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Nature vs. Culture in Changing Himalayan Societies


Gerard Toffin

LIVING BETWEEN JUNIPER AND PALM. NATURE, CULTURE, AND POWER IN THE HIMALAYAS
By Ben Campbell
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. x 391, Rs. 995.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 2 February 2014

The study of the relationship between nature and culture has been given new impetus over recent decades and has opened up attractive theoretical avenues. A number of social anthropologists have published inspiring books on this theme. The excessive duality between these two domains that some researchers refer to when contemplating non-western societies has been rightly questioned. Lévi-Strauss himself, after assuming a strict dichotomy between nature and culture in the first part of his work, spent the second half of his career showing the intimate relationship between pre-modern man and his environment. His Mythologiques tetralogy is replete with magical transformations of men into animals, and vice versa, as well as various forms of hybridization between the natural and human worlds, including marriage. Amerindian myths are a vibrant testimony to mutual interactions between the two worlds. More recently Philippe Descola tried to lend a cognitivist turn to this perspective by distinguishing several types of logical linkage when addressing these relationships. More convincingly, and earlier in the chronology, Viveiros de Castro, an anthropologist working on Amerindian forest societies, shed light on what he calls the native ‘perspectivist’ ontology of these groups. Such symbolic systems (or metaphysics in the author’s vocabulary) blur the contrast between nature and culture which we are used to in the modern western world. In these societies, the link between men and animals is much more than merely metaphorical; it touches upon the roots of our existence. Other authors, such as Tim Ingold, have also contributed to this debate, especially on human-animal relationships. All these works redefine nature by emphasizing the inner view of the people living in it.   The book by Ben Campbell, a lecturer in anthropology at Durham University, UK, sets out to explore this subject. This painstaking study focuses on the interactions between the Tamangs, a Nepalese ethnic group speaking a Tibeto-Burman language, and their environment. Campbell carried out fieldwork in a community located in Rasuwa District, central Nepal, not far from Dhunche, on the way to the Gosainkund Lake and the Langtang Valley, two favourite treks for foreigners since the 1960-70s. In this part of Nepal, the Tamangs rely mainly on agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihoods. In the past, they practised extensive swidden cultivation. They live far from the political centres and have always been a marginalized community, subordinated to higher-status groups and castes. Tamangs traditionally supplied the Rana oligarchy with ...


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