On Stephen Lyons' knee-jerk reactions

  Dear HCN,

I was starting to get bored reading another superficial diatribe - Stephen Lyons' "Have a Kokopelli Day" (HCN, 9/18/95) - against the new colonizers of the West and indigenous imagery. I perked up, however, at the reference to the picture in the Patagonia catalog of Norbu with his donkeys "laden to the hilt, one assumes, with some rich American's gear."

It so happens that I took that photograph. Among other things, I lead treks through Norbu's village (in Ladakh) and other Himalayan areas. It so happens that those donkeys' loads included donated clothing we were taking to Norbu's village. This was part of some half-ton of seconds, returns, samples and whatnots that Patagonia has donated over the years to needy Ladakhis through us. They do this without a whit of publicity or a receipt for a tax break.

I haven't spent a winter in Pine Ridge, as Mr. Lyons recommends, but I have spent winters in uninsulated homes in Ladakh and Nepal. I've tried my darndest to learn the languages, and I count some natives of those places as some of my best friends. After getting to know the Ladakhis quite well and listening to their needs, my partner (an American Buddhist monk) and I designed our treks to provide them some work without disrupting their traditions, in the fall after harvest season. We enlist various Ladakhis to interpret their lives and culture to our trekkers, and many friendships have been continued after the trips by mail. The Ladakhis enjoy the chance to visit other parts of their own land, the chance to hear good and bad about America, and the money they make. Moreover, with additional money from these treks, and from direct sponsorships, we give many Ladakhi children an education, monks and nuns support in their Buddhist tradition, and we help a traditional medicine foundation.

So I resent being lumped with what indeed is kitsch. And I commend Patagonia for making duffels that are durable and advertising them as such. Why is it so tempting for Mr. Lyons to scorn whoever might be having a good time, so easy to assume that whatever is new to him must be superficial?

Of course we need to be wary against the cheapening of indigenous images. This is a long, ugly tradition in America, going back to long before Atlanta named their baseball team. But this is only a symptom of illness in a world where some people have disposable incomes while other people are disposable. It is despicable, but simple complaining doesn't offer anything except shallow complaining. If you don't like a catalog, better to just recycle it and focus on what has meaning.

Recreation is like any other human endeavor: You can do it superficially, or you can do it with meaning. Certainly it will not bring on a wonderful new age any more than anything else will. But one of the positive traditions of America is a curiosity for other places and other cultures. Genuine journeys "out there," to other lands and other peoples have added greatly to our traditions; in fact, they underlie most all our traditions.

In going out, we do need to constantly ask: Do the places and peoples we visit change us or do we consume what we seek? Clearly we often fail this test, but occasionally we pass. Once in a while we are deeply moved, and with grace we can even enhance the lives we touch on the way.

Andy Selters

Bishop, California

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