Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Travel

ASPARAGUS AND WILD HORSES

Now, with the arrival of spring, we cut stalks of asparagus growing wild in the sun-drenched airy soil along the irrigation canal. I discovered the more I cut, the more sprouted back. In season, we devoured so much our appetite became sated, to hold us over to the following year. This, too, is the way of nature.

The closest dot on the map turned out to be nothing more than an empty grocery, junkyard, and trailer court encampment — a feral cowboy, Mexican, and Indian agglomeration. I wouldn’t shop there for anything. Instead, we drove on past the local tribal long-house and smoke-shop. At the old railroad station, we turned right into a small Far West city where I envisioned hitching posts and horses rather than battered cars and pickups. In front of stores and taverns, the tumbleweed, glare, and hot noonday wind are no strangers. Saddle up and ride, partner.

Toward nightfall, in our orchard along the base of long sagebrush mountains aptly named Rattlesnake Hills, one black mass hovered behind our flimsy box. Countless light blue pinpoints overhead illuminated our tenant setup where it backed against the barnyard and skirted a gully. Concrete foundation slabs drifted toward some faraway disaster. We were surrounded by a low forest of apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and prunes. In the midst of thousands of miniature trees, each sculpted to increase the harvest, our view opened out upon two isolated apricot trees rooted in the gully’s embankment. I could look beyond, across the dusty lane at the bottom of that rut and up over outstretched orchards until the pale hair of bunchgrass on rounded Sugarloaf blocks a sunrise. In the early light of day, someone sang an unfamiliar thread that wasn’t not quite a sigh and not quite a guttural fuming, either. This plaint, fearful and broken, gave way to unspoken thanksgiving. Once familiar with this tract, I knew of a few solitary trees kept not for market but for the residents’ own delight. The single cherry tree covering the back of the wash house, which also encased the well and pump. That, and two winesap apple trees, are kept separate. Many winds tossed this orchard. Even the woodpecker holes under our dwelling’s eaves mystified. When I walked beside the irrigation canal and gazed out across the Lower Valley’s array of fruit trees, hop yards, river corridor deadwoods, hayfields, and meadows clear to White Swan, I sensed this was, indeed, the end of a road. We’d arrived where I was supposed to be. Rising distant and aloof, glacial Adams and Rainier peered over tawny mountains encircling the valley. Their icy cones returned my stare. Indians considered these two snowy mountains to be humanlike: they do resemble giant skulls, each with two creases between the highest crest. Below them, like a wall, western ridges rise six thousand feet, their tops splotched by dark woods rather than the snow I had sketched as a child. Sunset causes hazy bands to separate, revealing endless blue crests where previously only a single bulge had appeared. Closer, atop the summit behind our orchard, wild horses browsed. On the porch of their house, Wes handed me field glasses to help him make out untamed stock from billowing sagebrush. He explained that over the years neighbors’ horses have bred with free stock; other folks would lose a steed or two, which joined the pack. Unsaddled, they’d romp.

For more of the story, click here.

REST IN THE AGES

Tucked away in a corner of the park, this gate.

Tucked away in a corner of the park, this gate.

The burial ground in Boston Common is the resting place of early patriots, among them the composer William Billings – the latter, by assumption rather than documentation. Historians will note that the headstones in the city’s oldest graveyards no longer stand over their intended bodies, but were moved around by convenience.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

It's a classic New England scene, in cities, towns, and isolated countryside.

It’s a classic New England scene, in cities, towns, and isolated countryside.

 

THE INWARD HUNGER AND A SOURCE

For whatever reasons, I acknowledge a peculiar inward hunger, one that cannot be satisfied by societal conformity or physical comfort. To ease this hunger means appeasing its source: that the very exercise of repeated preparation, of a consecration to an appropriate discipline, and of a self-denial in deferred gratification that leads also to abrupt spans of maximal awareness and rightly balanced action. This state provides the only ambrosia that quenches such hunger. Anything else, by contrast, feels muddled or sickly. Activities and thoughts that interfere with its practice become annoyances or pitfalls. Although many varied systems exist to teach this truth, its realization requires the participation of a person’s body, emotions, and soul, as well as one’s mind; ultimately, this knowledge is not of the intellect alone. Sometimes it is found through athletics or a fine art; sometimes in the pursuit of science or religion; sometimes within craft labor or the steps of an ancient tradition. Even so, many who receive the teaching remain unaware of its underlying hunger, of the spider’s web linking this particular activity or setting with humanity’s timeless potential of wisdom in the universe.

I could speak of the importance of finding a teacher who is qualified to guide the aspirant into this practice. I could have addressed this teacher as Swami, Roshi, or Murshid, a reflection of the roots of the particular practices I was traversing. Critics may argue whether the teaching retains its purity only within its own lineage and language, on one hand, or gains its authenticity in terms of vitality and application, on the other. Some Teachers replied that in bringing this teaching to America, certain adaptations have been essential. I’ve referred to this discipline simply — or perhaps elusively — as the Dedicated Laborious Quest.

In relocating to the Pacific Northwest, I was also unintentionally fleeing my own Teacher, who, in fact, had instigated the break, sensing that the time had come for me to apply the lessons fully, no longer the student but now the journeyman.

The Far West, like many of these teachings, remains simultaneously fossilized and virgin. I needed to discern the strands. For instance, I encountered petroglyphs in ethnology books before finding them on a riverside cliff here. Returning to my journals, I find a notation: “According to Newcombe, 1907: ‘It seems impossible to decipher these inscriptions satisfactorily as it is not likely anyone except the makers and those living at the time the work was done could tell what was meant by them.’ Oh really? Has he seen a fancy menu?”

From book to the field back to the book again.

As I contemplate the prevalence of “you” in contemporary American writing, I jot: “It seems to be ‘other-than-myself’ reaching out to the almighty ‘I-thou,’ to another intimate self-aware being.”

I look up and wonder: could these paintings and carvings be attempting the same?

“Oh, waiter! Garcon! Where are we?”

In desert, the wind’s invisible presence is like the divine spirit itself. Gusts give sound to unseen natural power. Whatever Voice ripples Tibetan prayer flags — the ones a friend gave me — now make this energy visible, too. “Those banners,” I record, “remind us how cut off from wind and often from Spirit, as well, we are.” The friend jokingly refers to me as a “cunning office rat with a job that includes the self-serving hazards of political survival.” Pay attention! Open a window! The flags remind me of the divine, the wind, and my friend all at once. As for the prayers themselves, I refer to the translation, voicing a the desire for universal peace.

I might speak of a personal need to renew divine energies. My Teacher would remind me the divine has been present all along — my awareness, however, is another matter.

Sometimes my Teacher would speak of dancing with an unnamed lover. “My Dance Partner” may be the best name for the unseen divinity when dancing. For one’s beloved human companion, as well — when the union of melody, rhythm, motion, and affection overpowers all else. So what is this dance, this lifetime of recovering the angels’ music? In the end, the only way of learning to dance is by dancing. Preferably, with a skilled partner. At first, staying at the edge of the room. There will be mistakes, naturally.

My Teacher taught that even when dancing solo, you’re not alone. There’s also taught the joy of dancing arm-in-arm in a circling chain. The dance, then, moves along the horizon between spirit and flesh. Having danced solo, I would now also dance with others, teaching them steps I’ve mastered (or at least seen mastered; some of the best teachers, you’ll find, are those who have come to the brink and gained insight through failure, seeing a promise they cannot enter). Expressing common inward experience builds a kind of family, one that speaks to friends, associates, and a kind of tribe with words of both gratitude and recognition. I long yearned for a magic circle of an especially aware community, itself existing within a tenderly defined locale and time, which I’d found, however fleetingly, in the cloister. Now it’s my turn, as if only I could bring it together somehow. The desert, with familiar landmarks stripped away, is where I come to find direction.

It’s appropriate to refer to those who’ve accepted a Dedicated Laborious Quest as monks, even if they have — like me — married. As my Teacher counseled, approached wisely, marriage and parenting rise to full disciplines in this order.

When monks (whatever their particular exercises or traditions) discuss the living practitioners they most admire, they pass a point where they typically cease mentioning celebrities. Beyond that, they say nothing of classic masters or even living talents already in the curriculum and news reports. Rather, these monks are likely to be most impressed by unknowns who turn unfamiliar ground or who send back fascinating postcards from frontiers much like their own. Yes, I appreciate most those who work in similar ways or places to my own. That, too, is natural. Yet those who are most like yourself are also the ones you’ll criticize most intensely. It’s the flip side of the same coin. In some ways, every monk seeks a Dedicated Laborious Quest free of words, even while constructing your own set of personal Assays and Histories or the accompanying maps.

I fondle a strand of Rudrakshi beads, “Shiva’s eyes,” presented by another friend Back East. Think of the Bhagavad Gita, where the name of a central character, Arjuna, literally represents “white” or “bright”; why does that strike me afresh as I gaze up at parched grass the irrigation canals don’t reach? Those inclines are too steep for orchard ladders or tractors to work safely. Below the water trench, fruit ranches quiver with fat fruit ripening. Caucasian orchard owners are surrounded by darker-skinned Hispanics, Indians, and Asians. The character Krishna, it seems, depicts “black.” So who’s the Guide through all these centuries? The sun simultaneously devours and sustains all. Much that’s been hidden comes to light.

I once expected old people to hold out a future for humanity rather than debunk everything as rotten. A lifetime of wounds, however, can fester.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

HOME TO ENLIGHTENMENT STYLE

A prime location in the big city.

A prime location in the big city.

Beacon Hill’s narrow streets and closely set homes invite pedestrians to enter a timeless order and grace. It’s hard for us not to imagine living here early in the 19th century as American ideas took hold.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

A quiet break in a crowded neighborhood.

A quiet break in a crowded neighborhood.

 

Beacon Hill is, after all, hilly.

Beacon Hill is, after all, hilly.

MOUNTAINS AS A RELATIVE MEASURE

As I listen, I realize the locals don’t consider the surrounding ridges to be mountains. Although these “foothills” or just plain “hills” are as tall as Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies, shorn of trees, to speak of “mountains” signifies that one must drive away into forest. The time comes to hike in unfamiliar high country.

I drive west, into a mountain pass, and park at the trail head.

Climbing through clouds on Sheep Lake Trail, I identify snow lilies, phlox, two whistling marmots I mistake for groundhogs, and a ptarmigan. In these topless mountains, snow and rocks glimmer atop jagged white threads that twist, plunge, and roar over miles. In this clarity I recount a friend’s determination to perceive the important task to perform each day — a focus she achieved in the sunset of her young death. Go on.

The next outing, I follow another friend’s favorite trail. My valley of orchards and meadows stretches behind in a twilight of small-city lights and barren blue ridges. In golden splay dusk, I learn to fear glaciers atop volcanic spines and in their grooved depths, too. So much depends on which way you turn. Clouds, one moment pink, shift into slate-blue. Think of a great-uncle’s farm in Ohio flatlands when green-wood ringed the fields and autos were novelties; and how, when the United Brethren in Christ build their new sanctuary, one tree furnishes enough lumber for all the pews. Such timber is long gone from most of the Midwest, and nearly gone here, as well.

Strangely, adjusting to such disorientation can allow one to see more than the landscape with fresh eyes. I begin reckoning my birthplace afresh, too. I perceive a native poetry now vanished: in flat terrain they coined Sweet Potato Ridge Road when they became sensitive to what had been called Nigger Pike, after work crews that came out from the workhouse jail in the city; Diamond Mill Road was made of limestone gravel flecked with quartz or mica, but named for the distillery beside the rails. What could be in those rural lanes I had sped along on the way to the farm to cause their ghosts to arise out here? I think, too, of the hayloft I had delighted climbing in, even though the old folks feared I’d fall through and be trampled by cattle; more ominously, some shed rafters I walked like a high-wire artist had hogs rummaging below, with razor snouts and teeth and a latent taste for blood. That farm acreage is scarcely like these Western orchards or open ranges, yet something echoes. It’s earth and air. Sunshine and clouds. My days in the mountains are airy conifers. I could be a pioneer, in spirit, at least. My ancestors settled those Ohio tracts. Another line, a bit earlier, settled North Carolina Piedmont. Here, I find unspoiled corners.

Perhaps bears do drink beer. Rocks, leap from mountaintops into oceans. Naked breasts, swell from snowmelt pool to sky.

Against this wall, between his desert and the frigid sea current, I declare my vast ignorance: left to myself, I’d likely starve, soon sicken of berries, and have never caught fish properly or gutted a rabbit. Somehow, I wait to be fed. Thus, one point of my Dedicated Laborious Quest involves learning to be wholly myself — embracing flaws as well as talents, as I search out my own boundaries.

Away from the office and encircled by an ever-renewing earth — even an apparently lifeless desert that restores his sanity and a brand of insanity, too — you may find that every trail you follow brings you closer to your own attainment, your emerging sense of place and mission within the universe. As for looniness — ah, loco! — you soon appreciate how all are in some way at least un poco, indeed.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

FAR FROM ANY PARTY

From what I could see, the mountains gave us humans our excuse for living here. The pristine high country. The seemingly endless forests. The snowpack that provided irrigation for the orchards below.

Yes, we lived in one of those irrigated ribbons of green running further and further from the party. Any party I’d want to attend, somewhere in the bejeweled city.

For more of the story, click here.

UNDER THE SEA

 

Looking at you, too ...

Looking at you, too …

The big tank at the New England Aquarium provides close-up views of oceanic stars.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

Somehow, I'm reminded of a butterfly.

Somehow, I’m reminded of a butterfly.

LIBERTY

Few people move to desert out of any desire for its peculiar landscape. True, there are those who hope its dry air will alleviate some health problem, yet even they typically install green lawns and shrubs requiring frequent irrigation. There is the prospector expecting to strike riches to squander elsewhere, or the cowboy or shepherd accompanying the herd or the flock, or a refugee or smuggler moving across the opening as a place of the least likelihood of detection or the least resistance in the border. Admittedly, some come to a particular job or to retire. Some come for opportunities of outdoors recreation — proximity to forested mountains or snow-fed rivers rather than the tawny dry ground itself. Almost all, however, have taken flight from something back there — whatever their birthplace or last residence — more than any deep conviction that this horizon embraces their Promised Land. They arrive with boxes and garments, with reminders of conflict or distance. Moreover, they cling to the desert fringe — settling in oasis towns or cities where irrigation water rushes along cement ditches — rather than miles beyond their next neighbor, with only buff surroundings.

My wife and I are no exception.

At the office, I’m asked, Where were you born? What brought you here? Where are your parents? I calculate: few children live within a day’s drive of grandparents, aunts, or uncles. Compared to my birthplace, cemeteries are rare. Nobody admits fleeing family, which is a fact of life. The trout fishing, they say, is unsurpassed. There is salmon. If you have water, you can garden nearly anything to perfection. You can hunt elk in the mountains or various quail in the foothills. You can raft on the river. There’s no rain to speak of, and overcast days are infrequent, excepting the winter.

I explain my reasons were professional. I’m establishing a career and am something of a specialist whose last job was eliminated by sharp, painful budget cutbacks. Here, at least, I have opportunities to advance as a manager, working under a progressive-minded mentor. I accept this move as a shortcut before moving on, to bigger things beyond that horizon. Besides, I’ve promised my wife that somehow we’d relocate to this corner of the nation, a place she fondly remembers from four years of childhood. Following me in this move, she’s distraught to find desert where she anticipated rainforest. In short, both of us suffer dislocation.

Here, then, a rewiring begins. Some of it connects the person to the place. Some of it, the two people to each other. Some of it, the individuals to their dreams.

Horses preserve a way of desert life. Consider rodeo. Agriculture is spelled rancher, not farmer: Even fifteen acres becomes a ranch. There’s great distance nearly anywhere you’d want to go. Religion polarizes into New Age, on one hand, and fundamentalist, on the other, with little in between; this condition is as true within denominations as across the diverse range of religions themselves. There’s a different spectrum of ethnicity to contend with, too — Native-American, Hispanic, and Asian. More, too, than the Eurocentric nationalities and African consciousness he had seen Back East — to say nothing of rearranged economic strata. Within and without. The bum on the corner turns out to be a multi-millionaire who owns a thousand acres. Here cattle are not cows; it’s beef rather than dairy. Federal government agencies are omnipresent: the Bureau of Reclamation manages hydroelectric generation and irrigation; beyond, there are military bases, national forests, tribal reservations, high country meadows, famed parks, Corps of Engineers reservoirs, state-owned sporting grounds, horticultural boards, Extension Service projects. People apply to the Feds when they file for grazing rights or mineral mining stakes supposedly there for the taking. You’ll observe unspoken contradictions, beginning with the right-wing rhetoric common within these federally subsidized communities. As for the Bureau of Reclamation: how dare we say we’re reclaiming when we’re merely putting our human stamp on a piece of soil by diverting water and planting? Maybe we’re declaiming or proclaiming instead. The Bureau of Indian Affairs appeared even more unsettling. Chiefly …

I am learning. There’s good reason the rattlesnake-infested, corrugated humps encircling the orchard valley are pale brown: they receive none of the snowmelt impounded from late March into July in the high mountains. Agencies release and distribute that water through blazing summer into October. Green agriculture parallels the river and irrigation canals, defying the tough, roasted inclines above, where sagebrush and bunchgrass stroke tawny eternity. In this compass, wind rarely precedes rain. Beyond lucrative strips of orchards, the principal agriculture involves herds or hay; because of irrigation and unfettered sunlight, five mowings a year are common; bales are trucked to dairy cows and pleasure horses on the rainy side of the tall mountains. Desert has few chickens — and no pigs to speak of. Somewhere out there, Basque shepherds elude the heat. Forests begin at the top of high ridges observed fifty miles distant.

In the Far West, most men hunt and fish. Their goal is big game: deer and elk, especially. Big trout and salmon, too. Everything else remains “Back East” or target practice. Its vastness hammers the imagination.

On our journey westward, we notice that Custer National Forest flanks the barren holdings of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. Somehow that summarizes a Far West polity in what I thought would be a classless society.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

A LANE OF LIVING HISTORY

Walking along Benefit Street in the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, can feel like living history.

Walking along Benefit Street in the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, can feel like living history.

 

The first Baptist church in America stands along the way.

The first Baptist church in America stands along the way.

 

Not all of the homes are modest, either.

Not all of the homes are modest, either.

IN SEARCH OF DEEPER EXISTENCE

We made a leap, heading off nearly stiff-necked to find ourselves, as some diners proclaim, “served where quality counts.” Over steak dinners, this quaking closet monk is surprised by how much change can happen when I think nothing is moving. Just pass the salt, sugar, coffee, cream — thunder, please — in what they call the Brand Room surrounded by “Western art,” supposedly realistic styling of cowboys, Indians, and wildlife in dramatized poses. People from all over the world come to a few tiny rodeo towns like this to collect such canvases. Examine the pieces closely, though, and you perceive the false notes. The clothing, poses, landscapes distort. The artists react against the very masters they wish to emulate. Much of it is cranked out without looking acutely at the things being portrayed. Some may be driven by a worship of a past that never was quite that way; some, by a retreat from current events. Most viewers merely acknowledge symbol and go on as though sleepwalking, an act that continues misunderstanding. The rifle, saddle, spurs, and cougar evoke no real emotion: they are foreign to the touch and nose. But I desire to perceive this territory afresh — no matter how startling my findings deviate from convention. When I meet a bear or a buffalo, it won’t be like the dilated scoundrels in these paintings. My horse won’t rear behind me. He’ll simply center in his tracks — quiet, aware, efficient. He knows how it will be.

The Dedicated Laborious Quest begins with sustained exercise of a specific activity: a sport, an art, a science. Anything that requires years of individual exertion, even solitude, drawing upon many facets of the practitioner’s being — heart, mind, soul, and might.

Somehow, the novice begins dancing, if only in his head. Something simple, at first, until familiarity gains ground. Feet, legs, torso, arms, and hands eventually follow. A reel leads into a jig. Thought and emotions balance. Head and heart dialogue. With confidence comes freedom. More and more, the aspirant concentrates on partners or the group or motion itself, rather than his own next step or position. The music becomes more textured, until the hornpipe stands as the liveliest structure. So it’s been in this landscape. This is not just any desert, for there’s nothing generic about any detail encountered closely. With both people and places you come to know dearly, you find nuances and subtle contradictions will blur any sharp image. It’s easier to describe someone or something you meet briefly than what you know intimately. To say desert is dry and sunny misses the point, especially if you arrive in winter. At first, like so many others, we didn’t even consider this valley as desert, for it has no camel caravans or mounds of shifting sands with Great Pyramids on the horizon. One word or phrase can be misleading. Even the Evil Stepmother from folklore and fairy tales must have possessed some redeeming qualities. Could we be more specific than “evil”? Simply selfish? Or was she mean, jealous, domineering, afraid of whatever, from the wrong party? Suppose she was really a victim of some deep abuse? The portrait changes. Has anyone detailed how she dances? In the end, it’s either entertainment or worship, depending on the individual’s orientation. An authentic spiritual discipline teaches, through experience, we are not gods. Choose, then, good or evil, flowing or hoarding, living or dying.

Matching maps to the landscape, I look vainly for towns that do not exist or discover attractions placed on the wrong side of the road. Admit that everything is moving and transitory, even the mountains. Mariners, too, will speak of shifting sandbars as only one hazard of sailing on charts. Pay attention, then, but never toss your maps overboard. Are they all that different from Holy Scripture?

In a multitude of ways, people fear religion will lead them not just into wilderness but a desert. Demand, in fact, they leave everything behind. The description will vary by tradition. Entering the Void or emptiness, becoming selfless or egoless, abandoning the Little Self for the Big Self, achieving annihilation and sacrifice, attaining renunciation (Sannyasa), taking up your own Cross — these are a few of its names. Marriage adds its own complications.

Having come to the desert, we now know the fuller value of water. Something simple, essential. No one can live without it. The list of necessities is a short one; the possibilities of embellishment, endless.

There are rivers on every map you rely on. Sometimes when I walk out into the expanse, I encounter one. Sometimes, one deep enough to block my way. And then I turn to the page for a bridge.

Or, better yet, call out for my buddy, Kokopelli.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.