February 4th, 2008 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Where are the Yaks of Yesteryear?


Riding through the country, looking at cows out the car window, what do you think of? Haiku was the obvious answer for Anna and Clara Gustafson, of Portland's St. Mary's Academy. But these two sisters weren't taking just any old ride through the country. They were in Tibet. And the cows? Well, they weren't cows exactly. They were yaks.

“They're kind of like cows—they just mind their own business,” says Anna, age 15.

Thus was born Yaku ($19.95), the Gustafson sisters' 29-page book of haikus. Illustrated by photographs taken by the girls' mother, Kathy Schroeder, the haikus were conceived while the family was on a road trip from Lhasa to the Everest Base Camp.

“It was weird,” says Clara, 17, “When you were in the cities, all the signs were in Chinese. And we were like, this is Tibet, why are all the signs in Chinese?”

They noticed that, whereas in the cities, Tibetan tradition seemed to be waning—eclipsed by mainstream Chinese culture—in the countryside, it remained vibrant, symbolized by the ubiquitous yak. Their haikus are brief musings on the scruffy animal, ranging from the wistful and the meditative to the coarse and sometimes downright silly. Two examples:
    Yak bones - good when dead
    Combs, prayer wheels, bracelets and beads
    Traditional crafts
    * * * * *

    Behold! Awesome Yak!
    Come visit me in Tibet.
    Yak, yak-i-tee, yak

Writing the haikus was a bonding experience for the girls, who lived in China for two years while their father worked for a lumber company. They preferred the haiku form because there were so many different ways to think about the yak, and the 17-syllable poem allowed them the greatest room to experiment. But why yaks?

“In rural areas, yaks are basically the livelihood for Tibetan nomads. They use everything—their hides, their meat, their hair, their milk, their bones…” says Anna.

“I liked the momos. They're kind of like Chinese jiaozi [dumplings], except stuffed with yak meat. The Tibetans also do a lot with yak butter. In temples, they carve butter sculptures at the beginning of the new year, and they'll color them, and present them at the temple. Or just eat them,” adds Clara.

The yak, admittedly an odd muse, is a continuing source of fascination for both girls. Would they like to have one for a pet? Rhyming dipomatically, Anna answers, “only if we lived in Tibet.” And both girls agree, despite their fondness for the animal, that they could do without yak butter tea, whose taste Clara describes as “liquid feta cheese.”

Yaku will be available at Wallace Books beginning Friday, Feb. 8.

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