The beginning of each book is often so distant from its end. I began my first book thinking I was writing a history of the river Indus. But when I eventually arrived in Pakistan, the Indus river’s ecological present burst onto its pages. Water, the lack of it—and the impossibility of sharing it equitably—was what everyone was talking about, all along the river, from Pakistan to India, Afghanistan to Tibet. Before my eyes the book became a lament for the decline of this great mother-father deity (the only river of both genders in ancient Sanskrit literature), which was worshipped for centuries before humans began to waste its goodwill with their dams, their greening of desert and the desiccation of mangroves and wetland.
Back in the early 2000s, local communities were already talking about how rising temperatures threatened the Indus. But there were plenty of other more pressing environmental problems. The West, arguably, is still there: in a state of apathy about global heating. Since then, the rise in global temperatures has changed life for the people of the Indus more dramatically than anywhere else I have so far visited on earth. The Indus is fed by both monsoon rains and mountain glaciers. In 2019, I went back to the north of the country and was shocked by what I saw. These gorgeous mountain valleys, a little paradise, now experience catastrophic flooded on a regular basis. Their imposing glaciers are melting faster than ever before. The meltwater builds up behind a dam of ice—until the moment it breaks. And then, in the worst cases, entire villages are swept away. Pakistan, which ranks 144 out of 192 in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, is disproportionately affected. It is so unfair.
Across the border in India, in the high altitude desert of Ladakh, the pioneering eco-engineer, Sonam Wangchuk, has won awards for adapting and developing a simple but ingenious local method of freezing streams into ice-towers. These are effectively mini man-made glaciers, though Wangchuk calls them ‘ice-stupas’ (Ladakh, which is predominantly Buddhist, is full of actual stupas). He began this work about a decade ago, when he realised that global-warming was making water-harvesting essential. The first harbingers of climate change in Ladakh were flash floods. ‘Nobody could remember one before that of 2006,’ he told me. ‘Then it happened again in 2010, in 2015, in 2017’. He watched in distress as Ladakh’s most famous glaciers diminished from the monumental glistening ice bodies of his boyhood, to ‘grey shady things of rocks and mud’.
Wangchuk’s ice-stupas were inspired in part by the stories of ‘glacier birthing’ that he grew up on. This semi-mythical practice involves grafting ice from a ‘male’ (black) glacier with that from a ‘female’ (white) glacier and placing the glacier-foetus high in the mountains in the hope that a glacier-baby will grow. Similar stories about glacier babies are still told in the high river valleys of northern Pakistan today. They denote, perhaps, an ancient form of worship—as well as a practical way of generating extra meltwater in the summer. For without water, as the ancestors knew, this land would be completely barren.
Ladakh was until recently cut off from the rest of India, and the world, for several months of every year. For the first seventy years of independent India’s existence, it had protected status in the Indian Constitution. That was abolished by the right-wing BJP government in 2019, in a shock move widely seen as an attempt to open this huge, remote region to uranium mining. Ladakh is a beautiful place, with high mountains and a wide valley through which the Indus runs. Development for tourism may be the other big change. If people from outside Ladakh are allowed to buy land—for the first time in seventy years—this nice cold place might well metamorphose, beyond recognition, into a climate-change holiday retreat for heat-stressed Indians.
The first time I visited Ladakh, after three years of travelling through Pakistan and Afghanistan researching my book Empires of the Indus, I was stunned by its social fabric. But most particularly by its women. They seemed freer, more outspoken, and more in control than in any of the communities I had visited downstream. Traditionally, as in Buddhist Tibet, the inhabitants of Ladakh had practised fraternal polyandry, when a woman takes more than one husband: the polar opposite of the polygyny practised across the border in Pakistan. Polyandry enforces sustainability in a high altitude land where nobody can afford to waste anything and it makes sense to limit the number of children born each year. Its legacy in Ladakh is that women are used to being in control, at the centre of their households and of society. Polyandry was banned in both India and China but still exists over the border in the remoter regions of Tibet. In the mountains where the Indus rises, I stayed with a polyandrous family of nomads. I have never forgotten my own happy feeling of surprise upon witnessing an alternative social arrangement which gave women a voice.
Ladakh showed me that the massive changes we need to countenance—if we are to end millennia of patriarchy and centuries of industrialisation—are within our grasp, if we can only begin to think different thoughts. In my new novel, Cwen, I took the idea of Ladakhi womens’ emancipation, and the urgency of climate change, and wove it into a story set on an archipelago off the east coast of Britain. I gave my women the chance to rule with fearlessness and aplomb. I imbued their rebellion with historical example from Britain’s past. There are ancient texts which speak of Britain’s islands ruled by women. The Greeks and Romans wrote about these island barbarians, and their uncanny freedoms. Later, so did the Irish early medieval poets, the Anglo-Norman epic writers, the Romance mythologisers of the Norman period, the poets and playwrights of England’s Renaissance, and the writers of the Restoration.
The women in my novel are helped in their struggle by the ghost of a seventh century healer, the character I call ‘Cwen’ (the old English word for woman, and the origin of both the modern words cunt and queen). I would love to think that our real-life rebellion is being helped by all kind of ghosts from our past. For me, the most important ghost is she who reminds us, as we struggle to change entrenched modern paradigms and mindsets, that it wasn’t always thus. It was different once—and thus it can change and change again.
Alice Albinia is the award-winning author of twinned works of fiction and non-fiction. Her new novel Cwen, and its non-fiction avatar, The Britannias, due out in 2023 with Allen Lane, are both about Britain’s feminist island identity.
CALL TO ACTION: She Changes Climate is one of the groups calling for COP26 to have equal representation of women in order to forge real change: www.shechangesclimate.org
Elisabeth Brooke, A Woman’s Book of Herbs. This book, opening with Robert Graves’ recreation of the Druidic tree calendar (and alphabet), is definitely at the mystical end of the plant lore spectrum. But with its mixture of recipes and rituals, it is both a wonderful guide to Britain’s indigenous plant life, and also a reminder of the important role women once played as herbalists and healers, before such practices were tainted by accusations of pagan witchcraft.
Photo credit: Tito Infante Wilson