Unbecoming of a Buddhist Part I
Pungent bushes of what I know as wormwood, or Artemisia, line the dusty path. I snatch a bit of the gray-green leaf as I pass, crush it, and hold it to my nose, inhaling the dense, sage-like smell. It is late winter, almost spring; the bare trees, empty rice-paddies, and brown mountain-sides of Paro Valley are just beginning to show signs of the change in season. Karma, the friend who is taking us on this walk and picnic up a scenic valley outside of Paro town, excitedly points out the shocking blue-violet of the primrose, Bhutan’s first spring flower, almost invisible, tucked into the shade of an irrigation ditch alongside the rice paddy, mixed in amongst the wild mint and watercress.
“What do you call this?” I ask Karma, putting my pinch of wormwood to his nose.
“Kempa,” he says, and enthusiastically explains its many uses: People in the villages put it in their hot stone baths because of its fragrance and healing qualities. They also crush it and extract a green juice used as a first aid antibiotic. It’s boiled and made into a strong tea that is added to a bath one can sit in to cure problems in the urinary tract. You can make incense and brooms out of it, and you can even rub its fragrant oil on your wooden floors.
No wonder Bhutan has been known as the Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs–a once-secluded Himalayan Kingdom to the south of Tibet that because of its unusual geography supported a biodiversity of unparalleled riches. Bhutan is still rightly heralded as a paradise for bird, plant, insect, and animal species, but as this tiny mountainous nation has entered the modern world, so have many of the environmental threats that come with development.
We don’t have to walk far to see sign what is happening to Bhutan’s natural environment with our very own eyes. Unmindful modernization, Karma points out numerous times to this party that includes one of his students, a Bhutanese colleague, and three Americans, is apparent at every turn.
Our trail begins along the ridges and irrigation ditches that separate the rice paddies, which create a lovely quilt-like patchwork on the land. Karma points out three-foot deep holes that pock the flat earth in many of the paddy fields. Some of the dark holes are empty and some are filled in with small fruit trees, earth and cow dung fertilizer packed up closely around their tiny trunks. Elsewhere we see newly-charred stumps of big blue pines which have been burned down to make room for more fledgling apple trees. “They are replacing their food crop with a cash crop,” Karma says; most of the apples will be sold to India. The growth of the orchards also has meant that farmers are tidying up their fields, chopping down thorny brush and other growth along stream beds bordering the paddies. “The farmers don’t like this messiness. They think that this bush is too thorny. But who lives in this bush?” Karma asks. “Whose home is being destroyed here, and what are the consequences? Profit is not a GNH value.”