Friday, March 10, 2006

Environmental influences


Our city did not have a wall around it. It was so remote, so high, that nobody ever thought to build one.
Why do you want to build one, to keep us in, or the snow out, they would have said, if it had ever been suggested.
Our city was high in the mountains, although in summer it did not seem so. All around our city, which was built on a wide flat plain, were higher mountains, so that you could almost forget the city was nearly two thousand metres above the sea. Only the cold air in the night, and the wind howling from the lairs of wolves made you remember that this city was high, high, high, above the passes and the lakes, the frowning cliffs, and the black canyons at their feet.
In our city, the lives of the people were dictated by the seasons, by the constant preparations for winter.
In the springtime, when the first green shoots showed through the snows, we fertilised the fields with muck from our horses and our oxen, and with our own muck too, for nothing was wasted in our city. The muck was spread over the fields, still half covered with the snow, but the green shoots almost seemed to grow greener with every day that passed. When the snow finally melted, the plain became a carpet of many colours; the flowers and the bright mosses between them made it seem as if the city had grown up from a sea of flowers.
After the worst of the winter had passed, the days slowly grew warmer, although it was still too cold to do much after dark. Even on spring nights in our city, the streets and squares were empty, only those who had to go out on important errands were to be found outside after the sun had gone down.
The people, and the animals stayed indoors. We would have put the cattle out but there was nothing for them to eat, except snow and the green shoots of the first of the year's grasses.
Gradually all the snow vanished from the plain until the children ran out into the long awaited sunshine to play. The grass grew furiously then, but the hungry horses, sheep and cattle had to be kept off it until the grass grew long enough to be cut, piled to dry, turned every day, and tied onto the rooves of the houses, in a great sheaf of a pyramid, away from the hungry mouthes of the animals.
My task as a child, before I was big enough, or strong enough to handle the scythes the men used to cut the grass, was to take our animals up to the slopes of the mountains which surrounded the plains upon which our city was built.
My father came with me on the first morning, and I rode behind him on our donkey, which had no name. We were too earnest in surviving the winters to be interested in such things, and my father would have beat me if he had ever heard me talking softly down the long ears of our donkey.
As we got higher and higher, toward the spring pastures on the slopes of the green mountains, I watched my father as he looked around for the best place to graze his animals.
-Boy, he would say to me, for he never called me by my first name out of the house, this is the place, bring our animals here every morning, he pointed higher up the slopes, showing me the limit of where our animals were to eat. High up there, on the slopes of the mountain I could see the whole of the city below, and my favourite game was to squint down and see our house, and to watch if anybody entered or left while I was away.
If I thought I had seen someone go into our house, when it was time to go back down, I would make the animals run back down the hill in my rush to ask my sister who had called and what they had wanted. If my mother's sisters had been, I rushed to my mother to tell me what they had left me, or what they had been talking about.
Both my mother's sisters had been beyond the city, and were full of tales of the land down below the lake, where the people lived in warm sunshine all the year round. If my mother's sisters came in the evenings, I begged to be allowed to stay up until they came. My sister went to bed when the sun was going down, for she was younger than me, but I didn't go up sometimes until an hour had passed after the sun had gone behind the mountains.
As we sat eating, they would come, and I would rush to finish so that I could go and sit by the fire, and listen to them talking to my mother and my father. Always they brought something for us, and we waited with eager faces until we were given the something that they had brought for us. If we had ever dared to ask what they had brought us, my father would have sent us to our beds sad and hungry.
My mother's sisters knew we were waiting, and they knew, I think, our anguish and our excitement at waiting. This night, I was given a pomegranate, as I often was, and I ran to my mother's apron to seek out a needle to spike the small pockets of fruit, each with its own seed. I liked to eat them that way so that they lasted half a week, and then in the morning, after the visit of my mother's sisters, I could take the round red fruit up into the high meadows and spike at the yellow flesh until it was time to come down again. The animals liked me to get a pomegranate, because I was always so intent upon not missing a pocket of fruit, that I let them wander onto the higher ground where the tender shoots were just beginning to show through the last of the snow. My father would have beat me, but he never saw the sheep eating the green shoots higher up the slopes of the mountain.
The juice from the pomegranate slowly seeped into my cheeks and made me bunch my eyes at first, but then it began to grow sweet in my mouth, and I thought of the warm, soft lands where such delicious food could be plucked from boughs hanging heavy with ripe fruit.
I smiled to think that my mother's sisters had been there. As far as I knew, nobody had relatives who had been anywhere near the south, over the mountains, down, down, down to where there was no snow, not even in winter. There was not even a winter, my mother's elder sister had told us, and we wondered what life was like without snow, or cold, or without having to pile the dried grass on our rooves.

I always longer for the warmer times, in between the winters. We seemed to live then. Everybody worked together to get ready. When the time came for the grass to be cut, every man who had any strength, and a scythe, helped to cut the grass, which never grew more than half a metre high. When the time came, the men would come around to sit in our house and talk. I think they came to our house because it had a room where they could all sit and talk. When they came, taking their rough boots off and leaving them at the door, deferential to my father, respectful to my mother, jolly to us children. My mother, and some of the other women who had come to help, made tea, and brought out the samovar into the middle of the room, and poured the tea from it.
Our people love tea, and will drink it whenever two or more people gather. If the men sit down to play cards, or tavla, they do not have to ask for tea, it is understood that tea will be wanted, and it will be provided. My mother had just bought some tea, which had come over the mountains, from the north, and she left the bag where everybody could see it, as if to say, this tea is fresh, it is new, and it will be good.
The men saw the bag, but took no notice of it. Tea was tea to them. They didn't care where it came from or who had made it. They were only interested in the taste, and an ever ready supply of it. It was not a man's job to make tea. I had never been taught how to make it properly, although I had seen my mother make it a thousand times. I had watched her show my sister how to make good tea, in readiness for the time when she was a wife, and had a man to make tea for.
My sister was younger than I was, but even now, when she came home from school, she would have her duties, and when my father came in after toiling in the fields, before he went out to talk and chew tobacco and drink tea with the other men, my sister brought him water to wash his face, and took his boots outside and cleaned them for the next day.
She was getting a sort of training. All the girls in our city had the same things to do, bringing water for their fathers to wash, waiting on guests as they sat and chatted, helping their mothers, until a young man and his father came one evening, and talked long to the girl's father, and a date was set for the start of a life together, on the plains of Erzurum, preparing for the winter, and preparing for the next generation, the continual battle against the elements, helped by Allah, doing everything within a circle of mountains, two thousand metres above the sea.
When the grass had stopped growing, the men started to cut it on the plain outside the city, and everywhere I could see men with long handled scythes, sweeping the flat ground expertly in broad semi circles, which showed lighter green underneath. Our mothers, and us children had our jobs too. It was my job to take the grey stone round to the cutters, so that they could sharpen the blades of their scythes. I took water to them too, which they drank in huge gulps, so that I was continually running back to the house for more.
My sister and the other girls, and some of the smaller boys, helped the mothers to tie up the grass in bundles, and lean them upright to dry out.
I loved to see the plain when most of it had been cut, although this took several weeks of hard, thirsty work. When the men had nearly finished, and everywhere looked like a green carpet, short and even, and the stooks of grass looked funny, standing a few metres apart, like soldiers watching over our land.
Then when the men had gone back to drink tea and rest, we played our games in between the stooks. We chased the girls until they screamed, and we jumped out from behind the stooks, in imitation of the Red Indians we had read about in storybooks at school. When the grass had dried, the women came again and piled it onto carts pulled by donkeys, or else carried it on their backs, bent almost double, walking back to the houses, an hour away under the weight of a sheaf of dried grass. There were long lines of women trudging along the tracks back to the outskirts of our city. The carts were piled high too, and they lumbered along at the pace of the child walking at the donkey's side, prodding it with a stick if it slowed its ambling pace.
Once all the stooks had been brought in, the men left their tavla, and their talk, and in twos and threes, helped each other to pile the grass on the flat rooves of the houses, and the rooves of the byres and barns, keeping the people, and the animals warm through the winter. The walls of the houses were thick, so thick that we could sit and play in the space behind the windows, although once the winter came that place was filled up with paper, rags, or anything to keep the cold out of our warm house. There were no windows in the byres of course. Cows and sheep are not interested in looking out at snow, but they need the warmth, and piling the grass tied in stooks, on the rooves kept them warm until the sun gave the earth some heat again. With food in our cupboards, charcoal stacked in an empty corner, and water in the well below the floor of our house, we were finally ready for the winter.
It came always within a few days every year. The days would steadily get colder, and the nights would already be freezing, then, when the wind turned and blew from the north, everybody stayed indoors, the snow came, and covered the tops of house and byres, and my father put on his rough coat and his leather boots, and cut a hole through the snow.
We were walled in by the snow, but the passage my father had cut served to let us out of our prison. He cut a way into the byres where the animals slept. He cut steps up to the grass on the rooves. The grass had been covered over with oily covers that my father had brought back from the men who sailed the sea, which I had never seen.
Every morning he cut his way to the grass on the roof, and took armfuls of it to the animals. I went with him, muffled up to my eyes against the bitter cold, and while I gave each animal some grass, my father dug deep into their dung, and threw it out of the door in a great steaming pile, to be used after the snows had finally gone from the plain.
Our lives were dictated by the winters, and the preparations to survive them. Everything had a sort of circular movement, so that before a child was old enough to read and write, it could sense the rotation of life, moving continually around the icy winters, through the summers on the high meadows, spying for vistors, spiking pomegranates, coming down to help get the grass in, and playing in and out of the stooks standing to dry, talking down the long ears of our donkey, who was older than men, and had seen everything that ever went on in Erzurum, the city without a wall.
Robert L. Fielding


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