Poignant, fragile memoir by social anthropologist Armbrecht (Settlements of Hope: An Account of Tibetan Refugees in Nepal, 1989) chronicles her search for the sacred in work and family.
Trained at Harvard, the author ventured to rural southeastern Nepal during the 1990s to study the relationship between the villagers and their land use in a region bordering a new national park. Her developing connection with these hard-laboring, superstitious people transformed not only her research but the way she resolved to live her life. During an 18-month stint of research for her doctorate, Armbrecht lived among the Yamphu Rai people in Hedangna, a remote village in the Makalu-Barun region. “I wanted to understand their perspectives on the area’s recent designation as a conservation area,” she writes. “I was also there because I wanted to discover how to live more simply and more lightly on the earth.” The initially wary villagers began to accept and befriend her, and she eventually grasped the complicated significance of kipat. This Nepali word describes plots of land that were cleared by ancestors and passed along; the boundaries between individual plots depended on the relationships between landowners rather than on the “law.” Gradually, Armbrecht’s connections with the Yamphu Rai became the point of her research; they served to underscore the lack of true intimacy with her husband back home in Cambridge. Feeling isolated from the culture she returned to, the author gropes to express what went wrong in her marriage, frequently stumbling into murky self-pity. The birth and all-consuming care of a daughter helped her achieve clarity, as well as her study of herbal medicine, which offered Armbrecht a “tradition rooted in my own physical and cultural landscape,” similar to what she had witnessed in the lives of women in Hedangna. Through her work, she makes a valiant attempt to be true to herself while maintaining a reverence for the ground she inhabits, along with the rest of humanity.
A difficult, intensely interior journey, both anthropological and emotional.