What: Author and photographer Michael Benanav discusses “Himalaya Bound” and shares images from his journey with nomadic herders in northern India

When: 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Downtown Bend Public Library, 601 NW Wall St.

Cost: Free

Contact: deschuteslibrary.org or 541-312-1032

New Mexico-based author, photographer and travel writer Michael Benanav has been fascinated with nomadic people since he was a child learning about T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and his relationship with the Bedouin. Benanav has worked as a mountain and desert guide in the U.S. and writes for the travel section in The New York Times, Sierra, Lonely Planet and more.

But it was his firsthand encounters with nomads far off the beaten path that inspired him to learn more about the way they live and the challenges migratory communities face in the modern world.

In his latest book, “Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals — And an Ancient Way of Life,” Benanav offers a rare glimpse into the lives of a family of water buffalo herders from the Van Gujjar tribe in northern India. For centuries, the Van Gujjars and their animals have spent winter in the forests of the Shivalik Hills in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Each spring they migrate into the Himalayan meadows, returning to the lower forests again after the heat of summer has passed. But their way of life, in near perfect harmony with nature, is increasingly threatened by political boundaries, environmental bureaucracy and the encroachment of agriculture and development.

Benanav will discuss the Van Gujjars’ story and present a slide show of photographs from his 2009 journey with them into the Himalayas during an event on Sunday in Bend.

Benanav joined Van Gujjar brothers Dhumman, Yusuf and 24 members of their extended family as they embarked on an uncertain spring journey into the mountains. The group had to cope with predators, unpredictable weather and the rugged landscape. They also had to contend with new existential threats posed by government officials trying to ban them from their traditional summer grazing site, now lying within a national park. If the group cannot reach the mountains, their beloved buffaloes will starve, and their age-old lifestyle will be lost.

Facing such a dire outcome, Dhumman and Yusuf make the monumental decision to chart a risky new course that will lead them to a different, unfamiliar location positioned just outside the national park, but much further, higher and more remote than their customary summer pastures. Instead of the usual three to four weeks, this journey of 125 miles would take the group almost six weeks with an 11,000 foot gain in elevation.

“When I first learned about the Van Gujjar, they seemed like the perfect people because they live in the wilderness all the time (unlike many nomads who spend part of the year in a village or town), and because they migrate into the Himalayas where it is so very beautiful,” Benanav said. “It also seemed like a tragic irony that the most immediate threat to their way of life was the national parks. It never occurred to me or most Americans that this conservation effort would be contributing, potentially, to the loss of the cultures who live in those places. That’s why I thought this is a story really worth telling.”

During his 44 days with the Van Gujjar, Benanav witnessed the remarkable relationship they have with their livestock and the environments they live in and pass through. Despite or perhaps because of their lack of formal education and technology of any kind (no cellphones, TV, radio or motorized vehicles), they are keenly aware that their survival depends on the health of the forests.

“It’s one of the core ethics of their community to live in sustainable balance with the environment,” Benanav said. “Because their families return to the same place year after year, if they overuse the environment, they are going to suffer. It’s ingrained with the way they live.”

After hiking out of the Himalayas and returning to the U.S. from India in 2009, Benanav undertook a different odyssey in his journey to get “Himalaya Bound” published. Although he’d written two previous books, the economy was in recession and the publishing industry was in a state of upheaval. It took another seven years, two agents and the release of a version of the book in India before Benanav finally signed a deal with Pegasus Books to publish “Himalaya Bound” in the U.S. It was released in 2018.

In the interim, he has returned to see the people he now considers his “Van Gujjar family” three times — most recently in 2014.

“Even though we might look at them and say, these are illiterate, uneducated forest dwellers, they do have something to teach the rest of the world,” Benanav said. “The most important thing we can learn is just how crucial it is to live sustainably on the planet, because where we’re at is not that different than where they’re at. We’re just a little more insulated from the direct effects of how we treat our environment — but that might not last much longer.”

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