Thin Places

ANN ARMBRECHT spent eighteen months living among the Yamphu Rai in the remote hamlet of Hedangna, tucked into the mountain fastness of the Makalu-Barun region of northeastern Nepal. Her ostensible purpose was to earn a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University, studying the Yamphu’s ancestor-worshipping kipat system of land tenure. “Kipat was invisible,” she writes. It defined the relationship between the farmer, the forest-keeper, and their responsibility to their forebears, making the mountain fields a transitional realm where “the nonmaterial world permeates the material world. When they eat the rice harvested from their fields, they eat from the hands of their ancestors.”

Clearly Armbrecht had a deeper motive: pilgrimage. Raised in West Virginia, “where the mountains were being emptied of coal to fuel far-away companies and the air was filled with chemicals to make plastics for use by people in other places,” she was an environmental refugee who came to the Himalayas. She sought a place where the “boundaries between people and wilderness were blurred, a blurring that made it possible to encounter the sacred in the everyday.”

This book is stirring on many levels — emotional, religious, physical, sensual — presenting lyrical descriptions of seasons, the enervating weather, the fog-bound and light-scattered terrain. Armbrecht gives us intriguing little details, too: how to soothe one’s cracked hands with rancid butter, the importance of reinforcing wattle walls with cow dung and mud only on the mornings of the new and full moon. Of sowing millet in the obdurate terrain, she writes, the Yamphu “lacked the tools needed to submit the land to their will. Instead, they moved across it slowly, by hand, feeling their way for openings, for places where the plow would move smoothly and the seedling would stand, turning from places where the earth would not give.”

Any scientist who has worked in a distant land knows that the greatest challenge is returning home, haunted by the fading memories of strange terrains. The last third of Armbrecht’s book deals with her return to Cambridge, to the fusty halls of academia, to a troubled relationship with her husband, to the arms of an illicit lover, to the withering submission of a close friend to cancer, to the genesis of childbirth, the thrall and constraint of motherhood. It’s an abrupt transition after which Armbrecht’s quest becomes internal, like the mind-odysseys of the Yamphu shamans into Manguhang, a sacred spot on the shores of the lake at the center of the world.

Did the pilgrim make it to her promised land? Did she encounter the sacred? Perhaps, but her quest taught her that she didn’t have to leave home to find it. “What the pilgrims encounter — the blessings they perceive — depends as much on their receptivity as on the sanctity of the land they pass through.” There is sanctity in these pages, too. Armbrecht’s is a lovely and humble journey: into the Himalayas, into her homeland, and into her heart.