up, up. On other treks I was alone in a vast landscape, and my miniature body hung onto the edge of a narrow path, uneasy with the possibility of falling that long way down. Yes, life and the landscape of India are different, but there is also a deeper difference in how people are with each other and with their surroundings. This is the problem that I still have: how do you describe such a vast cultural difference in how one approaches life?

For example, we have such a narrow definition of “the environment” in America. In our culture, “the environment” is equivalent with “nature” or “the outdoors,” a confining expression that divides “us” and our culture from “it.” In India, I found that the word just didn’t make sense and instead preferred “surroundings.”  These surroundings are not limited to “natural” elements; they include everything: people, animals, light, dark, rivers, rain, air, the scent of incense, the sound of bells.  Furthermore, one’s surroundings are something that you are in open exchange with, with which there is a  togetherness, a lived give and take; you are in them, of them.

While I found many of my surroundings beautiful and inspiring, others were downright painful. There is poverty, death, sickness, grime, and trash. In actuality, this is not so different from America; but here, we hide the things we don’t like—whether in poor sections of towns, in nursing homes, in mental institutions, in hospitals, or in landfills. We hide our troubles so we don’t have to confront them. But in India, it is all out there with you, the wondrous and horrible, the joyful and suffering; you are in all of it.

It hurt incredibly to see people starving and dying, but oddly, my dealings with trash were almost as hard. I remember on the first treks I avoided eating parts of my lunch because I knew that those foil wrappers, juice boxes, and plastic bags would be thrown down the hillside, if not by me, then by someone else. Indeed, on treks up to temples there are mounds of trash spilling down the otherwise pristine mountains. There are no landfills; there is nowhere to hide the trash.

This bothered me—not because I wanted to hide the trash, but because I didn’t want to pollute the earth.. In India, Earth is a “her.” Everyone around me was worshipping her as a living being, a goddess, someone who nurtures and provides for us. Then, we threw our trash down her hillsides, damaging her with plastics and toxins that don’t degrade, hurting plants and animals, even ourselves. There seemed to be a total disconnect between how we wanted to treat the earth and how we were treating her.

The hardest thing was that this hurt remained with me when I came home, only it was harder to explain to people in America. When I would refuse to buy or use things in an effort to reduce waste, my family seemed confused and couldn’t understand how buying stuff was going to hurt the earth because the packaging just goes into the trash and then disappears. It is hard for us to trace that trash even as far as the dump, much less back to the soil and groundwater where it will be in a hundred or a thousand years.

For the first time in my life, I could see.  Even when things are hidden here, they are out in the open in my mind, as they were in India. I see that this practice of producing things that cannot break down and of consuming far more than what we require is not sustainable. Furthermore, it is no way to treat our earth, she who gives us all we need to survive, she who allows us to be. India woke me up to what it is to live in this world, with this world. Now, I find myself questioning how I can live so that I’m more in balance with the people, places and other beings that I love so much. It is not only “the environment” that I care about; it is this whole world that I am in, that we are in together. For in this age, when so much harm is being done to the earth and its inhabitants, togetherness has never been so important.