By Ryan Smith
The average Himalayan valley in Bhutan is so steep, deep and isolated that, through the millennia, the seeds of many floral species have been unable to scale the soaring peaks and migrate to adjoining valleys. "This means there are endemic species in each valley," says Dr. Andreas Kåre Hellum.
In some respects, the people of Bhutan are similar to the floral species found there: both remain somewhat unnoticed (and undisturbed) by the world beyond their borders.
Hellum is one of the few Westerners to have witnessed the pristine beauty of Bhutan, which is nestled among India, China and the scarcely-heard-of region of Sikkim. The former professor of silviculture and current professor emeritus at the University of Alberta went to Bhutan by invitation as a forestry consultant in 1988 for two years. On his weekdays there, Hellum worked to organize a Bhutanese foundation for forestry research. He spent his weekends painting species of the local flora, of which many had never been seen outside of Bhutan.
"The flora in Bhutan is incredibly diverse," Hellum says. "It ranges from tropical in the South to alpine in the Himalayan ramparts in the North."
Hellum's paintings, along with his written diary of anecdotes and observations, have produced A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan, a recent release from the University of Alberta Press.
"This book is not about the art, science, or business of forestry; it is about a forester and his relationships with people, young and old, in Bhutan ... It is a tribute to the natural history, people, and religion of this remote and beautiful country," U of A professor of renewable resources Paul Woodard writes in a review of A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan to appear in the Journal of Forestry this summer.
For Hellum, getting his thoughts and drawings published after more than 10 years was a small hurdle compared to some he faced in Bhutan. "Soon after I arrived, I realized there is no word for the English word `research' in Dzongkha Ithe native language of Bhutan], so I quickly found out the people I was to work with had no idea why I was there ... They eventually made up a word for [research] but I was never able to learn what it was."
"When I talked about setting up a research forestry organization and making five and 10-year long-term plans, they looked at me like I was crazy. They don't make long-term plans in Bhutan; they might make plans for 14 days or three weeks in advance, but only if they were based on the moon, the stars, and the weather and such things," Hellum says.
His cultural expectations were often "shattered" in Bhutan, but this greatly pleased Hellum. "In our society and culture we are bombarded with noise, pressure, and dvertising. Our space is constantly being invaded and nobody really sits down and listens. I found silence, and silence allows for a regenerative process, an opportunity to really listen to ourselves and dream," he says.
Since he left Bhutan in 1990, Helium has worked as a forestry consultant in other locales around the world and has published books about the flora of Guyana and Thailand. The father of three and his wife currently live in Edmonton, where Helium works as a translator of Norwegian, the language of his native country. He has not returned to Bhutan since he left, though he would dearly like to.
"It's extremely difficult to get a permit to go there unless you're invited," he says. "And if you're lucky enough to get one, it costs between $200 and $300 US a day—they really try to protect their culture from outside influences, and I don't blame them one bit."
In hopes of getting a return invitation, Helium has sent a copy of his book to the King of Bhutan. "I doubt I'll ever hear anything back," he says. "They don't normally communicate well with the outside world."
However, if Helium felt frustration with the Bhutan people: and their way of doing some things, those feelings are linked closely to his love for them. "I've dedicated my book to the people of Bhutan because they were always relaxed and reaching out to me ... I have a great sense of thankfulness to them. They made my experience absolutely rich and unique."
Published Summer 2001.