Tigers with wings, man-eating birds and petrified sea shells on the heights of Everest—Stephen Alter has delved into the wilds of the Himalayas from top to bottom, covering every aspect. His is a natural history of the world’s greatest mountain range and the perfect extension of all his other mountain books. Living in Landour, at the hilltop town of the great mountaINS, Stephen Alter has dedicated much of his time to exploring the hills and valleys of the Himalayas as they sprawl across the roof of the subcontinent.
His quest to find what lies beneath the myths and the geology takes him across Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Tibet, the regions traversed by the mountains. At one point, he writes that Raja Himalaya was compared to a man in the ancient texts, bathing, spreading his shoulders and arms out on either side. The comparison seems quite fitting, because the Himalayas were pushed up as the earth’s crust moved so that the peaks have whorled rocks with spiral shell imprints.
Through eight sections, Alter covers the different aspects of the Himalayas, from the rocks with their petroglyphs to the clouds and the fauna. In the centre is a clutch of photographs showing peaks at sunset and flowers and wildlife that provide a frame of reference.
His researched narrative takes in tales from those who roamed the hills during colonial times—Hooker, director of the Kew Gardens, who nurtured tea and other plants and wrote a set of Himalayan Journals which were published in Calcutta, followed by Edward Lear, who came briefly to sketch birds before turning to nonsense verse. John Auden charted the mountains with poet Stephen Spender’s brother and had them commemorated in verse as the Mountains of Instead by his brother, W.H. A bibliography gives a context for those who wish to know more.
Climate change is an undercurrent, with its threats of vanishing glaciers, migrating wildlife and dry riverbeds. Vultures, too, are vanishing and being replaced by convocations of eagles. Alter cites a story from the Northeast, of man-eating birds that were threatening the existence of the human race, something that he sees as a possible reality. Alter goes into incredible detail, moving from issue to issue, like restricted trophy hunting in Pakistan, which has been reluctantly allowed by both WWF and UN since the hunting rights are auctioned and the money allocated to community development in the hunting regions—the theory being that this prevents poaching while looking after human welfare. Perhaps the sections devoted to the people of the Himalayas should belong to another book, though anecdotes about Everest’s house remain interesting.
Wild Himalaya has the feel of essays written at varied points of experience and collated under different headings because it is possible to dip into the book at one point, set it aside and return to it again without losing the sense of completeness. At the heart of it is the truth that the ancient texts and clans lived in spiritual bonding with the mountains and the wild—there was a dependency that was rewarded and is celebrated in age-old art and oral traditions.