Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World

Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World

by Jonathan Mingle

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Overview

Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World by Jonathan Mingle

High in the Himalayan valley of Zanskar in northwest India sits a village as isolated as the legendary Shangri-La. Long fed by runoff from glaciers and lofty snowfields, Kumik—a settlement of thirty nine mud brick homes—has survived and thrived in one of the world's most challenging settings for a thousand years. But now its people confront an existential threat: chronic, crippling drought, which leaves the village canal dry and threatens to end their ancient culture of farming and animal husbandry.

Fire and Ice weaves together the story of Kumik's inspiring response to this calamity with the story of black carbon. Black carbon from inefficient fires - the particulate residue that makes soot dark - is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. It's also a key ingredient of the air pollution that public health experts regard as humanity's greatest environmental health risk worldwide: soot-laden smoke from household hearth fires and outdoor sources combine to kill over seven million people around the world every year.

Jonathan Mingle describes the joys and struggles of daily life in the Zanskar Valley, where villagers are buffeted by powerful environmental and economic forces, while also tracing black carbon's dark fingerprints outward from Kumik and around the world. Mingle investigates its impacts on snow, ice, and water from Mt. Everest to California, and the silent health epidemic it fuels from New York to New Delhi. Combining cultural history, detailed reportage, climate and energy science and dramatic storytelling, Fire and Ice is a profound examination of the global challenges of averting climate chaos and lifting billions out of energy poverty and water scarcity.

Can Kumik's people come together to reinvent fire, harness what remains of their life-sustaining ice, and reinvigorate their traditions of solidarity, in time to save themselves? Can the rest of us rise to the same challenge? Fire and Ice connects these questions with the work of enterprising scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and activists around the world, in a narrative that combines mythology, reason, humor, persistence, and hope in a race against a global clock.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250029508
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/24/2015
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Mingle's writing on the environment, climate and development has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He is a former Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, a recipient of the American Alpine Club's Zach Martin Breaking Barriers Award, and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. He lives in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Fire and Ice

Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World


By Jonathan Mingle

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Mingle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02951-5



CHAPTER 1

The Curse


In the garden we friends and equals splash and play in the water. Some who disapprove tell us, "Don't frolic in the water!" Why should we not enjoy the water? How much life is left to us? Why not enjoy the water? How long will this life last?

—FROM WAKHAI DRAKBU, A LADAKHI FOLK SONG


The plane carries us westward, sunward, over the Gangetic Plain. To the north, anvil-shaped thunderheads hide the seam where the subcontinent accordions into foothills, then improbable mountains, as it plows into Asia. Blocked from advancing farther by the jagged wall of the Great Himalaya, which casts its "rain shadow" beyond onto the thirsty Tibetan Plateau, those clouds are parked over the hill towns of Uttarakhand, smothering them with rain.

Another cloud bank, murky brown, hides the plain below. This "atmospheric brown cloud," as the scientists call it, looks from this height like a vast shroud draped across the shoulders of South Asia. While the rain clouds beyond are bright, reflecting the sun's light, this cloud sponges it up greedily. From below this morning in the city of Lucknow it turned the sun into a vague, milky disc. Now, from above, it obscures the outlines of the towns that thrum along beneath us and turns the fertile fields into a patchwork of muted browns and beiges.

That soil has been plowed and planted almost continuously since the time of the Rig-Veda. Those ancient verses captured their authors' awe of, and gratitude for, the cyclic drama of flaring fire and flowing water that bounded and enabled their existence. "The waters which are from heaven," the Vedic peoples of north India sang over 3,000 years ago, "and which flow after being dug, and even those that spring by themselves, the bright pure waters which lead to the sea, may those divine waters protect me here."

They sang, too, of the fierce battle between the god Indra, lord of the thunderbolt, and Vritra, "the enveloper," the demiurge embodied in the clouds. The jealous Vritra had gathered all the waters of the world into himself, causing a terrible drought. Indra stormed Vritra's ninety-nine cloud fortresses and slew him, releasing the waters to flow back into the great rivers.

My fellow passengers and I on JetKonnect Flight S24233 to New Delhi are sojourning here in Indra's world, on brief parole from the earthbound realm of his brother Agni, the god of fire. Where the two realms meet, there is a kind of second horizon, a boundary line between brown cloud and blue sky above. As we climb higher, the brown cloud begins to resemble a puddle spreading across northern India, fed by some hidden leak—millions of them, actually. It is, in fact, the vast dark aftermath of the gift of Matarisvan, the Vedic Prometheus, who delivered Agni's sacred spark to mortals on the breeze.

Somewhere off to the northeast, behind the monsoon's cloud veil, pilgrims and tourists are climbing the long steps up Swayambhunath, the sacred hill on the west edge of Kathmandu, where candles are still lit daily on a small altar to Agni. On the eastern side of that city, in the shadow of Pashupatinath Temple, mourners are gathered on the banks of the Bagmati River—which flows on to join the Koshi, and then the Ganges to the south—watching the bodies of their loved ones turn into clouds of flame and ash, memories and lofted soot. Far below us, the Yamuna River, India's holiest after the Ganges, snakes its way to the southeast, swollen with rains and Himalayan silt, all heading for the distant Bay of Bengal. And thus the central drama of the ancient Rig-Veda plays out over and over again, through the window of seat 7C: Indra slays Vritra, the waters flow down the mountainsides and through the ancient grooves of the subcontinent, surge upward into grains of wheat and rice and stalks of sugarcane, sigh into the sea, to cycle back as more rains that feed glaciers and rivers and fields and farms and people and creatures and the clouds that feed the rains again and again, world everlasting, amen.

I press my nose against the glass and try to discern the outline of the foothills of the Himalaya and the upstream origins of the holy rivers. But all is hopelessly obscured by the two cloud veils: Agni's smoke and Indra's rains.

The monsoon is very late this year. A few days ago, on my way to visit a grassroots project to recharge dried-up springs in hillside villages of the Kumaon Himalaya, I was caught in heavy downpours in Uttarakhand. My socks are still damp. I can feel the first tickling of a cold in my throat. When I reached the villages of Sitapur District in Uttar Pradesh, in search of some of the earthly sources of those leaks feeding the great brown cloud, the rains had stopped, and the air became thick instead with smoke from all manner of fires: burning straw, burning wood, burning dung, burning kerosene lamps, burning diesel in the bellies of buses and trucks and generators that keep the lights on in roadside dhabas and shops. Out there in the impoverished countryside of Uttar Pradesh, where grid electricity has yet to reach many millions, where the occasional widow still practices the forbidden sati, jumping on her husband's funeral pyre, most meals are cooked on simple mud stoves, fed by dung and wood. Fires that in turn feed the dark cloud above.

Having witnessed those fires, from my vantage way up here, the brown cloud seems to me one enormous, emphatic sign of life, making even the cloud fortresses that loom high over the world's highest mountains seem small and under siege by comparison. The haze is our loudest smoke signal, an immense version of that wisp of smoke rising from a chimney on a distant hill—and one of the largest manmade objects visible from space. Most of the particles in that vast soup come from the home fires of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. From one and a half billion daily acts of survival.

The newspaper in my lap reminds me that there are other such clouds, of varying sizes and hues, in other places. It is 2012, the end of summer, and almost 60 percent of the United States is in drought. The dryness and heat have fueled record-setting wildfires across the western part of the country, turning 9.3 million acres of forest into huge plumes of ash and soot, clearly discernible in NASA satellite images. On the front page, I find a story about other record-setting events: the Arctic sea ice is at an all-time low, covering just half the total area measured in 1980, and there is unprecedented melting over most of the ice sheet of Greenland.

It's a short flight from Lucknow to Delhi, and soon the plane banks and descends. As we approach India's capital—the city with the world's worst air quality—the smog thickens and visibility shrinks to a couple of miles. Before we dive down, transecting the sharp line dividing the realms of Indra and Agni, I get one last glimpse of the clouds off to the right, the ones that are still dumping ceaseless, apocalyptic sheets of rain on Uttarakhand, rain that is swallowing entire villages in landslides, washing away hydroelectric dams, plugging them up with silt and debris, devouring houses on the riverbanks, pushing rivers over their rims and into the downstream sugarcane fields and rice paddies of Uttar Pradesh.

Vritra's revenge: a binary world of droughts and floods.


* * *

A few hundred miles to the northwest, on the other side of all that havoc, tucked into a mountainous fold of the Himalaya, are the thirty-nine mud brick homes of Kumik, where the single stream has already been dry for over a month.

Soon after the stream dried up, the villagers had held a meeting. Sitting together in a tight cluster astride their empty main canal, near the prayer wheel and the long stone mani wall, they passed around a battered little booklet containing a Tibetan astrological calendar. For a while the Kumikpas, as the people of Kumik are known, debated its contents and discussed the current state of the cosmos. They were trying to fix the most important date of the year in Zanskar, India's highest inhabited valley: when to begin the barley harvest.

An elder declared that the twenty-eighth day of the Tibetan month, three days hence, would be the most auspicious date to begin, with the traditional prayer recitations and offerings.

"No, no, it's better to start on the first of the next month," another man shouted.

"But that's too late, the water is already finished," another voice called out.

A chorus of affirmative halas—"Isn't it so?"—rang out in response.

More than a week had passed since each household had watered its fields. The clock was ticking. Fodder would be sparse again this year. And if they waited too long, the harvest could be lost.

"Kumik's a bad place," said Tsewang Zangmo. She stuck out her tongue—her version of a wink—and gave a taut smile. "No water—what to do?"

From where the group huddled, the contours of their dilemma were wholly visible. At the top of a U-shaped valley stretching above the village loomed the mountain of Sultan Largo and its neighboring peak, capped by a small glacier and coated with patchy snowfields. Together these formed the source of all of Kumik's water for drinking, washing, and irrigating their staple crops and fodder grasses. One could just make out the place farther down the mountain where a stream just a couple of feet wide, the village's lifeline, emerged out of the rocky hillside. From there it flowed through concrete sections of canal until it entered the willow grove at the village's upper edge. And looking down below, toward the Zanskar River, one could see dozens of fields of golden barley and wheat and peas and potatoes, green and yellow patches stretching down to the long stone wall that rings the entire settlement. Inside the wall was another ring, a band of brown and sandy-colored ovals—all fields that had lain fallow these past several years. And beyond the wall was Marthang, the "red place," all sun-baked dust and russet rocks and stunted sage bushes, where unruly spirits lived, the older people said. This parched world dwarfed the oasis of Kumik, offering all-enveloping testament to the limits of life here at 12,000 feet, in the Himalaya's rain shadow.

From the same spot, one could also see Meme Ishay Paldan, standing motionless on the roof of his modest house on the edge of the village. Hunched over, hands clasped behind his back, in the worn woolen goncha robe dotted with a lifetime of accumulated patches that he wore every day, Kumik's eldest citizen was taking in the whole scene from a distance. "It was a warm winter," he had told me in passing just a few days before. "There was not much snow, so half of the fields weren't planted." For those who knew what a good year looked like, back in the old days, this fact, too, was visible on the canvas of Sultan Largo. The snowfields up there now looked moth-eaten and threadbare. This fact posed a much bigger problem than a few cloudy days in mid-August: when the sun came out again, it would have little left to melt.

As the debate went on, people came and went on their morning rounds. Meme Yunten came by with an empty tsepo basket on his back, on his way to some task out in the fields, and gave the prayer wheel a spin. Three little girls walked by on their way back home from the springwater pipe near the primary school, all leaning to the same side, laden down with one small water jug each. Young Stenzin Konchok walked by the group, ragged and looking for water to wash with, his hair sticking up at odd angles, a toothbrush dangling from his mouth. "Too much chang last night," he mumbled dolefully. "Now, no good."

His neighbors nodded and chuckled in sympathy; almost everyone in Kumik knows what it's like to have drunk a bit too much of the local barley wine. Konchok greeted the young men who leaned on the hood of a Tata Mobile pickup truck, who in turn were watching their elders, who in turn were shouting and arguing and laughing and jostling like one big raucous, wisecracking extended family, the burbling of their joined voices taking the place of the now-silent stream.

Soon the matter was settled. The advocates of the earlier date had prevailed. The preharvest prayers would take place on the twenty-eighth in the old lhakhang temple up on the rocky ridge. Discussion moved on to another topic of perennial interest: who owed money to whom. Small mountains of bread and lakes of thukpa, the local soup, would have to be made for the occasion, food would have to be purchased in the market town of Padum, oil brought for cooking and lighting the lamps in the temple. Everyone had to chip in. People pressed in on the account keeper. Some clutched receipts for what they had spent for the four village weddings that had taken place that summer; some handed over money that they owed; others took money from a neighbor so they could make some of the upcoming puja purchases in town that day. A name was called out—someone who was, the ledger keeper noted, "late with payment again," prompting a titter of knowing laughter.

Accounts settled, most of the villagers rose and drifted off in clusters, heading back to their homes and the full day of tasks ahead. A dozen men remained behind near the empty channel, arrayed in a loose circle on the gravel, to address a final order of business. A grievance.

A new metal pipe, paid for by the public works department of the district government, based in nearby Padum, was going to be laid in the ground. This would bring another drinking water tap to the village, fed from the same spring up the valley. Work was slated to begin that week with a diesel-powered excavating machine, explained Tsewang Norboo, the spiky-haired spark plug of a village headman. The pipe would be routed from high above the village toward the old temple up on the ridge, making access more convenient for several households of the main village and preventing further loss of scarce water through seepage. Another pipe would go to Pang Kumik, a hamlet of three households on the other side of the ridge.

But two men from Pang Kumik were unhappy. The pipe to reach their homes half a kilometer away wouldn't be installed until later. Meanwhile, their hand-pump-operated bore wells had gone dry. Their own small spring was just an unreliable trickle. They had tanks that stored some water, but by September those could be finished. Why should they, alone among the villagers, have to wait for months, walking several hundred feet uphill to haul water, when a bit more investment, some pipe, and gravity would bring it down to them now?

The discussion became heated. Norboo and another man made the case for patience: Pang Kumik would get its turn. It wasn't feasible to change the plan for work that was already in progress. The Pang Kumikpas shouted back at the injustice of it: "It is possible!"

The four men gesticulated, shouted over each other, shook their fingers, smacked their hands into their fists to punctuate their points. In the outer ring of onlookers, some murmured opinions on both sides of the matter. A couple of peacemakers among them periodically stepped in to calm the speakers down, but most stared down at the ground, shifting their weight from one foot to the other. Their pinched expressions reminded me, once again, that Zanskaris are some of the most conflict-averse people on the planet.

The argument soon spilled over into another, larger question that loomed in the background, a question about water and the future of the village, Pang Kumik included: Why all the fuss and further investment in a village that was already doomed?

Someone pointed out that the new canal the Kumikpas had been digging for a decade down in the barren land of Marthang was dry today, too. Plugged up by silt carried down from the eroding Himalaya, it needed to be dug out, with money and labor and sweat. There was a need to focus on the bigger water picture, on the future, to deploy their scarce resources judiciously. Others betrayed ambivalence, even after a decade of unstinting effort.

"But the canal is empty."

"Yes, but the water came last year!"

"Water is guaranteed below!"

This last point came, in a tone equal parts imploring and exasperated, with an emphatic gesture down toward the Zanskar River, from Tashi Stobdan, the primary school headmaster and longtime ringleader of the effort to dig the new canal.

The overlapping disputes carried on for several more minutes in a sequence of anguished explanation, appeals for patience, indignant outbursts, interspersed with long pregnant pauses. Finally, the men stood facing each other across the empty canal in frustrated silence.

The silence of the men, and of the stream, spoke eloquently of the narrow margins for error visible in the dry world encircling them, and in the waning snows above. Soon Tsewang Norboo and the Pang Kumikpas were gently pulled apart by their elbows, by two soldiers home on leave.

"Enough, enough, acho [older brother]. Come away, let's go."

And Tashi Stobdan, the visionary who saw a bright green future every time he looked down at the "red place" by the river—who believed that, if only his neighbors could stick together and focus, they too would see those same rich possibilities, and if they could see them, then they could work together to create them—walked home with a weary worried look weighing down his boyish features.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Fire and Ice by Jonathan Mingle. Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Mingle. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Hearth Tale

Part I: The Question of Kumik

1. The Curse

2. Our Dark Materials

3. Water Connection, Fire Connection

Part II: The World, Burning

4. The Road to Shangri-La

5. The Burdens of Fire

6. Water Towers Falling

Part III: The Fire Brigade

7. In Search of Phunsukh Wangdu

8. Now We're Cooking with Gas!

9. The View from Sultan Largo

Epilogue: Carrying Embers

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