The Simple Joys of Nature

Section III of Mountains and Rivers Without End seems to focus on the idea of purification and rejoining with mother earth. The section begins with a poem called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais. It begins:

Walking up and around the long ridge of Tamalapais “Bay Mountain,” circling and climbing—chanting to show respect and to clarify the mind. Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and I learned this practice in Asia. So we opened a route around Tam. It takes a day.

This poem and the web page cited above, in particular, remind me that I’m much more of an Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist than a New-Age, Buddhist. I don’t need to chant to be reminded how “sacred” Mount Hood or Mt Adams are when I’m walking around them. For me, the silence, the overwhelming silence, accentuated perhaps by the occasional sound of running streams or bird songs provides its own sanctity that certainly needs no interruption of human chants.

Although there are several long, complex poems in this section demanding a rather sophisticated understanding of Buddhism, my favorite poem is a simple one called, “The Canyon Wren:”

The Canyon Wren

I look up at the cliffs
but we’re swept on by downriver
the rafts
wobble and slide over rolls of water
boulders shimmer
under the arching stream
rock walls straight up on both sides.
A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun,

we paddle forward, backstroke, turn,
spinning through eddies and waves
stairsteps of churning whitewater.
Above the roar
hear the song of a Canyon Wren.

A smooth stretch, drifting and resting.
Hear it again, delicate downward song
ti ti ti ti tee tee tee

descending through ancient beds.
A single female mallard flies upstream-—

Shooting the Hundred-Pace Rapids
Su Tung P’o saw, for a moment,
it all stand still.
"I stare at the water:
it moves with unspeakable slowness."

Dogen, writing at midnight,
"mountains flow
water is the palace of the dragon
it does not flow away."

We beach up at China Camp
between piles of stone
stacked there by black-haired miners,
cool in the dark
sleep all night long by the stream.

These songs that are here and gone,
here and gone,
to purify our ears.

Those who have rafted are immediately struck by the details in the poem, particularly phrases like “the rafts/wobble and slide over rolls of water” or “A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun.” The second stanza captures the constant sense of physical motion, the constant roar of motion which makes rafting so compelling — only to be dispelled by the “song of a Canyon Wren.” And later, when drifting along, the same voice becomes even louder. Those who spend hours outdoors regularly will certainly identify with the ability of a single bird song to pierce the silence, or even the regular roar of rushing water. Though it may be the whole experience of nature, particularly the flowing waters that appear to stand still even while moving at exhilarating speed, that captures our hearts, it is often the song of single bird that stands out in our memories. Certainly Snyder seems right on when he says that these songs are “here and gone/to purify our ears.”

Section III is obviously meant to reveal the holiness of nature and of life as revealed through many cultures, but again, it is the simple poems, not the complex ones, that capture my heart:

The Bear Mother

She veils herself
to speak of eating salmon
Teases me with
“What do you know of my ways”
And kisses me through the mountain.

Through and under its layers, its
gullies, its folds;
Her mouth full of blueberries,
We share.

I’ve often felt this way while hiking the huckleberry fields in Indian Heaven during the fall. As I pause to eat a fistful of huckleberries while keeping a watchful eye out for bears sharing my repast, I often contemplate how little I know about bears and am amazed at their ability to survive at these heights where I am only an occasional visitor.