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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Tony Gaston

Tony Gaston (Ottawa, Canada)
I first visited the upper Beas Valley in 1969, when Manali had only two guest houses and a government run tourist bungalow; when Manikaran could scarcely be reached by jeep, and before the road up the valley and across Rhotang Pass was funneling a thousand trucks a week into Lahaul and Spiti. I loved the valley then, but already it was clear that natural ecosystems were in retreat. In fact, after several visits to Himachal in the early 1970s, I began to believe that there was no such thing as an undisturbed temperate forest in the state.

Then, in 1973, inspired by Penelope Chetwode's book (“End of the Habitable World”) on Kullu, my wife, Anne-Marie and I trekked across the Bashleo Pass from Rampur to Inner Seraj and saw for the first time the wonderful forests of the Upper Tirthan. It was that trek, through luxuriant oak and rhododendron forests, beside crystal, sparkling streams, seeing signs of bears, martins and leopards, and hearing the hoarse calls of the Koklas pheasants at dawn, that convinced me that the true ecology of the Western Himalayas still existed in these remote valleys. From those early glimpses grew the Himachal Wildlife Project, the dream and hard work of many, both in India and abroad. Through this vision, the tenacity of Forest Officers, and local enthusiasts, the great wilderness area known now as the Great Himalayan National Park was created.

No one could reach the high meadows of Tirath or Dhel and be unmoved by the clearness of the air, the great vista of the peaks, and that sense of freedom that comes with leaving behind all artificial light, all mechanical transport, all trace of industrial civilization. The headwaters and high peaks of Inner Seraj have been places of pilgrimage for local people since time immemorial. Once again they can be places of veneration for a new generation of pilgrims. Those for whom wilderness and the creatures that depend upon it are symbols of a better world: a world of harmony, where nature lives out its age-old drama of life and death, unaffected by the dissonance of the modern world.

But beware! If you venture into the Himalayan wilderness, you run the risk of becoming a stranger in the common world. We who have been brushed by these places are forever changed; the goals of ambition and desire become muted when touched by the immensity and grandeur of the great mountains. To wander alone in these high places, however briefly, is to become a prey to yearnings that can never be extinguished or denied. Even in the cities of the West, my mind returns ever and again to that beauty, that awe, that freedom, that I knew where the Sainj and Tirthan are born, among the snowy peaks. To deny such experiences to future generations by failing to protect such places now would be an act of enormous folly. The Great Himalayan National Park is a jewel in the crown of Himalaya.

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