Back from Ladakh, now light-headed less from altitude and more from the reeling return to this “civilized” life, place, pace. Geoff and I spent two weeks hauling 50-pound+ packs over 5600m+ mountain passes in our quest to trek as close to the Siachen glacier as foreigners are permitted. Which, as it turns out, is not very close at all. But even from a disappointing distance, we managed to glean some intriguing perspectives on the Siachen conflict from porters, soldiers, and villagers. And we saw some sublime things and had some amazing (and occasionally harrowing) misadventures in the process. Nothing like hitching a seven-hour jeep ride with three raucous monks named Jigmet - yes, all of them - who cackled with glee while spinning doughnuts around prayer chortens, to remind you that life is short and strange and so worth savoring (should you survive the jeep ride).
Then we scoured the grit off our bodies and clothes to attend the Ladakh Gathering workshop in Leh, organized by The Himalayan Club and Rimo Expeditions. There we were were graced with the powerfully inspiring and enlightening company of Harish and Geeta Kapadia, Motup and Yangdu, Tom and Kathy Hornbein, Bernadette and Alan McDonald, John Porter, and many, many more – including present and former commanders of Indian troops on the Siachen glacier. The workshop was a massive success, with lectures on conservation and environment in the Himalaya from the perspectives of science, medicine, defense, climbing, and culture. I think we all left ignited, somewhat haunted, and yet full of hope and wonder. I sure did.
And speaking of wonder, there was Ladakh itself. What a strange and wild spell that land casts on me! The Greater Himalaya is a region in whose harsh indifference I find anchorage - and enchantment. Light sculpts the land into corrugations, contours, fantastic suggestions; light inscribes mountains with inscrutable runes. Night reveals skies stabbed with infinite sharp stars. The sky is a pincushion; against it, exultant, I am pinned. The very topography of those slopes and summits traces out the contours of my astonishment at being alive on this planet! As Ellen Meloy put it,
Sometimes the desert exhilarates me to the point of soaring. Other times I am so heartsick I cannot bear up against the despair, a palpable, aching longing. Longing for this wild beauty to last and for me never to die and no longer be able to feel, see, hear, taste, and breathe it. A yearning to die before the desert's wild heart is lost so I do not have to witness it. A longing to be a better person, for the world to be a better place, for us to truly measure up to this land, for this land not to be a battlefield of anger and greed. When these two opposing conditions, elation and despair, follow one another too quickly, the universe seems careless and precipitate. I soar, I crash, a squall of heat let loose in the ethos.
We are all squalls of heat loosed in the ethos. The question is, how best to harness that heat? How best to spend this one and only life? How we spend our days, says Annie Dillard, is how we spend our lives.
For me, the outcome of this latest India sojourn is a fiercely renewed determination to tighten the orbit of my days around the ideas, ideals, and places that most magnetize me. Ideas: wilderness conservation, exploration, advocacy, and aesthetics, and the imaginative articulation of the aforementioned. Ideals: living a lean, finely honed life devoted to the passionate defense and adventurous exploration of the landscapes I love. Places: mountains, deserts, icescapes and other far-flung and unsung wildernesses, particularly those straddling borders at high altitude or high latitude or best yet both.
So while it is a shock to be back in Boston, there is much work to be done, and scant time to waste. On November 16, I am giving a public lecture about scientific peacekeeping and Siachen at the Explorers Club in NYC. In early November, I'll be engaged in sessions on transboundary conservation at the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. Then in December, I'll be in Washington, D.C. for the Antarctic Treaty Summit, where I'll present a paper exploring the applicability of Antarctic Treaty principles to the Siachen glacier situation. In between I'll be slaving in the lab at MIT, and racing my bike. If I'm lucky, I might get some sleep sometime this year, or this lifetime. This one and only life, its days veined with iron, with silver and streaks of common mud.