The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills is Patrick Rogers’ first-person account of traveling by foot in northeast India in order to document the presence and locations of a rare architectural eco-wonder known as a “living root bridge.” These are found only in northeast India. No comprehensive listing of them exists. It had been thought that they were few in number. But on previous travels in India, Rogers had heard rumors of the existence of far more root bridges than the few that had been identified and catalogued. And so he headed into the Khasi Hills alone to find them. On his first trek, besides his backpack he had only a hand-drawn map from a native to the area. On subsequent treks, he ventured further in without a map, relying on his experience and information he could obtain from Khasis that he met along the way.
I read The Green Unknown on board a cruise ship headed for the Caribbean. The Green Unknown was on my Kindle; I had also picked up a travel anthology from the ship’s library. Initially I read the two books together. But I quickly returned the anthology to the library and concentrated on the far superior Green Unknown. The anthology was written by dilettantes like myself–folks who travel in comfort to well-known locales and work their musings into anecdotal essays. It was popcorn. I love popcorn, but not when I have steak.
The Green Unknown is steak. Rogers, who hails from Newark, Delaware, USA, is not some first world dilettante but the real deal. He is a youthful explorer who ventured far out of his comfort zone and returned with something new to add to the body of knowledge of both Living Root Bridges and of northeast India. This is an area that has been under the formal rule of a variety of political powers over the centuries but in practicality has governed itself autonomously from village to village. Rogers traveled alone through the remote regions of the state of Meghalaya, visiting villages whose people continue to follow a way of life hundreds of years old. He wandered–and was welcomed–into places where ‘pale giants’ like him had rarely if ever been seen. His writing actually adds to our knowledge about a locale and way of life not well known by 99% of the world’s population–and that includes the citizens of India itself! The book is the story of his treks through the Khasi Hills.
Although he traveled somewhat on a lark, it was not without purpose. The Living Root Bridges of northeast India represent bio-architecture at its finest. Khasi and Jaintia natives of the area take the pliable roots of the Ficus elastica (rubber fig trees) and train them, shape them, and construct from them living bridges that span hard-to-traverse rivers, chasms and ridges. This allows for traffic from village to village that would otherwise require long, circuitous routes through mountainous forest terrain. The people of the Khasi hills have been doing this for centuries. They are quite surprised that their traditional means of making difficult terrain easy to traverse is an object of wonder to the world.
The Green Unknown is not quite a tale of an innocent abroad, since Patrick Rogers had traveled extensively in India before this. But the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya offered surprises at every turn. The weather was impossible, rainy for days on end and fraught with lightning and thunder storms so ferocious that they threatened to blow away the huts in which he sheltered with the villagers. Going for a swim in a beautiful natural lake under a waterfall could be deadly. The food was not standard to a western diet. And World Wide Wrestling could be found in the remotest parts of the forests! So what is this book really about? Let’s allow the author to speak for himself:
“One could characterize the book as being about heartbreaking beauty arrived at unexpectedly through weird tangents. … You may well get a little disoriented. I could make it easier on you, and portray the world into which I stumbled as simpler, and easier to mentally digest, than I know it to be, but in the end, I think the rugged, cluttered, truth of things is just more interesting.”
This book is an easy read, full of adventures in weather, eating, recreation and exploration. We meet the older Khasis who are surprised to find that their root bridges are cause for wonder, and the young Khasis eager to learn how to stimulate local economies by eco-tourism, such as the villages that host the well-known root bridges have experienced. We see photographs of breath-taking beauty, and to my delight these are all pictures of the landscape or the people, no photos of the author himself facing the camera as if to insert himself into the land. For some reason that touched me. Ego in an author is to be expected, but here there is none.
You can obtain The Green Unknown; Travels in the Khasi Hills on Amazon at the Kindle Store. I hope to see it in print some day.