In the Box, Outside the Box

You might have clicked onto my blog looking for photographs, and indeed I’m a photographer. Other people know me as a climber-athlete. Still others see my books and say, oh, you’re that writer. Others yet follow me as an instructor in and practitioner of T’ai-chi and Chi Running. Yes, yes, yes, all these things apply and more. I’m using this blog to present work not limited to any one of these boxes, but rather to share the wonderful, diverse fruit that grows from this whole garden of disciplines. Where’s the coherence in it? At one level, you can simply say that I’ve stumbled around mountains and life with enough curiosity, stubbornness, focus, and skepticism to venture into what seems to be several directions. I also grasp that life is too short to get locked in a box. The need to gain security in a large society like ours presses us toward a specialty, a box, and I rebel against that. Life calls us both to operate with competence inside of a box, but, especially as the limitations of a box become apparent, we need to explore outside that box. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the way that can be defined is not the way.

A photograph can symbolize how this works. A photo rises out of a photographer’s intention and experience, and he or she corrals visual elements, including  forms, subjects, texture, color, tones, etc. into the frame. In-the-frame competence is not to be taken lightly, but good photographs that are simply fun or amazing to look at have become almost commonplace. A meaningful photograph speaks to us beyond its frame, it carries a story that resonates. We’ve become good at finding and presenting imagery to draw the eye into a frame, but we haven’t necessarily gotten any better at discovering and mastering story. It’s simply more difficult, it takes more time, effort, and more complex thinking to venture into the diversity and chaos in the world (and within yourself) to find a meaningful story, then draw up the craft and skill to tell and show it well. Yet that’s how we really progress. Just as a good photograph pulls us outside of its frame, a good storyteller pulls us outside of our accustomed boxes to show how we live in a broader, deeper, and more interconnected world than we thought. A yen for adventure, a dreaming imagination, and competent risk-taking are essential for reaching outside the box and finding the broader landscapes and deeper stories that we all inhabit.

We’ve tended to put the great mountains of Asia into a box of athletic achievement. Too often we define them as the accomplishment field for amazing, breathtaking and dangerous mountain climbing. I’ve played that game, yet the Himalaya and Karakoram carry another, to me more important story–they hold remnants of places outside of the box of modern civilization. Years ago, on my first trip to Asia, I learned that there was a region that was so “hidden behind the ranges” that no nation had really bothered to fully claim it. India, Pakistan, and China couldn’t agree on the boundaries way out there, and with the territory in dispute no country would allow you to visit. At that time between the 1971 and 1984 wars, no one seemed to be too worried about ownership of faraway, useless mountains that no one had ever known much about anyway. I found some rough maps, and they showed big terrain; high peaks, long glaciers, and large rivers. And, amazingly, there were villages with obscure, probably misunderstood names, little outposts of humanity that had been embedded in their faraway land since who knows when. And, I read of an Indian climbing/exploring expedition who came back with an anecdote: the people in those villages wouldn’t hire on to work, because they had no use for money, they had no way to buy anything.

Haven’t we all at some point dreamed what the world would be like without money? A visit there would be farther outside the box than anyplace I knew of.

Last year, 2013, with three Canadian friends I finally got to go. India now puts a lot of money and effort into laying infrastructure and military support to claim this territory, but there was one major canyon left that had not been explored. And, the map showed, at the base of that canyon was a small village. Regional expert Harish Kapadia told us that the peaks had never been photographed, and the village never visited. Dreams had met geography, and I knew I was being called. I applied for a grant from National Geographic. My application made it through a few levels of interest, but then they said no. I forked out the money and went anyway.

We climbed peaks essentially unseen before, we gave them local names we thought appropriate, and we experienced so much more. On the way back out, after a month apart from the known world, I stayed on and befriended the people in that village. I helped out with their harvest, and learned more than I can yet describe well. Perhaps the most amazing thing I can relate so far is how these people work, share, and smile. They can go hungry, they can get sick, they can suffer losses without any hope of compensation, and mostly they are happy. How this is is my task as a storyteller to tell.

An elder explained to me that they’re just starting to use “the money system.” Until recently they’ve had what he called, “a simple system.” What’s that? I asked. “If someone needs something, we give it to them.” Ah, I see, a simple system that builds trust and generosity. Hand to hand, heart to heart exchanges. These villagers in their simple system have had a sense of abundance. Only recently, since gaining access to the box of the money system, have they been getting the message that they are poor. I was so fortunate to witness one of the last places where this story could be found.

I plan to go back, in 2014, to learn and climb more there, and I plan to write more here about my time in that village. I need to gain more competence in their language and in the questions anthropologists ask…Here’s a couple of pictures of the villagers, women from different families helping each other harvest, not out of hope to gain from each other, but because they like and trust each other, and that’s what friends and neighbors do.

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Nyorgen and ?? harvesting grassRigzen and ??