The Explorers Club, Northern California Chapter

Edwin Bernbaum

Senior Fellow, The Mountain Institute

Sacred Trees, Sacred Mountains:

Pilgrimage and Conservation in the Himalaya

Sacred peak of Nilkanth above Badrinath (all images (c)1996 Edwin Bernbaum)

DINNER MEETING - Friday, September 26, 1997, St. Francis Yacht Club, San Francisco

(see map)

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  • 6:00 PM, Business meeting
  • 6:30 PM, Cocktails
  • 7:30 PM, Dinner
  • 8:30 PM, Speaker
  • $35.00 each
    Edwin Bernbaum, Ph.D., is a mountaineer, author, lecturer, and scholar of comparative religion and mythology doing research on the relationship between culture and environment. His book, Sacred Mountains of the World (Sierra Club Books) won the Commonwealth Club's gold medal for best work of non-fiction and an Italian award for literature of mountaineering, exploration and the environment. He will describe his involvement with the Indian holy shrine of Badrinath and efforts to enlist the forces of religion and mythology in attempts to reforest this remote valley which had been laid waste by hordes of pilgrims over the past 30 years.


    Holy man handing out blessed seedlings at Hanumanchatti tree planting ceremony

    Edwin Bernbaum has lectured widely to audiences which include the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mountain Institute, and a Research Associate at the University of California, Berkeley. A photographic exhibit based on his book, Sacred Mountains of the World, was on display for a year at the Smithsonian Institution, and will be at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from January to March, 1998. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Himalayan Foundation, and is a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas of the IUCN or World Conservation Union, working on the policy implications of sacred mountains for environmental and cultural preservation. Here is the basis for this month's presentation, from the author's own description:

    Badrinath, the major Hindu pilgrimage site in the Indian Himalaya, lies in a remote valley of the Garhwal region at an altitude of 3,100 meters, not far from Nanda Devi, the highest peak in India outside Sikkim. It has been a focal point of religious devotion for thousands of years, but until recently, because of its difficulty of access, relatively few people actually managed to go there. Today, 450,000 pilgrims a year come to the shrine from all over India, arriving on roads built in the 1960's during a war with China. Under the impact of so many visitors, the extensive forests which, according to ancient texts, used to fill this valley have completely disappeared.

    Girl from Bamni village near Badrinath

    In 1993, at the urging of scientists from the G. B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, the Chief Priest of Badrinath agreed to use his religious authority to help in restoration of the site. In a special ceremony he blessed tree seedlings supplied by the scientists and distributed them to pilgrims and to local people to plant as an act of devotion. He also gave an inspiring talk that highlighted religious beliefs and myths, emphasizing the physical and spiritual importance of trees in the Himalaya. That ceremony initiated a program to re-establish Badrivan, the ancient sacred forest of Badrinath.

    In 1996, with the help of research grants from the American Alpine Club and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation of the UK, Bernbaum went to Badrinath to ascertain the successes and failures of the program and to assess its future needs and possibilities. During his stay he had numerous discussions and interviews with the various parties involved, ranging from priests, pilgrims and villagers to scientists, government officials, and the military. He also documented the plantation sites around Badrinath and visited the nearby shrines of Kedarnath and Tungnath to determine their potential for starting similar programs. At Hanumanchatti, a shrine just down the valley from Badrinath, he participated in a tree-planting and speech-making ceremony along with a swami, some scientists, a brigadier general, and a well-known yogi.

    Dr. P.P. Dhyani, the G.B. Pant Institute scientist in charge of the Badrinath Program, at the Hanumanchatti Tree Nursery

    The major problem with the project has been heavy winter snowfall, which killed off much of the first tree plantation. A nursery has been established near Badrinath to acclimatize seedlings to the harsh conditions of high altitude and has developed special measures to prevent snow from breaking the plants. Scientists have also determined the most promising native species for planting and preserving biodiversity. As a consequence, survival rates have improved considerably and some trees have reached a height of nearly two meters. Other problems that are being addressed include controversies over land use and the handling of donations for care of seedlings.

    The results from Bernbaum's preliminary assessment will help to prepare the proposed next phase of the project: to strengthen the program at Badrinath and to extend it to other sites and conservation measures, such as cleaning up litter and disseminating seeds for pilgrims to plant back in their home communities. The Mountain Institute will work with the G. B. Pant Institute and the High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre of H. N. B. Garhwal University in India and all the concerned parties, particularly the local people. The approach initiated at Badrinath will be tested at other sites in the Himalaya and elsewhere in the world. A key hypothesis to be tested is whether the ritual blessing and planting of trees actually keeps the people who are so desperate for fuel and building materials from inappropriately cutting them as soon as they grow large enough, as has occurred in the past.

    Holy man (yogi) who blessed and distributed seedlings at Hanumanchatti

    The reforestation at Badrinath shows how science and religion can work together for the benefit of the environment and the preservation of cultural and spiritual values. The collaboration of the different groups involved in the program provides a promising model for developing ways of involving people in environmental conservation measures for reasons that are culturally motivated and sustainable over the long term.

    Pilgrims entering Badrinath Temple


    This year's Spring "Garden Party" took a different turn, in that it was an excursion and picnic to Angel Island, and it occurred on June 28, just a week after the summer solstice. It was attended by about 25 members and guests, and was considered a great success. The day was a beautifully clear one and Ayala cove, the site of the picnic, was warm and sunny. The natural and man-made beauties of the island were particularly scenic and interesting from an anthropologic and geologic point of view. Remarkable scenic vistas were visible from every quarter. All in all, this was an excursion which those present felt should be repeated annually, or at least biennially. The Chapter owes an especial debt of gratitude to Bob and Martha Schmieder, for all the preparations for and the actual presentation of the picnic, which was bounteous and tasty, and provided a range of delectables that accounted for the special tastes of all of the participants. The Schmieders personally scouted the area before the appointed date, obtained all the pertinent information on access to Angel Island, and provided the membership with extensive historical and natural history information on Angel Island in the Newsletter. They not only provided all the picnic materials, but also transported them from their home in Walnut Creek to the Berkeley Marina, across the Bay to Ayala Cove on Bob's boat, the Cordell Explorer, cooked the hamburgers and the chicken and the beans, then cleaned up and transported all the leftovers back in reverse. Bob also ferried several of the members from the Berkeley Marina to Angel Island and back. Many thanks to Bob and Martha for all their efforts, though future picnics such as this should be conceived to spread the responsibility and the work more among the membership.

    The Chapter Officers will meet soon to discuss the likelihood of making a picnic such as this a regular early summer part of the Chapter's events calendar.

    View of Himalaya with Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India outside of Sikkim and one of the most sacred peaks in the range


    Tom Hall (MN-96) and Liz McLaughlin missed the Angel Island picnic because they embarked that day via Cessna with folding bikes for the Northwest, where they undertook a flying, bicycling and camping trip over the Lewis and Clark trail from Astoria, OR, to mid-Montana. We hope to hear details about this at an early meeting. .

    Olav Malver (FN-92) was the centerpiece of the entertainment at the Duveneck House, Hidden Villa, in Los Altos Hills, on July 10, at a meeting and dinner to benefit the environmental programs of Hidden Villa. Olav is a native of Denmark who has been instrumental in the development of Mountain Travel-Sobek's sea kayaking program, and who is an accomplished mountain climber as well, having scaled over 200 peaks around the world. Olav's presentation at this event was as a pioneer kayaker who has been living and breathing sea kayaking for over 18 years, in such far-away destinations as Greenland, Portugal and Irian Jaya.

    James Weil (MN-79), and Shannon sent their regrets for not being able to get to the Angel Island Picnic, as they were participating in the Western States 100 Mile Run along the American River the same day.

    Charles Geraci (MN-92) and Louise, co-Secretaries, who spent part of the early summer on the East Coast with a grandchild, visiting Washington, D.C., Williamsburg and environs, also visited Assateague Island, on the northern coast of Virginia. Assateague is home to a band of wild horses, called "ponies," which had its origin after a shipwreck off the Virginia Coast in the mid 1700's, is thinned regularly, and persists healthily to this day. The herd is usually easily found and observed. This entire barrier island is a National Wildlife Refuge, and the home to more species of migratory waterfowl (congregated in one place) than the Geracis had seen before this trip.

    Later in the summer, with yet another grandchild, they explored the natural and animal wonders of Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park, attempting, unsuccessfully, to catalogue sightings of all of the native wild animal species, all the while depleting the fish populations in all of these areas (which was also an unsuccessful venture).

    Pilgrim on the ancient pilgrimage path to Kedarnath


    The Club was saddened to learn, in July, of the death of Eugene Shoemaker, at the age of 69, in an auto accident near Alice Springs, Australia. Shoemaker was a planetary geologist who spent his entire career tracking comets which he believed had the potential to collide with Earth and destroy some or all of life here. Shoemaker's wife, Caroline, was seriously injured in the same accident. Shoemaker had been co-discoverer of the comet that collided with Jupiter in July 1994, causing dazzling fire showers and pyrotechnics for astronomers worldwide.

    Carolyn has sent her thanks to all who have expressed their love and support since Gene's death, and wants us to know that Gene knew he would never be able to complete the many projects he had going and planned, and that he also knew there were others who would come along and follow in his footsteps. He would have said, "Don't grieve for me. Get on with life and work at the things that make you happy!" We hope you will all be inspired to do that.

    Swamis, holy men, and pilgrims carrying seedlings to plant at Hanumanchatti


    Explorers Club Planetary GetAway

    PUT THESE DATES ON YOUR CALENDAR NOW! Friday night, October 17: Cocktail party, with exotics; The University Club, San Francisco

    Saturday night, October 18: Planetary GetAway, with luminaries: Carol Stoker...Geoff Marcy...Frank Drake...Surprise Guests...Live Space Aliens...

    Ft. Mason Officers' Club, San Francisco; Theme: Mars

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    Mendicant at Badrinath


    If you aren't a regular reader of Expedition News, you may be interested in the following items from the August edition:

    Stephen Koch, 28, is attempting to become the first person ever to climb up and snowboard down the highest peaks on each of the seven continents of the world. He has already conquered four, though Everest is one of the remaining peaks he has not yet snowboarded down.

    While attempting to climb Nanga Parbat last month Alan Hinkes, 43, severely injured his back when he inhaled excessive flour on a piece of bread he was eating. The resultant sneeze caused him to collapse in agony with back pain. He communicated with his sponsor, an outdoor gear manufacturer, by satellite telephone while immobilized lying in his tent, and was soon to be evacuated by helicopter.

    You can still sign on: The 1998 North Pole Tandem Skydiving Expedition leaves from New York on April 12, 1998 for its ultimate destination, the North Pole. The trip is non-strenuous and previous skydiving experience is unnecessary. The trip is planned to accomplish just what its name implies.
    Reservations: MAIL BY Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1997

    Please Return To:

    William F. Isherwood
    The Explorers Club
    Northern California Chapter.
    37 La Encinal
    Orinda, CA 94563
    Bill's Phone: (510) 254-0739

    Please reserve spaces for the Edwin Bernbaum talk, at St. Francis Yacht Club on Friday, Sept. 26, 1997.

    $40/person... $45 if postmarked after Sept. 19. Cocktails, 6:30 PM, Dinner, 7:30 PM, Speaker, 8:30 PM.

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    Date created: 09/04/1997
    Last modified: 06/21/2015
    Content from Charlie (Chapter Secretary) and Louise Geraci. email to Charlie and Louise
    Web page by: Mike Diggles, Webmaster, Northern California Chapter of the Explorers Club. email Mike

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