Herders of Haa: Landscape Ethnoecology and Toponomy
Hidden in the highlands of Haa, Bhutan lies yak country. Pastureland spans across hills over 4000 meters in elevation welcoming herds and their caretakers. A cycle of semi-nomadic seasonal movements has occurred for many generations facilitating a co-evolutionary process between yak, the landscape, and herding culture. The yak graze the land regularly keeping at bay species that might otherwise become dominant, providing a unique niche for various grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. Herders develop a precise ecosystem knowledge that is shaped by, and also shapes, an underlying worldview used to interpret the landscape. What might be perceived as a ‘natural’ landscape actually reveals a uniquely managed landscape with influences from both man and beast.
The number of herders is less than it was, resulting in an abundance of space. Prime pastures are redistributed every 5 years through a ritual casting of dice, with the winner having first choice of the area’s resources. The wise nomadic herders know not to judge a pasture by a simple visual assessment. Prime pasture is not determined through a mere presence of long thick grasses, as short varieties have proven just as productive. The key to understanding pasture quality relies on a knowledge of grass variety, herd response as yak seek certain vegetation, and milk production. Generations of experience has built a wealth of ethnobiological knowledge which is used to increase the efficiency of pasture resource use
With ethnobiological knowledge serving as the knowledge of proximity (Johnson & Hunn, 2010), the herders have also developed a macro-level conceptualization of their landscape in which they have developed an understanding of larger bio-physical patterns that help in resource use decisions. Patterns of rainfall, seasonal vegetation growth, presence of predators, and other site-specific details have helped herders cognitively map the usefulness of the landscape and its components (pastures, forest patches, streams). Knowledge of temporal characteristics of the landscape also serve the herder as they make decisions based on declining grass quality. Burning, which has now been deemed illegal by governing authorities, was a practice used to revive pasture quality every 3 years. The presence of whitened rocks and certain shrubbery are signs of historic burn areas that now dot the landscape.
During a stint of fieldwork in July 2015, in conversation with herders, toponomy of the area was discussed, gaining an understanding for why various landscape features were ascribed specific descriptors or naming patterns. The discussion focused more on proper names assigned to specific locations (Drum Lake, Yak Pass, etc.) rather than general feature descriptions (slough, low-lying grassland, flat-topped peak, etc). The naming patterns tended to be cosmological/spiritual for water bodies, and more descriptive in land formations. For example, all the lakes in the area had names associated with the mythical figure Terton Sherab Mebar, also known as the ‘Treasure Seeker’. The Treasure Seeker, from his home region of Paro, travelled to Haa and stole a number of treasures from a lake known as Rego Tsho. In response, the lake rose up to retrieve its stolen treasure, however as the Treasure Seeker escaped, a number of treasures were dropped that were then transformed into additional lakes in the shape of the associated treasure. Thus the lakes were called “Drum Lake”, “Hammer Lake”, “Trumpet Lake”, and so on. All of the treasures were associated with common religious tools used by the Tibetan Buddhist monk body. Contrasting this, land features were given names according to non-religious associations such as “Yak Pass”, an area known well for viewing yak herds below. It should be noted that this is a generalization as a few land features also contained spiritual significance.
It is my hope to revisit this discussion and concentrate more on general feature descriptions, as they may be more useful for exploring indigenous insights to resource value in specific land features.
Johnson, L.M. and Hunn, E.S. (Eds.). (2010). Landscape Ethnoecology: Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space. New York: Berghahn Books.