Thursday, November 20, 2003


Today, under low clouds, the river looked black and opaque. Almost viscous. Last night's rain had was darkened the landscape. It was even more stripped and spare than last week.

Even through the sound of chain saws and construction, I could hear the wind blowing through a stand of small white pines. They billowed; their green, full boughs looked soft enough to make a bed.

The grasses, too, rustled; so did the remaining leaves on the bushes and trees. I saw small, abandoned nests in the crooks of branches. I saw clusters of berries, startlingly red. Seed pods and leaves littered the path.

I stopped to admire the stand of Beautiful Nameless Grass, now the palest of browns, its calligraphic efflorescences spare and delicate, swaying in the wind, rustling, hissing. Fat squirrels foraged everywhere, jostling the underbrush.

Queen Anne's lace is a bridal flower -- pure white, with a central red bud -- beautiful. When it dies, it browns, then grays, and involutes: the broad lacy plate-like flower head curls up like a fist. Which, too, are beautiful, but differently. In full flower, they seem sexually beautiful, alluring, seductive, dazzling. Involuting, they have a more cerebral beauty; something more subtle, formal, abstract.

I saw the river hermit leave his tent site on a bicycle. He didn't ride in my direction on the path.

Bed, nest, tent, berries, foraging: fall heightens the power of these primal images of shelter and preparing for cold.

Walking, I thought of the approach of Advent.

Advent strikes me as a season of absence and darkness; of being lost and alone. It seems more terrible than Lent. A pre-verbal world. A world that, within the context of its particular narrative, has not yet found the words to speak of its suffering.

Seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking: suddenly, the whole neurological substrate of my constructed world became apparant.

In such solipsistic moments I feel like the pivot on which the whole universe rests. If my brain were different, I would receive menacing, personal messages from the trees. The experienced world, the self, and the I that thinks about the world and itself -- everything's a fiery dance among my neurons. Fluxes across membranes.

But I'm not separate from "the world." The sun on my skin makes vitamin D; I breathe in the oxygen that the trees exhale, breathe out the CO2 that they inhale. My rods and cones fire up, mirroring the light; my eardrum vibrates like an aspen leaf. My brain serves up words, memories, judgments. Even the sense of beauty and aesthetic pleasure is neurological, probably as evolutionarily adaptive as our revulsion at carrion. And fall comes, we gather food, fatten, huddle around our fire, pull our children closer.

I recall Thich Nhat Hanh's concept of "interbeing," which he beautifully explicates in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, The Heart Of Understanding. The universe is all one big relational web. An organism. An immense responsive skein of particles and waves.

On the other hand, we experience our lives within separate, suffering incarnations. We feel incomplete, unsatisfied. We issue appeals, we cry out from the depths of our smallness. We grieve, we hanker. We cherish a ancient story about birth, compassion, suffering, endurance, persistance.

Sometimes the only possible prayer is prostration and silence.

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