In mountain environments, biophysical features such as trees, glaciers, streams, and rock formations have clear spiritual and revered significance; as a result, climate change affects the core of ecological and sacred spaces of communities (Allison 2015; Byg and Sallick 2009; Ceruti 2013; Sakakibara 2010; Teye, Yaro, and Bawakyillenuo 2015; Verschuuren, McNeely, and Oviedo 2010). In the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, the sacred is bound to the ecological. Although sacred and ecological spaces are conceptually distinct notions, in these mountain societies, the former is embedded in the latter. Impetus for this chapter arises out of conversations and reflections at the Mountains as Sacred Landscapes Conference held at the New School in New York City in 2017, to which I was invited. Sponsored by the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and the India China Institute at the New School, the aims were to explore (1) how sacred landscapes are manifested in diverse communities and geographies and (2) how sacred landscapes are being affected by extreme environmental events such as anthropogenic climate change. Arguably, in applied research among indigenous communities in the circumpolar Arctic, boreal forest, and mountain regions, the notion of the sacred is often not discussed because of its loaded connotations within the scientific community. In the communities where we work, however, the nexus of practice and belief are not divorced from each other, which compelled me to engage the notion. In the past thirty-three years of my engagement with indigenous and mountain societies, it has been clear to me that the sacred is fundamental to their food and livelihood systems. The sacred extends into human action, behavior, and even what and how one eats, works, or rests. It is entwined into human activity, linking the sociocultural with the ecological.
This chapter is an exploration of the historical use of ecological calendars as they express the intimate connection between livelihood activities and the sacred through biophysical processes. The relationship is practical, deep, and broadly encompassing. We will be engaging the idea of sacredness as an ecological process imbued with sociocultural dimensions and as a space where human activities take place. The idea of sacredness as both a time-oriented process and a spatially defined feature will be important for understanding its significance in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia.
The aim is to approach the emergent and increasingly urgent question of how the sacred is affecting and is being affected by anthropogenic climate change. Building on applied research with indigenous communities in the circumpolar Arctic, boreal forest, and the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, we will engage human relationship with the sacred as affected by climate change through a discussion of ecological calendars. Ecological calendars, which are found among diverse human societies worldwide (Cochran et al. 2016; Mondragón 2004; Prober, O’Connor, and Walsh 2011), are context specific. I will discuss a particular embodied expression of ecological calendars, the calendar of the human body, found in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia (Kassam, Bulbulshoev, and Ruelle 2011; Kassam et al. 2018). Before describing ecological calendars, particularly the sacred in the calendar of the human body, the issue of anxiety caused by climatic variation will be addressed. Because anthropogenic climate change is an emergent phenomenon riddled with uncertainty, the resultant stress has become a significant factor in addition to the direct impacts of unpredictable weather events. Anthropogenic climate change defies easy singular formulations; because of its complexity, it is difficult to understand. The effects of human-induced climate change are context dependent and highly contingent on other factors, and the discourse is wrought with conflicting perceptions and values (Balint et al. 2011; Latour 2002; Ritchey 2005). Directly engaging anxiety will ground our discussion of the sacred in the current predicament of mountain societies. After that discussion, the characteristics of ecological calendars in the Pamir Mountains will be described. How ecological calendars reflect the sacred will be considered, and the essay will conclude with reasons for hope through the promise of active engagement with one’s habitat that ecological calendars provide.
SACRED LANDSCAPES, THE ANTHROPOCENE, AND ANXIETY
Mountain societies that engage in ecological professions such as farming, gathering, herding, hunting, orcharding, and so on are not only aware of climatic variation but depend fundamentally on the predictability of climate for their livelihood and food systems. For instance, seasonal climatic variation is not only an accepted part of life, it is welcomed. By climatic variation, I am not referring to anthropogenic climate change but to the seasonal changes in weather that are necessary for the health of an ecosystem and the organisms that exist within it. The changing rhythms of the land and atmosphere not only nourish and maintain food and livelihood systems of mountain communities but also contribute to the well-being of the more populated towns and cities in the lowlands. The complex connectivity among sociocultural, economic, and ecological systems has recently been reiterated with respect to the seasonal role of grasslands in contributing to the development of the historical trade routes known as the Silk Road in Central Asia (Frachetti et al. 2017; Harrower and Dumitru 2017). The Silk Road, which was a network of pathways for food systems and trade of goods, movement of peoples, and exchange of ideas, was significantly enhanced in its utility by seasonal change. Ecological professions such as farming, herding, fishing, hunting, orcharding, beekeeping, and even tourism fundamentally depend on seasonal changes. The fact that seasonal variation is optimized by mountain societies for their well-being and sustainability is often neglected and not explicitly considered; yet it is essential for developing an adaptation strategy to anthropogenic climate change. First, keeping this in mind prevents us from viewing mountain societies as passive victims of anthropogenic climate change. Taking it into account facilitates a perspective that may engender creative and locally grounded responses in which communities have agency. Second, it illustrates that environmental change is not the issue, but the rapidity of change, the accompanying uncertainty, and the frequency of extreme weather events are the causes of anxiety and concern (Kassam 2009a, b; Kassam et al. 2011).
Attributes of Sacred Landscapes
Features of land and water are sacred because people perceive them as such (Ovieda and Jeanrenaud 2007; Verschuuren et al. 2010). A landscape is of specific significance to a community that engages and protects it (Saunders 1994). These spaces are human constructs and part of the ecological system. They are vested with identity in the supernatural, ecological, and sociocultural spheres. Over time, such spaces undergo change while retaining essential characteristics, much as their custodians, the community that utilizes it, do. It is a living system. These spaces are governed by rules requiring specific behavior to reflect human ecological relations. More and more, industrial societies have sought to put boundaries of both time and space around the sacred. The idea of the sacred is not bordered or constrained among many indigenous peoples because it permeates all aspects of human existence. An important aspect of the phenomenological domain of indigenous and mountain cultures is that the animated world not only includes other life such as plants and animals but extends to streams, lakes, rivers, rocks, mountains, glaciers, and other physical features that modern science would consider inanimate. Therefore, the sense of the sacred extends to the whole ecosystem (Bateson 2002, Berkes 2012, Hubert 1994, Kassam 2009a; Leopold 1949).
It is unwise to present a universal notion of the sacred because it will fail to include the diversity of cultures and the particular ways in which different peoples fruitfully engage it (Descola 2013; Verschuuren et al. 2010). A singular monolithic representation of the sacred reveals more about the epistemological enterprise of the definer than about the people to whose beliefs she or he may be trying to give expression. For instance, the Oxford Dictionary (2018), which normally provides robust definitions, in this case gives narrow sets of definitions of the sacred that have an Abrahamic bias reflecting a Euro-Mediterranean orientation that myopically ignores the presence of such notions before the Christian era in their own history.
Engagement with the sacred in an applied research context requires sensitivity to ontological pluralism. Elsewhere, we have shown how the conservation of sacred spaces is fundamentally driven by local values (Kassam and Herring 2012). In addition to biophysical features such as mountains, deserts, forest groves, streams, and caverns, these spaces provide refuge to rare animal and plant species. Therefore, plants and animals are central to these spaces and their symbolism (Ruelle, Kassam, and Asfaw 2017).
At best, we can describe the attributes of the sacred for our purposes because they are context specific and contingent on the diverse cultures of the Pamir. First, the sacred is a process wherein the ecological is imbued with sociocultural meaning in which human relations with the transcendent are grounded in one’s habitat. Second, because the sacred is a process, diverse elements of the biophysical environment are animated and endowed with mind or spirit and therefore have agency. Third, the process of the sacred takes place within time and is in tune with seasonal rhythms. Therefore seasonal climatic variation is important, which is why anthropogenic climate change can dramatically and intimately affect the very foundation of the sociocultural and ecological fabric of mountain societies. Fourth, the sacred also has spatially defined biophysical features, it is a location in the mountains, something that both extreme secularists and religious fanatics have sought to diminish or destroy because they find such a pluralistic perception of agency located in geographical space threatening to their inflexible outlook. In essence, the sacred has both a time dimension (i.e., history) and spatial orientation (i.e., place) in the Pamir Mountains. Finally, the human engages in a reciprocal relationship with the sacred that has both a history and a place. Humans are custodians of the sacred and, in turn, the sacred cares for the human. In this sense, the notion of stewardship is relevant here, where the human has responsibility for the care of the space and is simultaneously the recipient of benevolence from the sacred. It is about mutual agency and engagement where the boundaries of the ecological and sociocultural are simply dissolved. Humans exist in, and actively participate with, their habitat.
The term Anthropocene,1 meaning “the age of humanity,” is not a compliment to human achievement. It is an admission of culpability for historically destructive human behavior. The term Anthropocene, introduced by physical scientists and widely used by their colleagues in the biological sciences, directly expresses the realization that not only is Homo sapiens a sociocultural manifestation, but also that the impact of collective actions of the species is at a planetary scale and affects entire ecosystems and geological time. Humanity is simultaneously a sociocultural, ecological, and geological force. Therefore, biological and physical scientists are anxiously struggling to find a similar or corresponding epoch in earth history from which to draw insight to respond to the Anthropocene. They admit in dismay, however, that humanity has entered a no-analogue state (Crutzen and Steffen 2003; Sayre 2012; Sayre et al. 2013).
The Anthropocene is uneven in its origins and impacts. A particular cultural mindset gave rise to the Industrial Revolution; the emergence of the Anthropocene is traced to this point in northern European history. All humanity, and particularly indigenous and mountain societies in Central Asia, are not responsible. Nonetheless, the Industrial Revolution resonates today in its long-term environmental impacts as well as legacy effects of its chrematistic paradigm of short-term gain for a small portion of human society. The Anthropocene grows out of a frontier ethic of resource extraction and an economic system that engenders inequity. At present, both communist and capitalist societies have embraced this outlook. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Anthropocene coincides with the height of colonization of human communities by the military and economic might of industrial nations. The effect has been and continues to be not only to alienate diverse human cultures from each other but also to alienate them from the landscapes they inhabit. Land and its people are “othered” by this mindset, causing a rupture in conceptions of the environment as sacred (Chakrabarty 2009; Haraway 2015; Kassam 2009a; Ogden et al. 2015). The very educational system and academic institutions that coined the term and utilize the notion of the Anthropocene are entrenched in and supported by the industrial infrastructure that caused the crisis (Greenwood 2014). Biological, physical, and social scientists and the field of humanities are not dispassionate and detached observers but active participants in this historic moment. Therefore, the idea of “sacred landscapes”2 is a decolonizing response to a mindset of extraction and exploitation.
Latour (2017) resurrects the Greek goddess Gaia as a way to ground or, as he says, “return to earth” the sciences, politics, and religions of our epoch. He argues that the Anthropocene demands the engagement of geology with anthropology. It is the epoch of hybrid knowledge systems. It is noteworthy that in both geology and anthropology, context fundamentally informs our understanding, where location is the basis of a history of relations. Natural history and ethnography combine to provide grounded understanding in the age of the humanity. As will be illustrated shortly, ecological calendars in the Pamirs reflect this context specificity and complex connectivity.
Latour (2017) maintains that religion, and by extension the sacred, is not “a thing of the past” (150). Furthermore, science does not offer “unquestioned certainty”; in fact, it is the opposite, and the problems it seeks to address are emergent, like anthropogenic climate change. It is facile to separate religion from science. The conversation must include space for both while grounding them in the reality of the planet. It is a modus vivendi, a way of life that enables agreement between conflicting parties to exist in a mutually arranged peace. The Anthropocene demands such a pluralistic outlook. The circumstance of the Anthropocene invites the scholar to engage in diplomacy and conduct negotiations with differing parties in a language of respect. Creation of a vocabulary for conversation requires acknowledgment of diversity of peoples and places and their distinctive yet mutually overlapping histories. It requires recognizing an animated earth, Gaia, and acknowledging agency of its component parts.
Under anthropogenic climate change, there is a mortality to the people and what they consider sacred. If the habitat of people is altered, then sacred landscapes may also be altered or, worse, irrevocably damaged. Furthermore, as different ways of knowing are affected by willful genocide of indigenous peoples by industrial societies, so are sacred spaces erased. This realization has startling implications and may be a source of debilitating anxiety. In the final analysis, the term Anthropocene masks responsibility, because not all of humanity was responsible for this predicament. The sectors of human society that have faced a history of colonization and marginalization, and who contributed the least to destructive forces of industrial development, are at the vanguard of its consequences. They did not trigger the looming catastrophes. Furthermore, because these environmental changes can have an impact on what is sacred within their habitat, they are paying the cost for the negligence of others on multiple levels, not just with their physical space, but also with their spiritual integrity.
Anxiety generated by the Anthropocene is not limited to the pervasive fear “will humanity act in time?” (Chakrabarty 2009) and if not, “how will the collapse affect us?” (Bendell 2018). The word anxiety accurately conveys the unseen but very real effects of anthropogenically induced climate change, in that immediate impacts are already being felt in communities that are at the forefront. It reflects the worry of an uncertain future. Arguably, this troubled state of mind is having damaging psychological and related physical effects on communities where we are undertaking research. That the consequences of more and more frequent extreme weather events resulting from anthropogenic climate change have clear harmful psychological effects is amply documented (Carroll et al. 2009; Coyle and Van Sustern 2012; UN-HRC 2016; Watts et al. 2015). Furthermore, these climatic changes exacerbate existing inequities in indigenous societies resulting from a long history of exploitation through colonialism and war, thus additionally affecting mental and physical health (Cunsolo Willox, Harper et al. 2012; Cunsolo Willox, Stephenson et al. 2014; Kassam et al. 2018; Palsson et al. 2013). This requires continual investigation for longstanding impact.
Mountain peoples face additional uncertainties related to planning for the next seasonal cycle, which contributes to even greater anxiety. The ability to anticipate future scenarios is central to their livelihoods and food systems, as illustrated earlier with the development of the Silk Roads. Furthermore, as already noted, the well-being of relatively large populations in the lowlands is tied to mountain societies. The UN Human Rights Commission has pointed out that deleterious psychological health impacts begin with disruptions to food systems (UN-HRC 2016). In fact, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 70–80 percent of the world’s food is produced by family farms (FAO 2014; Graeuba et al. 2016). Reiterating the significance of this statistic and approaching it from the amount of land utilized, another estimate shows 70–80 percent of the globe’s food system continues to depend on small (less than two hectares) landholders (Lowder, Skoet, and Raney 2016). More recent studies suggest that these numbers may be inflated (Ricciardi et al. 2018), but there is no question that at the emergence of the third millennium, farmers and herders in mountain societies are central to their regional food systems. Disruption and anxiety caused by anthropogenic climate change affects not only their well-being but also the food security of larger populations in the lowlands. Small landholders will continue to be food insecure in the uneven Anthropocene. The injustice is doubly halting because the poorest nations are producers of the lowest carbon emissions and yet are the most vulnerable to climate change (Ware and Kramer 2019; IPCC 2019). Therefore, it is no coincidence that research on ecological calendars, which already have embedded in them ideas of the sacred, may represent a culturally and ecologically grounded adaptive mechanism to anthropogenic climate change.
ECOLOGICAL CALENDARS IN THE PAMIR MOUNTAINS
Communities in the Pamir Mountains have historically been able to adapt to climatic variation precisely because their food systems and livelihoods depend on the changing rhythms of the land and weather. Their recent vulnerability, however, arises from the frequency of extreme weather events, the rapidity and scale of climatic variation, and their inability to anticipate the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Building anticipatory capacity—being able to visualize diverse futures—is at the core of being able to address the anxieties caused by unpredictable weather changes. In comparison with a standardized and inflexible method of measuring time such as the Gregorian calendar, a reconceptualization of temporal relations, by being sensitive to discrete idiosyncratic weather patterns and their connectivity to agropastoral activities, may provide an ecologically and socioculturally grounded response to anthropogenic climate change. The solar calendar should not be abandoned altogether, but rather it should be combined with an organic view of time from a place-centered ecological perspective (Kassam et al. 2018).
Let us engage in a series of interconnected what-if questions to consider the sociocultural and ecological dimensions of time. First, what if time is experienced uniquely? For instance, the initial moments marking the arrival of one’s firstborn child are imbued with meaning that is different from the possibly terrifying initial seconds of a root canal at a recent dental appointment. Both are highly intense experiences, but the two moments in time are different because of the significance they carry for the individual. These moments generate memorable experiences in comparison with the rather routine and mundane activities of brushing one’s teeth. Therefore, time is not a fungible or easily tradable commodity as it is asserted in our industrial economic system. We view time as if each hour is the same as any other hour without taking into account the variety and intensity of distinct experiences gained in those moments of being alive. In other words, certain things are possible only at specific periods of time. For instance, despite technological achievements, for the vast majority of animal species (including humans), this biological view of time is reflected in reproduction cycles. Similarly, even with anthropogenic climate change, plowing and seeding are not possible in Pamir Mountain communities at the height of winter, where the frozen ground limits such activities.
Second, although recognizing the biophysical limitations of human activities in specific seasons, what if time is both flexible and relational? The possibility may seem counterintuitive, but let us for the moment consider the possibility. Intellectual pluralism allows for seeming contradictions to coexist. For instance, long before the less flexible written calendars, farmers in Japan looked for snow patterns to guide their seasonal activities. The dynamic relationship between snow and ground surface was the basis for a calendar. The pattern of snowmelt against the gray of a slope or peak caused different shapes called yukigata to appear, which indicated to farmers that it was time to plant their crops (Yasuaki et al. 2005; Sturm and Wagner 2010). As in the above example, livelihood activities such as farming, fishing, gathering, herding, hunting, orcharding, beekeeping, and so forth are connected to biophysical cues in their habitat. This conceptualization of time may enable us to anticipate the impact of climate change at the level of villages and communities. Such a context-based and organic framing of time embeds humans in their habitat by taking an intimate view in rather than a more detached view of their animated environment (Kassam 2009a; Latour 2017).
What Is an Ecological Calendar?
Ecological calendars that arise from conceptualizing time as a unique experience that is relational and flexible emphasize the complex connectivity between the biophysical and the sociocultural. Such calendars have been documented in diverse indigenous societies across the globe, including the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia (Kassam et al. 2018). In the Pamirs, ecological calendars have been in use for several centuries and were adaptive because they were continuously being refined and recalibrated from season to season and generation after generation (Bobrinsky 1908; Lentz 1939; Andreev 1958). Imposition of Soviet rule and specifically the impact of the command industrial economy on livelihood strategies in Tajikistan, more than forty years of a global war localized in Afghanistan, and more recently linkages to the global industrial economy have combined to suppress, and thereby erode, the use of such calendars. The memory of ecological calendars has not been completely lost, however. On the contrary, the intellectual and cultural infrastructure remains, thus providing the potential for rebuilding, recalibrating, and revitalizing them in the twenty-first century (Kassam 2009b; Kassam et al. 2011; Kassam et al. 2018). Our current research indicates that concepts and specific words that belong to the calendar of the human body remain in use.
Ecological calendars reflect key attributes of indigenous or local knowledge systems such as context specificity, diversity and plurality, complex connectivity, empirical tendency, and cumulative adaptive knowledge. We will consider each of these five aspects of ecological calendars in turn.
The people of the Pamirs developed ecological calendars that they called calendars of the human body. The calendar of the human body measures time with respect to ecological cues in relation to human experience. Time, as such, was not seen as a commodity to be controlled by humans. Instead, humans were discerning and active participants in the passage of seasons. These calendars are context specific, related to and unique to a group of people who live in defined mountain regions in direct relation to their ecological professions, such as farming, herding, hunting, gathering, orcharding, and so on. Calendars of the human body emerge from a web of relationships between humans, animals, plants, natural forces, spirits, and land forms (Kassam 2009a, 85). For instance, local topography in relation to sunlight, the vernal equinox, and cues such as the germination of a plant, the arrival of a migratory bird, appearance of an insect, snow cover, or breakup of ice indicate the start or conclusion of specific livelihood activities that bind human sociocultural endeavor with the biophysical (Kassam et al. 2011, 161–62). Ongoing research shows that these cues are not simply visual; they include the other senses, such as the soundscape of birds singing or of the breakup of ice as well as the feel of heat from the soil. All the senses are engaged in a dynamic process of telling time in order to make a living.
Diversity and Plurality
The ecological calendars of the Pamirs differed from village to village and valley to valley (Kassam et al. 2011). Individual communities had a keeper of time called a hisobdon. We do not have a complete understanding of their role, but archival evidence indicates that hisobdons decided when to begin marking time. Having been told to start counting, individual agropastoralists would then determine the best times for plowing, sowing, harvesting, or migrating animals to seasonal pasture in specific locations in the mountain habitat. Therefore, knowledge about the calendars could not be homogeneous or standardized between hisobdons. Furthermore, each agropastoralist then implemented the ecological calendar suited to specific ecological conditions, microclimates, and livelihood requirements. The complete sensory involvement of farmers and herders with their habitat, by perceiving subtle changes in their surroundings, informed and enabled timely recalibration and regular seasonal implementation of the ecological calendars (Kassam 2009a, 68–69, 88; Kassam et al. 2011, 158–59).
In ecological calendars, segments of the year are counted with reference to human body parts. An annual cycle of the calendar generally includes two periods of counting on body parts and two periods of chillas, the latter being periods when the counting ceases. At the beginning of spring, counting begins on the human body starting at the sole of the foot or the toenail and moves up toward the head. Counting is described as the movement of the sun to a body part that is relevant at a particular period in time. For instance, in the early spring, “the sun is in” the toenail or the sole of the foot. A majority of the calendars include the ankle, shin, knee, thigh, and penis prior to the sun arriving in the heart. Often, when the sun is in the heart, it coincides with the vernal equinox. This is the time when Pamiri villagers celebrate Navruz, marking the new year, at the start of the spring season.
Navruz is a Persian word for a celebration common to many and diverse central Asian cultures, meaning “new day.” More local words for the new year reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of this mountainous region. For example, in Yazgulam it is called Ghravash, in Rushan it is called Zhamund, and in Shugnan it has several names, such as Khidir Ayom (“great celebration”), Shogun Ayom (“good omen celebration” or “good sign celebration”), and Baat or Boj Ayom. It is noteworthy that these latter two make reference to a specific food that is served to mark the arrival of spring or new year, reinforcing the sociocultural relations that underlie ecological calendars. Baat is a porridge made from wheat flour and oil; boj is made from cracked wheat.
Continuing with the description of the calendar of the human body, the chest and throat follow the heart, often culminating at a part of the forehead, crown, or brain. Then the calendars enter the spring and summer chillas. When these chillas end, counting of the human body begins from the head and moves toward the toes, using the same body parts and divisions of days in reverse order. Again, the sun passes back through the heart commonly during the autumnal equinox. Another festival is celebrated linking it to agropastoral activities. At the toenail, the calendar of the human body enters the period of autumn and winter chillas. The periods known as chillas are moments when counting does not take place. There is evidence that suggests these periods have a distinct significance, to which we will return shortly.
These ecological calendars clearly played a practical function in securing the food and livelihood of the Pamiris. They depend on the keen observational and analytical skills of Pamiris in order to be useful and practical. Our research suggests that the longevity of such calendars reflects their effectiveness in meeting the needs of mountain societies. More generally, they provide detailed insights into how plants and animals (including humans) develop, behave, and interact with each other through the seasons (Kassam 2009a, 86–87). This suggests an autonomy, relationality, and flexibility necessary for adapting calendars from season to season to harmonize livelihood activities with the specific biophysical phenomena that individuals observe. The shared responsibility of keeping time by the hisobdon and keen sensitivity to context-specific ecological cues by farmers, herders, hunters, gatherers, and so on simultaneously reflect the universality and particularity that make ecological calendars a potential means of anticipating anthropogenic climate change more widely.
Cumulative Adaptive Knowledge
Calendars of the body became effective over a long period of time, building on the empirical observations of each generation, which contributed by fine-tuning and adapting them to their specific variable temporal and spatial ecological context (Kassam 2009a, 87–88). There is ample evidence that, even when this knowledge is diminished or lost because of the ravages of colonization or alienation resulting from industrialization, collaborative efforts can rebuild and revitalize the knowledge base. The cumulative and adaptive characteristics of ecological calendars contributes to collective brain power that enables innovation through integration of knowledge sources (Henrich 2016). Our research seeks to revitalize these calendars through cogeneration of new knowledge and through commensurability of contemporary climate and ecological sciences with the indigenous ecological knowledge of the people of the Pamirs (Kassam et al. 2018).
REFLECTIONS ON THE SACRED IN TERMS OF TIME AND SPACE
Biological and physical phenomena in which communities engage are imbued with the sacred; it is manifest in their cultural values and affects their social institutions. In order for us to engage in a conversation about the sacred and climate change with respect to indigenous mountains societies, we must recognize that to them the biophysical world is imbued with life. Human ecological relations are simultaneously a function and narrative of human beings’ developing a sociocultural system on an ecological foundation. Social institutions, including those engaged in political decision making or sacred activities, have crucial links to their habitat (Kassam 2009a). Ecology affects human diet, disease, demography, and economic development. Therefore, in the context of the mountains, the sociocultural dimension of the sacred cannot be divorced from the ecological; they are intertwined because they are mutually reinforcing.
Ecological calendars in the Pamir Mountains, as we have described, reveal an interconnectedness of relationships within the ecosystem, and therefore these relationships must be viewed as part of greater whole in which the human being is a participant. This perspective recognizes a fundamental relationship between cultural diversity, including the variety of ways the sacred is expressed in biological diversity and the relationships human beings have in an animated world. Furthermore, relations are not simply linearly determined genealogical notions of relatedness, as in kinship, but rather progenerative conceptions of an all-encompassing connectedness of relationships, as in kindred (Kassam 2009a). Here I use the word animated not unlike Latour’s (2017) reference to Gaia. It is important to remind ourselves that the word animal comes from animus, meaning “endowed with mind or spirit” (Bateson 2002, 5; see also Kassam 2009a). Arising from closeness to the land and relationships with living things, ecological calendars are fundamentally derived from the labor of living in or experiencing the Pamir Mountains. Therefore, in the paradigmatic framework of ecological calendars, there is no separation between the biotic and abiotic—such categories do not emerge because of the complex connectivity of interrelationship between all forces and forms within the natural world. Our ethnographic research suggests that these calendars were woven into the spiritual and ethical fabric of Pamiris and had practical consequences for their livelihood activities (Kassam 2009a). This is effectively expressed by the late khalifa of Porshinev, Shohi-Kalon, who said the calendars were “mixed with our skin, with our muscle, with our bone and our brain” (Kassam et al. 2011, 165). Such an ontological framework enables active engagement of humans with their habitat and a potential openness to adaptation strategies arising from anthropogenic climate change.
The Search: The Role of Chillas
Chillas were periods in the calendar of the human body set aside for spiritual contemplation and reflection. We do not know enough about the chillas, and more research is needed to shed light on their role as new ethnographic and archival sources are found. Extant ethnographic sources are silent on their roles. One can only speculate on the reasons for this silence; perhaps researchers did not understand the meaning of the period of chillas for the people of the Pamir within the wider cultural history of Sufi practice in Islam. Further, in the tradition of colonial anthropology, they may have simply sought to extract information on the calendar system without understanding the complex connectivity of the sociocultural with the ecological. Finally, it is important to note that the most informative ethnographic research (Andreev 1958) was conducted in the Soviet period during the reign of Joseph Stalin (1922–53). Stalin had effectively generated fear among scholars if their research did not neatly fit into Soviet secularist dogma with the threat of imprisonment in labor camps under horrendous conditions, often resulting in death. Some of the more renowned scholars of the Arctic and the Pamir that engaged indigenous communities of these regions met such a fate3 because their work encompassed both cultural and biological diversity. These concepts tend to be antithetical to monolithic conceptions of reality such as communism, fascism, predatory capitalism, and religious fanaticism. It is understandable that these ethnographic sources remained silent on the sacred, which is nonetheless an intimate and essential part of the ecological calendar.
In our research were narratives describing individuals using the chillas as a period of personal search through seclusion and meditation (Kassam et al. 2011). Hisobdons have also described chillas as periods known as biyabon (in Farsi, biābān) or “desert.” It is when one is not conscious of the passage of time, “being lost” in the desert and in search for an oasis both ecologically and spiritually. In essence, the chilla is a period in time when the individual farmer, gatherer, herder, or hunter contemplates his or her relation to the greater whole using their habitat as the basis to mark the time for seclusion.
In many of these calendars in the Pamirs Mountains, the chilla could last more or less than forty days, according to ecological contexts. In our ongoing research, we are finding that nearly all the villages in the four research sites of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Xinjiang4 have a concept of the greater and shorter chilla extending the winter period from forty to ninety days. This is continuing evidence of the historic efficacy of the ecological calendar as it resonates in the lives of villagers in the twenty-first century.
Significance of Forty
It is worth exploring the significance of the number forty as conveyed by the idea of chilla, because it explicitly engages the idea of sacred time in a sacred space. According to Muslim tradition, at the age of forty, the Prophet Muhammad experienced transcendence beyond known reality while in seclusion in a cave in Mount Hirā on the outskirts of Mecca. It is at this point he became the Prophet of Islam (Armstrong 1992; Watt 1953). Similarly, Moses was summoned by God at that age and he remained on Mount Sinai for forty days. The covenant with Noah involved a flood for forty days (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1996). In biblical narrative, the people of Israel during the Exodus after leaving Mount Sinai wandered the desert for forty years (Numbers 32:13). In the life of Jesus, the number forty is also significant. He was taken to the Temple forty days after his birth. He had risen again to his disciples after the crucifixion for forty days living and preaching among them (Acts 1:3). Jesus spent forty days and nights fasting5 in the Judean desert to overcome temptation. In fact, the final temptation takes place in a mountainous landscape or high place (Matthew 4:1–11). It is important to note that Jesus is accepted by Muslims as divinely inspired and in Sufism is held in reverence.
The symbolic significances of the number forty, of the desert, of the physical space of the mountain, of the search and subsequent transcendence have a marked resemblance to both Sufi thought and description of the chilla in the calendar of the human body. In Sufi symbolism of the Arabic numerical system, the number forty is associated with patience, maturing, suffering, and preparation (Schimmel 1983). In Sufi literature, the idea of chilla has more to do with the quality of experience in the individual’s seclusion rather than the quantity of time in some specific number of days (Ridgeon 2012). The key point is that the individual in search of enlightenment retreats to the mountains for solitude (Graham 1999). The objective of the search is to seek a treasure that was always there but could be found only through a spiritual voyage populated by afflictions characterized by the vagaries of life (Safi 2012). In this journey, seekers encounter spiritual and physical challenges defined by their habitat.
So far, I have provided examples of the significance of forty from Abrahamic traditions, yet this region of the world has a history of human civilization that predates monotheistic influences. The Buddha, like Moses and Muhammad, began his mission at the age of forty. Buddhist and Zoroastrian sacred sites continue to have resonances in the Pamirs, albeit transformed with Sufi significance. In fact, the festival of Navruz, whose origins are hard to date because of its universal human significance relating to the vernal equinox, spring, and livelihood activities arising from agropastoralism, was first formalized as a religious festival in a solar calendar under Zoroastrianism. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that indigenous human societies in other parts of Asia (Friedl 1997; Jensen 1974) and in Africa (Field 1970; Ottenberg 1989), North and South America (Brundage 1972; Durán 1975), and Polynesia (Beckwith and Loumala 1970) have rituals and observations related to forty days involving physical challenges, spiritual journeys, and enlightenment that are not dissimilar to the narratives provided here, suggesting a human awareness that preceded and most likely influenced Abrahamic traditions.
Returning to the calendar of the human body, it is clear that the Pamiris had already built in a mechanism through the chillas to deal with anxiety arising from uncertainties due to seasonal change and the vicissitudes of life itself. With respect to the sacred, it is the particular human ecological relations of the people of the Pamir Mountains as illustrated by ecological time that address broader human concerns. Highly context-specific ecological calendars unlock a vista into the universal human search for transcendence and meaning. The continual use of the notion attest that it is not unreasonable to suggest that in the future, chillas may be just as relevant in the context of anthropogenic climate change as they were historically important to the people of the Pamirs in the past.
Ecological calendars not only reflect the complex connectivity of material relations. They go beyond material needs, linking relations based on cultural and ethical values, concepts of sacred spaces, and aesthetic experience. Specific celebrations observed in the course of an ecological year, such as the marking of the vernal and autumnal equinox in relation to agropastoral activities, would be carried out at a sacred site. Sacred places include gravesites, streams, sacred stones, trees, and groves. Even the search or journey characterized by the ecological notion of the chilla takes place at one of these sacred sites. Almost all sacred sites are intimately connected to the land, linking the culture to its biophysical surroundings. Like the ecological calendar, sacred sites require sustained human engagement to remain relevant. Ironically, invading mujahideen in some regions of the Afghan Pamirs violated sacred sites with the same fanatical commitment as that of the secular communists in Tajikistan under Soviet rule.6 Some of these sites were rebuilt, are protected, and remain significant to the people of the Pamirs in both Afghanistan and Tajikistan. These sacred places, some of which may be more than one thousand years old, are connected to folk stories that may also provide valuable information on climatic change and local conservation strategies (Ruelle, Kassam, and Asfaw 2017). For instance, the only Juniper shugnanica at the sacred site in Langar in the Tajik Pamir is said to be more than one thousand years old, not unlike the tree of Saint Francis in Assisi, which illustrates the conservation impulse found in sacred places (Kassam and Herring 2012). Further research related to these sites may provide valuable information on adapting to environmental change. Their continued presence is informative because they are a testimony to the resilience of the people of the Pamirs as they have endured sociocultural as well as environmental changes. The people tend to the sites’ care, protect them, and believe in them; in turn, the sacred sites have provided meaning, continuity, and hope to the people of the Pamirs in periods of rapid change and uncertainty. It is a relationship of mutual dependence (Kassam 2009b; Kassam and Herring 2012). The people of the Pamirs recognize that a site is sacred because their relationship with their habitat makes it so.
A place is sacred also because the people of the Pamir are aware that the entire phenomenological environment is pervaded by life. Their narratives about these designated sites convey the ethical and spiritual significance of their dependence on the fundamental life force imbued in their habitat. It is a relationship in which the entire habitat has agency, including the reciprocal relationship between the sacred space and the humans who engage it. It is not unlike the ecological calendars because they represent a similar intimate connectivity with the phenomenological environment.
Sacred sites and ecological calendars are how people of the Pamirs engage their habitat and give meaning to their agropastoral livelihood activities. Human agency through stewardship is central to the care and upkeep of sacred sites. Similarly, meticulous human observation and recalibration of the habitat are important for maintaining the usefulness and relevance of ecological calendars.
This quantum engagement with the phenomenological environment through sacred sites and ecological calendars provides continuity and stability in the midst of sociocultural, political, and ecological change, thus mitigating the deleterious effects of weather variation and the anxiety caused by anthropogenic climate change. This is because the ecological calendar directly engages time—a sense of the past, its presence, and future possibilities. In addition, sacred space provides a context—an enabling environment for that engagement. Neither can be effective without the other. Flourishing sacred spaces are important for the revitalization of ecological calendars.
How is the sacred affecting and being affected by anthropogenic climate change? Despite observing changes in their own habitat, some mountain communities in other parts of the world are finding it challenging to accept the impacts of anthropogenic climate change (Drew 2012; Nunn et al. 2016; Paerregaard 2013). Alternatively, in the mountains of Afghanistan, villagers believe it is because of the will of God that they are being punished for ongoing violence, war, and environmental disturbance. They blame themselves even though Afghanistan, as a mountainous country, is responsible for only 0.06 percent of the total global greenhouse emissions (Saifullah 2017). As we have indicated earlier, there is clear evidence that poorer nations have the lowest carbon emissions. During our 2018 field season, while in the village Sary Mogul in the Alai valley of Kyrgyzstan, after having given an explanation of our research during a sermon (khutba) at the main village mosque at the Friday noon prayers, a villager holding an open Qur’an in his hands stopped me for a discussion. Referring to verses of the Qur’an with a Kyrgyz language translation of the Arabic, he explained that current environmental change is a result of human greed and avarice. He was blaming his own village’s behavior. The sentiment was often echoed in conversation by village elders during our research work. What is commonly not understood is that their specific behavior has not put the whole of humanity in such a perilous situation. It is the behavior of the industrialized nations, whose greed, avarice, and shortsightedness hold all life hostage on the planet. Farmer suicides are viewed across the world as isolated individual events, yet it is quite possible that increasingly their fatal actions are overdetermined, resulting from effects of anthropogenic climate change as it exacerbates existing inequities. Small landholding farmers in growing numbers may start to lose hope and take action that is not only self-destructive but also deleterious to entire regional food systems. Long-term mental and physical health effects of prolonged anxiety resulting from anthropogenic climate change remain to be considered and addressed.
Understanding the vulnerability of sacred spaces, livelihoods, and mountain habitats under the effects of anthropogenic climate change is a necessary part of any adaptive response. Here, directly engaging ecological stewardship values, which are pregnant with spiritual content, reflects an ethical framework of local communities that is essential for collaborative action and policy. Revitalization of ecological calendars fundamentally and pragmatically represents such a stewardship approach to climate-change adaptation. Therefore, the participation of communities in developing long-term strategies is central to the process.
With respect to time, sacred spaces are enduring evidence of a commitment to ecological stewardship. There are certain parallels in the practice of ecological calendars and use of sacred sites in the Pamir Mountains. Historically, both have witnessed dramatic sociocultural and ecological change. The omnipresent political vagaries and the legacy effects of the brutality of colonialism continue to be felt in this region, not to mention the leeching effect of war on the vibrancy of the human psyche. In addition to all this, this mountainous region is on the frontlines of anthropogenic climate change. Global is not a new concept; this area is the historical home of the Silk Road. The Pamirs were at the crossroads of the Cold War, which has now been reconstituted as a so-called Clash of Civilizations. Ill-informed external powers impose their self-serving motives and fears on the peoples of this region while seeking access to strategic natural resources. This is a region of seismic activity, which further exacerbates the impacts of climate change. Despite all these challenges, the region is endowed with significant biological and cultural diversity, which has facilitated its resilience (Kassam 2009b, 2010).
The people of the Pamirs have sought to revitalize both their sacred sites and the practice of ecological calendars. In the case of sacred sites, they have achieved revitalization without outside assistance. With respect to ecological calendars, they seek to cogenerate new knowledge with the most current biophysical and social scientific knowledge available (Kassam et al. 2018). These communities were not the primary contributors to anthropogenic climate change, whereas the transdisciplinary group of climate, ecological, and social scientists who have knowledge that can benefit these communities either comes from or has directly benefited from the industrial civilizations that caused anthropogenic climate change. At a dismal moment in planetary history characterized as the Anthropocene, the age of humankind, we are also at a moment of justly informed action, an opportunity to contribute intellectually and ethically, a moment for hope. I cannot think of anything more useful than ecologically informed and ethically grounded action that makes humanity aware that we are inextricably rooted to the planet. Applied research on ecological calendars not only provides this promise to societies in the Pamir Mountains, it also inspires scientists and their home communities to generate similar ecological calendars to guide and inform their daily actions and livelihoods. Context-specific ecological calendars for the twenty-first century may have significant meaning and practical relevance, not only for rural mountain communities but also for urban societies as they seek meaning from the changing environments they inhabit. This may be an opportunity for humanity to recognize seasonal rhythms as they affect sacred spaces on a planetary scale. In the Anthropocene, under current circumstances of considerable and incalculable hazards of climate change, through collaborative applied research with diverse human societies, scholars may also contribute in small but effective ways to developing a pedagogy and a methodology of hope.
KARIM-ALY S. KASSAM is Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies jointly appointed in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell University. He is author of Biocultural Diversity and Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Human Ecology in the Arctic and articles in Human Ecology.
1. The March 2015 issue of the journal Nature was devoted to making a case for accepting Anthropocene as a new division of geological time.
2. Like the conference that gave impetus to this essay.
3. Nikolay Volkov (1996), who undertook ethnographic research among the Sami on the Kola Peninsula, and Nikolay Vavilov (Vavilov 1992; Nabhan 2009), who began his research in the Pamir Mountains on plant genetic diversity in a quest to end famine, tragically suffered similar fates. Both undertook innovative and applied research that contributed to humanity as a whole and not just the Soviet state.
4. This paper concentrates on empirical evidence of ethnographic and climate-change research in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan; we also have found evidence of the use of chilla in our research sites in Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. In the Alai valley of Kyrgyzstan, it is referred to as childe.
5. In fact, the etymology of the noun quarantine in English comes from the ninth-century Latin quarentena in reference to the fasting by Jesus for a period of forty days. In the eleventh century, quarentena was used in English to refer to Lent. From the thirteenth century, is also denoted a period of penance and fasting. Only since the mid-fifteenth century do we see this word used for a period of imposed isolation to avoid the spread of disease (Oxford Dictionary 2018). In any case, quarantine whether voluntary or imposed isolation, represents the “cycle of being or non being” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1996, 402).
6. Protection and development of some hot springs by the Soviet government that have sacred significance to the people of the Tajik Pamir are not examples of cultural sensitivity but rather were seen as holiday destinations for occupying Soviet administrators. Soviet policy was largely hostile to sacred places and indigenous knowledge. Similarly, despite a palpable fear of military occupation, in Xinjiang (China), these sites continue to be relevant to mountain peoples. The presence of sacred places is not openly discussed with outsiders, including government representatives, because of dangerous consequences for local communities. It is noteworthy that the impact of extreme secularism is not distinguishable from religious fanaticism. Both have the same outcomes for indigenous peoples and their complex relations with their habitat.
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