To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Part 3: Post 5: The Explorers

The camp is forested and dark, but maybe five minutes’ walk away you come out of the woods onto sudden sea cliffs. The drop isn’t sheer; you can get down to the water, and there is a kind of natural patio at the base where tide pool-pocked slabs and ridges of orange, seaweed-encrusted rock march out a few yards to wherever the tide happens to be at the moment. But it’s pretty dramatic, and you can sit up there and watch the sea tear itself into white spray, and just beyond that birds bob in the waves as if the rocks were nothing. Beyond that, there is just the sea.

Zazen above the sea, which is where we’ve done it the past few mornings, is both more and less fantastic than you’d expect. For one thing, Zen meditation isn’t particularly enjoyable even at the best of times. It’s boring. You just sit there. It does give me a kind of quiet space to get my head on straight in the morning, and I think I’ve got a little more perspective on things than I used to, but it’s not particularly blissful, and doing it in a fantastic place doesn’t change that fact. But sitting above the sea does make the daydreams I keep wandering off into more interesting, and there are moments when the crashing sea seems to fill me entirely, so there is no Daniel anymore, only the churn of blue. 

And then I’m either wishing meditation were over so I could daydream like normal, or I am actually daydreaming. I’ve talked with Greg about it, and he says this is why it’s called mediation practice.

But Greg isn’t here so Karen led us, ringing the bell to stop and start the session. Afterwards, on our first morning here, she gathered us together for what Greg calls a Dharma talk. Basically, it’s a short lecture or discussion on Buddhist practice. She asked us about what it was like to meditate on the sea cliffs. Some of us said it was great, very profound, or whatever, while others said they had a hard time concentrating, because of the sea. I said nothing. Karen smiled. She’s a little woman, about Kit’s size, with short, dark hair and perfect posture. She’s kind of serious, but she has a nice smile. She’s pretty young-looking, maybe thirty, thirty-five, but she has as much presence as Greg does. She told us that Zen isn’t about feeling a certain way; it’s not necessarily supposed to feel quiet, or grand, or spiritual, or even boring. It’s about being with whatever is happening in the moment, and however that happens to feel. Some moments have oceans in them, others do not, and of course we feel and think differently depending on where we are and what we are doing.

“But either way,” Karen said, “these moments are our lives, so we may as well pay attention to them.”

Every day since then, we have met Karen on the cliffs at six regardless of weather, and then returned to camp where the instructor of the day comes to fetch us. Mostly it’s been Charlie, so far, although Kit did have breakfast with us that first day and then took charge of us for an hour or so.

She was dressed exactly the same as she had been the previous day, but she didn’t look ordinary anymore. Her hair, frizzy with the ever-present damp, stood out from her head like a red halo and her eyes and smile sparkled like the wet leaves behind her lit by the early morning sun. Her bearing had changed, I guess. She didn’t look like a pretty girl on spring break; she looked like she normally does, like a beautiful witch. She sat at our picnic table with us and asked us what we thought the week on the island would be like, what we wanted it to be like, if we had any plans. We told her, expecting this to be some kind of goal-setting session, but that’s not what she did.  

“Plans are good,” she said, approvingly. “It’s good to have an idea of what you’re doing and what you intend to do. Not that the things we plan on ever actually turn out as we expect—tell the Goddess your plans if you want Her to have a good laugh, as they say.  But plans do provide important context for the decisions we have to make along the way.”

“What about goals? Hopes? Should we let those go, too?” asked Joanna, nervously. Kit smiled at her, fondly.

“Did I say anything about letting these things go? I am very fond of my Goddess, so I always give Her lots of plans to laugh about. And as for goals and hopes, do not let go of those. We need a star to sail by.”

Then she led us through a guided imagery exercise where we introduced ourselves to the island and asked permission to climb its mountains. Kit says that mountains, particularly those that extend above tree line, are “thin” places, as are caves, wells, and most bodies of water, and that humans approach such places as guests, or not at all.

“What happens if you go up without asking?” I asked. “I mean, lots of people go up there, and I don’t think they ask permission.”

“They bounce off the mountain, like a skipping stone. They’re like rain that falls too hard and bounces off the ground. Their bodies are here, but their minds are not. To soak in, like the fog, you have to be gentle. You have to ask.”

After Kit left, Charlie arrived, walking into camp barefoot but carrying his sandals in one hand and a backpack in the other. He spoke no metaphysics, and said nothing at all until we finished doing dishes and got all the food back in the trailer. He just sat at the table and waited. Eventually, we all sort of drifted towards him. When we were listening, he finally spoke. He spoke like a science teacher.
Charlie said he was going to spend the next three days introducing us to the island through three themes or lenses, presented cumulatively, so that the first day focuses on the first theme, the second day focuses on the first and the second themes, and so on. The three lenses are: the sea and sea water; exposure and topography; and fire and humans. Then he gave a short lecture on the first theme, which he had divided into three distinct ideas;

1.       An island derives its identity from the degree to which it is isolated

2.       The sea and the land are distinct because they are different, not because they are separate--they influence each other

3.       The sea can and does create the character of this landscape through weather, particularly fog.

His lecture was very simple, very basic, almost kids’ stuff, not that I remember learning it when I was a kid, but I’m sure I could have, easily. But then he took us out to actually explore the island, illustrating and expanding his three ideas using the examples at hand, adding layer upon layer until even I couldn’t keep up, and I’ve always gotten good grades in science. But no matter how far he took us, intellectually, there were always those three basic ideas to fall back on. Everything related back to them, so none of us ever got wholly lost. 

In the morning, he took us to tide pools and showed us sea slugs and anemones and how each pool was its own island in reverse, subject to its own rules of isolation and relative instability, at least until the tide came in. He showed us the gradient between high and low tide, where each animal and plant moved as high up as it could into the face of sun and air to escape less tolerant predators and competitors below. The entire seashore is striped, black, white, green, brown, red, and brown again, as each organism finds its way threading between its own private Scylla  and Charybdis.

“It’s not about finding conditions that are ideal,” Charlie commented. “It’s about finding conditions that don’t kill you, or kill you slower than they kill everything else.”

“That sounds depressing,” said Don.

“Why?” Charlie challenged him. “Look at this!” a sweep of his arm took in the rocks and the sea and the gulls and the dark bank of spruces and pines. “Whatever grandeur we have here on Earth is entirely the result of organisms doing what they can with what they have. Growing and growing without any constraint is cancer, not life. Limitations shape us. Happiness is an inside job.”

After a late lunch, Charlie had us break up into two groups to go hiking. He said that his group would be the faster one, maybe to try to get more people to choose to go with the other man who turned up to lead the other group (I assume he is a former student of Charlie’s), but I chose Charlie’s group anyway.

And it was fast. It’s not so much that Charlie walks all that quickly; it’s that he doesn’t seem to get tired. I think he could walk at exactly the same pace, uphill and down, all day. He’d stop to explain something (and probably to let everyone else catch up), and half of us would be winded, but Charlie did not seem to have even broken a sweat. 

That first hike was not all that long, and focused on pointing out trees and lichens that would be smaller, or not there at all were it not from the fog from the sea. Apparently, there is a mismatch between the soil type that the bedrock generates and the actual forest composition of the island, because the fog carries nutrients, like nitrogen and calcium, as well as being a source of water. I wish I knew enough about this sort of thing to spot the anomalies myself; it must be something to come here as an established naturalist and be surprised by the plants and their combinations. I am interested, though, and some of these plants are familiar from my work in landscaping. There’s a lot of arbor vitae, for example.

The next day Charlie showed up wearing shoes, not sandals, and I knew we were in trouble. He and his assistant led us, in two separate groups, up and down mountains for something like ten miles in a giant loop. The day after that they used one of the vans to stage another hike almost as long (one group took the van to a trailhead and hiked back to camp while the other group hiked toward the van) and over almost as many mountains. And still Charlie did not seem tired.

On the third day, when we broke for lunch, I joined Charlie on a chunk of bare granite on a mountain top that had a beautiful view of a fog bank. The sarcasm is intended, but Charlie was looking out into it like it was a beautiful view. I suppose for him it probably was.



“How do you hike so fast? You’re like three times my age.”

“More than that; you’re not twenty yet.”

“Whatever. You hike like a young man. How?”

“I do not hike like a young man,” Charlie corrected me, almost defensively. “If I were a young man, I wouldn’t hike so well. You waste your energy and you walk badly. If you didn’t have a lot of bruit force at your disposal, you wouldn’t do as well as you do.”

It was my turn to say “hmmm.” I’d never thought about walking as something I could learn to do better. But that hadn’t really been the question I meant to ask when I joined him on his rock.



“Kit had us ask permission to be here. She said mountains are ‘thin,’ like they’re not really human places. And you’ve spoken of us as visitors here. But you said yourself there have been humans on this island for ten thousand years. Doesn’t that make it a human place? Isn’t everywhere a human place now? And aren’t all places thin?”

And Charlie looked at me in surprise—not surprised by what I’d said, because I think he’s thought about the same things himself many times. He was just surprised I’d said it.

“That,” he told me, with evident appreciation, “is a very good question.”

[Next Post: Monday, May 20th: Play a Song for Me]

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