Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seasons By Rice

We arrived in Bhutan midwinter, January, the grasses on the hillsides were brown, the pine trees a dry season green, the paddies and fields empty, snow in the mountains not too far away. Exploring the area around Gaselo was pretty easy as one could always walk the irrigation ditches and cut through the fields. The air was very dry as was the ground. Many blue sky days and starlight nights. During the winter compost from the livestock is dispersed among the fields one basket at a time borne on a woman’s back. The numerous piles of compost scattered in the fields correspond to many trips with a heavy load.
April and the flowers started to bloom, the red flowers of the etho metho (rhododendron) were the big display for a good while. Wild iris, jacaranda, chrysanthemums and roses in the yards also added to the landscape in their own time. Water appeared in some of the ditches which connect every field in an intricate web of smaller channels. I am used to seeing irrigation ditches which run with barely enough drop to keep the water moving so that the precious flow can travel as far as possible. Some of the larger ditches here do traverse fairly long distances but the land here is terraced on steep hillsides so many of the channels are gushing straight down the mountain. These gushing channels are often on small ridge tops which seems incongruous until you see how easily water is diverted left or right. 
Very soon, what appears to be random paddies turn a dense almost emerald green, vivid in the evening light against the brown winter backdrop of the empty fields. As it turns out these were densely planted with rice seeds and the seedlings sprout very close together forming a thick carpet of new green growth. While the seedlings are growing the rest of the fields are prepared. They are flooded and left to soak. The wet soil is then turned with a plow often drawn by a pair of “ox” trudging ponderously through the mud but clearly aware of the job they are doing. Many of the fields are small and irregularly shaped. The animals are adept at
getting the job done with the help of a hardworking farmer who gives commands and must maneuver the plow, physical labor that would be a test for anyone. Many farmers have moved into the machine age and have two wheeled tractors to draw the plow. The tractors are Japanese and fitted with paddle wheels to give them traction in the muck. Now the farmer is the only one working but the tractors do move faster and more consistently and more ground can be tilled.

After the fields are prepared they are flooded, then begins the tedious work of picking the
seedlings by the handful and separating them into individual plants, bundling those plants, carrying them to the field where they are to be planted and finally transplanting them one by one about 6 inches apart. After all the fields are planted they must be weeded at least once. Rice is a certainly a labor intensive crop when cultivated in the Himalayan foothills.

Summer is the rainy season. The air is warm and moist, rain is frequent, everything grows like crazy. Kitchen gardens spring up around every house where beans, chilies, peas, many leafy greens, tomatoes, coriander, corn, fill all the
plots. As the season progresses persimmons, apples, peaches, pomegranates appear on trees. Much of the fruit is very small and not too sweet which shows how we in the west have become accustomed to the large, beautiful, sweet and juicy hybrids that farmers have been nurturing for many generations. The summer season also brings clouds blanketing the mountains, putting them to bed for a long summer’s rest. During the summer the air is humid, the skies clearing to blue during the day but only over the valleys, a peek at the high mountains is a rare treat. Walking in the rural areas becomes interesting indeed. Wherever
there are paddies everything is very wet. The edges of the paddies are narrow walls of wet earth and often cannot be walked upon. There are paths which the farmers use to weed and adjust irrigation but these paths do not always go very far. If one knows where to find them there are “thoroughfares”, paths that wind through the paddy fields from one side to the other which the locals use when they walk to the neighbors, to the road, to school and such. All summer the rice is a beautiful green carpet cut into random shapes and stacked on the hillsides. Some places tall grass with flowing seed heads grows between the fields. The scene composed
of white houses with the requisite architecture set amongst rice paddies is truly a wonder to behold.

As the rice matures the terraces catch one’s eye as the green fades to a lighter color and then a hint of gold as it nears harvest time. The rice is harvested by hand and taken to local mills, in this form the term paddy refers to the rice as well as the field. The mill is often just a small threshing machine powered by an electric motor connected by a large belt reminiscent of early photos of the industrial revolution. The rice is fed into the thresher and pours into sacks as clean rice kernels. The rice is then prepared for winter storage or for sale. Once again the paddies are beginning to have the rough crew-cut look with a few inches of stubble covering the dry field.

Yesterday the air was clear and dry, a tiny hint of crispness in the breeze. The sky startlingly blue, the clouds few. The days shorten and once again it is full dark when I rise at 5am. Sitting with my morning tea I watch the sky lighten and for the first time in many months the jagged skyline is cleanly etched against the gentle dawn. The two big peaks behind and off to the left are harder to make out until the light is strong enough to bring their snowy whiteness into view. Below me the morning mists and low clouds of the deep, narrow valley lend their fluid transformations to this morning’s performance. As I write the first rays of the sun highlight the snowy peaks to give them their moment of celebrity in the sunrise program.

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