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Monday, July 21, 2003

The mountain will be there


While I was in the boat, the sun set, and as I knew a full moon was coming, I stood out from shore to the middle, and watched the last brilliant solar rays deepen in color, turning the tops of the Douglas firs and mountain hemlocks first golden, then red, and then almost purple.

Planets and stars winked into view, and I found myself surrounded by bats, more than a dozen jittery shadows that flicked across the star field in tight circles. They seemed interested in my fly rod, which stood up in the bow, supported by the gunwale of the cockpit, and would zoom toward it and away, missing my face by a few feet each time. I could feel the breath of their wings.

A small something briefly touched the shaft of my kayak paddle and fell into the water, but struggled back into the air unseen. I thought at first it might be a bat, which seemed odd, as they don't, in my experience, land on or thump into such things.

Then a small night bird, dressed in cream and grey like a swallow, landed on the front deck of the kayak before me, seemed to adjust its feathers a bit, then sputtered off into the darkness. Mystery solved: the paddle had been mistaken for a branch, but its inorganic smoothness had defeated two tiny sets of claws.

It was then that the yellow moon rose, so hugely majestic that it seemed to me to invade the companionable darkness we creatures had peopled. I retired to my campsite, landing with the aid of a flashlight, and, lighting a candle in my tent, read of Penelope and Odysseus while, outside, the unobserved bats and birds carried on their moonlit escapades.

In the morning, I took to the boat again to chase the first available sunlight and warm my bones; then, when day had reached camp, set about learning to fry fish over a can of Sterno; this takes patience but it can be done. I dislike the hiss of pressurized camp stoves; and we are too dry here most years for an open fire in late summer; a forest fire in the next county, near enough to have colored the moon last night, has grown to ten thousand acres and is keeping seven hundred people busy.

Besides, the fire pit was filled with unappealing trash, especially broken glass. I've never really been one to pick up after others, even in the woods, but this time I took a personal interest and wound up 'policing' the entire site. My pack was already heavy and I had four hundred feet of elevation gain ahead of me, but I had been getting stronger of late and knew it would not be any trouble.

I once spent some time with a teacher of Zen and asked him about beer cans in the wilderness.

"If I see it and it offends me, I pick it up, but I've been disturbed by the offense I've taken. But in Zen, it seems I should simply observe it and not be offended, but that seems to reduce my motivation for picking it up.. And it does seem that Zen takes some of the activism out of those whom I've seen practicing Zen."

The teacher said, "Well, we should just either pick it up or not. It depends on the flow."

I must have seemed puzzled by this.

He added, "Observation is its own reward, but that neither adds to nor takes away from right action. We can think of some good reasons to pick up the can; trash is harmful to wildlife, and so on. And a natural setting, once cleaned up, is more conducive to contemplation for others. But there is no need to think about all that; you may have a tendency to speculate about whoever 'threw away' the can, and such thoughts lead to unnecessary problems. Right action begins in seeing the can without looking into its past. The can itself has had no motivation or intent and we cannot know exactly how it got there."

I tossed the contents of the wilderness firepit into our kitchen trash can and dropped the lid. Looking out the window, I could see that Jasper Mountain was wearing its late- summer motley coat, dusty green patches of second-growth fir trees alternating with the brown of parched mountain meadows. This time, I thought, I might be able to see the mountain without too much fear of becoming bogged down in thoughts of who has done what to it.

It will outlast us.

That's the key to peace, I told myself. Clarity of mind comes when you deal in the things before you and not in their speculative causes.

If it seems there are not enough trees, plant one.

If there are a lot of cans around and you'd like them picked up, pick up one.

This can be extrapolated, if you have the energy, to planting schools and clearing minefields, or writing a check for those who do. But remember, while planting and picking, to look up.

The mountain will be there.

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