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, January 9, 2014

Part 8: Post 7: Wild Books

I've just finished Sand Country Almanac, and now I'm beginning The Practice of the Wild today. I've found the secret of getting through my book list in a reasonable time frame is to read every minute I'm not doing something else. If I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep right away I take my blanket and I go out to my dorm's sitting-room and I read for a while by the stove. This morning I woke up there when Joanna nearly tripped over me on her way to zazen. I guess I fell asleep over my book.

The language of these books is incredible. In one way or another...reading them I can almost feel how good they are in my mouth, as though they were literally delicious, as though I were reading them aloud and the rhythm and balance of the words tasted good rolling off my tongue.

Why, in high school, did they make us bother with Shakespear and Too Late the Phalarope? Why didn't they have us read this?

Ok, I exaggerate a little--I really liked Too Late the Phalarope, and some of Shakespear's stuff, too, really, though honestly I think it makes more sense to see plays on a stage. We read Julius Caesar to each other in English class and none of us could read aloud very well, we were all sputtering and stammering and laughing over the weird language ("He is ta'en! He is ta'en" laments Cassius of Brutus on the battlefield. Ta'en? Really? We all cracked up and it kind of killed the mood). Anyway, my point is that these books I'm reading now are also good and deserve to count as classics, too.

I can see Charlie in all of them, and not just because he writes in his books. More importantly, maybe, I can see things that I see in Charlie in these books as well.

If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. And if the secret heart stays hidden and our work is made no easier, I for one will keep working for wildness day by day.

So says Gary Snyder.

These books comment on each other, support each other. Reading those lines, I think back to The Farthest Shore, which I read months ago, now. There are a few lines in it I wrote down, because they struck me as interesting or because Charlie had underlined them and I didn't know why. One line--he had written "global warming?" next to it for no apparent reason, jumped out at my memory this morning when I was reading Gary Snyder right before breakfast. Snyder asked "where is the secret heart of the Growth-Monster?" and Ursula K. LeGuin answers,

In our minds, lad, In our minds. The traitor, the self;the self that cries I was to live;let the world burn so long as I can live!

And further down on the same page, Gary Snyder replies,

I hope to investigate the meaning of "wild" and how it connects with the meaning of "free" and what one would do with these meanings. To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are--painful, impermanent, open, imperfect--and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.

The conversation is happening only in my mind; I don't think either author was thinking of the other when they wrote. But in my mind is growing this whole, this constellation of ideas, that exists where the ideas from all these various books I'm reading intersect. I think I have been assigned not so much twenty individual books but a whole set, that it is the wholeness of the collection, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, that I'm meant to absorb.

I'm not the only one here to read these books, though I don't think this exact book list has been given to anyone else--Charlie had to take a few days after assigning me the project before he could get the list together--but others have read books assigned by their masters and the assignments must overlap. How much, I wonder? I haven't been talking about my reading with anyone, but maybe I should? Then there will be intersections among the intersections.

This morning, I was lying on the couch by the stove in the Great Hall and Greg walked by me on the way to breakfast, carrying his mug of black coffee. He's the only one of the masters who eats breakfast with us these days, as I think I mentioned. He must have seen my book, because he startled me by speaking to me.

"The Practice of the Wild? I assign that book to my students." He had half a fond smile on his face and he walked on, into the Bird Room, for oatmeal or whatever else. His students? He didn't mean zazen, because he never assigned us any books. It's not history class. He must be talking about students he takes on as master, though what he teaches them is as much a mystery to me as Charlie is to everybody else.

Anyway, it's not just the books overlapping with each other--they're overlapping with my life. Last week I read Sand Country Almanac and Aldo Leopold starts out talking about a January thaw. And last week we had a January thaw. The temperature went up above thirty-five degrees three or four days in a row and on Wednesday in rained, sending up mist from the melting snow. That night the rain turned to ice and when we got up in the morning the snow cover was down to only an inch or two of solid white ice with a dull sheen to it like a sheet of spiderweb. You could walk on it, even jump on it, and not make a dent. The sun was shining and the rime-ice on all the trees and the telephone lines along the streets sparkled like diamond. A cold front was coming through and the ice creaked and shattered in the wind.

Now, the cold is back--colder, I think, than it ever got last year. We load wood into the stove at night and we load wood and we load wood and it hardly gets any warmer. The cold outside is just sucking the warmth out through the walls. Perfect weather for sitting and reading.

But I don't just read. It snowed again last night so we're going out tracking tomorrow. I'm getting better. I can see  the tracks now, it's the wildest thing. You wouldn't think that's the problem, but it really is. Snow is uneven, after the first few hours. Clumps of snow fall from the trees, branches and shrubs on the ground shield the ground and interrupt the surface of snow cover, and of course everything is white. You look over the ground, and one white on white irregularity looks like another. Only now, anymore, I look and the patterns of the tracks jump out of me. One minute I don't see anything and then all of a sudden there are the tracks of two foxes crossed by signs of a hopping squirrel.

And I'm asking the right questions, wondering whether the two foxes walked side by side or one after the other (or, was it the same fox twice?) whether the squirrel came before or after the foxes and whether either reacted to the scent of the other. What gait was the animal using? Why? Each question leads me to read more in the tracks and ask more questions and seek more answers. It's incredible, being able to see the actions and interactions of all these creatures I hardly ever see. But they are aware of each other and aware of us. If they weren't aware of us they wouldn't avoid us and I'd see them more often. These are thinking, feeling beings out there we share our land with.

I'm learning to ask the right questions because Rick keeps asking me the questions. We go tracking together, and when we find something and he asks me how many toes, how many pads, how many inches is the print, the stride, the straddle, what gait was the animal using, and so on. Now, when I see a track myself, I'm in the habit and I wonder the same things. And I mean, I really wonder. I'm curious. I'm used to asking, and because of Rick I'm used to finding out. So now, when I see the tracks, I want to find out.

I think, in the same way, I'm going through the motions of thinking new thoughts by reading Charlie's marginal notes. I read the notes as I'm reading the books and so I think pieces of his thoughts when reading--I mean that I read his thoughts and, in reading, my mind goes through the motions of thinking the same thing, the way my hands copied his motions when he taught me to prune and plant and hand-pick pest insects last spring. I look up from my books and I look out on the world and I can feel his habits of thought in my mind for a moment.

And so, by day and night, indoors and out, I track my teacher and the movements of the living land that he loves.

[Next Post: Monday, January 13: Considering Buddhism]

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